Did Will Smith Deserve an Oscar Nomination?
Image: Columbia Pictures
Will Smith in 'Concussion'

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences appears to have defused the #OscarSoWhite controversy—for now. There are still no actors or actresses of color nominated in this weekend’s ceremony, but changes to the nomination and voting procedures have blunted the movement to boycott the ceremony or lodge some kind of protest.

What about viewers? Should they skip the ceremony to express solidarity with the performers they feel have been slighted? Actors I spoke with—professionals, teachers, and students—expressed dissatisfaction with this slate of nominations but also deep ambivalence about a potential protest. A boycott potentially hurts the individual performers the ceremony is designed to honor more than it helps undervalued artists gain the recognition they are striving for.

A better way to effect change might start with examining the craft of acting so that arguments about awards are informed by something more than name recognition and studio ad campaigns.

Many critics and viewers agreed that actors such as Will Smith (Concussion) and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) deserved to be nominated, especially in the relatively weak field of nominees for Best Actor. But in the wake of their anger and disappointment, an important question was left largely unasked.

That question is this: what does it even mean to deliver an Oscar-worthy performance?

Acting—unlike directing or cinematography—seems like the one part of film production we all think we are qualified to evaluate, whether or not we’re actors. But there’s got to be more to it than sleeping in a bear hide. If we’re going to honor actors and actresses for their work and artistry, and if young actors and actresses want to learn their craft from watching the masters, what should we be looking for?

Seeking answers, I asked a number of actors to talk about the performances that were nominated for an Academy Award this year, one high-visibility performance that was not, and how non-actors can recognize a great performance.

Honesty, Truthfulness, and Emotional Commitment

Carmen Lamar (One Life to Live) is both a professional stage and screen actress and Junior School Director at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where she teaches Theatre History. Three of the qualities that Lamar values in a performance are “honesty, truthfulness, and emotional commitment.”

Those elements were also prized by others I spoke with. Teal Louis-Segal Barber (Troop 491), a graduate of the Thomas Duke High School for the Performing Arts, says simply, “I look for believability.” Jacob Christian Berger, a Theater Student at Campbell University fleshes out what might make a performance believable: “[Does] the actor’s choice of dialect [and] physical movement make sense? Would a character of a certain culture, social status, et cetera, talk or move the way the actor does?”

While the actors are unanimous in emphasizing credibility as an acid-test for a performance’s acceptability, Lamar adds another important factor to what might make it award worthy—the “difficulty” of the work. “Last year Eddie Redmayne gave a wonderful performance in the The Theory of Everything, but it was Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in The Imitation Game that I feel should have received the award,” she said. “Cumberbatch’s performance was more nuanced and emotionally restrained, moving, and dramatic. Eddie Redmayne’s was more physically challenging and he is an incredibly charming actor, and therefore more noticeable.”

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Did Will Smith Deserve an Oscar Nomination?