As the second half of the year revs up with some interesting subjects in cinema, I’m hearing a lot of love for what may be deemed “unconventional” films and performances. As Oscar constantly evolves into something that is looks nothing like it used to, we are getting a hybrid of works that are finding their way into awards recognition. As so many complain that “Oscar never gets it right,” we have celebrated the inclusions of films like Her, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and even No Country for Old Men, films that thirty years ago, would not have been given any chance in an Oscar conversation. Granted, today our state of cinema is evolving as well. Films like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is universally acclaimed, with pundits prematurely going on record that it’s the “one to beat.” Though I will never speak such blasphemy in the month of July, I am hopeful of its chances during the year.
What is growing substantially is the conversation about “out of the box” performances to recognize. For every stop motion performer argument, there is a similar argument going on about voice-acting, and one more in the wings for stunt men and women.
The voice performance argument has been on the table for decades. The first conversation I can physically recall is the work of Robin Williams in Disney’s Aladdin in the early 90’s. The Golden Globes yielded a Special Award at the 1993 ceremony for Williams’ work. Following that, a string of performers have assembled an army of champions. Ellen Degeneres voicing “Dory” in Finding Nemo gained acclaim while Eddie Murphy muscled his way into a BAFTA lineup for Best Supporting Actor for his “Donkey” in Shrek. This is just the discussion surrounding animated films.
The conversation has elevated into voice work in live action films. The most recent was for Scarlett Johansson‘s “Samantha” in Spike Jonze’s Her last year. Johansson went on to be nominated by the Broadcast Film Critics and Chicago Film Critics among others. Discussions on podcasts yielded a split among the staff who feel a voice should or should not be recognized when the actor doesn’t appear on-screen.
When I think back to other voices that have made an impression, I can’t deny credit to someone like Kevin Spacey who furnished an impressive and complex performance in Duncan Jones’ Moon opposite Sam Rockwell. What about the powerful and completely memorable Frank Oz, who brought the lovable Yoda to life in the Star Wars franchises? Surely, he has stood the test of time. Same can be said for co-star James Earl Jones as Darth Vader.
One thing I feel that detractors overlook greatly are the performances that do get cited for awards recognition, and more than half of their “power” is in their voice-over or narration. I think of something like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, that has most of his charisma and muscle work for him off-screen. I feel the same can be said for Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects or even to a certain degree Woody Allen in Annie Hall. And what of the performances that are championed on the internet like Edward Norton in Fight Club or Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? I don’t know if the line is as blurred as some may think.
Which brings me into one of the most controversial arguments which is motion capture work. The discussion was brought to the forefront when Andy Serkis graced our screens as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. During the awards run, Serkis gained a special award for “Best Digital Performance” from the BFCA, and was credited as a nominee along with the other cast members in each of The Lord of The Rings films. The Serkis phenomenon didn’t end there. The same champions and detractors resurrected when he portrayed the giant ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Capturing all the mannerisms, movements, and emotional connection didn’t prove enough for anyone to see past the CGI. Enter now, we have another discussion brewing with his newest and most richly realized performance in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, although now, he isn’t the only be talked about. Co-star Toby Kebbell delivers just as much, if not more of a dynamic work that should be opening the flood gates again.
If you read the review earlier this week, Robin Wright delivers the performance of her career in The Congress, an animation and live-action hybrid that is fully realized and completely spellbinding as one of the year’s best films. I’m unsure how we can correct the issue or come to a happy medium.
There are some who believe that these types of works are what the “Honorary Oscar” was built for. In some regards, I can agree but as we move into a more aggressive movement with many more performances like these taking our cinema screens by storm, I believe we are at a time where we should see these compete more competitively. Granted, many of these performances are eligible for Oscar recognition but just don’t have the backing to go for in an awards season. We have a hard enough time getting children like Ellar Coltrane nominated for an Academy Award. I think it’s time we all open our minds to these works.
There is also a discussion to be had for Cinematography and Production Design (hello Lego Movie!) in Animated Films or most importantly a documentary entering the Best Picture lineup which we may have with Steve James’ Life Itself later this year. Sneaking suspicion.
UNCONVENTIONAL THINGS THAT OSCAR SHOULD CONSIDER THIS YEAR
- Robin Wright in The Congress – Best Actress in Leading Role
- Andy Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Best Actor in a Leading Role
- Toby Kebbell in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Best Actor in a Supporting Role
- Grant Freckelton for The Lego Movie – Best Production Design
- Life Itself – Best Picture
- Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood – Best Actor in a Leading Role