The recipe for a "good" performance, in the eyes of the Academy, is relatively straightforward. Grab a period costume, add some transformational makeup, and mix in a dash of a difficult-to-master accent. Weight gain/loss optional. (Unless you're a woman, in which case, you should probably do one or the other.) Gary Oldman falls neatly into this recipe: For Darkest Hour, he morphed into Winston Churchill. He didn't gain weight — it's optional for men! — but he did undergo hours in the makeup chair and much of the praise directed his way sings the tune of, "Wow! Didn't he sound and look and feel just like Winston Churchill?"
"[The make up] is so great-looking and your performance matches that, I mean, it really is remarkable," Jimmy Kimmel told Oldman just after the Golden Globes. Thus far, Oldman has a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award for the role — clearly, the recipe works. And, as of Tuesday, he's been nominated for an Oscar.
It's a performance that hinges on a really good impression, though. Oldman storms his way through an impersonation of a dead person and that's impressive, but, you know, it's still an impersonation. And impersonations are a bit like magic tricks: They look really cool, but more often they amount to just smoke and mirrors (and makeup).
Why is it that we're so invested in impersonations of dead people? Half of the appeal is certainly the historical factor — how cool! We get to watch history play out on screen! — but sometimes it feels like our only understanding of "great acting" is "really good impression," which isn't the case. For a lot of great performances, there's no historical source material involved. Timothée Chalamet didn't spend much time in the makeup chair for Call Me By Your Name. Neither did Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele's Get Out. Daniel Day-Lewis, who has done the historical dead man thing before, looked almost like himself in Phantom Thread. Denzel Washington added a pair of glasses and a new hairstyle for Roman J. Israel Esq, but he's still recognizable — and, Roman J. Israel isn't a revered historical figure. These men have all been honored with Oscar nominations this year, alongside our transformative friend Gary Oldman. What's frustrating is that Oldman will likely take the win because transformations are just so goddamn impressive.
Similarly, in the women's category, we have Meryl Streep, who played Katharine Graham in The Post. Streep has spent a lot of her career doing artful impressions of other women — you may notice that her more memorable roles have been carefully styled impressions. She last won an Oscar in 2012 for The Iron Lady, in which she played Margaret Thatcher. (Her other win was for Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980, which is not a historical drama.) Relative newcomer Margot Robbie is also nominated for an impression: For I, Tonya, she wore a pair of bangs and a thick midwestern accent to play Tonya Harding.
This isn't to say that doing a good impression isn't good acting; it's just that the two aren't mutually inclusive. And, in the din of Oscar campaigns, impressions grab the most headlines. With an impersonation, the work of the acting is more visible. On a surface level, it sure looks like Oldman is working harder than Chalamet. I mean, the guy had to wait two hours in a makeup chair! In comparison, Chalamet just had a sexy vacation in Italy. This visual imbalance creates what I'll call the "impression bias." After seeing Robbie or Streep or Oldman transform into these famous characters from history, it's harder to recognize the work in a simpler, more emotional performance.
Come March 4, Oldman will probably win the Oscar. It helps that he's a veteran and he's been nominated before (for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2012). But the winner should be Kaluuya or Chalamet, two actors whose performances elevated the films they were in — and, not to be grandiose, the film industry itself.
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