Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis and the Push for Novelty Oscar Recognition

By  · Published on December 15th, 2013

I don’t know which critic first suggested Scarlett Johansson deserves an Oscar nomination for Her. That’s too bad, because a statement like that often initially comes from a place of attention-seeking. Not necessarily in a bad way, either. We like to and need to have fresh ideas in this business, and even more than that we like to get credit for those ideas. But it’s also too bad because I’m curious of the true intent behind the statement. It’s one thing to suggest – not in jest but in a way that’s not totally meant to be taken seriously so much as inspire a certain kind of discussion – and it’s another to really champion and campaign for the notion that a voice-only performance should be considered for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

The conversation around the idea reminds me of the one a couple years ago in response to the suggestion that Andy Serkis’s performance-capture work on Rise of the Planet of the Apes deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination. It was actually residual build-up following the same idea more than a decade ago about Serkis’s performance as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Interestingly enough, there was no talk of such recognition a year ago when the actor reprised the role as the computer-generated character in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Had everyone just given up? Was it a lesser performance? Definitely not the latter. Perhaps it was that the novelty of the idea had faded.

It would seem even the Johansson conversation is already losing steam, especially after the Hollywood Foreign Press Association denied her qualification for a Golden Globe and now that the Screen Actors Guild – which did deem the performance eligible – wound up not naming the actress as a SAG Award nominee this week. At least she was honored by the Rome Film Festival, which went as far as naming her Best Actress for Her last month. Should her lack of chances for the Oscar end the discussion, though? There’s been talk of voice acting being considered for Academy Awards before, albeit mainly for animated films (and performance-capture is related, as well), and until someone is nominated for such a performance the idea will remain a possibility for the breaking of new ground.

Novelty and the Oscars doesn’t have to be all about something new to Hollywood necessarily. Anytime a record is broken of some sort (oldest acting nominee! most nominations for a non period piece where the director and screenwriter are father and son!) or recognition goes to a kind of person or film that has never gotten it from this club before (first African-American woman for Best Director! first comic book movie up for Best Picture!) that gives the media something to talk about and, more importantly, to put into a headline. For some groups it may also be a social achievement, but then not only for the moment. We still celebrate when black actors and actresses earn Oscar nods, and the same will be true when and if more women directors are nominated following Kathryn Bigelow’s win.

Let those novelty Oscar contenders eat cake!

Fans of animated films continued to complain that such features weren’t nominated for Best Picture after Beauty and the Beast (a major moment in time for novelty sake) even after the Academy set up a whole category just for them*. And even though a few years later Toy Story did receive a special Oscar all to itself, much like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had more than half a century earlier. These were not novel achievements but simply new innovations. The latter was the first feature-length animated film. The former was the first fully computer-generated one, and that was the last time anything or anyone received a Special Achievement Academy Award. They received those in a timely manner, too. Comparatively, it seems that not only Serkis but performance-capture in general has missed the boat there. Well, motion-/performance-capture technology innovations have been recognized via the Scientific and Technical Academy Awards. I just mean for whatever movie first utilized it (I don’t know that it was Titanic for performance-capture, but that is the first notable example according to the history books, and it did win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects).

As for Johansson’s performance, she does nothing innovative in providing her vocals for a non-human character. So there is nothing worthy of a Special Achievement Academy Award there. If she was to be nominated due to enough members also wanting to vote for something that’s never been done before, that’s another matter. I think that’s all it would be, too, because her performance isn’t really that tremendous. But then we’d have to wonder if Samantha Morton, whose voice was originally used (and who was on set to actually act opposite Joaquin Phoenix) deserved some of the credit, and whether this would open more vocal performances into the mix, either from animated films or in other live-action works with similar circumstances (let’s just do two this year and give Benedict Cumberbatch a nod for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) or, why not, let’s include narrators, as well.

At least something primarily with just Johansson’s voice on it was nominated for an Oscar last year (the song “Before My Time” from Chasing Ice). And Serkis should get his kudos eventually. Especially if he keeps on doing performance-capture roles – he’s got the upcoming Rise of the Planet of the Apes sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and another Tintin movie that is apparently still in the pipeline for Peter Jackson, plus a new adaptation of Animal Farm – and if he remains the greatest go-to actor for that sort of work, then he will finally get his due in the form of an honorary award at the Governors Awards at some point in the future.

Now, who wants to talk about why the five cats employed in Inside Llewyn Davis should fill all the Best Supporting Actor slots? We’d take care of both the novelty of an animal being nominated in an acting category and a record five animals being nominated in an acting category at the same time. What other progressive Oscar ideas does everyone have?

*I’ve been reminded that two other animated features, Toy Story 3 and Up, were eventually nominated for Best Picture recently, clearly thanks to the extension of the nominee number to ten. So it’s probably no longer as big a complaint.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.