Measuring Performances: Deciding about the Oscars for Best Acting

By Miklós Kiss
Groningen University

Have you ever been disappointed, if not frustrated, by the decision of the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) about the yearly winner of the Oscars for the Best Actor and Actress categories? Instead of resignedly condemning the verdict as a haphazard result of a hype- and money-driven industry’s self-congratulatory PR parade, video essayist Kevin B. Lee tries to infuse the decision’s ever-blamed subjectivity with some objective observations.

In the last four years, Lee presented and perfected “a video essay series that looks closely at the major categories of the Academy Awards to determine which films and performances truly deserve to win.” What Lee is doing is not to predict who will win but to speculate about who deserves such a prestigious prize. Accordingly, he dismisses conventional measures and routines of ‘analysis’ (PR, hype, momentum, timing of the release, acting and award history, bookmaker odds, effort invested in the role – hello Leonardo DiCaprio, etc.) and goes back to the movies themselves. He not only engages with the characters and their performances through close readings of the films, but also presents his findings in the most convincing – that is audiovisual – format. These 5 to 10 minutes compilation pieces confront the viewer with what is really on screen and bring in a strong argumentative perspective, analytical erudition and critical clear-sight. Let’s watch his latest videos in which the nominees for best lead actor and actress performances are scrutinized:

What is remarkable is the effort by which these videos try to set some objective criteria for complex artistic creations. Lee’s highly insightful critical experience and convincing argumentative skills are strengthened by his reasoning through a curious method. Statistical analysis of cinema is practised from the 1970s onwards (since Barry Salt’s pioneering work) and widely available since the inception of Yuri Tsivian’s Cinemetrics website. Measuring and comparing shot lengths, editing rate, colour schemes, etc. – in other words quantitative data mining of moving images – can contribute to the emergence of less apparent insights that might escape the attention of the traditional analytical practise.

Bringing cinemetrics to performance studies, Lee employs a simple method: he counts the minutes of actors and actresses on screen relative to the full length of the film, hoping for “some interesting questions [to arise] about how a performance is constructed as a measure of time and how it fits in a film”.

On the one hand, this tool and general aim of rationalization, inspired by novel methods in the digital humanities, are exciting and welcome developments in a field often criticized and characterized by ‘subjectivity’. On the other hand, even though the video essay treatment brings back the practice of ‘the study of film’ into ‘Film Studies,’ Lee’s attempt to heighten objectivity, notwithstanding his genuine intentions, might be problematic. His quantitative and statistical method aims at an impossible, anatomical dissection of cinema’s intricate and all-embracing mise-en-scène, isolating performances from the cumulative effect of work of directors, cinematographers, editors, and fellow performers.

The measured screen time is a fascinating aspect of these videos, however, even if it might lead to such thought-provoking points as the comparison of a Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio has only 57% in The Revenant) to a Supporting Role nomination (Rooney Mara has 60% in Carol). Still, it remains questionable whether such a revelation really adds anything to an objective evaluation of the quality of the performances. To put it simply: the objective fact that The Revenant, being a highly visual cinematography-driven film, does not allow enough screen time to its protagonist is not informative about Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting (for another approach and video essay that aims to tackle such criticism through contextualizing acting performances, see Jacob T. Sweeney’s Filmmaking Is the Best Actor).

Notwithstanding its limitations, I love Lee’s videos for their revealing remarks and most of all for their more and more sophisticated attempts at making sense of subjective (i.e. surprising, frustrating, political, etc.) decisions. Even though the rhetoric of these mini-essays (‘truly deserving’; ‘video evidence’; etc.) sounds more like clickbait material than a scientifically sound argument, Lee’s thorough evaluations about who should win (Michael Fassbender / Saoirse Ronan) versus who are the winners (Leonardo DiCaprio / Brie Larson), can rationalize – if nothing else – our own frustration about the Academy’s decisions.