Andy Serkis as Caesar

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Andy Serkis as Caesar

February 4, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Oscar for an Ape

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As much as I love foisting my movie opinions on others, I don’t envy the jobs of Academy voters. Every year they put forth their best guesses as to what films and actors they feel stood out over the last 365 days and every year somebody somewhere will always feel their favorite piece or person has been snubbed. Unfortunately, those opinions are consistently more boisterous than the silent consent of the masses. That said, I think they’ve done a good job this year… for the most part.

Best Actress has Frances McDormand (Three Billboards)? Check. Best Director has Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk)? Check. Best Editing has Baby Driver? Check. Best Picture has all the pertinents. Everything pretty much checks out. Sure, I can see being upset that The Boss Baby grabbed a nomination in a year where the The LEGO Batman Movie got overlooked. LEGO Batman’s got a far more compelling Caped Crusader arc than either of his recent DCEU appearances.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about why the hell Andy Serkis isn’t nominated for Best Actor.

Andy Serkis plays, and yes he “plays,” Caesar, the lead ape in War for the Planet of the Apes, the final chapter in the acclaimed Planet of the Apes trilogy. War, on its own, is a good enough film to get its lead actor nominated for some serious hardware, but it’s Serkis’ particularly poignant performance in the emotional resolution of the series that makes his Oscars snub all the more infuriating. On top of that, the Academy had the gall to ask him to present the nominees alongside Tiffany Haddish (who could soon make an argument for her own Oscar-worthiness). I mean what is that? An acknowledgement the Academy knows he should be considered? A backhanded insult to his “lower-tier” medium? Ugh.

If you’re not familiar, Andy Serkis is a “mocap” performer. What that means is that he dons a technical bodysuit and acts out scenes for his characters which are then animated in post-production. And you’ve almost certainly seen him before! He’s lent his motions and speech to Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Snoke in the two most recent Star Wars films. He’s also ventured into more “traditional” acting with a recurring role (Ulysses Klaue) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The fact is, if Serkis had played humans throughout his career he’d be a household name but since he choose a different path — rising to the top of mocap performing — he’s more likely referred to as “that little fella from LoTR” or even “the dude in the monkey suit.”

Too often people think Serkis’ craft is below that of the Jack Nicholsons and Tom Hankses of the world, but I’d ask them why? What do actors lend to their roles but their voices, mannerisms and expressions? The CGI people who “dress” Serkis after his performances aren’t changing his voice. They aren’t changing his movements either! Serkis’s performance retains levels of emotional nuance through the filter of computer editing that most other actors consistently fall short of. If you don’t believe me, look up some videos that show his performance before and after his computerized transformation — it’s still him behind the pixels. People don’t fall in love with Serkis’ characters because of his CGI team’s work (not that the CGI people aren’t themselves awe-inspiring), but rather because of the strength of his acting.

His lack of nomination isn’t a one-off problem either. This is a symptomatic flair up from an organization that’s been historically behind the eight-ball on changing with the times. With just how much the technology “behind” Serkis’ performances has advanced, we’re at the point where it’s equatable to plain old costuming and makeup. Caesar the ape hardly looks any more real or fake than a human Woody Harrelson in War for the Planet of the Apes. In the new movie, Serkis serves up a performance as impactful as anyone on the nomination list. He delivers such bitter sadness and unbridled rage throughout the performance that at times it’s hard not to feel connected with what, in reality, is a fictional monkey. As has been said about so many great actors in convincing roles, Serkis disappears.

Gary Oldman’s going to win Best Actor for his role in Darkest Hour — which is fine, he’s great in the movie — but why do we draw the line at the actor’s transformation taking place before the cameras start rolling? The acclaimed Brit was entirely unrecognizable in the film. I’d venture to say an uninformed observer would have about the same chance’s matching Oldman’s face to Churchill’s as you would matching Serkis’ to Caesar’s. Darkest Hour’s makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji’s work was incredible but I still can’t wrap my head around why we’re giving it so much more valence than what War for the Planet of the Apes’ CGI team achieved. Both films were headlined by men that delivered transcendent performances through what, at the end of the day, are both “costumes,” so why is only one of them being considered for the award?

I understand the flip-side of this argument: “Serkis’ performances aren’t complete without a hefty dose of CGI.” And that’s fair! But can we really tell ourselves that Oldman’s role was complete without a fatsuit and record time spent in a makeup chair? Can we really say any role is complete without an army of directors, cameramen and other artists all pouring their time and effort to it? Oldman will win the award because he “became” Winston Churchill. So why shouldn’t Serkis be considered for “becoming” an ape? Isn’t that, on some level, even more impressive?

I’ve heard the more mild “well maybe they’ll make a Best Motion Capture category” solution and I think it’s bullshit. That’s just another way to discount what people like Serkis do so unbelievably well as somehow “lesser.” Acting is the art of becoming someone, or something, else and Andy Serkis is one of the best in the business, so why isn’t he being treated like it?

 

Nick Smith is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nsmith@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.