Oscar wants to know thesps aren't just being themselves

Highlighted by Robert De Niro turning competitive eating into an extreme Method technique in “Raging Bull,” the Academy Awards have had a soft spot for actors who stretch themselves on camera.

While running the circuit in 2006 to promote his turn as the raging dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” Forest Whitaker couldn’t help but call attention to his bashful, soft-spoken demeanor. Shortly after limning a Midwestern pre-op transsexual in 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” Hilary Swank went to great lengths to emphasize her glamorous femininity at red-carpet galas. Both now have Oscar statuettes.

“When little-known actors portray characters with attributes similar to their own,” observes Scott Feinberg, Oscar sage and proprietor of awards blog And the Winner Is, “doubts are usually raised about how much or little acting was actually required to do so.”

This year, first-time thesp and Oscar contender Gabourey Sidibe has been keen to convince voters that, though she may be similarly large-framed and come from an inner-city background similar to her horrifically abused, nearly nonverbal character in “Precious,” her own bubbly, well-adjusted off-camera persona couldn’t be further from that character’s subjugated taciturnity. Hence, a concerted public relations strategy — whether it’s Sidibe herself answering trivia about ‘N Sync on Jay Leno, or her director Lee Daniels joking that she talks like a “white chick from the Valley” in interviews — intended to stress that the non-pro was, in fact, actually acting.

Oscar journalist Sasha Stone notes that this persona-definition process is often of vital importance for lesser-known actors, citing Marion Cotillard’s 2007 lead actress win.

Cotillard was unknown,” Stone says, “but she worked the red carpet like no other. She was everywhere, appearing in beautiful dresses, looking very unlike her character in ‘La Vie en rose.’ I don’t think she would have won on the performance alone. Without knowing the actor, it’s difficult to know the level of difficulty of the performance.”

As Feinberg notes, Cotillard was not the only unknown quantity in that year’s actress race — “Juno’s” Ellen Page also made the cut, though her particular award-season narrative perhaps failed to define an appropriate disparity between character and actor, and Page came across as simply one “smart, quick-witted teenager” playing another one.

Even well-known marquee thesps like George Clooney face similar issues. In this year’s “Up in the Air,” Clooney plays a suave, lifelong bachelor who jet-sets across the country lounging in chic hotels. As the actor himself exhibits all these qualities in real life, viewers can’t help but wonder how much he is simply playing himself. Yet in Clooney’s case, as a major star, that similarity may well have its advantages.

While Jack Nicholson may have nabbed a nomination for a performance in which he strikingly de-emphasized his signature rakish charm (“About Schmidt”), he won for “As Good as It Gets,” in which he channeled that charm and recontextualized it into something new and strange. And last year, Mickey Rourke secured a nomination for a role that not only hinged on a priori knowledge of his personal life, it practically seemed to mirror and comment upon it.

For Clooney, the fact that his performance ultimately explores the loneliness and alienation inherent in a lifestyle similar to his own may improve its stature with voters. Whether that’s fair or not is an open question. Should performances be judged in a vacuum?

Perhaps. Or perhaps an actor’s public persona (or lack thereof) is simply another tool to wield. Perhaps Sidibe has learned to utilize her disarming ordinariness just as cannily as Clooney flashes his devil-may-care grin. That’s the thing about great actors — you can’t always tell when they’re on.

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