Thursday, March 4, 2010

New Category: Best Actor-Type-Person

Last month I was joshing about increasing the Academy Award's Best Picture nominations next year to 25, because it would be fun to have the Oscars grind out for five hours. But I just read a proposal which, if implemented, would lop off ten nominations in one fell swoop. But the reasons are far from fun-- and are as poorly thought out as my idea.

Kim Elsesser, titled a research scholar (i.e. grad student) in Women's Studies at UCLA, has proposed in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times that the acting categories go unisex. On one hand this is an intriguing idea, and would cut a big chunk off the broadcast: Supporting Actor, Director, Actor, Best Picture, boom, done, goodnight!

But Elsesser isn't interested in making a short night of it: her bent, as you can guess from her academic credentials, is that the whole notion of Actor and Actress Oscars is deeply sexist. What can I say-- aside from the fact she is wrong, and she uses some shaky logic to prop up her ideas. Out of the gate, she kicks her argument off with a vivid example:
Suppose... [the Academy] presented separate honors for best white actor and best non-white actor, and that Mr. Freeman was prohibited from competing against the likes of Mr. Clooney and Mr. Bridges. Surely, the academy would be derided as intolerant and out of touch; public outcry would swiftly ensure that Oscar nominations never again fell along racial lines.
She goes on to say gendered awards are just as discriminatory. This argument is pure equivocation: Racism does not equal sexism, and gendered categories don't equal sexism either.

Her topper occurs a few paragraphs later:
But separate is not equal. While it is certainly acceptable for sports competitions like the Olympics to have separate events for male and female athletes, the biological differences do not affect acting performances. The divided Oscar categories merely insult women, because they suggest that women would not be victorious if the categories were combined. In addition, this segregation helps perpetuate the stereotype that the differences between men and women are so great that the two sexes cannot be evaluated as equals in their professions. [italics mine]
This is a classic example of argumentum ad ignorantiam. It's an argument from personal belief, that belief being that western culture can and will instantly slip back to Jim Crow, pre-suffrage times if not for constant vigilance. So in Ms. Elsesser's mind, the Academy ballot-holding members are saying: "Oh sure, Sandra Bullock is great and all, but Matt Damon would have been so much better." Her argument also flattens the definition of acting from a whole-body, presence-based performance to a simple profession, no different than being a plumber or Speaker of the House. (oh, and BTW: does saying that the Actress categories are some kind of set-aside program for women seem a bit like self-loathing? Couldn't the opposite be true?)

There are plenty of non-gender professions with singular award categories: director, cinematographer, art direction, etc. They are singular because they are judged by output: the director's finished film, the costume designer's visual style, etc. Acting is about producing a version of one's own self. To judge a performance, you have to consider gender first, because really that's the first thing you see (this ain't radio, after all).

Having worked with actors quite often, I can say there is a big difference between the performances of male and female actors. Sure, it all comes from conceptual frameworks that are universal (Stanislavski, Method acting, etc.), but most actors build their acting instrumentation starting from the most basic framework: their own gender. And because the differences between the genders can be profound, the elements that comprise a strong performance can be as equally disparate. it's not a "stereotype" that men and women are different: they really are. Just ask any man or woman: they'll tell you.

(I'll admit this isn't always true: I just re-watched Alien (d. Ridley Scott, 1979) last night. The actors could have chosen their roles randomly, and the film would have played out pretty much the same.)

Acting is very much like a sports category, in fact, but far more egalitarian in it's division. Like curling or billiards, all about skill and prowess, not brute strength. A good performance is a good performance, and judging a performance against others in their most obvious and primary peer group is purely logical, and makes evaluation easier, more meaningful, and nuanced. It also better reflects the actor's role as an artistic interpreter of the intrinsic reality of the human condition, which, for any good actor or Academy that hands out vaguely male statues, should be job one.

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