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Acting versus Popularity: Can we separate the two?

January 16, 2015

There's perhaps no bigger example of subjectivity than in blogging, especially about movies or any other artform. Come award show season, we all hedge our bets and hearts on certain performances or movies. When the Oscar nominees are announced, a selected few go down in film history as the best of the best, yet not everyone agrees.

When the official nominations are released, it's always interesting to read the span of reactions of outrage and celebration. In the heated moment, a popular description that cycles around is *insert person here* didn't deserve to be nominated over *that person*. It got me thinking about what makes one actor worthy of an award versus someone else. Is there a such thing as worthy performance versus unworthy?

I'd like to easily categorize that good acting is when preparation and a director's vision works cohesively to create an authentic performance. When it comes to award show season, acting inevitably seems to be divided into categories and various aspects like likeability and the media can amplify an actor's chances of being nominated or winning:

Physicality: An actor being able to transform himself by perfecting movement of a famous person, or training his body to embody a physical affliction. When an actor gains/loses a serious amount of weight, usually they are lauded for their courage and conviction to starve or work out/indulge. Does mere physicality constitute as acting, or does there need to be something more behind the body transformation?

Status: Within the Academy, there are actors whose fifteen minutes are never up. Every year, we know Meryl Streep is going to be nominated. Great if you like her, but she has never been one of my favorites having not given a truly impressive performance in years. Some actors are just rewarded for everything - is it always well-deserved?

The Underdog: Some mega-famous celebrities aren't always featured in the best films - despite their attempts otherwise. When the stars align and a movie truly showcases a performer's range, it's hard not to root for them. Sometimes this can be a hindrance because the underdog can only get nominated so many times before they inevitably win...but is it for a role that's their best? For me, an example of this is Kate Winslet for The Reader. I love her but by far I didn't consider her performance as Hanna to be her best, and far from the Oscar so many felt she was worthy of winning already.

Genre:  The historical epic, the biopic, the drama, and now the indie. Oscars are known for inevitably spotlighting their favorite genres, which has become a bit of joke over time. No matter the genre, there's bound to be a few golden nuggets in these movies - especially when actors break the mold of genres that they are known for.

The Newbies: Not having a long and varied career can shoot actors into super-stardom for a month. Being unable to identify them in previous roles can set a "fresh faced" actor (no matter how realistically they've actually been in the business for years and years) from the rest of the pack.

Dedication: Throughout the year a lot of performances fall to the wayside because a production tries so hard to show an actor's transformation. Seeing the effort over the effortless can easily make or break the potential escapism. Acting veteran Daniel Day-Lewis, who is known for his commitment, is normally Oscar bound because of his renown dedication to a role. In a way some of his performances fall into the same category as status; because he's known for his method approach, he can also be prematurely considered for nominations. Can too much dedication be over-hyped?

The Media: Movies and performances can fall through the media cracks, and over the award show period, become known as the The Movie That *Blank* or The Actor That Did This. It can be hard to distinguish what is a good performance from say, positive hype or reviews, or actors being rewarded for merely stepping out of their genre comfort zone, or actors being so fresh-faced to the industry we don't have previous roles to identify them with.

Thinking about the "type" of performances I usually fall for, my favorites don't tend to fall into the physicality category and are way outside the normal hype of the media. I appreciate the physical effort an actor takes on, definitely cheer my underdog nominees, and respect the dedication an actor puts forth...but mostly, my favorites are the ones where an actor makes me forget who they are in real life; who don't over-exert themselves; who might play a role with a specific enthusiasm, intensity, or naturalism that no other actor could ever live up to.

Movies and performances are open to interpretation, so there's no wrong or right answer. In the end, I think a lot of us end up with our favorite picks by how an actor makes us feel or think in a new or exciting way. But, it's interesting to consider the categorization of performances that are honored.

Some nominations aren't necessarily about the acting itself but how a director tells the same story as another movie but with enough different techniques the performances sell themselves; or an actor offers something so small and uniquely special from others they are easily ones to watch out for. It can be a deep and genuine appreciation for a performance just being good or making us have a visceral reaction to their character. And, sometimes, nominations also just simply don't deliver the kind of top-shelf quality we are looking for and get by on the media hype.

What do you think makes a good performance? Does the line blur too much between acting and popularity?

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