Does anyone “deserve” an Oscar? Ben Affleck doesn’t, but some do

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Is there an “Oscar-worthy” achievement? Yes, but it’s complicated.

What makes a movie “Oscar-worthy”? The most cynical answer to this question is that it’s about campaigning, but the most troubling goes even further: The Oscars are a popularity contest, and the strongest candidates come out on top simply because ‘they’re late for recognition.

The Academy, which closes its first round of voting this week, should consider the impulses behind every vote — especially when it comes to the four performance categories, where familiar faces often benefit the most from aggressive campaigns. Should the Oscars reward actors for taking the craft in exciting new directions — or should they do it for the sake of licensed movie stars who want validation and credibility?

That seemed like the logic of George Clooney’s case for his friend Ben Affleck’s supporting turn in “The Tender Bar.” In an interview last week with Deadline, Clooney turned heads when he claimed Affleck’s performance in the film, which Clooney himself directed from the memoir of JR Moehringer, deserved a golden statue. for playing Uncle Charlie, the bar owner and literary guru. which inspires the ambitions of the young protagonist as a writer.

The problem with that claim: It hinders a legitimate argument for which movies and performances deserve Oscars because of the specific impact those wins can have on conversations about what kind of work this industry should support. Oscar wins may of course help with future employment, but they also encourage more work-like storytelling that wins. So, if you care about good movies, you should look for good favorites in each category.

These are not the measures Clooney was putting into action when he argued on behalf of Affleck. “He knows what it’s like to be at the top of the game, and he’s had some tough times too,” he said. “Some of them, as he’s said many times, were self-inflicted, but he’s a fighter, and he’s been there, and he showed up on this one of such an important and gracious way, and he did for a while, and it’s fun to see the reactions towards him, and it would be nice if the same kind of attention was paid [to the Oscars]. I think he deserves it.”

There’s a lot to unpack in there, including the possibility that Clooney really wants to express how Affleck channeled his struggles with alcoholism and difficult career moves into a socialite bartender with a rough edge. Truth be told, Affleck is the only strength of “The Tender Bar,” an otherwise routine and lovable coming-of-age story that doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression. (Clooney’s eclectic directorial career, which began 20 years ago with the bonkers “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” scripted by Charlie Kaufman, has followed its own unpredictable rocky road to rival Affleck’s creative journey, but that’s another conversation.)

“The Tender Bar”

Claire Folger/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

In any case, Affleck doesn’t “deserve” an Oscar for delivering a helpful trick in a mundane film. The Oscars can sometimes turn into a popularity contest, but that’s not the only metric by which they should be judged. The dignity of an Oscar has symbolic value for the state of cinematic storytelling at any given time. Films and performances deserve Oscars not just because they represent singular aesthetic achievements, but because an Oscar win can actually catalyze positive change for the creative forces involved.

Affleck has gone down this route twice now, dating back to his memorable Best Screenplay win with Matt Damon for 1998’s “Good Will Hunting” and continuing with his Best Picture win for “Argo” (although snubbed for Best Director, Affleck has won as producer, sharing the prize with…George Clooney). Based on his rigorous campaigning, Affleck is serious about winning a third trophy, but he’s obviously a dedicated performer who will be fine with it or without it.

It’s also worth noting that his top performance in 2022 was the hedonistic Count trying to manipulate a medieval #MeToo storyline in Ridley Scott’s underrated “The Last Duel.” Adorned with a blonde goatee and a demented smile, the actor turns the potential of a scenic medieval drama into a dark comedy. A win there would at least prove that the industry wants to see that kind of adventurous swing even if it turns out to be box office poison. (Affleck himself admitted that “The Last Duel” would have been better suited as a straight-to-stream version.)

As for “The Tender Bar,” the proverbial “it’s his time” argument that comes up for veteran performers in Oscar campaign mode is a bit specious, largely because it contrasts so much with suitors who fit more naturally to this argument.

power of the dog

“The Power of the Dog”

By way of contrast, two women come to mind whose nomination prospects aren’t as firm as they should be: Kristen Stewart and Penelope Cruz. In “Spencer,” Stewart delivers a compelling performance as Princess Diana that transcends the obvious appeal of a copycat and instead takes the form of a poetic meditation on the representational power of woman as a resolute figure ready to overthrow the powerful hierarchy that surrounds him. It’s a captivating turn rich in ambiguity, a trait it shares with Cruz in Pedro Almodovar’s poignant meditation on the Spanish Civil War.

Cruz is so intertwined with Almodovar’s filmography that it is essentially an extension of his artistic ambition; with “Parallel Mothers”, she is the conduit that takes this disturbing tale of motherhood and intergenerational romance into a deeper rumination on the repression at the center of Spanish identity. These performances deserve Oscars (hell, make it a tie!) because they show the potential for film performance to work in tandem with the art behind the camera, as opposed to the case of “The Tender Bar,” where Affleck’s pleasant turn stands out like a sore thumb from conventional narrative beats.

“Parallel Mothers”

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

Of course, like Affleck, Cruz has already won an Oscar. That shouldn’t negate its timeliness in this particular case for another reason: not enough people have seen “Parallel Mothers.” The film flopped in theaters amid the Omicron wave last December, a final reminder that – like Campion – Almodovar’s status as one of our greatest working filmmakers is never enough to guarantee an audience for his work. It’s a great struggle to make films like this, and they need all the help they can get to stand out.

Which brings us to “Nightmare Alley”. Guillermo del Toro’s brooding rumination on a classic pulp novel finds Bradley Cooper as a Depression-era charlatan on a self-destructive path to self-improvement. It’s a peculiar film to follow del Toro’s Oscar juggernaut “The Shape of Water,” in part because it trades the ethereal romanticism of that crowd pleaser for more unseemly observations of male power and manipulative impulses at the root of modern society. However, he shares that DNA with “The Power of the Dog,” and both films essentially boil down to a very bad man facing his sins with karmic justice of the best kind.

In del Toro’s film, the narrative weapon at play is a career-best performance from Bradley Cooper, whose face in the final shot stands out as one of the best on-screen actors of the past year. Cooper had a tough time on the campaign trail for ‘A Star Is Born,’ where he showed tremendous talent behind the camera, but tops his performance there with this grimy, unsentimental turn — proof that even the Rich and famous artists can take dangerous turns at uncertain material and emerge unscathed. Hollywood would be better off if more of them tried.

Or can they? In the wake of the film’s box office failure (and ahead of its incredible black-and-white re-release last week), Cooper said in a recent interview with KCRW that economic developments in the industry have brought him to wonder about his career prospects in the industry.

Yes, Cooper has already finished his next directing credit (the Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro”) and it’s hard to imagine he really needs to launch some big commercial hits to support this stage of his career, but the message stings nonetheless: it’s hard to justify difficult hardware when so much of the world turns its back. If there was one worthy performance that deserved an Oscar, it might be this one, if only to prove that sentiment wrong.

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