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FEBRUARY 28, 2011 9:24PM

Oscar's Biggest Losers

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Compare Margot Fonteyn's 'effortless' grace

  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.



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Great piece, Laura...I rather like it that the Academy Awards are truly voted upon by one's peers...directors vote on the director award, actors for actors...and everyone...all 5,500 members of The Academy vote for Best Picture...xox
This was a really interesting take on how the Oscar winners are chosen and how personal and cultural tastes differ so much. I have to agree with you about Cate Blanchett compared to Angelina Jolie. How could Clint even say that? I also think she's quite wooden. I'm not sure I even believe she's beautiful anymore. She just doesn't seem like a real or very likable person to me.
Thanks, Robin. I think the actor votes for actor/director for director thing only applies to the nominations. After that everyone - ie the 6000 members of the academy get to vote in all categories.
"The Academy’s entire active membership is eligible to select Oscar winners in all categories, although in five – Animated Short Film, Live Action Short Film, Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, and Foreign Language Film – members can vote only after attesting they have seen all of the nominated films in those categories."
Thanks Liz, and so glad you agree about Ange. Sharing as a fan is one of the things I love most about movies.
Very interesting take. Ultimately, it's almost impossible to make a judgment about acting, but as you say, that can be said about almost anything we call "art." (Or even food, for that matter. I once had a student write a rave review of the Cracker Barrel. Who am I to say that he's "wrong"?) I thought Christian Bale disappeared inside that character--truly one of the most compelling performances I've seen in years. I fail to understand the hoopla about Natalie's simpering virgin, though. (But then, I failed to understand the hoopla about that entire movie. Yuck.) Thanks for a fresh perspective and an intelligent piece.
Thanks for your take on this. It's very interesting and compelling!

I do have to say this about Christian Bale, specifically; His performance in "The Fighter" impressed the snot out of me while I was watching the movie, but even more so during the credits when they showed a clip of the real-life Dicky Eklund. As an actor, one of the most difficult thing to do is to portray the character of another living human being, and Christan Bale nailed it. I didn't know much of him as an actor before this movie (yes, I sort of lived under a rock for a decade, but that's another story), but it took just this one film to make me a fan. Any an actor who can do that has some real chops, and is worth watching again.
Good post. Really liked your dissection of the whole topic. And Margot Fonteyn - I've always loved her.
Good post, Laura. I agree with you on the Angelina v. Cate thing, although Angelina was amazing in "Gia" back in the day. It's also interesting how beautiful actressses playing ugly (Charlize Theron in "Monster") also make good at the Oscars. -E
Good post, Laura. I agree with you on the Angelina v. Cate thing, although Angelina was amazing in "Gia" back in the day. It's also interesting how beautiful actressses playing ugly (Charlize Theron in "Monster") also make good at the Oscars. -E
I really enjoyed your piece and I particularly loved the very fitting photos you chose: the contrast is absolutely palpable! What a great point about physical transformation, showing one's scars and how hard one has worked as being the criteria that really do seem to win again and again at the Oscar's. And losing weight is a physical transformation that a lot of people can project onto and fantasize about too, so it is audience-friendly and sort of melds into the actor's celebrity status as part of an ongoing story in a magazine (how they lost the weight, are they putting it back on, how their partner feels about the transformation etc etc) I really enjoyed this post!
Great article Laura. I loved that after Nicole wan an Oscar for "The Hours", one of the floats at Sydney's Mardi Gras had dancers dressed up as "noses". I fond it rather patriotic.
Great article Laura. I loved that after Nicole wan an Oscar for "The Hours", one of the floats at Sydney's Mardi Gras had dancers dressed up as "noses". I fond it rather patriotic.
Interesting take on what makes a winner in the film industry. I remember seeing pictures of Christian Bale when he lost all that weight to play the lead in "The Machinist." I couldn't bring myself to watch it. And there are also stories about actors going in the opposite direction, bulking up or gaining lots of weight for a role (Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull comes to mind). I really admire anyone who can become that immersed in their craft. I just wish I could do it with my writing. Congrats on the EP!
@Bonnie – Jennifer Hudson is amazing. I love her voice, I love her acting. And I have the feeling we aint seen nothing yet.
@Kate – I love that someone wrote about Cracker Barrel. I heard about an English teacher once who accepted a book report on ‘Penthouse Letters’ for a reading assignment.
@TMH – Christian Bale was not so great in Terminator 4. I really love those films and so was quite disappointed. Obviously there’s more to the guy – I look forward to seeing the film.
@Kate – thank you, and so glad you love Margot, too. With artists like that, I really hope the memory of them and what they gave will stay alive.
@Erica – thank you, and you’re right about beauty ‘uglifying’ itself winning as well. Hmm, what does it mean?
@Lisa – thank you, and you’re right. Like Oprah – remember how her weight was ‘the’ story for so long?
@thanks Maurizio. The idea of a float full of dancers dressed up as noses makes me laugh.
@Margaret: I love the idea of you transforming yourself for your art. In fact, I want to see the youtube of you at Sam’s Club sawing off your arm with a plastic serrated knife. It would really add that special something to your profile and take us all to the next level of blogging/personal memoir. I know you have other uses for your arm but, come on, how committed are you, really?
@bluestocking – thank you. To be read and responded to makes my day.
Beautiful piece, elegantly expressed. I like how you go further than saying that it all just a matter of taste and suggest what influences taste. I think you hit the nail on the head!
I agree with every point you make--and the same is so true for literature. If you have a run away turned prostitue who dies on Success Avenue, you'll win the Pulitzer. And talk about loosing weight, The Mechanic, again with Christian Bale, was painful to watch. I had to stop munching my popcorn.