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Writing about acting is tough. 3 critics delve into why.

The best performances of 2017 were often the ones that were hardest to describe.

Meryl Streep at 2016 Oscars
Meryl Streep is so often one of our finest actors — but explaining why can be tricky.
MARK RALSTON/Staff

Awards season is once again upon us. We’ll soon know which films and performances have been nominated for the Oscars, and the Golden Globes are receding into the past.

But let’s talk about what’s really important: Which performances from 2017 did some of my favorite critics and I like most? This week on I Think You’re Interesting, my podcast, I was happy to be joined by Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson and BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore to discuss our favorite film and TV performances of 2017. The list is wide-ranging, from Star Wars: The Last Jedi to the little-seen Chilean film A Fantastic Woman.

But before the three of us revealed our respective lists, I wanted to talk to my fellow critics about something I’ve always wondered about: Why is it so hard for criticism — even great criticism — to talk about why great acting affects us the way it does? And the answers both Alissa and Alison had made me think more about how I approach this particular task. Here’s a brief snippet of our exchange, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff

I find it really hard to write about what makes acting good, and I’m wondering if you have that same problem or if that’s just me.

Alison Willmore

I definitely have that problem sometimes, I think because in part because we have changed our approach so much in general toward how we talk about how people look onscreen. We’re so much more sensitive about that and all of the ways it’s loaded and has been gross in the past.

I think sometimes that makes it challenging to talk about how people look when they’re acting onscreen, and sometimes I feel a little bit self-conscious about that in ways I might not have a few years ago. Not that that’s all a bad thing.

Alissa Wilkinson

I find that I have always had trouble separating someone’s performance from their character and the way it’s written, whether it’s delivery or the dialogue or whatever. I find that performance is one of those things where when I see it, I know why this is great, but articulating why a person’s being is working is really difficult, which I think is what good actors do.

I’m always curious if critics trained as actors have an easier time doing this.

Alison Willmore

There are so many times when the greatest acting is acting you don’t think about at all. Someone just kind of makes you believe they’re another person without calling attention to the craft of what they’re doing, or the work they’re putting in. I think sometimes when we talk about great acting, it becomes by default the most acting, or at least the most showy acting.

Alissa Wilkinson

The eating of scenery.

Todd VanDerWerff

I think Nathaniel Rogers, who’s one of my favorite Oscar prognosticators, said this: The Oscars often vote for the person who has the best character. Especially in the lead categories, it’s the character you find most sympathetic. In the supporting categories, you can get away with being a little bit more villainous.

I do think about that a lot. Obviously, if an actor’s giving a bad performance, that will stand in the way of you really sympathizing with a character, but [I wonder] if sometimes I’m responding more to the character than to the actor.

I will say that in the course of doing this podcast and talking to a lot of actors, I’ve learned way more about acting than I have from trying to write about acting for many, many years.

Alison Willmore

Yeah. Interviews can get bogged down in talking about craft, but hearing an actor who’s good at talking about the work they do is fascinating.


For much more with Alissa and Alison, including a lengthy discussion of which performance on TV’s The Good Place is actually the best one, please listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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