Why Don't We Score Acting Like We Do Sports?

by Jeremy Keehn

There was a moment, early on filming day for the pivotal scene in Barney’s Version, when Paul Giamatti looked to me like an athlete preparing for a big game. As nattily dressed extras milled around the ballroom of Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, Giamatti, freshly planted in your father’s powder-blue tux, stood by the breakfast table around the corner. The producer, Robert Lantos, greeted him, and the two chatted a bit about the day ahead. Then Lantos, an imposing Hungarian-Canadian, abruptly gripped Giamatti’s shoulders, straightened him up, and gave him what looked like a Knute Rockne–style pep talk. Win one for the Richler, kid.

With that, Giamatti strode to the ballroom, where he spent the next few hours living out the moment when Barney Panofsky meets the love of his life (Rosamund Pike) at his wedding to his second wife (Minnie Driver). At an incongruous hour, Giamatti was pretending to be many things he was emphatically not: drunk, Jewish, a narcissist, a Montreal Canadiens fan, furious at his bride’s father, and totally besotted. Over and over, I watched him amble toward Pike and affect with complete, boozy certainty that she was the most fascinating woman in the world.

Standing between us was a few Internets’ worth of distraction — cameras, monitors, booms, director and ADs, plus your usual assortment of gaffers, best boys, key grips and exospherically high Oompa Loompas. Not to mention Driver, who watched the last take of the morning unfold on a screen, then leapt up, bridal curls in full bungee, and exclaimed “Horrible! Awful!” a dozen or so times on behalf of her wronged character. I couldn’t help but smile; Giamatti had clearly scored.

This was a few years ago, in 2009. Back then, the PR people touring me around the set were hopeful that their production of a beloved Canadian novel might garner some attention from the Academy. Its source material had the bona fides: the original Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler’s last and most entertaining book, contains plenty of Oscar bait, including rich evocations of Jewish Montreal, 1950s Paris (changed in the film to 1970s Rome), anti-Semitism, romantic immorality, and terminal mental illness. And the film had Giamatti, the thinking person’s actor, a literate Yalie with many character parts to his credit, who should have been nominated for 2004’s Sideways, was nominated as a supporting actor for 2005’s Cinderella Man, and might have been, by the peculiar logic of the Academy Awards, due.

I’ve only been on film sets a few times, but I thought I could sense, watching Giamatti drop in and out of Barney, what made him Oscar-worthy. Nothing fazed him: not last-minute changes to shots, not a lengthy delay inspired by another actor’s antics, not people walking across his sightline off camera (a hanging offence for the hapless Loompa who drifted across anyone else’s). If this was a game, Giamatti was like Wes Welker, nimbly fielding pass after pass.

A year and a half later, I watched Giamatti’s performance in a downtown Manhattan cinema and still thought I saw an award-worthy performance buried in a very busy film. The Golden Globes agreed the following week, handing him their award for Best Actor in a Comedy. The Oscars, meanwhile, passed him over, short-listing Javier Bardem, Jeff Bridges, Jesse Eisenberg, Colin Firth, and James Franco instead. I wanted to call bullshit. I mean, come on. James Franco? He wasn’t even the star of 127 Hours — Danny Boyle’s split screen was.

If I wanted to make a convincing argument for Giamatti, though, it would be tough to know where to start. Go Google-hunting for the criteria the Oscar’s “multi-branch” committees use to create their shortlists, and you won’t find much of anything. Spend a little time on Rotten Tomatoes, sifting through the top critics’ takes on 2010’s best actors and actresses, and you won’t fare much better. With few exceptions, even the best reviewers point mostly to physical appearance, or lean on flimsy adjectives like talented, charismatic, affecting, convincing, and the ever-lame tour de force. You can find out from Roger Ebert that Jennifer Lawrence “embodies a fierce, still center” in Winter’s Bone, but not how she does so, or what a lesser actress might have done in her place. You can hear from Kenneth Turan that Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush add “unlooked-for layers to a complicated human relationship,” but not what those layers are or how they add them. Anthony Lane’s review of Biutiful will teach you plenty about Javier Bardem’s strengths as sculpture, but precious little about his talents as a thespian.

This makes a certain sense: go back to the granddaddy of acting texts, Stanislavky’s An Actor Prepares, and you find the great director Tortsov giving a rehearsal of Othello his highest praise: “You who were playing, and we who were watching, gave ourselves up completely to what was happening on stage. Such successful moments, by themselves, we can recognize as belonging to the art of living a part.” If you’re a reviewer in thrall to a great performance, then your absorption naturally makes it hard to describe what you’ve seen afterward. Factor in word counts and the churn of deadlines, and no wonder we end up with so many tours de force.

But you won’t learn much about craft by trying to decode the Academy’s choices, either, though they were presumably scrutinized and debated at length. Patterns emerge quickly when you look at past nominees: the Academy adores above all the defamiliarizing leap (Charlize Theron’s hideous serial killer in Monster and Sean Penn’s mentally handicapped father in I Am Sam are the two strangest recent examples). To this it adds the great actor at his actingest (Pacino in Scent of a Woman), the overdue (Pacino again), the well liked (Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side), the bankable (Franco), and the obscenely pretty (I’m looking at you, Javier Bardem… why can’t I stop looking at you?). Filmsite’s exhaustive breakdowns emphasize the importance of the role: it helps to play a real person, or someone who dies, or someone with a disability or disease. It helps men to play old, and women to play young, or better yet to play a young floozy. It helps both to be white.

Perhaps, then, it’s time the Oscars began adopting metrics. In the acting categories, they might score basic markers of quality like range, depth, intensity, subtlety and bearing, then factor in more complex ideas like strength of cast or degree of difficulty. Still a subjective and flawed method, no doubt — I read that Malcolm Gladwell article, too — but better fodder for argument than we have now. (And though they would start out imprecise, the metrics would no doubt improve over time: hell, with video game, animation and robotics companies hard at work bridging the Uncanny Valley, we might not be far from outright measuring emotional affect. When that day arrives, I’ll be ready to get rich with my network of fantasy acting leagues. It’ll suck even harder to be this guy, though.)

Consider this divisive nominee in the best supporting actor category, for example: “It’s a measure of Christian Bale’s brilliant performance that the viewer can’t look anywhere else when ‘Dicky’ is on screen,” writes Joyce Carol Oates of The Fighter, exactly right save for the word brilliant. You could fairly give Bale a 10 for intensity, sure, but you’d have to balance it with a -105 for subtlety.

I’m not a statistician or a film critic, and I’ve never studied acting, so I’m hardly the person to create an elaborate system. As a fan, though, I’d enjoy making use of one. I watched or re-watched most of the year’s nominated and snubbed performances with the idea of a system in mind, and I thought it helped me better appreciate what actors do. For depth, Nicole Kidman, Michelle Williams and Colin Firth stood out. For range, Ryan Gosling and Kidman again. For intensity, Jesse Eisenberg, Jennifer Lawrence and Williams. For subtlety (i.e., best straight face during a gratuitous imagined lesbian scene), Natalie Portman.

In scrutinizing these qualities, I felt I got a sense of their component parts, too. Depth, for instance, depends heavily on how much an actor gets across in a glance. In The King’s Speech, Firth must repeatedly convey a singular pain; by the end of the film, his Stammering Prince Look is as recognizable to the viewer as the Art Shell Face is to an Oakland Raiders fan. You can practically see the imperial tonnes of pressure piled onto Firth’s quivering lip and terrified eyes. So yes, a 10 for depth. As powerful as the SPL is, though, the role doesn’t demand much range — I’d give it a 6 at most. (Really, they could have called the film The King’s Stutter, but I guess you don’t call attention to a one-note song by calling it “C.”) Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole was more of a LeBron-style cross-category killer, showing depth and range. Over the course of the movie, she’s at turns bitter, angry, sad, tender, near-crazy and then, finally, hopeful. And during her freighted conversations with the teenage boy who accidentally killed her son, she’s often several of them at once. An 8, easily, in each category.

When I watched Barney’s Version a second time, I still found Giamatti compelling, but felt I’d need a multiplier for degree of difficulty to make my case for him. There are certainly moments when he’s great by traditional measures — he’s Kidman’s equal at the moment when, in the aftermath of his first wife’s suicide, her father shows up in Rome. Up until her death, the movie’s tone has been exclusively comic, the girl, Clara, a stock banshee bent on emasculating Barney at every quip. When her father starts to ramble on about her long history of emotional problems, though, the camera cuts to Giamatti, and his expression starts to change. Barney recognizes something in the man’s evasion, and Giamatti’s gradual shift to pained incredulity tells you everything you need to know about Clara’s abusive upbringing, moments before the script hammers it home.

At other times, though, he’s in Bale territory. Through the first two-thirds of the movie, he’s given only a few brief, sporadic incidents to convey the onset of Barney’s dementia, and then suddenly he’s trashing a room because he forgot a phone number. Given that the film skitters across four decades, two continents, and three female leads, his performance simply can’t be as smooth as Firth’s. Where The King’s Speech is about one problem, Barney’s Version covers a half dozen, meaning Giamatti has the harder job: bringing cohesion to a complicated movie by finding and maintaining an emotional core. I’d rate the performance above average on the basics, but then I’d multiply for the challenge of playing Barney at different ages, in different locations, opposite different actresses, etc. etc. etc. Let’s see… (8 + 8 + 7 + 6) × 1.47 × 1.31 ×… carry the… fractals… well, I respect numbers, but like I said, I’m no mathemastician.

I want to call one in, though. I’d like a little more backup to help me explain why, the first time I saw Barney confess to the love of his life, Miriam, that he had cheated on her, I felt such deep empathy with the film that I spent its last twenty minutes thinking about my own life and loves. That scene felt to me like the full Stanislavsky: best acting because it no longer seemed like acting at all. I was satisfied then with the subjective experience of giving myself over to what was happening onscreen, but with the Oscars upon us and Giamatti not in the game, I want to see the numbers. I swear it ought to be him over Franco and Firth. For now, I’ll just say he was tour de forcer.

Jeremy Keehn is acting like a writer RIGHT NOW. He used to act like an editor at The Walrus. He pretends to blog here.

Photo credit: Takashi Seida/Sony Pictures Classics