Cinematic award season is about to more or less wrap up with the Oscars, so this is about as an appropriate time as any to throw this out there.
Awards screw up a lot of otherwise good things. I have nothing against awards themselves, only in how people peruse them. Folks stop focusing on the process of their work and start focusing on the award. What do I mean?
Well, we’ve all seen the jokes. They pop up regularly, even sometimes in movies. Tropic Thunder famously has Robert Downey Jr as an actor character who has built his career around gunning for the ‘award roles’. In the film, he’s just completed undergoing a controversial “race change” operation where he had his skin surgically darkened so he could play a downtrodden black man. The character’s other roles had similarly gone for the ‘award factor’, playing gay or handicapped and so forth. There’s a joke in American Sweethearts — a film written by Billy Crystal, who is renowned for being a razor sharp and witty critic/observer of Hollywood — where Julia Roberts’ character gives an answer during a fake interview about how she’s just finished playing a crippled firefighter who climbed a mountain or something.
And we have more real life examples. James Cameron has talked about how Leonardo DiCaprio, for the Jack Dawson role in Titanic, continually tried to get Cameron to let DiCaprio add tics and habits to the character that would make it ‘better’ in DiCaprio’s opinion. Cameron just wanted the role to be played as written, a down-to-Earth dreamer guy who goes where the wind takes him; and didn’t see why the character needed stutters or limps or anything like that.
The jokes, as usual with most humor, have strong roots in reality. Critics and observers of film often ignore “plain” performances to herald the fucked up ones where the character wasn’t normal or straight, but instead was showy and explosive. A certain segment of actors hew to this as well; they demand roles that let them sink into rage or sorrow, hinder themselves with disabilities or social stigmas, or even be buried beneath prosthetics to become mangled and scarred. And voters often ignore the ‘straight’ roles to reward the ones that splash out in oddity.
One example; Tom Hanks. He is a tremendously talented actor. His work speaks for itself. But the awards on his shelf are for playing an HIV/AIDS stricken gay man and a mentally handicapped simpleton; he is consistently skipped for his everyman or straight roles. Nominations for Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away, sure; but no statue. And no nominations for other his work like Road to Perdition, The Terminal, Catch me if you Can, Captain Phillips, Bridge of Spies and so on. Those roles aren’t “flashy” enough, with enough moaning and stumbling, to attract votes.
It’s not just a movie issue. Work in all mediums suffers from this. The awards bodies gravitate to projects where the focus and acting and story dials down on “issues”. Physical issues, mental issues, social issues … a simple well done story — be it big or small screen visual, or audio production, or written — has to really work double-double overtime to rise above the limping and screaming of other work they’re competing with.
It’s a real shame. There’s nothing wrong with great storytelling. But, if you want to be recognized and receive hat-tips for it, you’re almost forced to pile on the pity.
That’s why I dislike awards.