“It is an honor to be here in a room full of what I consider to be the most important people on the planet: actors,” said Ricky Gervais as he opened last week’s Golden Globes. “They’re just better than ordinary people, aren’t they? No, but we all know that.”
We’d like to hope everyone in that star-studded room was able to chuckle good-naturedly at Gervais’s ribbings, and that no one was self-absorbed enough — or drunk enough — to mistake his sarcasm for groveling sincerity. Unfortunately, we know enough about Hollywood to know this probably wasn’t the case. Come awards season, many actors really do think they’re better than ordinary people, and they have all the shiny golden trinkets to prove it.
This mindset has been in place since the dawn of films, simply by virtue of the fact that the actors are the most visible aspects of the movie; they’re the ones on screen, they’re the ones engaging the audience. So we see it fit to reward them and praise them to the skies. That’s all fine and dandy.
The part that gets me is how disproportionately actors are praised when compared with the screenwriters who tell them what to say, the directors who tell them how to say it, the costumers who tell them how to dress, the cinematographers who make sure they’re being shown in their best light, the makeup artists who make sure no one ever has to see what they really look like, the people in post-production who re-dub their singing voices, the special-effects guys who make sure their skin is the right shade of blue, etc. The list goes on and on, but according to the studios campaigning for the gold or the general public that casually follows the Oscar race, the movies begin and end with the actors.
Look, acting’s tough. I’m not disputing that. Very few people in the world can do what Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep do. But films are a collaborative medium. You can’t make a good movie with just good actors — though with star-studded dreck like “Nine” and “Everybody’s Fine,” Lord knows they’ve tried. And so many other people have input into what the actors produce on screen, even though we eventually interpret something like Sandra Bullock’s turn in “The Blind Side” as entirely the product of Sandra Bullock.
Not only that, but as much as it kills me to say, actors are interchangeable. The presence of a specific actor, in most cases, does not make or break the impact of a film. As much as I loved “Up in the Air” — and I did love it — I don’t see my love as being entirely dependent on George Clooney’s presence in the film. He could’ve been replaced with any other snarky-sweet actor type, like Robert Downey, Jr. or Aaron Eckhart, and I’m sure my enthusiasm for the movie wouldn’t have diminished in the slightest. On those rare occasions when an iconic, one-of-a-kind performance is given by a specific actor, like Depp in the “Pirates” movies, we only view the performance in that light because we have no way of knowing how any other actor might have fared in the role. All we have is the finished product.
Our culture’s ever-growing obsession with actors is just begging to be put into perspective, which is part of the reason why I’m baffled more attention hasn’t been paid to the brilliant “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” The mind-bending quadruple performance by Heath Ledger, Jude Law, Colin Farrell and the Deppmeister elevates the film from a whimsical fantasy into a wry commentary on the transformative nature of performance. Tony, the character all four of them play, takes on new forms whenever he passes through the door of someone else’s imagination; he’s playing new roles for these different “directors.” And in the process, he/they achieve a certain kind of immortality just by virtue of being onscreen, a theme that especially resonates from Ledger’s unfinished performance.
“Nothing’s permanent, not even death,” says the Depp incarnation of Tony, and we believe him. Actors live forever, thanks to the movies. Hell, nominate all four of these guys for one Best Actor award. They certainly created a more memorable and complex character between the four of them than most other performances last year.
When the Oscar nominations are finally announced next Tuesday, expect, as usual, the majority of attention to be paid to the acting awards. But if you can tear yourself away from Mo’Nique’s name for a few minutes (it’s hard, I know, because she has such a great name), take a look at some of the other categories, too. Then, like me, you can find new things to get indignant about. I’m already rallying the troops for attack in the event that “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Coraline” don’t receive Best Animated Feature noms. Join my cause, and forget about all those pretty people on screen.