The Cynic’s Oscars: Dividing Acting Into “Original” and “Adapted” Categories

By  · Published on October 15th, 2012

Some of you may already know me by my Twitter handle: @thefilmcynic. It’s a name I’ve gone by for nearly a decade (so, before current social media outlets), because I’m very cynical about the film industry and try to keep my expectations low. I’m also very cynical about the Academy Awards and awards season in general, because we devote so much focus on them – with a wide spectrum of positive and negative angles – and they’re really a bunch of malarkey (much like the V.P. debate, which has inspired my newfound obsession with that word). So, the higher ups at FSR have asked me to write a cynical column devoted to the Oscars. The first one is inspired by the films Seven Psychopaths, Looper and Lincoln and their celebrated performances.

As someone who has studied acting (I’m not very good at it), I’ve long taken issue with the way people look at film performances, because there are just so many different kinds. But there are two real distinct types that we tend to recognize while watching and writing about movies that aren’t acknowledged by the Academy: realistic and artificial. The former has been a big favorite since method acting came into play, though it doesn’t necessarily apply to that style nor does that style necessarily always mean realism. The latter could be more expressive and therefore goes back to the dawn of cinema and its silent performances or could even be more stiff, if that’s what’s intended. Directors who see their actors as mere props can fit that regard even if the actor or actress insists on actually trying.

I feel like people put too much interest in realistic performances and portrayals, although I don’t believe the Academy has really recognized as many of these kinds of roles as we might think. Anyway, as we’ve seen with realism cinema a non-actor can often deliver a very realistic performance. And also, with a director who is particularly great with actors (Milos Foreman, Sidney Lumet, Darren Aronofsky and Roman Polanski come to mind), a so-so actor can end up with an Oscar nomination through the magic of that filmmaker’s own doing. Maybe we need to break up the acting categories into “best performance by an actor” and “best directed performance,” the latter for people like Adrian Brody and Natalie Portman.

Making new categories out of the four acting awards would obviously be overkill. But so would a number of other new category suggestions through the years. For example, Jennifer Merin of Documentaries has been polling people lately on whether or not there should be a foreign documentary category. And the ever-popular recommendation of Best Stuntman is even already somewhat related to the acting categories. The difference, of course, has to do with celebrity. More acting categories, however, could allow for more famous faces at the ratings-dependent ceremony telecast. For my personal interests, they could allow for a bunch of additional deserving actors to be recognized.

But, like I said, many of those who do win the awards in both lead and supporting acting categories are already artificial, as in they’re so clearly people in a performance that we take particular note of them. That doesn’t allow for the worthy actors who are often deemed too artificial to qualify any more than they do now. These would include comedic actors, more stylistic actors and over-the-top types who aren’t Johnny Depp or Meryl Streep. Basically, as much as many of us wish it to happen, Sam Rockwell might never be nominated for an Academy Award. At least not for a lead role such as his commanding and very different performances in such films as Moon and Seven Psychopaths (not to mention his amazing turn in Snow Angels, which would probably count as supporting).

How else could we isolate him and his ilk, which often consists of character actors? Best Actor and then “Best Actor in a non Oscar-bait-type movie”? I’d say it should be a separation of drama and comedy, a la the Golden Globes, but it’s not always that easy. Is Moon a comedy? Jim Carrey’s Oscar snubs were for dramatic turns (Man on the Moon, while about a comedian is not exactly a comedy, even if the HFPA awarded it as such). Where would Michael Fassbender fit when he’s owed an award for mainstream fare like Prometheus and X-Men: First Class?

Another way of dividing the acting categories is to go with the distinction that’s been made with areas of filmmaking in the past: original and adapted. Currently that’s just for screenplays, but there used to be the divide with music score (the way things are going, they need to bring that back). And with the seemed grab for an Oscar that comes lately with some biopics (Hitchcock this year and The Iron Lady last), adapted performance might be a very good idea. But would this include Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln? I think of it as being more for performances involving some mimicry of a real person able to be studied, so playing a famous figure before the 20th century – really, before the mix of sound with motion picture – is stretching it.

Unless Day-Lewis modeled himself after prior portrayals of Abraham Lincoln. This relates to an idea of other performances that are based on prior performances of the same character or of another actor presently playing the character. With the latter, I’m specifically thinking of the phenomenal job Joseph Gordon-Levitt does in aping Bruce Willis in Looper. And previously, there was Zachary Quinto in Star Trek. With the former, I mean Martin Freeman in The Hobbit films, possibly. Could it also apply to performances that are admittedly based on other characters or people? Hugo Weaving taking inspiration from Werner Herzog for Captain America and Johnny Depp basing Captain Jack Sparrow on Keith Richards for Pirates of the Caribbean?

Ah, but I’d want to put Jack Sparrow in the original category because I consider that territory for newly and immediately iconic original characters. These are memorable performances that were created by their performers as much as or more than they were by the writers and directors. Some more recent examples include Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, Will Ferrell in Anchorman, Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat and Christian Bale in American Psycho. Okay, so the last seems like it would be under “adapted” since it’s from a book. But he gave it life in a way that owes little to the novel.

The fact that I can’t cement the rules for the categories is probably the reason why the Academy hasn’t gone ahead or even acknowledged thinking about this idea. But there has to be some way for us to sequester certain actors and performances to the side of what we usually see garner Oscar nominations. Basically, there has to be some way for Rockwell to get be given his due.
Here are my nominations so far (keep in mind I haven’t seen everything out earlier or later or currently this year):

Best Adapted Performance by an Actor: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper), Josh Brolin (Men in Black 3), David Thewlis (The Lady)

Best Original Performance by an Actor: Sam Rockwell (Seven Psychopaths), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master),Vikram Gandhi (Kumare), Michael Fassbender (Prometheus), Channing Tatum (21 Jump Street)

Best Adapted Performance by an Actress: Eva Green (Dark Shadows), Michelle Yeoh (The Lady)

Best Original Performance by an Actress: Michelle Williams (Take This Waltz)

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.