Let's look at two of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Actress: Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen and Penelope Cruz as Raimunda in Volver. Both were outstanding performances by talented actresses in great movies. There is one major difference, however: Mirren played someone who really exists, while Cruz did not. By pitting these two performances against each other, was the Academy comparing apples to oranges?
There has been a surge of actors winning golden statues for playing real people in recent years: Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in Capote, Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich in the film of the same title, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and on and on and on. That's only (some of) the winners - there's also been a marked increase in nominees.
I don't know why this is. Maybe it was the rise of Method acting in the 50s and 60s - to really get into the character, do what they would do, etc. Before that, it was more about Cary Grant being Cary Grant and Clark Gable being Clark Gable. I am reminded of an article I read once which claimed that two types of people populate the silver screen: actors and stars. An example given of an actor was Meryl Streep, which is a good choice: she's very versatile, and when you picture her, you don't immediately connect her to a particular role or type of role. A star is someone who just always plays him or herself, but the audience loves it anyway. They gave the example of Jack Nicholson. From The Shining to As Good as it Gets, Jack is always Jack. The Academy doesn't look as favorably upon stars anymore. They want you to pile on pounds, an accent, and an attitude and play someone completely unlike yourself. Cary Grant can't play, say, a dictator very well if he's still playing Cary Grant.
That still doesn't solve the problem, though. The character of Raimunda may not be very much like Penelope Cruz. I can't explain the phenomenon of this increase, but I can explain the psychology of gravitating to these performances. It's simple: the comparison factor.
Judgment of acting is a very nebulous thing. But when you're comparing a portrayal against a real person, it offers some kind of scale. If Philip Seymour Hoffman walks and talks like just like Truman Capote, then clearly he nailed the role. Cate Blanchett mastered Hepburn's distinctive accent, Forest Whitaker could go batshit crazy with the same ferocity of Amin. In these cases, acting can be measured quantitatively.
The problem with this is that it can deteriorate into an impression contest. "OMG, Nicole Kidman looked and sounded JUST LIKE Virginia Woolf, give her an Oscar for that!" Obviously, this is not a conscious stream of thought in the mind of Academy voters, but I feel like it might be subconscious.
It should also be noted that biopics aren't made about just anybody. Filmmakers seek out the juiciest stories that actors would claw out each other's eyes to star in. I feel like the lead in Monster was just an Oscar waiting to happen. Of course Theron did a good job, but I really think any other talented actress working today could have brought home the gold for playing an ugly, scary, lesbian prostitute serial killer. The Academy eats that shit up.
So here's the dilemma. Can roles that are hand-picked for juiciness and able to be measured quantitatively justly compete against ones that aren't? I don't think it's fair. If you're judging a costume contest and one of the finalists is dressed to look exactly like a famous person, and the other is wearing some impressive abstract thing, you're probably going to be biased towards the former, based on the recognition factor. It won't matter how amazing the abstract one is. Is it fair to judge these together?
God knows the Oscar ceremony is long enough already. But perhaps a "Best Performance Based on a Real Person" category could encompass both male and female, or both lead and supporting.
What do you think?