Monday, 16 February 2015

Oscars countdown part two: what makes a good performance?

In the second part of our preview of the Oscars, we look at those nominated in the acting categories

What exactly is is that constitutes great acting? If the nominations for Best Actor are anything to go by, then imitating a real life person is the epitome of performance. Four of the five nominated play factual people, including Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, who warms himself yet further to the academy by playing a disabled character.

But what he, Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) have in common is a lack of complexity to their respective characters, as if Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing and Chris Kyle are all too respected to make for rounded characters with moral ambiguities. Compare them to Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, who, as the villain of the piece, possesses the kind of nuances they lack; and to Michael Keaton in Birdman, the only fictitious character nominated, and who is therefore allowed the kind of interesting flaws the others are denied.

Part of imitating someone on screen is making them believable as an authentic person that we can relate to, which has in itself been used as a key criteria in evaluating someone's acting. In the Best Actress category, for instance, Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed (Wild) is recognisable as a real person with real person-problems like dealing with grief and broken relationships, while we sympathise with Felicity Jones as Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane (The Theory of Everything) and her troubles balancing her personal goals with caring for her disabled husband.

Best of all though is another fictitious character. In Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard plays a desperate factory worker trying to keep her job, whose performance clearly brings psychological depth to the role that is demanded by the Dardennes brothers’ naturalistic techniques of realistic sounding dialogue, de-glamourised shooting style and shaky-cam long takes.

But then there’s Rosamund Pike’s performance in Gone Girl. Unlike the other high-minded dramas in this category Gone Girl is a full-blooded melodrama, and Pike acts accordingly. At no point are we meant to believe in her as a lifelike person; instead, we enjoy the performance for all its exaggerations.

In performances like this charisma is valued over realism - something that can also be said of the outstanding candidate in the Best Supporting Actor category, J.K. Simmons. His bellowing, terrifying jazz conductor in Whiplash dominates the film, so that, as one critic put it, ‘to watch [him] is always to be wondering what it is you’re seeing and what is going on in this man’s mind’. Similarly, Ed Norton’s character in Birdman is a satirical caricature of a pretentious method actor, whose performance is notable not for its everyday realities but for outlandish moments like him fighting in his underwear.

Even the great stars that defined the golden era of Hollywood - from Katharine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe to Cary Grant and John Wayne - were defined by their magnetic stage presence rather than their resemblance to your average Joe. Cinema is not supposed to accurately reflect reality, as the use of artificial things like soundtracks and special effects demonstrate - it is heightened reality, and so the best performances are frequently larger-than-life.   

Finally, to what extent does good acting require good material to work with? Ethan Hawke and the outstanding candidate from the Best Supporting Actress category Patricia Arquette both enjoyed the benefit of working on Boyhood, and as such were given a great platform to inhabit their characters. On the contrary, the rest of those nominated reflect the paucity of good roles for women in cinema, best epitomised by Keira Knightley being shortlisted despite the two-dimensionality of her character in The Imitation Game. Even the best actors will struggle to shine in such limited roles.

All that considered, here’s StevesOnFilm’s picks for who should win:

Best Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal*

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night

Best Supporting Actor: J.K Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

*This actor wasn’t actually nominated.

No comments:

Post a Comment