Oscars: Subtle Performances Gain Ground Over Showy, Transformational Portrayals

Illustration by: Dominic Bugatto

For decades, big, bold turns have landed the Oscar, but the Academy now is giving a more naturalistic new guard of actors their time to shine.

Compare Gary Oldman’s prosthetic jowls and growly voice as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour to Timothee Chalamet’s fresh-faced, utterly natural performance as a teenager finding love in Call Me by Your Name and you’ll see the showdown that’s reflected in this year’s Oscar race in all four acting categories: old guard versus new guard — and age has nothing to do with it.

Oldman delivers the type of performance the Academy has traditionally loved: over-the-top, drawn-in-bold-outline acting that’s easy to spot. Over the years, these big performances have often been the ones to take home the trophy (see Daniel Day-Lewis’ transformation to play Lincoln and Meryl Streep’s into Margaret Thatcher for The Iron Lady).

But this year’s crop of nominations exemplifies a more diverse and expanded Academy membership, open to fresh choices, and suggests a promising future, even if the old guard triumphs this year.

Oldman is heavily favored to win best actor, especially after taking home the Golden Globe and SAG Award for the role. His portrayal and the acclaim for it rest largely on a transformation that comes from many hours of makeup, allowing audiences to say, “That doesn’t look like Gary Oldman.” Recent Oscars to Colin Firth, who adopted a stutter in The King’s Speech, and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything indicate how often big performances, paired with physical transformations, prevail.

Chalamet, Oldman’s only real competition, is a breath of the future. That’s not because he’s 22 years old but because his portrayal of Elio, who falls in love with a slightly older man, is such a rich depiction of the flush, romance and agonizing letdown of first love.

In the same category, Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya represents the new guard not because he’s 28 but because of his sly turn as a man who has to hide his growing suspicion that his girlfriend’s benign upper-middle-class family is actually a racist cult. Like Jordan Peele’s film itself, the performance could have gone off the rails as it straddled the line between horror and reality, but it didn’t.

The same lines are drawn in the supporting actress category with frontrunner Allison Janney, who gives a brash, entertaining performance as Tonya Harding’s mother in I, Tonya. Janney is of the same generation as her main competition, Laurie Metcalf, but Metcalf’s layered performance as the mother in Lady Bird is a more subtle revelation of character. She allows us to see the defensiveness and insecurity beneath her character’s maternal but often unkind treatment of her daughter.

Even if Oldman and Janney emerge as winners, big acting has already lost ground as the majority of the nominees gave lower-key performances, even in parts that might lend themselves to going bigger (and badder).

Margot Robbie could have colored way outside the lines as Harding in I, Tonya, but her portrayal is stunning because she captures the skater’s tackiness and dissembling, yet stops short of caricature. She even adds a touch of vulnerability. Sally Hawkins, as a mute woman in The Shape of Water, uses restraint to evoke deep empathy in a role that lesser actresses would have defined by mugging gestures.

In the supporting actor category, Woody Harrelson was nominated not for his turn as the wild-eyed villain in War for the Planet of the Apes but for his everyman police chief in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Willem Dafoe can be broad when he has to in roles like the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, but in The Florida Project, he blends in among unknown actors.

Denzel Washington’s nomination for Roman J. Israel, Esq. and Meryl Streep’s for The Post feel like knee-jerk responses to great careers — it’s his eighth acting nomination and her 21st. But this year such predictable moves register differently as they follow a familiar pattern that is getting more complex before our eyes, giving way to a rich new era.

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.