Oscars 2020: A critical deconstruction of the acting category — who was nominated, and who should have been

You usually know what to expect in a given year of Oscars: ten of this year’s twenty acting nominations are for playing real life people; ten are also for play artists or performers of some sort; fifteen are for acting in heavily costumed period dramas.

Siddhant Adlakha February 05, 2020 15:16:43 IST
Oscars 2020: A critical deconstruction of the acting category — who was nominated, and who should have been

(In this 3-part series, Siddhant Adlakha offers a critical deconstruction of the top three categories of the Oscars 2020 — Acting, Direction and Best Picture. Part 1 takes a look at the acting categories, both male and female, to analyse the performances and their corresponding nominations. Read Part 2 here.)


What we talk about when we talk about acting often skews towards overtness. The Academy Awards, for instance, tend to value impersonations, visible transformations and self-flagellation above most other aspects; by following that model, audiences rarely value — or are rarely given the opportunity to value — the art of nuance.

You usually know what to expect in a given Oscar year: ten of this year’s twenty acting nominations are for playing real life people; ten are also for playing artists or performers of some sort; fifteen are for acting in heavily costumed period dramas. This predictability doesn’t always mean the highlighted work is rote or without merit. Most choices this year were safe, but despite the Academy’s unspoken parameters, there’s some fascinating artistry at play, and it’s worth a second look.

That said, valuing these awards as much as we do — and rarely looking outside their self-perpetuating marketing machine this time of year — severely limits the stories and styles we’re exposed to when it comes to global cinema. All but five of this year’s acting nominees have been nominated before, and only one name in the group is a person of colour: Cynthia Erivo in Harriet. She’s only the fifth non-white Best Actress nominee this entire decade, and the twelfth Black nominee ever. Even by generous estimates, that’s a horrendous figure. Despite the Academy’s efforts to fix inequality within its voting ranks, work outside a set of rigid norms is still routinely ignored.

Oscars 2020 A critical deconstruction of the acting category  who was nominated and who should have been

Cynthia Erivo, in Harriet, is the only person of colour to be nominated in the Acting category of the Oscars 2020.

For better or worse, the twenty nominated performances will be the only ones in the spotlight this coming weekend. Prestige notwithstanding, the ceremonies themselves aren’t usually the best indicators of what a performance actually feels like, or its function within the text. Out-of-context clips and introductory tidbits don’t do justice to even the best of them — certainly not as much as watching the actual films — and with the Academy’s focus on go-big-or-go-home acting, their respective subtleties might be lost in the shuffle.

As an antidote, here’s a deeper look at what was nominated (and what wasn’t), starting with the male categories:

Best Supporting Actor

Al Pacino — The Irishman

Anthony Hopkins — The Two Popes

Brad Pitt — Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Joe Pesci — The Irishman

Tom Hanks — A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Best Actor

Adam Driver — Marriage Story

Antonio Banderas — Pain and Glory

Joaquin Phoenix — Joker

Jonathan Pryce — The Two Popes

Leonardo DiCaprio — Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


The Irishman, Two Popes and the impact of editing

An under-discussed part of film acting is how much it’s shaped by editing. Between shot choices and pulling from different parts of the footage, expert editors like Thelma Schoonmaker (The Irishman and many other Scorsese works) are able to pluck out precise moments and reactions that shape the most soulful performances. This year, Schoonmaker sculpts the work of legends Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, who deliver career-best performances as boisterous teamster Jimmy Hoffa and frigid mob boss Russell Bufalino. As Hoffa, Pacino practically devours every scene he’s in, as a short man trying to feel like the tallest in the room, and a historical figurehead trying to keep his human fears at bay. It’s the most fun he’s had in years, and he provides incredible contrast to co-stars Pesci and Robert DeNiro.

Oscars 2020 A critical deconstruction of the acting category  who was nominated and who should have been

A still from The Irishman.

DeNiro is nowhere to be seen on this list, despite speaking through devastating silences — or perhaps because of this? — but it’s Pesci’s chilling murmurs that anchor most of the film. Where DeNiro plays Frank Sheeran, a man whose soul is in limbo, Pesci’s Bufalino looks and feels like the end result of Sheeran losing himself entirely. Bufalino is a man fully compartmentalised; there’s a terror even to his politeness, like when he speaks to Sheeran’s daughter, interacting with her in ways that feel eerie and inappropriate. And, in keeping with the film’s text and meta-text about gazing looking back at the past, Pesci, like Scorsese, seems to revisit and subvert some of his older work.

Bufalino is the final form of his evolution from Joey Lamotta (Ragin Bull) to Tommy DeVito (Goodfellas) to Nicky Santoro (Casino), men struggling in anger to get to the top of the food chain. Now that he’s finally there, all he has is his quiet resignation, and the unquestioning acceptance of his demons; “It’s what it is,” he whispers.

However, where editing crystallises the performances in The Irishman, it hinders them in The Two Popes. Fernando Meirelles’ changing-of-the-guard Netflix drama stars Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as his successor, Cardinal Bergoglio (later Pope Francis). Both veteran actors are wise and mischievous in what is essentially a thespian showcase (for which they had to learn Italian), but they’re fighting against a film that, through its framing and editing, seems intent on hiding the best parts of their work. It shakes and crash-zooms and cuts away abruptly — Meirelles seems to have caught a case of Paul Greengrass poisoning — but the actors manage to be magnetic regardless.

Oscars 2020 A critical deconstruction of the acting category  who was nominated and who should have been

Jonathan Pryce and Anthonyn Hopkins in a still from The Two Popes. Netflix

Hopkins’ Benedict, a man mired in controversy, has a guarded stubbornness to him, but he can’t help but open up to Pryce’s more easy-going, more progressive Bergoglio, a performance that radiates warmth while projecting a looming sense of guilt. Anytime the duo is on screen together, the chemistry they share is electrifying. Thankfully, they’re in the same frame for most of the movie, whether in uproariously funny scenes of both men trying to tender their resignations to one another — The Two Popes isn’t a comedy, but both actors are immensely entertaining — or when navigating confrontations and clashes of ideology while maintaining an air of decorum.

Marriage Story, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and the magic of subtlety

That same withholding nature is threaded through a number of other performances, from Adam Driver in Marriage Story, to Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, to somehow first time nominee Antonio Banderas in Pain and Glory. Driver’s soon-to-be-divorced Charlie Barber is a frustrating presence, aloof and stubborn until the few moments he cracks under the weight of legal procedure. I could also be describing his character in The Report — he’s had one hell of a year — but what separates Barber from run-of-the-mill shitty dads is you can tell he’s making an effort, despite the mountains of crap he flings at his ex-wife Nicole (fellow nominee Scarlett Johansson), in return for the crap swung his way in the first place. The impeccable scene where Charlie and Nicole finally blow up at each other went viral several weeks ago, but his frustrated explosion where he wishes death on her wouldn’t work nearly as well without the base Driver carefully builds, with minor frustrations and grievances constantly poking through his armour.

Oscars 2020 A critical deconstruction of the acting category  who was nominated and who should have been

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in a still from Marriage Story.

Hanks, similarly, lets lingering traumas seep through the kindly façade of Mister Rogers, something Marielle Heller’s film rightly posits may not be a façade at all, but a coping mechanism. To the American Public, children’s personality Fred Rogers was a comforting TV presence, especially in times of crisis, and Hanks’ public persona feels so publicly aligned with Rogers’ that his casting was all but inevitable. However, Rogers isn’t really the key focus of the story, and the function of Hanks’ performance isn’t so much to dig deep into Rogers’ personal life — for that, check out the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — but rather, to act as a mirror to the paternal frustrations of journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), and as a symbol of forgiveness and self-acceptance despite the anger lurking within. Hanks speaks in the vocabulary of a child, but his eyes betray an unspoken wisdom, communicating a deep and soulful understanding with every look.

Antonio Banderas, meanwhile, feels like something of an amalgam of the work of every other nominated actor.

Pedro Almodóvar tells parts of his own story with Pain and Glory, which Banderas brings to life with a stunning sense of completeness. As aging director Salvador Mallo, the actor carries around wounds he tries to bandage with drugs and fancy clothes, but it isn’t until he confronts his past — scorned actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) and former lover Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) — that he can truly begin to heal. In a film about how time can change and repair people, Banderas achieves the lofty goal of balancing regret and nostalgia, with painful glances that wrestle with the weight of the world, in all its joys and sorrows.

Oscars 2020 A critical deconstruction of the acting category  who was nominated and who should have been

Antonio Banderas in a still from Pain and Glory. YouTube

Evoking a similar tinge of nostalgia is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a former TV cowboy struggling to stay relevant. A man fighting against the changing of the tides, whether his disgust for hippies or his subtle racism, Dalton’s stuttering insecurities are laid bare by DiCaprio, a born movie star who excels at making himself look foolish (see also: The Wolf of Wall Street). Brad Pitt is a similar type of performer — his character in Burn After Reading has exactly one (1) brain cell — but as Rick Dalton’s stunt man Cliff Booth, he’s a Fight Club-esque projection of everything Dalton fancies himself to be. Pitt carries himself with panache, but his is the only performance of the bunch whose inclusion I might question. Not because there’s anything wrong with it — I like it; it feels almost reformist that the Academy would nominate a performance where everything happens under the surface — but because Pitt’s name should really be included for his work on Ad Astra, where he remains constantly on the edge of exposing the deepest possible vulnerabilities.

Joker grabs the spotlight

Other performances that deserve recognition include John Lithgow’s monstrous, compartmentalising Roger Ailes in Bombshell, Willem Dafoe’s delightfully deranged lighthouse keeper in The Lighthouse — whose laughter and wide-eyed bewilderment are absurdist gateways into the soul; not the kind of film or performance the Academy usually prefers — and Song Kang-ho’s slowly crumbling composure in class dramedy Parasite. Traits of all three performance do, however, make an appearance, albeit less subtly, in the form Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. The film is hodgepodge of ideas without really being about anything at its core, and Phoenix’s performance suffers in the process; he’s so often robbed of the opportunity to provide dramatic clarity, but he turns in alluring work regardless. He balances the characters jaded interiors and exteriors with expert precision, delivering a performance so fervent and imaginative that it makes the dull film around him seem smarter by association.

Oscars 2020 A critical deconstruction of the acting category  who was nominated and who should have been

Still from Joker trailer. YouTube screengrab

Two especially memorable scenes come to mind. One, where the Joker dances in front of a bathroom mirror, just having killed his assailants, and the other where he finally confronts talk show host Franklin Murray (Robert DeNiro). The former is something Phoenix came up with on set, working in tandem with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score to grant the character a sense of balletic freedom, which didn’t exist on the page. The latter scene is the crystallisation of ideas Phoenix seemed to have about the character’s interiority, which the filmmakers, similarly, did not. The scene sees not only the arrival of the physical Joker, in all his clown-faced glory, but the emergence of a psychological response Phoenix’s Arthur seems to have to his own existence, trading in his usual schlubby, greasy straight dude creepily pining for the girl next door, and replacing him with somebody who embodies society’s fears and its downtrodden through overtly queer affects, both in speech and cadence.

Again, it’s not something the rest of the film seems even remotely aware of — now that’s an idea worth exploring — but it’s among several clear instances of Phoenix elevating otherwise empty material. That kind of work is worth several accolades all on its own. And yet, I can’t help but resent the fact that Phoenix will likely win the Oscar the same year Adam Sandler turned in the most ferocious, energetic, sympathetic and intoxicating performance of 2019 in Uncut Gems, but that’s a discussion for another article.

It’s no doubt a packed year for the male nominees, but somehow, the two female categories seem much lighter in comparison (except for one performance in particular). It’s not because the nominees lack talent, or even showiness — we’re about to dig in to why each performance works — but even more than their male counterparts, this year’s Actress categories seem equally defined by what films the Academy didn’t nominate.

Here’s what they did:

Best Supporting Actress

Florence Pugh — Little Women

Kathy Bates — Richard Jewell

Laura Dern — Marriage Story

Margot Robbie — Bombshell

Scarlett Johansson — Jojo Rabbit

Best Actress

Charlize Theron — Bombshell

Cynthia Erivo — Harriet

Renée Zellweger — Judy

Saoirse Ronan — Little Women

Scarlett Johansson — Marriage Story


Does Scarlett Johansson deserve to be nominated twice?

Right off the bat, the lack of Alfre Woodard in capital punishment drama Clemency is shocking. As prison warden Bernadine Williams, she turns in a performance for the ages, so multifaceted that it somehow counts as both dialogue-driven neorealism, and abstract performance art about what murder does to the soul; but that, too, is a much longer discussion.

It feels like a grave injustice that she and other women of colour should be omitted while Scarlett Johansson is nominated twice, but I can’t say either of her two performances isn’t worth discussing.

Johansson does, admittedly, struggle with comedic timing in Nazi comedy Jojo Rabbit, but in the scenes where she plays a mischievous mother to a shut-in son, she’s a firecracker. Furthermore, in the scene where she uses that mischief to finally project the loneliness she’s been hiding, even her over-the-top, Waititi-esque caricature becomes enchanting, as she slaps on a soot beard and re-enacts her own romantic tragedies.

However, it’s her performance as Nicole Barber in Marriage Story that makes her inclusion feel necessary. As a woman whose insecurities are prodded at until they complicate her divorce, Johansson expertly brings those vulnerabilities to the surface (sometimes in long, unbroken takes) while barely keeping it together. As with Adam Driver, the bits of her performance most talked about thus far are the explosive confrontations, but she creates a meticulous journey for her character by building layer upon layer, scene after scene, balancing outward resolve with introspection, helping us get to know Nicole in a way even Nicole might not.

Oscars 2020 A critical deconstruction of the acting category  who was nominated and who should have been

A still from Jojo Rabbit trailer. YouTube screengrab

Of course, mention must be made of Johansson’s scene partner Laura Dern, whose friendly-but-fierce Nora Fanshaw pushes Nicole to lawyer up — not out of spite, but out of her own onerous experiences. Dern brings her ever-reliable, easy going energy to the role, but it’s the underlying tenacity she brings to Nora which augments and subtly influences Nicole’s decisions. Between this and her role in Little Women — as matriarch Marmee March, a woman whose guiding presence helps her daughters navigate the world — Dern lends incredible credence to the “supporting” aspect of “Best Supporting Actress,” to the point that it feels like category fraud to include Florence Pugh.

The power of collective in Little Women and Bombshell

Pugh’s Amy March is as much a leading presence as Saoirse Ronan’s Jo. Both actors capture the spectrum of adolescent experience, portraying the zestful playfulness of childhood alongside the transition into the uncertainty of early adult life. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation contrasts life’s joys and burdens, and for Amy and Jo, they often stem from the same places: their sisterhood, and their love for Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). They’re sides to a coin; where Amy approaches situations with unbridled fervor, Jo tackles them with logical free-thinking (or so she believes), and their journeys eventually meet in the middle. It makes sense that both actors should be nominated alongside each other, but if there’s a Florence Pugh performance that deserves recognition, it’s her courageous work in Midsommar, in which she stiches up the wounds of grief and heartbreak for two long hours before letting her emotions bleed.

Oscars 2020 A critical deconstruction of the acting category  who was nominated and who should have been

A still from Little Women.

Margot Robbie performs a similar feat in Bombshell, an otherwise subpar Fox News exposé film, in which she plays the only fictitious character. After a predatory encounter with CEO Roger Ailes, Robbie’s Kayla Pospisil, a closeted intern, walks around with a burden she cannot share. It’s a timely performance in a film that, despite its best intentions, feels particularly wrong-headed, deifying and de-politicizing white women who played an active role in shifting America towards far-right ethnonationalism. In the process, the actors are also robbed of the complexity that would’ve come with playing people whose own struggles might be complicated by (or at least, contrasted with) their own unsavoury actions.

Robbie is joined by Charlize Theron as real-life news anchor Megyn Kelly. Theron’s expert impression, along with the remarkable makeup job to make her look like Kelly, no doubt played a part in her nomination, but it’s a strange performance from an otherwise mesmerising talent. It’s stifled, in part by the prosthetics, and in part by goal of impersonation rather than exploring. There is, however, something unintentionally fascinating about the part, especially in moments when Kelly is behind closed doors, at home with her husband and kids and sans her daily makeup. You can almost see Charlize Theron, as we know her, poke through in these moments of vulnerability. Unfortunately, it does little for the rest of the performance and the story; for comparison, Nicole Kidman feels much more authentic, despite the lack of resemblance to anchor Gretchen Carlson. While it might sound counter-intuitive for an art form so often associated with “immersion,” the friction between actor and character is precisely why the best performance in either category works as well as it does.

Oscars 2020 A critical deconstruction of the acting category  who was nominated and who should have been

A still from Bombshell.

Judy, Harriet and the year of solid, reliable biopics

Enter Renée Zellweger in Judy, giving the kind of “holy shit” performance that fires on every cylinder imaginable. Judy is a biopic inasmuch as it shows us both Judy Garland’s early and late career, but it’s much more a story of fame and addiction than it is your average Oscar hagiography. As far as impersonations go, all of Garland’s late-in-life gestures and articulations are present front & center, but there’s never a moment where you’re unaware that you’re watching Zellweger perform. The myth of “disappearing into the character” leads to a lot of reverse-engineered approaches, wherein actors start out with an impression rather than building organically to a person; Zellweger gets right in the middle of that process, embodying a time in Garland’s life where her celebrity was waning, and she had trouble, well, being Judy Garland.

Zellweger strips away the gloss and lets her wrinkles do the talking; she demystifies Garland, in tug of war between the outward affects and effervescence people expect of her, and the misunderstood humanity beneath the glitz & glamour. It’s like Zellwegger is searching for Judy Garland in every scene while being torn asunder by people and pressures, unable to fully zero in on her — until she finally does, in a moving climactic sequence involving everybody’s favourite Wizard of Oz number.

Oscars 2020 A critical deconstruction of the acting category  who was nominated and who should have been

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland. Image from Twitter

Like most of the other Actress nominees, the two remaining ones turn in solid, reliable performances in solid, reliable biopics. Kathy Bates plays supporting mother to wrongly accused Richard Jewell (a brilliant Paul Walter Hauser) and it’s hard to find fault in anything she does. She brings a sense of playfulness even to dire situations (you’ll never take your kitchenware for granted again) and there’s nothing quite as “2019” as holding it together despite constant worry. Cynthia Erivo plays abolitionist Harriet Tubman in an unexpectedly mystical film — the center of some controversy — but because Harriet offers such a bizarre mix of action, melodrama and surrealism, Erivo is allowed to essentially hop between genres from scene to scene. She runs the gamut delightfully, offering rousing high after rousing high. They’re great performances, but they’re also safe. Not nominating either one would feel like the radical choice.

Who else, other than Alfre Woodard, feels missing from this lineup? Gosh, where to begin. If the Academy isn’t going to have the guts to nominate more women of colour, the least they could do is shake things up by recognizing Juliette Binoche’s sinister, sexually charged space voyage in High Life, as a doctor trying to play God at the edge of existence, or perhaps Elisabeth Moss as spiraling rock star Becky Something in Her Smell, a film that demands everything from drugged-out Shakespearean monologues at the peak of her ego, to sobering stillness as she gazes into the eyes of her daughter, wordlessly recognizing the sheer weight of her mortality.

Other actresses of colour who should have been nominated

As for the non-white performers who delivered stellar work last year, Lupita Nyong’o’s double turn in Us, in which she plays a seemingly normal mother of two as well as her twisted carbon copy, seems right up Oscar alley (whether Nyong’o’s vocal work or her disturbing physicality). Add to that the omissions of Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen in The Farewell — roles mostly in Mandarin — and a picture begins to emerge of what simple barriers the Academy isn’t willing to cross, no matter how good the work is, or how instantly relatable.

Oscars 2020 A critical deconstruction of the acting category  who was nominated and who should have been

Lupita Nyong'o in Us. Image from Twitter

Awkwafina plays an out of work Chinese American millennial in search of identity, torn between her native and adopted cultures, while Zhao plays her Nai Nai (paternal grandmother), a woman whose cancer diagnosis is being kept from her by her family. Both actors are experts at keeping secrets; Awkwafina, who shifts between English and Mandarin, is tasked with saying  goodbye to her Nai Nai without letting her emotions slip, while Zhao balances blissful ignorance with a knowing, loving wisdom that can’t betray what the actor knows, but still garners tear-jerking sympathy from her granddaughter — and from us.

If performances like these aren’t seen as worthy of recognition, then we might be asking the wrong questions come award season. Rather than an actor being good enough to deserve an Oscar, perhaps we ought to shift the power and the onus around. When a performance transcends or pushes boundaries, maybe we should ask whether it’s the Oscars that are worthy of it.

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