What we look for in Oscar-winning performances – and what we should look for instead

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Awards are like freshly baked brownies. Everyone clambers to get one, fights over who gets the biggest piece, and when all stomachs are full and taste buds are sick of the taste, everyone stops caring. Maybe you actually don’t like brownies quite as much as I do, but in the world of popular culture, the metaphor sticks: we find ourselves in the same place this time every year, discourse passionately focused on who’ll win an Oscar.

Oscar voters are always looking for the wrong aspects in judging a performance

Not just that, but we love to argue about who should’ve been nominated for an Oscar, who doesn’t deserve an Oscar let alone a nomination, and so on forever, until the Sun gasps its last atomic breath and Earth is nothing more than a dark, barren rock. But we love allowing ourselves the giddy circus of awards season to take over our senses (and common sense), especially when it comes to the Academy Awards – and especially when it comes to the Best Acting categories.

For many, the lead Actor and Actress race is a cosmic event that will determine nothing less than the fate of the entire human race. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like that much of an exaggeration.

But while we spend ample time focusing on the details we believe are important, we keep forgetting about the performances – the only detail that truly matters.

But why do we pin our own narratives so eagerly on actors? That’s because for us to make sense of the world, we’re willing to see through the eyes of others. Film does this better than any other art, and is the reason a key topic in the Best Picture conversation this year is the suitability of Moonlight taking home the big prize – a film that generates empathy to breathtaking levels. Outside of the stories on the screen, we adore rooting for an underdog rising to the top (Marisa Tomei for 1992’s My Cousin Vinny), or for an established name who’s overdue some Academy gold (Leonardo DiCaprio for last year’s The Revenant). But while we spend ample time focusing on the details we believe are important, we keep forgetting about the performances – the only detail that truly matters.

Leo searches for the long-elusive little gold statuette.

That’s why I’m going to say something that’s going to hurt me as much it’s going to hurt you: Leonardo DiCarpio should not have won for The Revenant. I hate saying that, because to me, he’s still my little baby-faced Arnie Grape, running rings around a young Johnny Depp; he’s an actor with a rare combination of nuanced chops, inhuman levels of charm, and looks good enough to adorn the wall of every ‘90s kid’s bedroom. He’s able to inject humanity into roles where he’s part of the elite, and gift those less fortunate with an unironic optimism.

But I want to focus on his Revenant win. The premise for filmgoers was a game changer; we suddenly saw that very nineties poster-boy being dragged through the mud, physically and spiritually. My little Arnie Grape had come of age, finally showing us mortals what Serious Acting looked like. But it was a performance limited by its reactive nature; DiCaprio clearly gives his all to the camera, but the role put him through a meat grinder without letting us get inside with him. Empathy, the very reason acting, and films at large, exist. But instead of feeling empathy toward him, we merely watch bad things happen to him – but we never believe it.

Depending on how your moral compass settles, anything that falls outside of the movie’s frame doesn’t matter.

Ultimately, Leo won for the wrong role. The one nomination of his that should have turned into a win was The Wolf of Wall Street (and my pick for his overall best performance? Inception. No, really.) Similarly, Alicia Vikander winning Best Supporting Actress for The Danish Girl was wonderful to watch – but like Leo, she won for the wrong film (should have been Ex Machina). As for last year’s Best male acting win? With his microscopically calibrated performance as the Apple co-founder in Steve Jobs, Michael Fassbender was so stupendously, hilariously better than everyone else nominated – DiCaprio included.

And yet Oscar voters are always looking for the wrong aspects in judging a performance, focusing on details that revolve around the performance that don’t necessarily play into how that actor has successfully captured their character. And we’re all guilty of the same sin, because we’re obsessed with the noise.

‘I play the orchestra.’ One of a million moments that brilliantly define Fassbender’s Steve Jobs.

Noise. That’ll be the conversation surrounding a performance, or an entire movie. It can start with the hugely important, issue-led conversation – such as how there’s some very curious representation flaws in La La Land, or how the sexual harassment claims against the nominated Casey Affleck are representative of many of the truly awful problems with the industry at large – and veer into the somewhat hokey narratives forged by the press. Of course, that’s their job: improving chances of awards hope by playing up some factor of the film’s production. Depending on how your moral compass settles, anything that falls outside of the movie’s frame doesn’t matter. The art should function isolated from the noise – as much as you’re willing to let it. (And we all have our personal ideas of how much.)

DiCaprio’s win last year felt like nothing more than a slap on the back from his peers.

The Revenant received such a narrative in the media, which drove home the idea of the ‘suffering artist’; terrifying tales of how DiCaprio had to eat something that didn’t taste very nice would fuel children’s nightmares for years to come. But it’s a narrative which implies that suffering in itself is cause enough to believe an artist’s work to be good, which as you should know, is complete ba-lo-ney. Whether created by marketing teams or our own collective chronicling on social media, the noise ultimately distracts us from actually watching the damn movies and deciding which performances genuinely break through to something special. It’s why DiCaprio’s win last year felt like nothing more than a slap on the back from his peers. Which is what most awards are: un-objective, pandering, and exhaustingly predictable.

it’s important to remember that the film’s problems also become the actors’ problems.

The Academy voters are something of a lost cause, disconnected from the average movie-goer. But what should we look for? Well, it’s not a question of looking for something: if a performance connects with you emotionally, if the actor has truly done their work, you probably won’t realise how they’ve managed to make you cry, laugh, or cheer. Not straight away, that is.

Take, for example, one of the only genuinely emotional moments in The Revenant, when DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass discovers the body of his dead son. The range of expressions that play across his face are real. He connects. But crucially, there’s no framework around this isolated moment which provides emotional context. It’s an anomaly in a film that mistakes instant effect for emotional connection, and what we get instead are moment-to-moment reactions for the entire movie. That’s why everyone seemed to love his performance, because it feels like a rollercoaster – lots of thrills, but once it’s over, it’s over. It doesn’t last. Take, on the other hand, Steve Jobs: the film constructs a complex emotional through line that Fassbender pulls off beautifully. (It’s kind of funny to remember that DiCaprio was actually in the lead for the role before Fassbender eventually got the job.)

Of course, it’s important to remember that the film’s problems also become the actors’ problems. The Revenant and Steve Jobs are similar in that the movie rarely moves away from them as its sole focus – the difference is that Leo is never given a chance to mine the genuine depths of his character. Whilst the construction of Steve Jobs revolves entirely around its central character, devoting its run time to nothing but allowing Fassbender to do what Leo was never allowed. (You’ve probably gathered by now that I’m largely blaming The Revenant’s director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu; we already know DiCaprio routinely delivers excellence. In turn, we should congratulate director Danny Boyle – and also screenwriter Aaron Sorkin – as much as Fassbender for the success of Steve Jobs.)

Even young DiCaprio had a fondness for the wild.

So who am I pitching for during this year’s Best Actor and Actress race? Casey Affleck or Viggo Mortensen for their quiet, contemplative – and distinctly non-showy – turns in Manchester by the Sea and Captain Fantastic respectively. Natalie Portman for Jackie, or perhaps Ruth Negga for Loving – Portman for finding a warm relatability found in the heady mix of tragedy and fame, Negga for the way I’m convinced she could get through any scene with body language alone. (Also, why on Earth is Andrew Garfield nominated for Hacksaw Ridge and not Silence, wonky accent be damned?) Whatever your preferences, don’t come to a decision based on noise. Listen to and join the conversation, but always remember why a performance moved you (or why it didn’t). Root for how you remember feeling. Some day, even the Oscar voters will realise this.

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