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The Oscars vs. Regular Dudes

It’s hard out here for a normal guy: Since 2010, only three Best Actor awards have gone to performances that weren’t either based on historical figures or defined by remarkable physical transformations

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Early on in The Banshees of Inisherin, Martin McDonagh’s Academy Award–nominated black comedy, Jonjo the pub owner attempts to comfort Colin Farrell’s character, Pádraic Súilleabháin, evaluating him as “one of life’s good guys.”

Pádraic grimaces: “I used to think that’d be a nice thing to be. Now it sounds like the worst thing I ever heard.”

If you’re in the hunt for an Academy Award for Best Actor, it might not be the worst thing, but portraying “one of life’s good guys”—just an ordinary dude not based on any historical figure or sporting any sort of showy, prosthetic-heavy accoutrements of transformation—certainly makes it tougher to bring home the gold, even if you’re Farrell in one of the most nominated films of the year. On paper, it would seem that Farrell, nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, would be a lock for a win. He’s a beloved actor headlining a film boasting not only nine nominations, but also the rare feat of four acting nods. Just a few weeks ago, Banshees was even tipped as a potential spoiler for Best Picture come March 12. Alas, standing in his way are two of the exact types of performances that regularly beat out an “ordinary dude” performance at the Academy Awards.

The first is the transformation, a recognizable actor caked in prosthetics and prone to histrionics, typically preceded by a “first look” image that generates the kind of “Oh wow, I don’t even recognize them” buzz that kick-starts an Oscar campaign. These are your Gary Oldmans in Darkest Hours, your Joaquin Phoenixes in Jokers. And this year, it’s The Whale’s Brendan Fraser, whose character, Charlie, doesn’t do much more than sit on a couch and get berated by visitors, but who’s under enough silicone rubber to crush a small dog. The second is the historical figure pick, also known as a famous person playing a famous person, with bonus points added if they’re a musical artist. This is Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, and this year, Austin Butler in Elvis. While Butler is just a young buck, and while an anti-youth bias has hurt people like Timothée Chalamet or even Leonardo DiCaprio in the past, it may not matter here because people know what Elvis looked and sounded like, and Butler sure does look and sound like Elvis!

The Academy has been seduced by these kinds of performances for a while. Since 2010, only three performances that don’t fall into these two camps have taken home the Oscar for Best Actor: Jean Dujardin in The Artist, Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea, and Anthony Hopkins in The Father. And in each of those years, there bizarrely wasn’t even a real competitive analogue to these types of bait-y turns: Dujardin’s chief competition was George Clooney in The Descendants, Affleck’s was Denzel Washington in Fences, and Hopkins’s was Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, all also “ordinary dudes.” When given the opportunity, the Academy will always choose a transformation or a real-life figure over the normal guy. And on March 12, it’s likely they’ll do it again. The question is: Why?

Certainly, each win has its own context. Sure, in 2018, when Oldman beat Chalamet’s performance in Call Me by Your Name and Daniel Kaluuya’s in Get Out, it was for a makeup-heavy portrayal of a historical figure (a double whammy!). But it was also about seizing the opportunity to reward a veteran character actor, acknowledging that the young ones would have more days in the sun down the road. Indeed, three years later, Kaluuya got his win—for playing a real person. And in the case of Redmayne’s and Malek’s wins for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, respectively, it was widely reported at the time that both of them were savvy campaigners, shaking hands and kissing babies all over town in the lead-up to their eventual victories.

That still doesn’t make it less glaring that, in a year when Birdman won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography, the Academy still found a way to pass over Michael Keaton’s ordinary-dude lead performance for Redmayne’s transformation into Hawking in a far less beloved film. Or that Bradley Cooper, playing a fictional musician and doing all his own singing and playing, somehow lost to Malek, playing a real-life famous one in a performance that plays mostly like a mediocre “Lip Sync for Your Life” challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

These choices make more sense when you realize that the Academy is made up of various different branches (writers, directors, actors, craftspeople, etc.), each varying in age, gender, and racial demographics. Through that lens, it becomes a bit easier to understand how nonactors would see Bohemian Rhapsody and say, “Wow, I love Freddie Mercury, and Rami Malek looks just like him! This is acting!” It’s the same logic that would explain why the Academy overlooked any number of exceptional performances by Phoenix over the years only to finally reward him for the one in which he smears clown paint on his face, dances in a bathroom like Twyla Tharp, and sleeps in a fridge.

But the biggest branch of the Academy, by quite a margin, is, in fact, that of the actors themselves. If they’re the ones with the biggest say in the eventual winners here, shouldn’t that be reflected in the choices? Should the winners not then demonstrate a more nuanced understanding of the craft of acting, how an empathetic depiction of normal human behavior can be just as effective as a big, flashy biopic performance, if not more so?

Perhaps that’s giving actors too much credit. It’s possible they are drawn to these types of performances because they are so objectively the centerpieces of their films, the engines that drive them far more than their directors. It’s also possible that they’ve fallen prey to the cynical mimeographic tricks of a Bohemian Rhapsody or an Elvis, the ones that invite side-by-side comparisons of Malek’s performance and Mercury’s own at Live Aid, or Butler’s take on “If I Can Dream” against Presley’s 1968 comeback special. Such tricks turn the act of performance into a sort of unimaginative game of copy and paste, but they also slyly make the act of rewarding them seem more objective. The closer the comparison, the argument might go, the better the performance.

Of course, it’s also possible that other actors simply like these performances the most. And that’s valid. After all, one can remain immune to the fat-suit dramatics and goofy sentimentality of Fraser’s performance in The Whale while at the same time understanding that he’s been justifiably working on a comeback narrative all season, portraying genuine gratitude for a second act after an unjust blackballing. One could also cop to finding Butler’s Elvis turn an impressive but unmoving bit of museum waxwork imitation while simultaneously feeling excited by the prospect of a new movie star on the rise. It’s not that it’s impossible to understand the reasoning and appeal behind either of these potential wins; it’s that it’s frustrating to see these types of performances once again overshadow an “ordinary dude” performance as skillful as Farrell’s in Banshees.

Throw aside his innate understanding of the rhythms and cadences of McDonagh’s script, or even how he skillfully transitions from comedy to pathos with unmatched ease. It’s his portrayal of a good man, a benevolent, easygoing puppy dog who is slowly driven to hate and division, that forms the entire tragic crux of the film, an arc more compelling than the static soapiness and Wikipedia entry perfunctoriness of his competitors. And while there are no YouTube comparison videos of him and other real-life slightly dumb Irish guys who love their donkeys and are going through a sad time, the no-man’s-land after the end of a significant relationship is something with which surely anyone—even Academy voters—can empathize. Should said voters crave proof that Farrell can also wildly transform, they should look no further than 2022’s The Batman, in which his padded, prosthetic-caked, scene-stealing take on the Penguin plays as a sort of amalgamation of both Fraser’s performance and that of Butler’s costar Tom Hanks, and yet is somehow more engaging and entertaining than either.

All that said, this is not a piece meant to argue for a Farrell win on March 12; it’s merely one that ponders how an organization meant to champion imagination makes such consistently unimaginative choices when it comes to rewarding actors. A look back at Academy history reveals this to be a fairly recent epidemic, at least in the Best Actor category. Compared to the post-2010s count of three performances not based on a historical figure or boasting any major physical transformation, there were four from 2000 to 2009, eight in the ’90s, six in the ’80s, and a whopping nine in the ’70s. That decade alone saw rewards for such legendary film figures as The French Connection’s “Popeye” Doyle, The Godfather’s Vito Corleone, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Randle McMurphy, and Network’s Howard Beale. That’s a far cry from the Madame Tussauds exhibit this category has become since the 2010s.

There was a brief glimmer that the tide had turned on nomination morning, when Paul Mescal and Brian Tyree Henry surprised with nominations for understated ordinary-dude performances. It seemed the promise of a new generation drawn to making less bait-y but subtler, richer, and more rewarding work, as well as the possibility of an Academy ready to reward such choices. Perhaps this was a bellwether in favor of the ordinary dudes, and in turn in favor of Farrell, who was in one of the most beloved movies of the year and also seemed to be exactly the kind of actor’s actor the Academy couldn’t resist rewarding. Alas, the award gauntlet eventually left Farrell in the dust, along with his stack of critics’ wins and his Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. The race is now firmly between Butler (with his Globe and BAFTA) and Fraser (with Critics Choice and SAG awards). The cycle continues, and either the Whale or Elvis shall triumph.

But to quote Elvis himself, if I can dream of a better land, I might dream of an award season when prosthetics are locked up, biopics are shut down, and ordinary dudes run amok. Imagine the rich, interesting slate of acting nominees we might have without Freddie Mercury, Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill, and the Joker crashing the party. Perhaps, then, it might not seem so impossible for “one of life’s good guys” to take home the gold.

Kyle Wilson is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and is happiest when he’s writing about film, television, or his insatiable obsession with Joe Pesci’s performance in The Irishman. His work has appeared at Polygon and Screen Rant and you can follow him at @icanvalk.