No voice-over performance has ever been nominated for an acting Oscar. Could Scarlett Johansson‘s role as a sentient operating system in “Her” be the first? I think it very well could be; it’s unlike other off-screen performances that have come before.
Some of the most iconic performances in film have been voice-overs, from Douglas Rain as HAL 9000, to James Earl Jones as Darth Vader, to Robin Williams as Genie. The problem with most of those performances from an awards perspective is that they’re usually enhanced by means beyond the actors’ control. How much do you credit Darth Vader to Jones as opposed to the physical presence of David Crowse and Oscar-winning costume design by John Mollo. And how do we separate Williams’ charismatic voice-acting from the character animators who created Genie?
I suspect that’s the same reason motion-capture performances haven’t broken through at the Oscars. One may be impressed by Andy Serkis as Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” or Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in “Avatar,” but however faithfully their performances are represented on screen, we’re still watching CGI characters whose otherworldly qualities couldn’t have been achieved by the actors alone.
Johansson doesn’t have that problem. Her performance is all in her voice, so if you like her work there’s no one else to share the credit – except, of course, the writer and director, but all performances are influenced by writers and directors. If anything, her acting peers could be even more impressed by her ability to create such a complete character without the benefit of facial expressions or body language, and unlike HAL 9000, the sinister computer from “2001,” Johansson plays a full range of emotions.
And, heck, if Robert Redford can be an Oscar frontrunner for spending two hours on screen almost entirely without dialogue, why shouldn’t Johansson be considered for pulling off exactly the opposite acting challenge?
Standing in her way – and maybe standing in the way of the entire film – is the fact that “Her” is science fiction. Even the few genre films that do well at the Oscars are seldom embraced by the actors’ branch. Only one actor was ever nominated for the “Star Wars” films. Ditto the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. “Avatar,” “District 9,” and “Inception” didn’t earn any acting bids at all.
But “Her” could sneak around that sci-fi roadblock, because it speculates about what we might become based on where we are today, and that kind of reflection on modern society might seem more respectable to voters whose idea of sci-fi is spaceships, slimy aliens, and things blowing up real good.
“The Truman Show” was similarly speculative – prophetic, really, if you consider how it predicted the reality-TV explosion – and though it missed out on a Best Picture nomination, it did pick up bids for Director, Original Screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Ed Harris). “District 9” managed a Best Picture nod even with spaceships and aliens, largely because it was an allegory about Apartheid. “Avatar” appealed to the Hollywood elite because of its environmentalist bent.
“Her,” with its existential crises, might have lofty enough themes for Academy members to permit themselves to vote for sci-fi.
Having a cool, artistic auteur like Spike Jonze at the helm doesn’t hurt. He previously directed “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”; neither was a conventional Oscar choice, but both received multiple nominations, and the latter won Best Supporting Actor for Chris Cooper.
Jonze also wrote the film, and that’s probably his best chance for a nomination; such innovative scripts are often recognized in the screenplay races. Christopher Nolan‘s complex dream-within-a-dream structure in “Inception” earned him a writing bid. He was also recognized for his backwards narrative in “Memento.” Charlie Kaufman won for his tour of a man’s memories in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
An interesting new idea is often the key to an unconventional film like this sneaking into the writing category. I hope voters are also open to the idea of nominating the voice behind it.