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It's still a little early for me to start my regular awards column Oscar Eye, which will be kicking off in about a month when the fall festival season begins in earnest. But it's hard to avoid chiming in on what's quickly becoming the most talked-about, and probably the best, performance of the year, not to mention the trickiest to consider in terms of awards potential. I'm talking about Andy Serkis as Caesar, the brighter-than-average chimpanzee who is the heart and soul of this weekend's big box office winner Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Any review you read, including our own, will tell you that Serkis's performance is a huge reason to see the movie, and once again the actor who created Gollum and King Kong has used motion-capture technology to provide an animated character with that trickiest of character traits: a soul.
And as happens when anybody gives a performance that stands up and makes you pay attention, the Oscar buzz has already started, albeit mostly online. Before we go any further with this, I have to say it: Serkis will never be nominated for this role. Based on a very informal poll on our Facebook page it seems many of you agree with me that he should be, and think he was overdue for a nod as Gollum anyway (a nomination that, it should be noted, New Line tried hard for). But the reason Serkis will be snubbed again is a pretty simple one: The Academy, the group of people that votes on the Oscars, is made up of a lot of actors. And actors, for reasons both valid and petty, still greatly mistrust motion-capture.
If you want to read more about the issue, In Contention-- an invaluable Oscar site-- has summed up the reasons a Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor campaign would never work, and puts together a pretty compelling argument for giving Serkis as Special Achievement trophy instead. (Ben Burtt got one in 1978 for creating the sounds of robots and aliens in the original Star Wars, an early version of an achievement similar to Serkis's). But as much as I would love to see Serkis rewarded with the statue that, for whatever reason, we see as the ultimate recognition in filmmaking, another part of me thinks he's bigger than that. He's beyond that. The Academy is historically constantly behind the times, and Serkis, in his embrace of technology and singular ability to further advance it, has gotten ahead of all of us.
Maybe a Special Achievement Oscar is the way to acknowledge that Serkis's acting is something that doesn't fit into our existing categories, and shouldn't have to. Or maybe, as others have suggested, animated performances can be given an category of their own, giving us room to acknowledge both motion-capture work from the likes of Serkis but also acclaimed voice work, whether Tom Hanks's invaluable contribution to the Toy Story movies or none other than Ben Burtt's in creating WALL-E. But even in that category, Serkis wouldn't quite fit in.
More than any other actor working with motion capture or animation, Serkis's face and mannerisms carry through to the character; watching Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you are watching a chimpanzee who is undeniably, spookily human, and that's what Serkis gave him. There's a reason he's the guy you go to when you need to create a motion-capture character in a live-action film-- he does it better than anyone, and in a way that's so specific and accurate that the rest of us can't even put our finger on it. Regular movie stars carry their own aura, making it so you can't look away from them when they're on the screen. Serkis does it while completely transformed into another creature. That's not just good acting; that's a superpower.
So as Oscar season rolls on, and buzz starts for actors like Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar or Ryan Gosling in Ides Of March while pretending this Apes thing never happened, don't be discouraged. Any real actor finds his reward in the performance, not in the statues, and will know that his work has succeeded without ever needing to hear his name read out on a stage. Andy Serkis is more than a real actor-- he's one of the best, and one of the most unique and forward-thinking. So long as Oscar doesn't understand that-- and all signs point to this being another year in which they won't-- it's a prize that's less than he deserves.