Most fans of cinema are familiar with the referenced-to-the-point-of-cliché adage that if an actor wants to get serious about an Academy Award, they should pick a role that allows them to play ugly, retarded, or gay. Hell, Charlize Theron got close to all three in her turn as Aileen Wuornos in Monster, a performance that garnered her an Oscar.
It’s not hard to determine why the Academy, critics, and audiences would respond to an actor immersing themselves in characters that are so disparate from their selves. And by that rationale, a performance via motion-capture in a CGI film could ostensibly be the pinnacle of acting as we know it. The actor is stripped of his or her identity, their affectations, language, and movement pulled from their body and placed on an entirely new creation, be it animal, human, or other. There exists no better way to lose yourself in a role than through motion-capture technology, but trying to compare a mo-cap performance to traditional ones begs a host of unpleasant and undesirable philosophical questions, such as “What is acting?”
Gross. Let’s not address those.
Rather, I’d take a more practical and quantifiable stance to determine whether a motion-capture actor like Andy Serkis, who has played Golum, King Kong, Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming The Adventures of Tintin, can put his performances side-by-side against a turn by Daniel Day-Lewis or Tom Hanks.
Discrepancies abound because, to varying degrees, Serkis’ performances are run through a filter, so we are not seeing the man at work. We are seeing the man’s work run through computer programs using technology that no one really need understand to enjoy his performance. But we certainly need to understand it if we are to allow it to compete against other actors’ for the title of Best Acting Performance of the Year..
It’s no stretch to say that Serkis is doing his job better than anyone else can do it. But so few have tried that we can’t really make heads or tails of what that means, at least not yet. There hasn’t been a deep enough well of performances from which we can draw to ascertain where Serkis stands, aside from the fact that he’s the best. And when that well does get deep enough, the argument could be made that these types of performances should be compared to each other, rather than against traditional live-action performances.
Assuming we get to that point, we will have a slate of other contentions to deal with, namely, the role of technology in comparing and judging one performance against another. A great actor can transcend a low-budget to offer a performance worthy of an Oscar nod, as Tom Wilkinson did for In the Bedroom. But finding a way to transcend crappy motion capture technology is unthinkable right now. Sure, this isn’t an issue in this era, considering most films that do mo-cap technology can afford to do it (reasonably) well, but in the future this would need to be taken into account, and if it’s to be examined in the future, it should be examined now.
Today, mo-cap technology is primitive; future critics will say the performances today aren’t adequately captured, and are just a vessel to display the latest and greatest in CGI and mo-cap technology. Further down the line, I’m certain that we’ll see technology that renders a character like Golum expressionless and quaint. People will look back on an Oscar nod to Serkis’ Caesar the chimp as a novelty offered by voters who had no sense of where these types of performances were and where they were going. While I don’t share the Academy’s high opinion of itself, I agree that a knee-jerk reaction to a phenomenon (regardless of its durability) does no one any good.
In this vein, supporters of the mo-cap-for-Oscars movement praise Serkis for his methods and accuracy. I have no doubt that Andy Serkis did more research into the movements and psychology of primates in his preparation for Rise of the Planet of the Apes than many actors did previously for their Oscar-worthy performances, but the Oscars are myopically focused on what ends up on the screen, rather than who did the most homework. Further, to task the Academy with rewarding this type of performance is to ask them to learn how a monkey moves, then critique Serkis’ methods. It’s a fine line, as audiences respond to foreign, unfamiliar roles all the time, but praising Daniel Day-Lewis for his role in My Left Foot is a far cry from praising him for playing a speechless animal. Perhaps the Academy would like to think they’re that avant-garde, but they’re not.
The easiest criticism of Fox’s effort to get Andy Serkis an Oscar for Apes is that people are conflating Serkis’ groundbreaking work (granted) with a “great performance” simply because we’ve never seen anything like what he’s done. When put up against Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Song of the South, sure, Serkis’ performance looks downright luminous. But what benchmarks do we have?
He’s been the only guy making a name for himself here, as performances in director Robert Zemeckis’ mo-cap fare such as The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, and Beowulf have been widely panned as “creepy” despite offering up turns by lauded actors such as Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey. Serkis stands alone, which is all the more reason he doesn’t need the validation of an Academy Award. Awards exist to praise a standout among a field of people doing comparable things. No other actor is doing what Serkis is doing. As such, there is no field from which to draw an award-winner.
To be fair, there are so many extenuating circumstances in his performance, like the novelty and technology, that comparing his turn, mired in scuba suits, ping-pong balls, and CGI, against a purer, more transparent performance by an actor in a non-CGI film seems like a fool’s errand. He’s a guy on a green screen wrapped in neoprene who plays animated characters. Let’s not compare that to Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. Not only is it not fair to either party, but it’s also remiss.
I have no doubt that, as I mentioned earlier, there will be an abundance of CGI performances that we can compare against one another once the technology becomes more accessible and standardized. And if we get the urge, let’s give them their own Academy Award, much as we did with Best Animated Feature. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime, let’s be very thankful that a great performer like Serkis can breathe life into these roles better than anyone else can without feeling the need to size him up against people that are doing something completely different.