It’s time for the Academy Awards to stop handing out ‘career Oscars’

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For many film fans, 2017 could be considered a year of virtuosic male performances, a number of which made deserved appearances at the 2018 Academy Awards. Most notably, lead actor nominees and relative newcomers Timothée Chalamet in “Call Me by Your Name” and Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out” both gave Oscar-worthy performances that stuck in audiences’ collective memory and helped define 2017 in cinema. 

Much less virtuosic was that year’s Oscar winner for lead actor — Gary Oldman, as an unremarkable Winston Churchill in the unremarkable “Darkest Hour.” Oldman’s win among this competitive lineup can seemingly be explained by a few storied, unfortunate Oscars traditions: handing out endless nods to dowdy biopics, mistaking pounds of prosthetic makeup for “transformative” performances and, perhaps most prominently, deciding to recognize mediocre performances from veteran actors simply because they’re “overdue” for a win.

It’s a trend that’s been prevalent at the Oscars for years; undeserving winners are granted accolades based seemingly on past work while genuinely stunning, current performances are overlooked. In 2016, Leonardo DiCaprio’s anticlimactic “career” win for “The Revenant” eclipsed Michael Fassbender’s stellar turn in Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs.” Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech” trumped Jesse Eisenberg’s biting “The Social Network” performance in 2011. And this year, Joaquin Phoenix, as the titular Batman villain in the decidedly amateurish “Joker,” is likely getting his long-denied victory lap at the expense of performances leagues above his own.

It’s not that Phoenix shouldn’t have an Oscar to his name; in fact, he should probably have won a couple already. Phoenix has been passed up multiple times by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: for his performances in “Gladiator” in 2001, “Walk the Line” in 2006 and most egregiously, “The Master” in 2013. This is not to mention Phoenix’s similarly skillful turns in Spike Jonze’s “Her” and last year’s grim “You Were Never Really Here,” for which he was snubbed entirely. It would be useless to argue that he isn’t overdue.

But Phoenix isn’t nominated for those performances. He’s nominated for playing Arthur Fleck in a film that’s more concerned with pantomiming controversy than with building a compelling central character for its lead actor to embody. Awarding this lackluster performance at the 2020 Oscars won’t erase those past oversights — it will only engender new ones. 

Last year, more so than any other in recent memory, was chock-full of noteworthy male performances. Many have correctly observed that a stacked ballot could be assembled from leads that weren’t even nominated at this year’s Academy Awards — Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, Christian Bale and Robert De Niro immediately come to mind. The actual nominees, which include stellar work from DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and Antonio Banderas in “Pain and Glory,” offer still more talent to choose from. 

Of this enviable pool, it’s lead actor nominee Adam Driver who should rise to the top of the pack, not Phoenix. Driver has been quietly assembling a roster of outstanding work for years now, establishing himself as, in the words of Martin Scorsese, “one of the finest, if not the finest, (actors) of his generation.” In “Marriage Story,” more so than any of his other films, Driver proves himself to be worthy of that praise. As Charlie Barber, he gives the best male performance of 2019. Driver carries “Marriage Story” — his work is gutting, vulnerable and spectacular. It’s a performance given by an actor in his prime, and one that should be recognized before that prime expires.

Reducing Driver to also-ran status while awarding Phoenix confirms a number of maddening assumptions about what the academy expects from its acting winners. This win would tell Phoenix that the fantastic work he’s been churning out for years wasn’t enough, but that an extensive public relations campaign, an uncharacteristically ham-fisted performance and the tired awards season narrative of a “grueling physical transformation” did the trick. And it mints Driver as the new Phoenix, forced to “wait his turn” until someone else is snubbed at his expense. 

It’s time for the Oscars to dispense with the waiting, and instead award the year’s brightest performances the first time around. On the rare occasion that this actually happens, it’s always a cause for celebration. Let’s hope that this Sunday, another miracle occurs and Driver is given his due. If not, we can look forward to the 102nd Annual Academy Awards, in which we’ll get to watch Driver win his inevitable “lifetime achievement Oscar” for playing Lex Luthor.

Grace Orriss is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @graceorriss.