The Sound of Silence at This Year’s Oscars

This post isn’t about how boring and quiet an affair this year’s Oscars are going to be, I’m saving that one for tomorrow. Rather, it’s meant to examine the rather unique trend of actors nominated for Academy Awards who are mostly or completely silent in their respective roles.

This year, we have two nominees who are completely speechless for the duration of their films, one that barely says much at all, and one who didn’t speak who I would argue deserves a nomination he didn’t get.

There’s a dichotomy in silent acting that I think warrants some exploration. On the surface, it would seem that remaining silent would be the easiest acting job you could score. After all, the voice would seem to be the primary means of portraying your ability, outside of perhaps maybe…your ability to effectively cry on demand.

But sometimes, it’s a challenge. Take our first example, Jean Dujardin from The Artist. For those of you still uninitiated, The Artist a completely silent film in the style of the first motion pictures from the early 19th century. The film  is itself meta, as its purpose is exploring that destruction of the silent film industry, and how it was replaced by “talkies.”

In the film, Dujarin speaks, we just can’t hear him. His words are sometimes translated to text on the screen, but mostly, it’s him acting  without any words at all. He has to go from an on top of the world movie star to a broken has-been, and it’s a tall order when you’re not able to speak a single audible word. I think this is a phenomenal acting challenge, and as such, Dujardin deserves an Oscar for his efforts in my estimation. I’ll avoid making a “silence is golden” pun that was almost my headline for this piece.

I’ll contrast this with the rival nomination of Gary Oldman for Best Actor Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I liked the film, I love Oldman and think he’s an incredible actor in almost everything I’ve seen him in. He played his part fine in Tinker Tailor, but to be nominated for Best Actor for it? I’m lost.

The film has Oldman as a veteran intelligence officer who aims to unravel a Russian plot within his agency. It’s a very interesting tale of espionage, but one thing I never imagined it to be was an acting challenge. Oldman’s George Smiley is as somber a soul as you can find. He speaks softly, and rarely has a hint of emotion even when confronting moles or finding out his wife has cheated on him. It’s a fine performance given the character he’s supposed to play, but one of the top acting performances of the year? I don’t understand it.

Then we move to the best supporting actor category where we have what I believe to be the biggest snub of the year. I loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the entire film was made possible by Andy Serkis as the titular ape leader, Caesar. Serkis is no stranger to mo-cap work, but this role didn’t allow him to speak a word (well, almost), and he had to convincingly portray an ape while loaded down with motion capture gear. This is far and away one of the most impressive acting challenges of the year to me.

Making an ape seem animal when you’re uh, a human is tough, but even harder is playing an ape that’s slowly becoming as smart as a human over time. If the entire process isn’t one of the toughest, most demanding roles of the year, I don’t know what is, and it’s one silent role that absolutely deserves a statue, if not a nomination.

But instead we get Max von Sydow, nominated for a relatively brief part in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the best picture nominee that no one really cared to see, and critics didn’t even like, making its appearance on the list confounding. Similarly puzzling to me is von Sydow’s nomination. He plays an old man who communicates with the film’s main character, a young boy, using only written words on a notepad.

Yes, he must look dejected at times. Sometimes exasperated. Maybe even smile once in a while. But to have him appear onscreen for half an hour and not say a single word? It’s nothing resembling an award worthy performance in this case, and when comparing it to the amount of work Serkis had to do for his silent role, it doesn’t come close.I have nothing against silent or mostly mute performances, but I don’t quite understand why some are nominated for awards and others aren’t. This year’s Oscars are going to be a quiet affair already, as it has the tamest line up of nominations I can remember seeing in years, but its obsession with silence in some performances, while choosing to overlook it in others is perhaps the strangest thing of all.

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One Comment

  1. the continual snubbing of andy serkis is seriously getting ridiculous. somebody needs to make a documentary or something showcasing these “difficult” mo-cap actors at work.

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