‘The BFG’: Will Mark Rylance make Oscar history with first nominated motion-capture performance?

Andy Serkis has been the godfather of motion-capture performances for 15 years now, with the British character actor turning in, what I believe to be, a string of Oscar-worthy performances. From Gollum to Caesar and Smeagol to King Kong, Serkis’ snubs (particularly for Best Supporting Actor for “The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers” as Gollum/Smeagol) rank as some of the academy’s biggest oversights ever.

While Serikis may have been overlooked repeatedly, another British-based actor, Mark Rylance, might well reap a bid for his portrayal of “The BFG” in Steven Spielberg‘s film version of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story. Rylance, who portrays the eponymous hero via motion capture, is re-teamed with Spielberg, who directed him to an Oscar last year for “Bridge of Spies.”

A kid’s story it may be, but an easy performance it is not. The role of the Big Friendly Giant has all the ingredients of an Oscar winner: a social outcast, a simple yet intelligent being, a campaigner for the wellbeing of children. It sounds like the sort of part Sean Penn or Tom Hanks would go for. And Rylance’s performance has generated rave reviews.

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Stephanie Zacharek (Time) notes that Rylance is the film’s “secret weapon,” with the film’s intimacy being created mainly by the actor “winning us over in a heartbeat.” Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) calls Rylance’s work “faultless,” with a performance “both subtly nuanced and truly monumental.” And A.O. Scott (New York Times) says Rylance is the best thing about the film as “his unique blend of gravity and mischief imbues his fanciful character with a dimension of soul.” These are reviews that could be applied to many an Oscar-winner, including Rylance’s own performance last year.

And with the pedigree of Rylance in the role (he’s also won three Tony Awards) perhaps the academy will become more open-minded to recognizing motion-capture performances. Let’s hope so, although I am a little torn about this. On one hand, I desperately want the Oscars to finally regard these on the same level as ‘normal’ ones and nominate Rylance. But on the other, I want it to be Serkis who receives the first Oscar nomination for a ‘mo-cap’ performance. But, of course, any nomination would mean progress and I am sure Serkis would be the first to champion the academy for rewarding any mo-cap performance and stepping into the 21st Century at last. Will this be the year? I for one hope so.

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Some argue that the academy should create a separate category for mo-cap/voice-over work. I believe this is the wrong choice. Firstly, an Oscar should be a coveted thing. Introducing two more (or even four if there are male and female categories as with the current acting classifications) categories would mean handing out Academy Awards far too easily. Why not include voice-over and mo-cap work in the existing categories and make them even more competitive?

That is, of course, my humble opinion, as I take the same stance as Serkis  – that a motion-capture performance is entirely that of the actor and visual effects artists are merely painting digital make-up onto the actor. Essentially, the visual prosthetics (the sickly yellow skin for Gollum, the fur for Caesar etc.) is aiding the actor’s performance just as Nicole Kidman’s fake nose helped her Oscar-winning turn in “The Hours.”

Perhaps I am painting this subject a little too black and white. There are certainly more colorful opinions out there on this matter that believe motion capture and voice-over work are not of the same calibre or acting achievement as ‘normal’ performances (i.e., performances without digital make-up). Others believe that the visual effects artists deserve just as much credit, if not more, as the actor for the performance. And I completely agree with that latter approach, so why not nominate both?

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“The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers” won the Visual Effects Oscar, so those artists were rewarded as they should have been. But the complexity of the Gollum/Smeagol character, each flutter of an eyelid, each smirk and facial expression, every intonation in the genius voice and every crawl along the rocks – that belongs to Serkis.

Yes, the effects are still there and yes, another actor could fill in, but without Serkis, that character would never have come to life in the way that it did. His work in that film (which, by the way, if you wanted evidence of Serkis’ physical acting, watch the DVD extras and you’ll see his commitment and talent in abundance) has stayed with us ever since we first laid eyes on that creeping son of a bitch Gollum and that sweet little guy Smeagol.  The five Oscar nominees for Best Supporting Actor in 2003 (the year of “The Two Towers”) were:

Chris Cooper, “Adaptation” (winner)
Ed Harris, “The Hours”
Paul Newman, “Road to Perdition”
John C. Reilly, “Chicago”
Christopher Walken, “Catch Me If You Can”

While all five performances are good ones, have any of them had the staying power or cultural and social impact of  Serkis’ Gollum/Smeagol? I think not.

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Some awards groups have been kinder to mo-cap and voice over work then the academy. BAFTA nominated Eddie Murphy in 2001 for Best Supporting Actor for his voice-only performance in “Shrek, which shows a willingness to reward deserving work. And Johnny Depp was nominated by BAFTA for Best Actor in 2003 for the first “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which did include some ‘visual make-up’ in the final scenes as Captain Jack Sparrow was transformed into a skeleton by visual effects artists. But the BAFTAs have repeatedly snubbed Serkis and, more recently, Scarlett Johansson for “Her,” though she did contend at the 2013 Critics’ Choice Awards.

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