He Said/She Said

Acting Up

He Said/She Said: Does great acting earn Oscars? Entertainment Weekly's critics Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum trade takes on Charlize Theron, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, and 2004's other Oscar-nominated actors (part one of a series)

Owen Gleiberman, Lisa Schwarzbaum
Image credit: He Said She Said Illustration by Eric Palma

Owen Gleiberman It seems a little strange to be talking about the Oscar nominees for acting this year, given that the five Best Picture nominees produced a grand total of four acting nominees -- the lowest total in 40 years. It's enough to make one wonder: Is ''great acting'' overrated as a component of a movie's worthiness? Personally, I don't think it is. But the disjunction is deeply revealing about the place contemporary movie culture is at now. To put it in crude terms: Fifteen years after the indie revolution (which I'm dating from the release of ''sex, lies, and videotape''), we in effect have two kinds of movies -- big, vast, expensive, crowd-pleasing spectacles, the majority of which are driven by action and special effects, and ''smaller'' films that tend to be more intimate and character-driven. I've been fighting for years against this trend congealing into a kind of big-movie/small-movie apartheid, but in spirit I'm afraid that that's just where we're headed. Or maybe we've already arrived there.

I think you saw the fallout of this in the Oscar voting. All of the Best Picture nominees feature some very good acting, but they were not primarily thought of in terms of acting; they were thought of in terms of spectacle, of larger-than-life sweep. And so you didn't get nominations for, say, Jeff Bridges in ''Seabiscuit'' or Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany in ''Master and Commander.'' I believe that the voters looked, almost deliberately, at ''smaller'' films when they were considering which actors and actresses to vote for. ''The Cooler,'' ''21 Grams,'' ''Pieces of April,'' ''Monster,'' ''In America,'' ''House of Sand and Fog'' -- these were all movies that voters watched through the lens of an Oscar acting campaign.

Why didn't they vote instead for, say, Sean Astin's acclaimed performance in ''The Return of the King''? Because, I would argue, of a growing acceptance that epic movies, even great ones, aren't ABOUT the performances. So, yes, acting may now be seen as less intrinsic to a ''worthy'' movie. But I should stress that I don't agree with that judgment: It's ultimately a view of movies driven by market demographics -- i.e., the fact that spectacle films depend less on who's in them to be successful. So I guess I'd say that the trumping of movies by spectacle cast a slightly unsettling shadow over this year's Oscar voting.

Lisa Schwarzbaum You know, Owen, I could challenge your distinction between ''spectacle'' movie and ''acting movie'' -- the ''LOTR''-lover in me wants to make perfectly clear that there's a big difference between a ''successful'' spectacle film and a ''good'' one, and that good, if not great acting is involved in the latter. But I'm going to skip over the fine points of contradiction to get to the provocative heart of the question. My view: ''Great acting'' IS overrated as a component of a movie's worthiness! Which is not to say that any old line-reading is good enough, or that casts are interchangeable, or that the work of Russell Crowe, say, isn't crucial to the brio and power of ''Master and Commander.''

Weak performances can doom a movie, or at the very least leech it of its full potential. But I think the mad cavalcade of awards -- and marketing opportunities for stars to be photographed in fancy clothes -- has turned appreciation of theatrical performance into a fetish. Yep, a fetish. Isn't Renée Zellweger BRAVE to look unglamorous in ''Cold Mountain''? Doesn't Sean Penn howl with grief beautifully in ''Mystic River''? That's not to say they haven't done wonderful work, these actors we study so intently on screen. But they are only a part of the story, the production, the satisfaction I want from the movies I see. I was gobsmacked, as everyone was, by Charlize Theron's astonishing turn as a slatternly serial killer in ''Monster,'' but I don't know a person around who didn't say it was a great performance in a so-so movie. Theron deserves her Oscar nomination, sure -- and everyone will want to see what this beautiful woman who disguised her beauty for the role will wear to the ball -- but a knock-'em-dead performance is not what I, personally, look for in a great movie.

I think, Owen, that we disagree fundamentally on this point, don't we?

OG I guess we do disagree on this one, Lisa. Considering all of the laudatory things you've had to say about ''Mystic River'' over the last year, I confess that I'm a bit surprised to hear you lump in Sean Penn's teary grief-howling with Renée Zellweger's showy dressing down in ''Cold Mountain'' (as a non-''Mystic River'' fan -- we can chew over that film later -- I'M the one who's supposed to be making fun of Sean Penn!). Nevertheless, I certainly agree that a great film, obviously, consists of more -- much more! -- than great acting.

That said, when I think back over the films that I've loved most this year, there isn't one that isn't built around the experience of an actor or actress giving his or her all, revealing himself or herself in a memorable way, blessing the audience with the catharsis of personality. That's why, for example, I think that Jack Black absolutely deserved to be nominated for his fearless, sublimely juvenile rock vamping in ''School of Rock'' -- and why Jude Law, impressive as he is, doesn't deserve to be for his adept, dutiful, slightly colorless work in ''Cold Mountain.'' Or why Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis both should have been nominated for their rich, funny, moving work in ''American Splendor.'' And while I'm on the subject of Oscar omissions (notice I didn't say snubs!), my favorite performance by an actress this year was outrageously overlooked: I thought Evan Rachel Wood was simply astonishing in ''Thirteen'' -- richer, more electric, and miles deeper than Keisha Castle-Hughes in the ''exotic'' feel-good hit ''Whale Rider.''

But just to show that we're not in complete disagreement, I'm right in line with what I read as your tone of ever-so-slight skepticism regarding the praise for Charlize Theron's performance in ''Monster.'' Yes, she is indeed terrific; I intend no backlash. Except that this admittedly fine performance DOES have a stunt aspect -- and this, coming just a year after Nicole Kidman and the Nose. I raise the question: Is the Best Actress category devolving into The Most Riveting Display of Beauty Martyrdom?

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