When the Oscar nominations were announced on Feb. 8, people noticed that almost half of the acting nominations went to actors playing real-life icons: 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 casual TV watchers are familiar with these iconic figures, and, remarkably, the Academy nominated people who have tried to recreate a performance we’ve already seen. And it’s nothing we haven’t witnessed before: Hollywood loves their icons and anyone who wants to tell their stories. 

In a case study of this Hollywood trend, Vox sat with Isaac Butler, who recently broke down the history of acting techniques pioneered by the Russian teacher Konstantin Stanislavski in his new book The Method,why the Academy loves “real people” roles. 

The_eyes_of_tammy_faye_preformancesJessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye'Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Is there such a thing as “good acting”? 

Often the case is that if an actor is portraying a real person, there is a high chance that they will take home the Oscar. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the winner had the best performance from the nominations. 

What it means is that, according to Butler, “we start[ed] to lose consensus in all sorts of different parts of our public life. One of them is we start[ed] to lose consensus about what good art is. And that extends to acting—what is good acting?” 

Real people always have this feeling of certainty from the audience that this actor is portraying a person accurately based on a set of objective criteria the cultural mind has created. The actor doesn’t have to be giving the performance of a lifetime because everyone’s idea of good acting is different. Instead, the “impersonation” performances allow us to judge how believable an actor is. 

Will_smith_king_richard_preformanceWill Smith as Richard Williams in 'King Richard'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Impersonating vs. performing as a real person

There is a complicated line that actors have been trying to navigate forever: what is impersonation and what is performing? 

Butler believes that a performance captures some part of the soul of the character, which then allows the actor to deliver something significant from the character to the audience. The character is shaped by the text rather than the history that surrounds them.

“There’s some form of content with conflict. There’s subtext,” says Butler. 

Impersonation relies on the external components that shape a character rather than what is happening in the text. It's a cultural habit we have to want someone who looks exactly like a “real person” and acts exactly as they would, but that is a lot to ask from someone who is far removed from the realities of that character’s life. 

Can we suspend our disbelief for 120 minutes? Hollywood, and the Academy, seem to think we can’t. So they bring out the prosthetics and look for someone who can impersonate rather than embody the essence of the "real person" character.

Spencer_acting_as_real_people_Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in 'Spencer'Credit: Neon

What could be accomplished if the audience could buy into the aesthetic choices of “true story” rather than be forced to watch an actor who has fallen into the uncanny valley impersonate someone we all are familiar with? Butler hopes that we can allow “self-consciously expressionistic” works to exist and be impressive because of the creative choices that were made without hesitating to think, “What will the audience think of this?” 

Telling a story in film should be influenced by the character’s motivations, and it’s the actor’s job to convey a specific message to the audience through their performance. But with the Academy applauding impersonation, we could be headed toward a new method of acting. 

Do you prefer impersonation or performance? Let us know why in the comments below!

Source: Vox