compare Margot Fonteyn's projection of effortless grace ....
On learning who won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor at last night's Academy Awards Ceremony, I couldn't help but notice: both Christian Bale and Natalie Portman's Oscar winning roles required them to lose a lot of weight. And this isn't the first time these two factors have coincided, which in itself must be statistically significant when you think about the number of people dreaming of winning an Oscar in their lifetime, let alone the number of people trying to lose weight. And this is not the first time physical transformation and winning an Oscar have coincided. Tom Hanks, Hilary Swank, Daniel Day Lewis, for starters.
Please note: I am talking about a correlation, rather than a judgement on artistic performance. But that's the thing. Acting is so hard to judge. All art is. What is my Oscar deserving performance by Haillee Steinfeld in True Grit might be your Nicole Kidman's performance in The Hours (prosthetic nose + Oscar).
And when you talk about an actor for more than a minute with anyone else on the planet it doesn't take long to realise there are differences of opinion all round. Angelina Jolie anyone? Some critics call her wooden. I spend the first few minutes of any film she's in awestruck by her beauty. And then quickly become so bored that by the end of the movie I don't care about whether she can act. I just want to move on with my life. Clint Eastwood however, one of my all time Hollywood heroes, not only thinks she can act, he's on the record saying she's the greatest actress of her generation. How anyone could say this with Cate Blanchett alive on the planet is beyond me.
Considering the essentially subjective nature of all art, and the divisive nature of what we consider to be good acting, what is a member of the Academy to do?
I think they don't even bother trying to work out who is best. By the time you get to the nominations they're all pretty great, right? So, then how are they to judge who should win? And my answer is, they try to vote for who they think pulled off the biggest coup. And to them that means who did the thing that seemed the hardest.
... to Natalie Portman's portrayal of grim determination
Is this 'A awarded for effort' particularly American? Margot Fonteyn, the greatest ballerina ever (in her case I'm not even going to pretend this is subjective. This is a fact) said in her autobiography that while in England she was revered for the grace and ease of her dancing, in Italy she fell flat. Someone finally came out and told her - those trademark thirtytwo fouettes that she pulled off at the end of Swan Lake? (note: a fouette is like a pirouette except the dancer doesn't put her foot down at the end of a rotation. Instead she kicks it out at a right angle to spin herself round again. To do thirtytwo of them means she's just spun herself around thirtytwo times on the toe of one foot.) She made it look too easy!
Maria Callas, the opera singer, was much more to Italy's, and America's, liking. She sang like an angel. But she also worked like an ox. Corrrection: all great artists work like oxen. Not all of them show it. Maria Callas showed it. She suffered, and she showed her suffering. Margot Fonteyn suffered mightily, in her personal life as well as for her art, but in her typical English manner she never let it show. (think: Colin Firth winning the Best Actor Oscar last night.)
It's hard to judge when it comes to art, yet events like the Academy Awards, or the Pulitzer Prize for literature, are all about judgement. It's inevitable other agendas will come in to play. 'Serious' topics always win compared to the lightsome ones. (That's why it took Sandra Bullock, a great comic actor, playing a straight part in an uplifting film to get the credit she deserved for all those funny ones.) Beautiful actresses always have more of a chance than more homely ones. And that's why my advice to any performer hoping to get the praise they think they deserve in America is this (are you listening,Cate?): don't let it look too easy.