It's not as simple as deciding who gave the 'best' performance

It’s not easy to narrow the field of Oscar acting contenders to four categories of five nominations apiece, but for Academy members this year, choosing the four winners is going to be a pisser — and the decisionmaking could be more philosophical than artistic.

Parsing which performers at their pinnacle are “better” than others is something of a fool’s errand, at least in comparison to more manageable means of separating them.

Take lead actress: Jessica Chastain of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Jennifer Lawrence of “Silver Linings Playbook” and Emmanuelle Riva of “Amour” have won the most fall and winter honors from the Screen Actors Guild, critics groups and the like. Granting that the actresses are all amazing in their own ways, how can one ferret out a winner?

One way is as simple as it comes — basing the choice on which was in the film the voter liked the most. Alternatively, one can decide based on which role seems most worthy of honor: the gritty alpha female of “Zero,” the crackling damsel-heroine of “Silver” or the elderly woman undergoing a quiet, ultimately wordless deterioration in “Amour.”

Other actress contenders, such as Marion Cotillard (“Rust and Bone”), Helen Mirren (“Hitchcock”), Quvenzhane Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) or Naomi Watts (“The Impossible”) pose similar challenges. In any case, the question of “who did better work” could be impossibly reductive relative to evaluating their tasks.

Even approaching the category from the idea of identifying the performance that will stay with one longest, that will haunt or inspire for years to come, seems more realistic than the notion of measuring differences in the quality of the performances themselves.

Philosophical angles certainly come into play in the supporting actress competish. Anne Hathaway’s chances are contingent on Acad voters’ acceptance of her disappearance from “Les Miserables” for hours (i.e., decades within the story); Sally Field in “Lincoln” or Amy Adams in “The Master” is a more consistent presence, much less Ann Dowd, who is so ever-present in “Compliance” as to amount to a lead in everything but classification.

There are numerous possibilities among the combustible brew of supporting actors, including a few in the same picture. Voters couldn’t go wrong selecting Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson or Christoph Waltz of “Django Unchained,” and a more important factor in the decision than inferred quality of work could be one’s definition of “supporting actor” and whether massive prominence in a film (say, Waltz in the Tarantino pic) fulfills or violates the ideal.

There are, of course, other considerations: Some see performances in otherwise non-contending films, such as Nicole Kidman of “The Paperboy,” as inherently dismissable, while others would offer them badges of honor. Other voters, despite AMPAS guidelines, choose to see merit in a thesp’s body of work for the year — the principal means by which a John Goodman or Matthew McConaughey could be worth a trophy.

There’s no doubt that some Academy voters weigh a performer’s Oscar resume as a factor — the “Whose Turn Is It Anyway?” vote. In challenging perceived lead-actor frontrunner Daniel Day-Lewis of “Lincoln,” thesps such as Bradley Cooper of “Silver Linings” or John Hawkes of “The Sessions” may score points from those who would rather see one of these actors score his first Oscar than Day-Lewis his third. Then there’s Richard Gere, whose “Arbitrage”-laden quest for his first Academy recognition has been one of the ongoing stories of awards season.

One can even point to a philosophical choice with regards to campaigning: Will AMPAS members punish — or reward — someone like Joaquin Phoenix of “The Master” for rebelling against the process? Perhaps Mo’Nique showed with “Precious” that this is a non-issue.

In the end, it’s all about the work. OK, great.

Now all voters have to do is decide what the “work” is.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more