Leo at least had the benefit of Hawks’ hermit like status. A life spent in the comfort of hotel rooms around the world, his feet firmly planted on the ground, albeit in tissue boxes. This distance created by time and lack of technology is the same reason the present-day greats shun interviews. Anonymity allows for range in the eye of the public. A public that feels they know you have far less patience or interest in exploring your range, not matter how much said actor might want to tackle Shakespeare or Dogma. We really know nothing of Meryl Streep or Morgan Freeman’s personal lives and both actors have blossomed under its guise, each expanding their range as frequently as the changing seasons.
While any actor worth their salt will inform you judging performances against one another for the purposes of determining which is best is fruitless, the recent string of bio-Oscars is remarkable: the aforementioned Mr. Penn earlier this year, last year’s best actress winner, Marion Cotillard, for her earth-shattering performance of famed French singer Edith Piaf. 2006 saw both top acting nods go to performances of well known political figures: Forrest Whitaker’s Idi Amin, Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth the Deuce. As did 2005, though politics were substituted for the arts when Reese Witherspoon and Phillip Seymour Hoffman stole the show for portraying June Carter and Truman Capote respectively. The trend continues the following year in 2004 as Jamie Foxx swayed his way to Oscar glory for his spot-on rendition of Ray Charles. Rounding out the first decade of our bright new century, the ladies turned the trick (uh…) three of the previous four years with Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts all captivating audiences and voters alike in their performances of real people, though to be fair, two of the three were not well known until they were immortalized on the silver screen (Theron portrayed Aileen Wuornos to devastating effect in Monster; Kidman took on literary royalty by dawning nose prosthetic to bring Virginia Woolf to life; while Hollywood’s top grossing star of all-time brought home the gold for portraying rabble-rouser Erin Brokovich). Outside of Kidman’s Virginia Woolf, all these actors benefited, or could have is they so chose, from existing visual and audio documentation, if not first hand accounts of the subjects they were playing.
As Sunday’s Oscar splendor turned to Monday morning quarterbacking, newspapers, radio call-ins and the ever-so-charming internet blog were awash with the teeming frustration surrounding what seems the alarming, though not unhistorical by any means, reality that what brings acting glory is no longer the tried and tested portrayal of the mentally or physically handicapped, but of someone already famous. More famous than even the famous person shedding their own fame temporarily to hone and reenact the fame of their more famous counterpart.
The metaphor of Mount Olympus to represent Oscar is fitting as the debate stretches back to the ancient Greeks, the first thespians, and thus, the first highly opinionated audiences. Old Philosopher King Plato himself sounded off on the subject, condemning pantomime or “imitation” as a lowly form of art, though this was in reference to all acting not just performances based on the previously lived. However, the grand theatrical tradition survived these early critiques of its value and has thrived, for better or worse, into the business we know today. Beyond economics, acting has become a culture of its own, among the most aspired-to professions for young and old throughout the world. Everyone knows an actor, whether employed as such or not, and everyone has entertained fantasies of the like themselves at some point. But beyond the obvious allure of fame, there is a deeply rooted profession, taken extremely seriously by those whose job it is to walk onstage night after night, or in front of the cameras at 3 a.m. in petulant Vancouver.