Monday, February 21, 2011

OSCARS: Best Actor/Actress – Lead & Supporting Role

Winner - The Usual Suspects 1995
Best Supporting Actor - Kevin Spacey

If there was ever a single word in our lexicon that has been redefined by its physical manifestation and presentation it is “talent.” In this modern, Hollywrong age of filmmaking the word talent is often confused with the word celebrity, which itself is often confused with the word actor. Clearly there are people who’ve got talent and people who don’t; people who are born with it and people who work for it; people who want it and people who lie about it. It is this quest for celebrity that has caused an over abundance in the talent pool.

In regards to acting there are some clear attributes that people must possess to be considered not only good, but also talented. First and foremost a person must be believable in their performance. They must deliver every line, action, and expression with total sincerity. Much like a chameleon, actors must blend into their surroundings, completely immersing themselves not only into their character, but also the story. When you watch a movie, nine times out of ten you’re not seeing the character, you’re seeing the actor playing the character. It is only when they make the audience forget their worldly persona that they have done their job and showcased true talent. But charisma will only get an actor so far before they get typecast as a one trick pony with a pretty face. Nothing establishes talent better than a demonstration in diversity and development of range. Although there are several awards bestowed to actors each year, the four categories honored at the Oscars bring the most recognition in this field.

Achievements in the field of acting were acknowledged at the very first Academy Awards, held in 1929 (honoring the production years 1927-28). At the time there were only two categories honoring Best Actor and Best Actress. The contenders were also nominated not for a single performance in a single picture, but all of their work for that year. This is a unique aspect to the first awards ceremony and was redefined the following year. It wasn’t until 1936 that the supporting actor/actress categories were added. Even then the academy had not fully defined its rules regarding the nominations for these categories. In 1944 Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same role in Going My Way (1944). He won the latter nomination, losing Best Actor to his co-star in the film, Bing Crosby. After that the rules were changed to prevent such an occurrence from happening again.

Nominee - Chinatown 1974
Best Actor - Jack Nicholson
Best Actress - Faye Dunaway
Still, clarifying the rules did not prevent conflicts and controversies revolving around the awards from arising. Aside from the media making note, time and again, of actors who belong to minority groups winning these coveted awards, leading people to believe that the Academy is racist, which is purely subjective nonsense, there is the issue of the winners themselves. One pattern that can be seen by looking at all of the nominees and winners from the past is honoring actors for previous performances or accomplishments. This usually happens when two performances outshine the rest and the backlash from the loss earns the loser added recognition and attention for their follow-up work.

Noted examples of this happening are: Faye Dunaway losing Best Actress in Chinatown (1974) to Ellen Burstyn for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), but winning for Network (1976); Paul Newman losing Best Actor in The Verdict (1982) to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi (1982), but winning for The Color Of Money (1986); and Denzel Washington losing Best Actor in The Hurricane (1999) to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty (1999), but winning for Training Day (2001). That is not to say that these achievements aren’t worth their awards, but simply that you only hear about them because of the award, in spite of previous superior performances. Even Sean Penn’s win for Milk (2008) could be chalked up to overlooking Into The Wild (2007) the previous year.

There is also the longstanding tradition of sneaking leads into the Best Supporting category and supporting roles in the Lead category. Anthony Hopkins only has about 22 minutes of screen time in Silence of the Lambs (1991). Granted it is a powerful, scene stealing 22 minutes of screen time, but hardly a “Lead” performance, which he won an Oscar for that year. By contrast Whoopi Goldberg had a leading performance in Ghost (1990), but was nominated for and won Best Supporting Actress. The same goes for Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects (1995). It leads one to suspect that there is an air of favoritism mixed with commercial appeal to both the nominees and the winners, with a minority reserve for novelty performances.

Overlooked - Johnny Depp
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas 1998
Of course the most overlooked actor of the last twenty years has to be Johnny Depp. His performances in Ed Wood (1994) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) should have at least garnered him nominations for Best Actor, but it took the commercial success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) to gain recognition for his talents. This led to critical attention and Academy recognition for his follow-up performance in Finding Neverland (2004). Even his role in Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), which would have gone unnoticed a decade earlier, was nominated for a Best Actor award.

All of this just goes to show that if there is one thing the acting categories manage to overlook it is mastery of the craft. They continually lean towards tragic, dramatic performances. If the character is based on a real person, preferably with a disability (including insanity), requiring the actor/actress to use an accent, it’s almost a lock. Women are typically awarded for playing strong or tragic (usually both) historical characters. Sophisticated comedy, which relies heavily on delivery and timing often gets overlooked, as do performances in thriller/horror films, which require a great deal of emotional and psychological energy from the performer. The worst thing is when a performer gets a taste for the gold and locks themselves into a rut, trying to recapture that acclaim, like Tom Hanks (5 nominations – 2 wins) and Russell Crowe (3 nominations – 1 win). At least Charlton Heston figured out that the Oscars are not a measuring stick for talent and that once you’ve won an award there’s nothing left to prove so acting can be fun again.

This year's nominees for Best Actor in a Lead Role: 
Javier Bardem - Biutiful
Jeff Bridges – True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Colin Firth – The King’s Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours

This year's nominees for Best Actress in a Lead Role: 
Annette Bening – The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine

This year's nominees for Best Actor in a Supporting Role: 
Christian Bale – The Fighter
John Hawkes – Winter’s Bone
Jeremy Renner – The Town
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush – The King’s Speech

This year's nominees for Best Actress in a Supporting Role: 
Amy Adams – The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter – The King’s Speech
Melissa Leo – The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom

-                 Ellen Burstyn winning for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). – Best Actress in a Lead Role
-                 Ruth Gordon winning for Rosemary’s Baby (1968). – Best Actress in a Supporting Role
-                 George C. Scott declining his award for Patton (1970) - Best Actor in a Lead Role
-                 Kevin Kline winning for A Fish Called Wanda (1988) - Best Actor in a Supporting Role
-                 Martin Landau winning for his performance as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood (1994) – Best Actor in a Supporting Role

-                 Regulating achievements in the field of acting primarily to dramatic roles. – Best Actor/Actress – Lead & Supporting Roles
-                 Leonardo DiCaprio not winning for his performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) – even if he did “go full retard.” Best Actor in a Supporting Role
-                 Not nominating Uma Thurman for her performance as “The Bride” in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003). – Best Actress in a Lead Role
-                 Philip Seymore Hoffman winning for Capote (2005) over Joaquin Phoenix for Walk The Line (2005). Best Actor in a Lead Role
-                 Not nominating Emile Hirsch for his performance in Into The Wild (2007). – Best Actor in a Lead Role

A couple of "losers."

1 comment:

  1. Great piece! My favorite yet. Although Spacey was pretty much being Spacey in "American Beauty" he was spot-on. Denzel earned his (2) statues, but Ruben vs. Lester...LESTER WINS!!! SICK HESTON CLIP! Di Caprio is the man! How creepy is Keitel in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"? "WHAT DID YOU DO??!!!" disturbing. Actor/Actress def tough to decide. Great history insight!