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Why the Oscars are so weird about real people roles

Almost half of this year’s acting nominations went to actors playing real-life icons.

Kristen Stewart, dressed as Diana, looks into the camera and smiles.
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer. It’s her first Oscar-nominated role.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Why do the Oscars love actors who play real people?

When the Oscar nominations were announced on February 8 (ahead of the March 27 ceremony), the trend was striking. Eight of the twenty acting nominations went to actors portraying real people: Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) in Spencer; Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) in The Eyes of Tammy Faye; Richard Williams (Will Smith) and Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis) in King Richard; Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman), Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) in Being the Ricardos; and Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) in Tick Tick... Boom.

Most of these names are iconic figures whose faces were familiar to any casual TV watcher. But in a year loaded with great performances, it’s remarkable that the Academy filled nearly half of their nominations with people who, in essence, are trying to recreate a performance we’ve already seen.

That’s a long-running trend. Even people with a passing idea of how to get ahead in Hollywood know that the way to get an Oscar is to play an icon, from Winston Churchill to Mahatma Gandhi to Virginia Woolf, and the numbers bear it out. It’s one of a favored set of tools for Oscar campaign builders, alongside boasting about how you went to extreme lengths — like Leonardo DiCaprio’s sleeping inside a bear carcass en route to his Oscar for the Revenant.

Chastain is heavily made up to resemble televangelist and singer Tammy Faye Bakker.
Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Searchlight Pictures

Wondering where this trend was built, I called Isaac Butler, whose recently published book The Method is a limpid history of the acting technique pioneered by the Russian teacher Konstantin Stanislavski, which took Hollywood by storm in the 1950s and helped shape how we think about what acting ought to be. We talked about outlandish Oscar campaigns, the ways movies try to force the suspension of disbelief, why the Academy loves “real people” roles, and much more. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Why are we seeing so many nominations for actors playing “real people” in the awards race this year? It seems like that’s becoming the norm.

Over the past several years, even if there weren’t a lot of nominees for playing real-life characters, you would be pretty sure that whoever was doing it was going to win, and often for work that was far from the actor’s career best. I mean, does anyone think the Iron Lady is in the top tier of Meryl Streep’s performances, or was it really the best performance of that year?

Of course, it’s worth saying that [Raging Bull protagonist] Jake LaMotta [played by Robert De Niro] is a real person. In my book, I talk about Raging Bull as essentially the most influential film performance after [Marlon Brando’s in] On the Waterfront. A lot of different things flow from Raging Bull. One — as I talk about in detail in the book — is the adaptation [by actors] of Robert De Niro’s process and techniques.

But I have a feeling another one actually has to do with playing real people.

Starting in the 1980s, we start to lose consensus in all sorts of different parts of our public life. One of them is we start to lose consensus about what good art is. And that extends to acting — what is good acting?

Prior to the 1950s Method revolution, there’s one idea of good acting, [a highly theatrical style]. Then that idea battles it out with the Method, and the Method wins; everyone’s taking Method classes, working from that background. But then, starting in the 1980s, that really stops being true. The great acting teachers of the 20th century all start dying. And just like in every other area of American public and cultural life, consensus ends.

So the “nice” thing that evaluating a “real person” role allows is a feeling of certainty, that there’s a set of objective criteria that you can evaluate an acting performance against. I think that’s an illusion. But if you are someone who’s voting to give out an award, it’s helpful to be able to feel like it wasn’t just about your taste — that your idea had some rigor behind it.

Smith wears a tracksuit and the actresses playing his daughters stand nearby.
Will Smith as Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams, in King Richard.
Anne Marie Fox / Warner Bros

That’s my theory. It goes beyond “no one knows what good acting is.” We all have our own ideas of what good acting is. And there’s something very uncomfortable about that. What these fictionalized, “impersonation” performances allow us to do is to actually judge [a performance] against something.

I also think there’s particular valence with this for female actors as they age — Nicole Kidman is a perfect example of that this year. Where are the parts for the great actresses as they age? Historically, there just weren’t any. There’s this big gap, and then you can play an old lady. So the one thing that these provide, and it’s a positive thing: They provide mid-career roles.

Okay, so then, is there a line between impersonating a real person and performing the role of a person who also happened to have lived?

That’s a really complicated question. Actors have had to navigate that forever. Someone in Shakespeare’s company had to play Elizabeth, not that long after she died, and Henry the Eighth. They’ve been struggling with this for hundreds of years.

Now, we think of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, and we don’t think that he’s doing an impersonation. But we really do think it captures some part of the soul. I think part of it is what we want from those performances, or what I want from those performances anyway, is a sense that regardless of what’s going on physically or vocally, how they’re imitating the externals, they have connected on some deep level with the soul of the character. They are treating the text the way an actor is meant to treat text — which is to say, there’s a character in this situation; they want something; they are going through a series of actions in order to get that thing they want; the other character wants something else. There’s some form of content with conflict. There’s subtext. All those classical virtues of good drama need to be present on top of, or running underneath, all the physical and vocal mishegoss.

To a certain extent, I think we just put way too much emphasis as a culture on the external stuff. I don’t know why we’re that worried about it, especially once we get into prosthetics. Maybe it’s my theater background, but I’m like, “Why aren’t you just getting them a haircut?” They don’t need all those prosthetics. We’ll suspend our disbelief.

Do you think the aim is to not rely on the audience to suspend their disbelief?

The suspension of disbelief is sometimes an active choice. But a lot of times, it just happens automatically. You just buy into it or you don’t. I wish we would worry a little bit less about that, and then we could get a little more creative with our aesthetic choices.

One of the things I love about [Joel Coen’s new film The Tragedy of] Macbeth is that it’s self-consciously stagey. It’s self-consciously expressionistic. It’s one of the reasons why I find Avatar so unimpressive. When they enter the completely computer-animated Navi world, your brain adjusts to it, and once your brain adjusts to it, it’s just not impressive, right?

I think the same thing happens with our faces and bodies. You don’t have to do all that shit — you can just do some really light makeup stuff, like Simon Russell Beale’s bald cap in The Death of Stalin. That movie is a perfect example. Everyone is speaking in their own accent. There’s no attempt to unify the accents. No one speaks in a Russian accent. The makeup and prosthetic work is very light. I think there’s like a fat suit or a bald cap, and you just don’t care. It does not lessen the impact of that material at all.

There’s this assumption that audiences need a much higher level of almost coercion on the part of the film in order to buy into it, and I do not think that that is true. The time you notice that shit is when it goes wrong, like in Being the Ricardos. Javier Bardem looks nothing like Desi [Arnaz], and he’s trying to sound like him, which I think is a terrible mistake.

Kidman and Bardem, as their characters, stand near one another and look into one another’s eyes.
Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Being the Ricardos.
Amazon Studios

I think there is a great fear that if you give the audience any excuse to break with the reality of the thing you’re watching, they’ll do it. But actually, that leads us to a Polar Express-style uncanny valley place. Nicole Kidman’s face in Being the Ricardos — I don’t want to pick on her because it’s not really her fault — but that’s a prime example. She’s wearing all of these prosthetics, and then on top of it, they’re smoothing her face with CGI. In the flashbacks, they’re altering their faces to make them look younger. In certain shots, they actually just look like different actors; they no longer look like the same actor is even playing the part, which is actually so off-putting I couldn’t make it to the end of the movie. I found it physically repulsive to look at.

This connects to the problem that I articulate in the afterword of my book, which is that the major crisis in acting for most of its history was being literally understood. Could you hear the words? Could you understand what the actor was expressing?

And that’s no longer true. The major crisis facing acting right now is this: Will you continue to pay attention to the thing that you are watching?

So where do people get the idea that “method acting” is, like, sleeping inside a wolf carcass or gaining 100 pounds for a role ...

… Building a bark canoe and not bathing for six months …

… Yes. And then that kind of talk is what builds an Oscar campaign. Those things aren’t in themselves acting, right?

Eli Wallach was complaining about this in 1990. He was like, “Robert De Niro is a great actor, but this has nothing to do with acting, this is just where the PR attention is.”

Again, it’s about finding a tangible process that the actor could describe and people could understand what it is. Then it becomes a badge of seriousness: “I do all of this stuff because I’m a serious actor, and this is how I’m going to prove that seriousness.”

I do think that process has its uses. Just look at what De Niro did for the first 15 years of his career, right? And if I were in a movie where I had to maintain a dialect on camera. I might speak in my dialect all the time, just to make sure that it’s consistent and that it feels comfortable, because that’s not something I’m great at.

So some of this stuff is totally relatable. It’s just that the way it’s presented to the public feels like self-parody.

Entering the imagined world of the character, the imagined reality of a character, is hard. There’s a lot of different ways to do it, but no matter what, even if you’re a talented actor, that’s a complicated thing to do. So I respect that some people need to do all that sort of stuff to do it.

But I do think there’s a difference. Robert De Niro learning how to play baseball for Bang the Drum Slowly because he was playing a baseball player, and he had never played baseball before in his life, and that would teach him something about the psychology of the character — that makes total sense to me in a way that, you know, sending your castmates used condoms to play the Joker or whatever does not. The role of the Joker does not require that kind of acting, and it certainly doesn’t require those sorts of antics.

All good actors work hard. They might not work hard in those ways. I interviewed Alessandro Nivola for The Many Saints of Newark, which he’s great in. He didn’t go and shoot people to learn what it was like to be a mobster. But he did work out with a trainer to change his physicality, because he felt that a ’70s mobster had a different kind of physicality from an actor in 2020. He wanted to be imposing, so he worked out with a trainer, and he read a bunch of books about the mafia, memoirs by people who are in the mafia, and Gay Talese’s book [about the Bonnano crime family] just to try to understand this world as much as he worked with a dialect coach on his voice. I admire that level of seriousness. Actors generally do, even if they don’t want to talk about it, work really hard on their parts. It’s just not always in ways that are easy to explain.

I do think it goes back to that big question: How are we going to objectively measure this process? How are we going to know that this person worked hard enough to deserve this [award]? Well, here’s this checklist of all these things I did to work hard enough to deserve it.

Isaac Butler’s book The Method was published on February 1, 2022, by Bloomsbury.

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