It’s Oscars time! Lynden Barber discusses winning acting vs acting that wins
THIS writer can give one firm guarantee about Monday’s Oscar ceremony. There will be no gasps of shock when Meryl Streep walks to the podium to collect her third best actress trophy following her long-ago wins for Kramer vs Kramer and Sophie’s Choice. I can’t recall the last time an Academy Award for acting was such a foregone conclusion.
Yet the likelihood of Streep winning for playing Maggie Thatcher in The Iron Lady is not down to the performance alone. Few would deny Streep offers not only an uncanny impersonation of the imperious British ex-prime minister, but also brings the character’s inner conviction to life. But that’s not to deny the other factors bolstering her chances like the flying buttresses on a gothic cathedral. Her Kramer trophy is now 30 years old. Streep has been so consistently admired as the presiding queen of Hollywood actresses that 17 nominations has come to be seen as closer to an indignity than an honour. ‘‘ How come she keeps losing? It’s her time again.’’ That’s an old Academy tradition. Give one to the veterans before it’s too late. We’re feeling guilty.
Running in parallel is an essentially bogus, unexamined prejudice that has long undermined the Academy Awards’ credibility: the idea that great acting is something the viewer always has to notice. Along with this runs the equally wrong-headed notion that transformation is a necessary part of the process. I don’t mean character development or ‘‘ arc’’ (to use screenwriter lingo), where the script takes characters to a different place at the end to where they’ve started from, but the kind that comes from actors submerging their own identity beneath the person they are playing.
Previously we had the tendency for actors to take on a physical or mental handicap but that’s been overtaken in recent years by another transformational trend — actors signing up for real-life character parts, preferably people still living or only recently deceased, such as Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash. Hence joining Streep this year in the best actress short list we have Michelle Williams, up for playing Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn.
Of course all good acting is transformational in at least some sense. There has to be some change, a recognition that the character as written is not the same person as the actor. But the professionally transforming actor I’m thinking of here tends to favour a character designed to make that process obvious. Generally that means ‘‘ obvious to Blind Freddy’’.
Often they justify this in terms of the irresistible challenge it presents. But too often these metamorphoses, even the most accomplished ones, operate at the level of conjuring tricks, the performances showy and selfregarding — ‘‘ ooh-ah, we see what she did there, we just don’t know how she did it’’. The performer may as well turn to the audience at the end of the film and wink before taking a bow.
Daniel Day-lewis is a prime perpetrator, and I’m thinking less of his best actorwinning My Left Foot, which for all its obviousness was a genuinely moving and funny performance. I’m thinking rather of his more recent gallery of fatuous grotesques: the scenery-chomping Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York and the eccentric oil tycoon Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood, which netted him the most obscenely undeserved acting Oscar in recent memory. The voters could presumably tell this was great acting because they could plainly see and hear the effort — that bizarre accent! No mind Plainview’s lack of resemblance to anything that might resemble an actual human being, especially at the film’s ludicrously Monty Python- ish climax. Say, now that’s a transformation.
The trouble with all this is that Academy bias towards actors’ vanity projects has a huge influence in deciding which films get made. Does anyone seriously doubt that if Streep had not signed up for The Iron Lady that it would have had an icicle’s chance in the Simpson Desert of getting financed? Tilda Swinton, the only other obvious candidate for a credible Thatcher, is not yet at the level where her name alone can get a major film made.
For all Streep’s skill, The Iron Lady is little more than a virtuoso acting turn wrapped around a misconceived script that didn’t deserve the production green light.
Among the women nominally competing against Streep for best actress is Glenn Close’s gender-bending English butler in Albert Nobbs. I confess to being unqualified to judge this. I’ve been put off from seeing it by its grossly unappetising trailer, which makes it look like an unintentional parody of what has come to be known in the industry as ‘‘ an Oscar-bait’’ film; a trite movie designed solely to win an Academy Award. Perhaps I am being unfair. I suspect not.
The truth is that great acting most often takes place at the exact opposite end of the spectrum to the transformational style favoured by the Oscars. Often it goes unrecognised and under-praised for the simple reason it doesn’t look like acting at all. The performer so thoroughly incarnates a complex human being that it never occurs to most viewers to even notice there is something magical going on. They just accept the role as natural, somehow given — ‘‘ that person is just being themselves; that’s not real acting!’’ That’s if they think about the acting at all.
The cruel irony is that the brilliance of the modest yet virtuosically believable performance is to blame for the thoroughness of the illusion it creates. You can’t blame most viewers for that (though you can blame Oscar voters, who are meant to be experts in film). The actors have succeeded so thoroughly in bringing their role to life that they are bound to be unthanked for it.
There are many examples of this naturalistic style but it seems to be especially beloved by French directors working with ensemble casts, such as Xavier Beauvois. His Of Gods and Men, about French monks faced by a violent Islamist insurgency in the region surrounding their Algerian monastery, was one of last year’s highlights. If ever a group of actors deserved to be officially praised, it was this one. Every look on every face told a tale of internal struggle between vulnerability and fortitude; of human fears of imminent death and grace under pressure. Yet despite Cotillard’s win as cabaret legend Edith Piaf in 2008, clearing a path for French films at the Oscars, Beauvois’s film has been ignored. (By contrast it did garner a best supporting actor trophy for Michael Lonsdale in the French Cesar awards.)
The other underrated category of acting is associated with accomplished movie stars. George Clooney is a great example, and if he wins best actor this year for playing a struggling Hawaiian lawyer husband to a comatose wife in The Descendants, it will be a sign the Oscars can still make sane choices.
Stars need not be good actors but when they do have thespian skills the results can be powerful. Actors such as Clooney bring considerable charisma to their roles in a way that, in contrast to the naturalistic school, is obvious and unmissable, yet nonetheless subtle. Their performances are consistently not only compelling but believable.
While transformational actors mould themselves to the role, working to twist themselves out of shape, the star performer does the opposite, moulding the character to themselves. Of course there are always subtle differences in the way they approach characters from film to film, but at heart they have confidence not to try too hard. The Academy therefore assumes they’re just being themselves, not acting. But there’s no ‘‘ just’’ about it. Being relaxed enough in front of the lens to give the impression there is no camera is a rare and extremely valuable skill.
Comic actors — who are usually stars of some kind — are notoriously prone to having their skills tossed to one side by the Academy’s middle-brow snobs. Watching Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids was one of only two occasions last year where I sat up and asked myself, ‘‘ who is this brilliant performer?’’ (Obviously I don’t watch Saturday Night Live). She’s been left out of the Oscar lists, though at least her original screenplay received a nod, while co-star Melissa Mccarthy made the supporting actress short list.
The other time I rubbed my eyes in pleasant disbelief came while watching Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in The Artist. Despite being little known outside France and appearing in a comedy — a silent one at that — they managed to make it into the Academy Awards’ male actor and supporting actress categories. The amazing thing about their performances is that they seem like authentic ones from the silent era they’re incarnating (the film is set in the Hollywood of the late 1920s). At the same time they don’t submit to the over-exaggeration that can look ridiculous to modern audiences. The secret: director Michel Hazanavicius prepared his cast by showing them F.W. Murnau’s classic Hollywood silent Sunrise, renowned for many reasons including its (mostly) naturalistic acting. That was a stroke of genius. And perhaps as a result, the Oscars will be slightly less predictable this year than they might have been. Lynden Barber evaluates this year’s Oscars at theaustralian.com.au/ thearts.
Daniel Day-lewis won an Oscar in 2008 for There Will Be Blood