APAR's WORKING WEEKEND: Oscar & Art -- the Odd Couple23 Mar, 2001 By: Bruce Apar
This year I darn near forgot to write about the Oscars altogether. Was a time when I would leave work early (when the telecast was on Monday) just to get home and set up for my big annual Oscar party. It was legendary, at least among my small circle of friends and acquaintances. (One year I dressed up as E.T. and recorded a special pre-Oscar video message I played before the telecast.)
I’m not so sure it’s simply age that has dimmed my ardor for Oscar. I like to think it has something to do with the wisdom that comes with age. As much as my personal and professional lives always have been highly defined by popular culture, I’ve lost the blind reverence, or even appreciation, for the Academy Awards that still seems to hold millions of others, moviegoers and media alike, in thrall. (Among the most fanatical of Oscar worshippers, to my skewed way of thinking, is USA Today, which in its Friday, March 23 edition, devoted pages to analyzing the candidates, as if we were electing a head of state. People tend to remember who our President is for at least four years after the winner is announced, while most viewers forget who won a major Oscar category weeks, if not days, later.)
But all is not lost. The silliness of Oscar commotion means it’s a fine target for contrary columnists like me to take aim at such "national treasures" as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
Both, not coincidentally, are popular citizens in the upscale ghetto known as Hollywood. Their undeniable screen appeal, general inoffensiveness and savvy to choose ideal vehicles for their particular talents have made both the most bankable box-office stars of their generation. But what about the sheer art of acting?
The more rational among even Julia’s avowed admirers acknowledge she’s not an accomplished thespian in the same league as a Meryl Streep, or Frances McDormand. She’s a personality, a perfomer. Which is no small thing. Perhaps her analog is Cary Grant, another giant of the screen whose acting ability was secondary to his sensual appeal. Gifted with aesthetically fascinating facial features, both can lay claim to being easy and pleasurable for an audience to watch – credentials that are more cosmetic and cosmic than pure artistry. They excel at Hollywood acting, which is a performance art unto itself. Stick them, however, on a stage, and there’s no telling how their tools of the trade would fare. The filmmaking process, being out of sequence and out of real-time, does not allow for sustained, continuous characterization in a role as does stage acting. Some might argue that to truly act in films is more difficult for that reason. That’s probably true, which is why most stars choose to perform variations on their own personalities rather than try to totally inhabit a character’s skin for the duration of a shoot.
To me, the best actors are those whose personalities are invisible in every role, even if they’ve been in the public eye for years. A case study could be made of Jack Nicholson, for example, who in the first half of his career was a riveting actor on screen due largely to the originality of his interpretations. Then, as epitomized in films like A Few Good Men, he lapsed into self-parody and broad mannerisms, as if trying too hard to live up to the legend he became. (Some said exactly the same about Brando’s performance in The Godfather, not bad company to be in.)
Collectively considered over the years, Oscar is not overly concerned with art for art’s sake. Not when it selects enjoyable but, in retrospect, pedestrian films like Rocky as best picture of the year. Sure, my 13-year-old son loves it, and it’s a cult classic, but so is The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Bond series.
If Oscar really was focused on matters of the art, Ed Harris would be cited for Pollock. Hanks is a fine actor who’s been duly recognized numerous times, while Harris is just as fine an actor, if not better. Ditto for Geoffrey Rush, who has won the Best Actor trophy before, and who makes your skin crawl in Quills as the Marquis de Sade.
Paying homage to the unique nature of filmmaking, which is all about synthesis and illusion more so than any other visual form, a more honest rubric for the acting categories would be "Best Performance by a Performer." In that regard, you go, Julia! And if the Academy has a hankering to make Tom the first (of either gender) to win three Oscars in a lead role, what a performance that would be. Whether or not it’s a sensible and fair assessment of others’ artistic accomplishments last year is of little matter to Oscar voters. Sometimes, art can get in the way of a good act, and Oscar’s act still packs ‘em in by the billion.
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