Oscars: Acting Nominees Compete for Title of Most Agonizing Role

You know what the Academy historically doesn't appreciate? Happy. Now, for both the lead and supporting categories, voters will award the best performances among miserable marriages, debilitating diseases and midlife crises.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If the Academy's acting Oscar races were a sporting event — which is the way everybody from Vegas bookmakers to office pools treats them — then determining the winners would require factoring some degree-of-difficulty calculation into the scores. Deciding that one performance is better than another inevitably is a subjective exercise, but just as with sports like diving or gymnastics, introducing a numerical element into the mix could make those subjective judgments appear somewhat less arbitrary.

When it comes to evaluating actors' work, the Academy admires performers who take on visible challenges, whether it's extreme weight loss (Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club) or emotional extremes (Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave).

A skilled actor might consider it a bigger accomplishment to make the work look easy, but that's not what's usually rewarded in Hollywood come awards time. Consider the insouciant ease with which Ralph Fiennes, playing an aristocratic hotel concierge, scampers through The Grand Budapest Hotel. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts handed him a best actor nomination, but not so the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. For Fiennes, with each arch turn of phrase, looks like he's having fun in Budapest. And the Academy rarely bestows its honors on actors who look like they're enjoying themselves.

If a star wants serious Oscar consideration, he or she can expect to win points only for embracing a serious role, preferably in a movie that also confronts an equally serious subject. This year, all the characters played by the 20 actors nominated in Oscar's four acting categories face problems — from unhappy marriages to debilitating diseases (or both), midlife crises to fairy-tale wishes that don't come true.

One of the quirks of the current season is that nine of the 20 perform­ers also are playing big-screen incarnations of real people, some living, some deceased. That immediately raises the degree of difficulty further because they have to adopt actual mannerisms, speech patterns and even hairlines if they're to be true to the people they're portraying. But while verisimilitude can get you points, the exact number of points can vary widely, depending on whether moviegoers know enough about the person being portrayed to judge the accuracy of the portrayal.

Because there's virtually no evidence of what The Imitation Game's Alan Turing looked or sounded like beyond a photograph or two, Benedict Cumberbatch was free to invent his own version of the man. While his performance may be true to the spirit of the times, he gets no points for actual mimicry. Reese Witherspoon does get a few points for looking — and dressing — a lot like Cheryl Strayed as seen in the actual photos of the Wild author that pop up in the movie's end credits. And Steve Carell gets similar credit for adopting the clenched aristocrat airs of Foxcatcher's John du Pont that can be seen in YouTube videos of the late millionaire. But because neither Strayed nor du Pont is that familiar to moviegoers — Strayed exists more in the imagination of readers of her book, while du Pont, who died in 2010, never was especially well known — those points are limited. Bradley Cooper ranks a little higher for his appearance as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in American Sniper. Kyle was a celebrity, at least among his fellow vets, and Cooper not only locates a convincing accent but also packs on extra pounds, which always earn an actor bonus points whether his character is real or fictional.

Other actors certainly took on roles with a much higher degree of difficulty this year — David Oyelowo, capturing Martin Luther King Jr.'s indelible oratory style in Selma, and Chadwick Boseman reproducing James Brown's signature moves in Get On Up. (The fact that they weren't nominated is another discussion.) But among this year's nominees, the actor attempting the highest degree-of-difficulty maneuver certainly is Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne, who most recently played the heartthrob revolutionary Marius in Les Miserables, couldn't be more different from the wheelchair-bound Stephen Hawking, inarguably the most famous scientist in the world. But during the course of his new movie, the actor manages not only to contort his body but also to appear somehow to shrink in size.

Redmayne gets additional points in the awards calculus for confronting a debilitating disease, another sure way to attract Oscar's attention, as Julianne Moore also has done this year with her portrayal of a woman dealing with early-onset Alzheimer's in Still Alice. Redmayne's performance might be more physical, while Moore's is more interior, but each is the equivalent of a top-scoring two-and-a-half somersault with two-and-a-half-twists dive. Moore not only has to convey a woman of commanding intelligence but also then show the fear that rushes in when that intelligence starts to slowly but inevitably slip away.

In doing so, Moore checks off another box that can earn an actor yet more degree-of-difficulty points: She surrenders any vanity. Because actors and actresses are presumed to be vain, any role that requires them to suppress their movie-star sheen by exposing human frailty grabs attention. Moore, standing lost, her character having just wet herself because she couldn't find the bathroom, nails this element.

Robert Duvall has a similar points-worthy moment of confusion and incontinence in The Judge. And Michael Keaton lets all of his 63 years show in Birdman, especially when he has to run through Times Square in nothing but his skivvies. But when it comes to earning marks for abandoning any pretense of vanity, this year's high scorers have to be Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette in Boyhood. Given that the movie was shot over 12 years, there's no escaping from the ravages of time. For unlike actors who undergo artificial aging in a movie, these two couldn't shed any of the extra pounds or accumulated wrinkles at the end of each day's shoot by simply by spending a few minutes in the makeup trailer.

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