Acting is perhaps the most difficult aspect of cinema to quantify. It’s extremely tough to accurately describe what makes one performance good, or so much better than another. Even critics struggle with this, especially in contrast to, say, detailing a movie’s script or cinematography. What seems achingly moving to one person may seem blank to another, and we see this in practice with the Academy’s choices of best-acting winners. Subtler works, less scene-stealing fare, is seldom awarded. They tend to gravitate towards louder, more bombastic efforts. Think lots of monologues, maybe a tough accent, and a physical transformation of some kind. They want to see the acting, to see the most laborious efforts at play. It’s why biopic performances are considered Oscar bait: it’s tough to do well and they want to celebrate the work required to bring such a figure to life.
That’s not hard to understand, but it does mean that the full breadth of performance is seldom considered by the Oscars. Ensemble pieces struggle to get acting nominations, even if they fare better in other categories. Consider how “Parasite,” the Best Picture and Director winner for the 2019 season, didn’t receive a single acting nomination. It’s impossible to claim that the film would work without the performances of Song Kang-ho and company, yet they weren’t even considered possibilities for nominations. Similar fates befell the likes of “Dune” and, for this year, “The Woman King.” When ensemble films do receive acting nods, it’s usually for the flashiest performance or the ones with the most yelling (hello, Mark Ruffalo in “Spotlight.”) The Academy falls back into its tried and tested tropes, and acting suffers as a result.