What Makes an Oscar-Worthy Performance, Anyway?

In all the fallout from this year’s Oscar nominations, countless critics and movie pundits have fallen over themselves to call out the films (and specifically the actors in them) that were allegedly “snubbed” in favor of lesser-deserving nominees. I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself. This year, one name that comes up time and again is Albert Brooks for his performance as a gangster in ‘Drive‘. Even though I didn’t care for the film, I’ll acknowledge that Brooks was pretty good in it. Nonetheless, I have to ask if his was really one of the best acting performances of the year. Does an actor playing against type automatically make his performance better than another actor who plays to type? Just how important is it that an actor “stretch” in a role?

In a recent blog post, Roger Ebert lists the Oscar nominations that he’s most baffled by. In the Supporting Actor category, he accuses Max von Sydow in ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’ and Nick Nolte in ‘Warrior‘ of being particularly undeserving of their nominations. In his place, he would have preferred to see Albert Brooks nominated for ‘Drive’ and Patton Oswalt for ‘Young Adult’. While I haven’t seen all of these films yet, I don’t necessarily disagree with Ebert’s opinions. He’s entitled to like certain movies or performances better than what the Academy chose if he wants. However, I am a little bothered by Ebert’s reasoning for making these judgments.

About Nick Nolte, Ebert writes:

I wrote in my review that “he embodies, as only Nick Nolte can, the shaggy, weathered heroism of a man who is trying one more time to pull himself together.” Yes, but isn’t that the role he’s been playing routinely? To see him as the great actor he is, look again at his nominated leading performance in Paul Schrader’s “Affliction” (1997). In “Warrior,” he’s typecast.

And about von Sydow:

Why was Max von Sydow nominated for “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”? It was not a great movie, and the role of a young boy’s wise old companion was not original nor did it stretch.

In favor of his preferred choices, Ebert says:

In [Young Adult], Patton Oswalt’s performance as the legendary nerd in Theron’s high school class deserved a nomination. So certainly did the work of Albert Brooks in “Drive,” as a gnarly old gangster a million miles distant from his previous characters. Both performers were acting… Brooks and Oswalt were taking chances and bringing forth from within themselves characters who were original and new.

This seems to be a common sentiment, among both film critics and other viewers, that an actor really needs to stretch him- or herself, to go out of the way to prove that he or she is Acting with a capital A, in order to be recognized for a great performance. Otherwise, well, they’re just doing that thing that they’re already famous for… Yawn.

Over the years, I’ve heard this complaint countless times about award-nominated actors, especially when it comes to really big stars with established screen personas, like John Wayne or James Stewart or Jack Nicholson. (“Oh, he’s just doing Jack Nicholson again!”) But put an actor like this in a role he isn’t usually known for (Henry Fonda as a villain in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, for example) and suddenly the reaction shifts to: “Wow, he’s really Acting this time! Look at him Act!”

Frankly, I don’t buy it. I’m not comfortable with this suggestion that actors only give good performances when they try to stretch. (Which is not to imply that they don’t give good performances when they stretch, of course. Fonda is terrific in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, and Stewart plumbs some uncharacteristically dark depths in ‘Vertigo’.) The idea that playing against type should be a requirement is a view that I consider myopic. The combination of the right actor in the right role can be a very powerful thing, regardless of whether that actor is allegedly typecast.

Look at Stewart in pretty much anything he ever made other than ‘Vertigo’. Would anyone really argue that he didn’t give great performances in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’? Was Jack Nicholson typecast as the crazy guy in ‘The Shining’? Sure, but could anyone else have played that role nearly as effectively as he did? Even in his criticism of Nolte in ‘Warrior’, Ebert acknowledges that he embodies the role “as only Nick Nolte can.” Well then, who else was supposed to play it?!

As I said earlier, I thought that Albert Brooks was pretty good in ‘Drive’. Even so, did he play that role better than any other actor could? Beyond the fact that he’s Albert Brooks and doesn’t usually play mean gangsters, what was so special about his performance that’s superior to other actors who’ve played mean gangsters in movies? Off the top of my head, I can think of literally dozens of actors who could have played that role just as well or better than Brooks did. For starters, you can plug in just about any of the male cast from ‘Goodfellas’ in there and not miss a thing.

Perhaps we get a special thrill from seeing an actor we know playing against type. That’s fair enough, but will the performance still hold up outside of that context? Decades from now, will our grandchildren or great-grandchildren look back at the movies from our era and say, “Wow, that Albert Brooks guy was amazing in ‘Drive’. I’ve never seen an actor play that sort of role so well!” If I had to guess, I’d say probably not. For that reason, I don’t feel that Brooks’ performance was snubbed by the Academy – and that has absolutely nothing to do with my dislike of ‘Drive’ in other respects.


  1. JM

    Great acting is what we call it when a movie character feels iconic.

    It’s a judgement of the alchemy of script+director+actor.

    Richard Schiff poured the same amount of craftsmanship into ‘The Lost World’ as he did ‘The West Wing,’ but Aaron Sorkin made him a god.

    Nick Nolte looked ridiculous emoting his ass off because the dialogue in his ‘Warrior’ scene was junk, and the direction was Oscar bait. They should put his scene on YouTube, titled, ‘Nick Nolte Hates Moby Dick.’ It was some of the most powerful unintentional comedy I’ve ever seen.

    Acting is also affected by hype, hero worship, and audience baggage.

    Heath Ledger’s Joker. Brad Pitt in ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith.’ Al Pacino’s every performance of the last forty years is weighed against ‘The Godfather.’

    A lot of greatness is a biochemical sensation of discovering new things.

    Anthony Hopkins in ‘Silence Of The Lambs.’
    Christoph Waltz in ‘Inglourious Basterds.’

    Or wanting to give overlooked recognition to a dying giant.

    Gary Oldman in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.’

    The Oscars have a cultural bias. How many nominations for acting go to performances in foreign films? Cultural translations ruin nuance.

    And then there’s the politics of acting theory. Pro vs anti Stanislavski. Actors as a community can’t even agree on what good technique is.

    In the end, Oscar-Worthy is simply a senior citizen popularity contest.

  2. Well-written article, Mr. Z.

    While it’s all so subjective, I too feel that the Academy simply votes for the actor who goes against what they’re known for and give them all the glory, whether they’re truly acting their way out of a wet paper sack or not…

  3. From Ebert’s dialogue I never took away that he was talking about actors playing against type, more that he was talking about actors who were able create characters who felt new and original, which is a feat. Whether it be against type or not.

      • Barsoom Bob

        I think there was a little more going on with Albert Brooks character than just an actor playing against type. If you had used just any “Goodfella”, the viciousness would have been expected. Brooks created the modern, semi repectable, wanna be film producer / semi gangster quite convincingly. He was proud of his bad movies and had the enthusiasim for sponsering the racing car. But if he was crossed he reacted violently with an eating utensil to the eye or fatally cutting Cranston’s arm, but then, soothingly tried to ease his death, sort of like Liam Neeson did for that character in The Grey. I found it kind of spooky stuff.

        But then again, I did not think, for one second, that Ryan Gosling was just “staring at walls”. If ever there was a character that was in personal and emotional turmoil but had to keep it buttoned up, I thought he did that quite well.

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