Thursday, September 4, 2008

Not-Thin To Win?

The next President of the United States is still in doubt, but thankfully there are some things we can count on. Hilary Swank’s third Oscar win for Best Actress, for example. Swank, the Academy Award winner for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, isn’t hyped to be a contender in this year’s race, but recently she signed on to a project that’s almost certain to provide her with another golden statuette – the film adaptation of Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat. True, the movie is still in development, and thus not a single frame of footage has been shot, but at this point it looks as if the only thing standing between Swank and Katharine Hepburn’s doorstep are a few boxes of Krispy Kremes.

Confused? According to reports first generated by E! Online, Swank is planning to gain 20 to 30 pounds for her performance in French Women in an effort to look, well, more American, I suppose. Whether the added weight will simply add some curve to her “alarmingly thin frame” or actually make her appear fat remains to be seen. But what’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt is that every trip Swank makes to Cold Stone from now until shooting begins only enhances her chances of taking home Best Actress gold.

See, physical transformation plays big in Hollywood, especially where women are concerned. Of the past 10 Best Actress Oscars, only two have gone to actresses for roles that allowed them to look nearly as sexy onscreen as they can appear off: Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich and Reese Witherspoon in Walk The Line. The other eight have gone to actresses who muted their beauty and/or made other significant physical transformations: Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare In Love (wears a mustache); Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (morphs Teena Brandon into Brandon Teena); Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball (sheds her Revlon); Nicole Kidman in The Hours (adds Virginia Woolf’s shnozz); Charlize Theron in Monster (two words: Aileen Wuornos); Swank in Million Dollar Baby (bulked up into a boxer’s body); Helen Mirren in The Queen (two more words: Queen Elizabeth); and Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (her aging Edith Piaf looks like the ghastly vision of Large Marge in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure).

The above list isn’t meant to outright discount or otherwise diminish any specific performances. It’s meant to point out a trend. Since 2000, the Oscar for Best Actress has gone to the performer who – in comparison to her fellow nominees – most altered her physical appearance every time but once: Witherspoon’s win against Felicity Huffman’s performance in Transamerica. (The only other year it’s debatable is when Berry’s haggard look trumped Renee Zellweger’s plump personification of Bridget Jones.)

Which brings us to today’s Question For Which There Isn’t One Correct Answer: What’s the best way to measure great acting? Transformation, no doubt, is a key component, as it’s essential that we lose sight of the actor and believe in the character in front of us. But in many of the above cases, the most remarkable transformation was a product of excellence in the makeup trailer, not in front of the camera. Then again, it would be unfair to dismiss the responsibility of the actress to fill out her appearance. Acted poorly, Kidman’s credibility in The Hours is hindered by the Virginia Woolf proboscis instead of helped, for example.

Thus we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that those aforementioned winning performances have something else in common: an unusual complexity of character (actresses so often being unfortunately reduced to scenery). Still, when an actress is awarded for a relatively unglamorous portrayal, it’s difficult to keep from wondering if it’s the performance that’s being honored or if in actuality what’s being rewarded is the daring of the actress in shedding the very thing that Hollywood most appreciates: external beauty.

That news of Swank’s forthcoming weight gain should bring this hardly-original debate to the surface right now is serendipitous, because from here it’s only a tiny hop to the biting commentary of Tropic Thunder’s controversial Simple Jack construct, which has also been on my mind. Though that film explicitly mocks actors who play handicapped characters in an effort to get some awards-season recognition, Tropic Thunder perhaps also implicitly mocks any of us who reward such overly affected performances with equally over-the-top praise.

Which brings me to these questions: Sean Penn’s performance in I Am Sam is often considered repugnant, but not Tom Hanks’ turn in Forrest Gump. Why? Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in My Left Foot is considered one of the best of all time, yet Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn in Rain Man is now often met with disdain. Why? If the previous statements are true, is the fault actually found in Penn or Hoffman’s performances? Or did Hanks and Day-Lewis simply have more respectable (and more respectful) material to work with?

But let’s get back to Swank. That she’s a two-time Academy Award winner (based on as many nominations) is hard to fathom, in part because – despite her hardware – she doesn’t appear to be coveted by moviegoers or moviemakers. Yet her victorious performances were hardly undeserving of acclaim: in Boys Don’t Cry she’s as emotionally convincing as physically so, and while her win for Million Dollar Baby was almost certainly boosted by a respect for the tremendous dedication required to build a boxer’s body, her acting was equally determined. You can debate her Oscar wins, but she’s a fine actress, certainly, with a long career left.

Then again, if the above prediction proves true and Swank becomes only the second three-time Best Actress winner (Hepburn won it four times), her Oscar collection will suggest a level of legendary excellence among her era that would be misleading. And that’s why I hope the only way Swank gets recognized for French Women Don’t Get Fat is if her acting carries more weight than her In-N-Out augmented hips.


Craig said...

I'm not sure if it's more fun or depressing to guess how the Oscars are going to go well in advance, but I take unreasonable pride from years ago predicting that Tom Hanks would win for Philadelphia almost a full year before the film was released. (There was an article written about it for my local newspaper.) Mind you, this was back when Hanks was known primarily as a comic actor, with only one prior nomination (for Big) and a whole slew of duds to his credit (The Bonfire of the Vanities, The 'Burbs), so his win wasn't as foregone a conclusion as it may seem in retrospect.

This serves as a good segue into your question about Forrest Gump (and other films), for which of course Hanks won again the following year, and is fashionable these days to pan. I still love the picture, though. Hanks's best moment, maybe his finest as an actor, is his expression when he learns that he's the father to Jenny's son; so many emotions are conveyed in his eyes, yet in a way that's entirely consistent with the character. It's more than not going "full retard"; he seems to be playing Forrest as a human being, whereas in I Am Sam, Sean Penn (pre-Mystic River) appears to be rather nakedly going for awards. It's the difference between depicting a person and an array of tics.

I'm not as sold about Hilary Swank on this particular role as you are: I think that many of the actresses you cited won as much due to playing "real" people (and Reese Witherspoon can be included in this) as altering their physiques. Still, has there even been an award-winning actress with a weirder career than Swank's? She's so limited and forgettable in so many roles (and in The Black Dahlia, embarrassingly miscast), yet she's captured lightning in a bottle twice, so a third time -- who knows?

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: OK, so the Swank pick is a longshot. But there's evidence behind it, that's for sure. Though I should note that I think last year's win for Cotillard was a bit of a fluke. I've gotta think votes were split for the new girl on the block (Ellen Page) and the veteran (Julie Christie). Cotillard slid in.

As for Swank, you say it perfectly. Although ... I think she's terribly miscast in "The Black Dahlia," and I liked her anyway. Perhaps even because of it. Well, that and because "The Black Dahlia" has so little going for it in general.

Liked your comments on Hanks. I was actually in the minority as someone who didn't care for "Forrest Gump" when it first came out. But lately I've been having an urge to explore it again. Your comment will almost certainly provide that final push.