The Oscars Have a History of Ruining Actors’ Comeback Narratives
Mar 25, 2023
Oscars season is usually a time of fierce politicking, sky-high hopes, and soul-crushing disappointment (sometimes all at once). That’s especially true for this year, which has shown some brilliant campaigning (every interview involving Ke Huy Quan or Brendan Fraser has been an automatic cry fest), some insane twists (Danielle Deadwyler not being nominated was disgraceful), and some of the tightest acting races in recent memory. Except for Ke Huy Quan racking up every Supporting Actor Award in the world (minus the BAFTAs), all the acting categories were genuinely exciting to watch, with anyone’s guess being as good as the next until the envelope is opened and the name is read out. In previous history, by the time the Oscars roll around, it’s usually a no-brainer as to who will take home the acting gongs, based on the results of the prior award shows.
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This Year’s Oscars Was All About Acting Comebacks
Image via A24
What made this year’s race even more emotionally impactful is how many of the nominees were beloved actors having either huge comebacks or reappraisals of their filmography. Brendan Fraser rose like a phoenix from the ashes, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan finally got their flowers, and Angela Bassett and Jamie Lee Curtis reminded people why they’ve been beloved figures for decades getting their time in the spotlight.
Unfortunately, if we look at previous Oscar history, they tend not to be as interested in cathartic comebacks for an actor. They instead like to go for what feels hip and new and very showy; they seem to demand either something huge and broad and easy to spot or to crown a new actor as if they’re the shiny new toy. This isn’t to say that they never hit on the truly brilliant acting when it arrives (Robert De Niro winning for Raging Bull will always be one of the best examples of “getting it right”), nor that said brilliant acting cannot also be a bold introduction (Mahershala Ali winning for Moonlight, anyone?). But more often than not, it feels like the Oscars have such a tunnel vision on fulfilling an invisible standard as opposed to going for what feels reflective of how the film world at large feels in the current moment, which contributes to their notorious reputation as stuffy and/or out of touch.
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The Oscars Have a History of Ruining Comebacks for Actors
Image Via Warner Bros.
Take two of the most heartbreaking instances of this in recent memory. First, when Sylvester Stallone was nominated for playing Rocky Balboa again in Creed, his entire narrative campaign was built around him bookending his career by going back to the role that not only launched his career but got him his first Oscar nomination as an actor. Not only that but it was framed as giving Stallone the validation from the mainstream industry he had clearly wanted for so long. Instead, the Oscars gave it to Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies, a perfectly interesting and entertaining performance in a perfectly fine middle-of-the-pack Spielberg film that is largely forgotten about now. It feels actively painful to think of the Oscars completely swerving away from crowning a living legend to instead validating an actor that nowadays feels like somebody who only occasionally feels relevant to the current landscape.
Or for even more pain, look at when they gave Sean Penn the Best Actor Oscar for Milk over Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Rourke’s narrative was markedly similar to Fraser’s: a once-promising actor with brilliant talent led astray by life’s misfortunes. Rourke’s much-publicized history of drug addiction and bad career choices added a level of dimension to his performance as Randy Robinson that wasn’t there on the page. It was a film that was actively in conversation with his legacy, and that made it all the more heartbreaking that the Academy would instead go for one of their old fallbacks and give it to an actor who played a real-life figure in a biopic. This isn’t to say that Penn was undeserving. His victory was a win for LGBTQIA+ representation in cinema, which is always something to celebrate. But that still doesn’t change that Rourke winning would have been the perfect cap on a career of dark lows and triumphant highs.
The Academy Tends to Favor Performances of Real-Life Figures
Image via Working Title Films
This speaks to a larger problem with the Oscars, which is their increased reliance on using performances of real-life people as the barometer for worthy acting. Especially in the 21st-century portion of the Oscars history, a predominant number of the Lead Acting Oscars are awarded for people playing real-life (usually legendary) people, some of the most notable examples being Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. It’s a worrying trend because it creates this myth that the only way people can judge great acting is via direct comparison, or acting as if a performance has a pre-established ideal that it must live up to in order to be considered worthy. It also feeds into the nostalgia cycle that our current culture is caught up in, where Academy members seem more prone to wanting to validate the past over paving the way for the future. “Oscar bait” used to mean costume or sensitive dramas where characters barely go outside, now it means cosplaying as a somewhat heroic dead person.
A perfect crossover of these schools of thought is in the race between Michael Keaton (for Birdman) and Eddie Redmayne (for The Theory of Everything) in 2015. Michael Keaton was riding an enormous comeback off the tails of a brilliant performance that, once again, was actively engaging with his legacy as a once great actor getting back into his groove, while Redmayne gave a studiously detailed, spitting image performance as Stephen Hawking in a film that’s the living embodiment of “Oscar bait.” Seeing as Keaton had already won previous major awards for his performance (like the Critics Choice Award and the Golden Globe), it seemed likely he would win. But Redmayne wound up winning, which in retrospect, feels textbook and dull for the Oscars to do. It doesn’t help any that Birdman has been canonized as at least one of the unique films of the 2010s, while Theory of Everything is the type of movie no one discusses unless bringing up Redmayne winning an Oscar for it.
None of this is to say that the Oscars cannot change. While much has been made about its recent rule changes for eligibility and increased membership diversity, one of the other ways it has evolved is by expanding its palette somewhat. It’s borderline unthinkable that a film like Parasite could win Best Picture or an unknown like Youn Yuh-Jung could win Best Supporting Actress even 10 years ago. But we just witnessed evidence of the Oscars throwing off their old ways. By awarding Brendan Fraser with Best Actor and Michelle Yeoh with Best Actress, they have refused to bend the knee to their old habit of looking back to the past and instead both reflect the feelings of the moment and validate the narratives and experiences of the actors who feel like they not only gave brilliant performances but provided unique empathetic insight into their own careers and lives. Let’s hope they keep the streak going next year.
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