Why The Oscars Love to Reward the Wrong Performances
It’s looking more and more likely that Rami Malek will win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. His status as category front-runner was secured at the Golden Globes and it seems that everyone else, including the Screen Actors Guild, has fallen in line with this narrative. This newfound inevitability may seem curious to the awards watchers who have been keeping an eye on the race since the critics circles started giving out their honours. Malek featured very little in those areas, with the lion’s share of leading actor love going to Ethan Hawke for his astounding performance in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Hawke, alas, did not make the cut for the final five at the Oscars. Even then, his chances at winning the big prize itself were always considered a long shot given the film’s decidedly un-mainstream status, so many had put their hat on Bradley Cooper taking home the Oscar for easily his finest performance in A Star is Born. But it’s now Malek’s to lose.
It’s not that Malek’s performance is bad. He’s easily the best thing about a truly terrible movie, but it’s also not even Malek’s best work. Anyone who’s seen Mr. Robot or his work in challenging indies like The Master, Short Term 12, and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus will have seen what it looks like when he’s really given something to chew on. However, great performances aren’t always Oscar winning performances, and vice versa.
The conundrum of winning an Oscar boils down to a simple but disheartening truth: You are less likely to win for the best acting and more likely to win for the most acting.
Just over 45% of the Best Actor nominees since 2000 are for performances based on real people. 11 of those 19 award winning performances were for said roles. Clearly, if you’re an actor hungering for a little gold man, the odds are very much in favour of a particular kind of performance. Given that the biggest branch of Oscar voters tends to be actors themselves, it’s not hard to see why rewarding such work is so enticing a prospect. It’s all about the work, and I emphasize that word strongly here. Taking on the mantle of a legitimate icon like Freddie Mercury probably involved months of intensive research, vocal coaching, musical and personal study, not to mention the fake teeth. Malek plays someone most of us are quite familiar with and does a good job replicating his most recognizable traits. He did his homework and there’s nothing the Academy like more than someone who works for extra credit.
They like big roles with Big Moments, that one climactic scene that can easily be sliced out and put into the Oscars to show the world a brief representation of that performance. Is there a yelling scene? That’ll be there? Are you giving a rousing speech while a solitary tear rolls down your face? Good! Subtlety and restraint can win you big awards but far too many people view that sort of work as not trying hard enough. They need to see the flop sweat underneath all those prosthetics.
This is not exclusive to Malek: Think of Gary Oldman finally winning his Oscar for playing Winston Churchill, a piece of casting that had people ready to give out the award before a moment of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour was even filmed. Did it matter that the performance wasn’t all that spectacular and easily paled in comparison to work like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Sid & Nancy, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? Of course not! The same logic applies to Leonardo Di Caprio and the role in The Revenant that finally ended his years of torture. That narrative had it all: The ‘it’s time’ angle, the real-person performance, the sheer self-flagellation of the Method gone awry. There’s already a lot of strange and inaccurate narratives surrounding acting that portray it to be both unbearably noble and earth-shatteringly difficult. Not to denigrate the real talent and work required of the profession - I certainly couldn’t do it - but a lot of this narrative has been formed by those who want to ensure we talk about it in this way. Remember, nobody asked Leo to eat raw bison liver.
It’s not just a question of roles, of course. It’s an issue of timing. The current front-runner for Best Actress this year is Glenn Close for The Wife. Close is one of the best actresses working, one who can elevate questionable material seemingly without even trying. She’s also the most nominated actress working today who has never actually taken home an Oscar. She definitely should have won at some point in the ’80s, be it for The Big Chill, my personal favourite Dangerous Liaisons, or her truly iconic turn in Fatal Attraction. Yet every year there was seemingly a more compelling narrative at play she simply could not overcome: Linda Hunt in yellow-face playing a man in The Year of Living Dangerously; Jodie Foster’s earth-shaking turn as a sexual assault survivor in The Accused; Cher getting her dues for Moonstruck. Close’s performance in The Wife is greatly admired, way more so than the film itself, but I’m not sure even the most ardent Close fan would call it her greatest work. Nobody will be mad if she finally wins the Oscar that should have been on her shelf for decades, but this is another symptom of the Oscars’ problem: The perpetual game of catch-up and consolation prizes, a system of political and petty squabbles that make questions of pure merit near impossible to answer.
There are obvious silver linings: Regina King is front-runner for Best Supporting Actress for her turn in If Beale Street Could Talk and nobody will complain about her getting her dues. The fact that both Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira are nominated for their performances in Roma is a minor miracle given that it’s the former’s acting debut and the Academy like to pretend performances not in the English language don’t exist. Occasionally a miracle occurs and people win for the best performances of their careers so far that are also the best in competition. Alas, this requires a perfect alignment of the stars and that simply doesn’t happen in an industry with multiple vested interests and an endless preoccupation with how it presents itself to the rest of the world.
But hey, at least it all makes it very easy for us all to write up our Oscar predictions.
Header Image Source: 20th Century Fox
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