Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Is it a stretch

Recently I asked KC Star film critic Bob Butler who should win the Best Actor Oscar and he said either Mickey Rourke or Sean Penn deserved it, but he’d prefer Penn because it was more of a stretch for him to play a gay activist than for Rourke to play a washed-up wrestler.

And that got me thinking. Should “the stretch” factor into the Oscar decision? I’m not so sure. A great performance should be judged on its own merits. Think Paul Newman in “The Color of Money.” However, Robert Downey, Jr. got nominated in “Tropic Thunder” precisely because he stretched to play a black man.

I could argue either side.

Maybe the reason newcomers win Oscars (Mira Sorvino, etc) is because we don’t know if it’s a stretch at the time (Mighty Aphrodite). And later we see the actor in other movies like “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” and realize that’s pretty much just how Mira Sorvino talks.

Maybe the reason actors often win for playing serial killers and idiot savants (Charlize Theron and Dustin Hoffman) is the “stretch” factor. I don’t feel like Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall step outside their persona too often, but I put them up there right at the top as two of the most natural actors around.

Stretch or no stretch? I ask you.


Ed Howard said...

I don't think it matters if it's a stretch, as long as it's a good performance. Rourke's part in The Wrestler is seemingly tailored for him; one can hardly imagine another act in that part, so perfectly does it fit him. And yet it's still an astonishing performance, with a great deal of depth and complexity to it. It's not a stretch, but Rourke created a vibrant, fully fleshed-out character; that to me is a more relevant criterion than whether or not he's outside his comfort zone.

I thought Penn was excellent, too, but if I was voting I'd go with Rourke. It seems like a much more emotionally rich performance to me.

Christian Toto said...

The stretch factor likely does come into play, but it's just one more way academy voters do the Oscars a disservice. A great performance can consist of a wonderfully small/self contained turn by an actor.

Ray said...

The stretch factor is closely related to the disappearance factor; in other words, the degree to which an actor manages to disappear inside a role. For instance, Martin Landau's complete disappearance into the role of Bela Lugosi in ED WOOD earned him an Oscar. Another example might be Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump ... it was a risky performance, but Hanks disappeared into that role and made most people believe in that character. I know Piper will disagree with me on that one.

In terms of disappearance, I think Penn managed to surprise me more than Rourke. By the end of the film, Penn WAS Harvey Milk, and I wasn't thinking about performance anymore. However, Rourke's physicality and believability ultimately trump Penn's performance in my eyes. I think the Academy will agree with me in a few weeks.

PIPER said...

I agree with Ray only in the disappearance argument. Not in that Tom Hanks was good as Forrest Gump.

Whether an actor did well should be based on whether or not they became the character they portrayed.

Anonymous said...

Tom Hanks disappeared in Forrest Gump? I'm pretty sure I saw Hanks for 2 hours and 22 minutes. I wish the whole movie disappeared. Please make it go away.

J.D. said...

Hell, the stretch/disappearance factors probably plays pretty largely in my own opinions about them both. I mean, not once was I overly conscious of the fact it was Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk instead of just watching, like, Harvey Milk. While Rourke seemed to be playing a variation of himself. That doesn't take anything away from his performance in my regard, because he was incredible and easily a very, very close #2 to Penn. But probably the most defining factor to why I think Penn > Rourke is because I'm a depressed gay teenager and the whole film really worked to give me hope and pride in myself, and most of it does come from him, I thought.

Both would be incredibly deserving winners so I'm not complaining either way.

Sarah said...

I belong more to the "disappearance" camp than the "stretch" camp on this one.

In my mind, great actors succeed when they become indistinguishable from the characters they are playing. They are raw, powerful and honest. They are, in a word, real.

If, while watching a movie, you find yourself lost in the story, the mood, the moment itself -- even for a second -- you are watching a master at work.

I felt that way about "Milk" AND "The Wrestler."

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

Robert Downey Jr. did not play a black man. He played an Australian method actor's approximation of a black man circa 1967 or so.

In any case, what does "the stretch" matter? Is Jack Black any less awesome in High Fidelity if you know that he's a music nerd? Is Heath Ledger's preformance in The Dark Knight only really great because he was a hot Australian, not a psychopathic clown?

If we're talking stretch, then we've got to go with Frank Langella, who stretches so far that it doesn't matter that he doesn't look like Richard Nixon.

For me, it's between Rourke and Penn. Both men gave powerful, raw, emotional performances that are among the best of the decade. I don't know how the Academy judges things, but if they give it to Penn on the basis that he's a straight dude playing a gay activist, their methodology is flawed.

Fletch said...

Ideally, we want all actors to stretch and we want to notice that they're stretching, while simultaneous not having that fact be too blatant. In other words, we want to have our cake and eat it, too.

I don't really care what they do. If Bale (tying to your above post) were truly a batshit crazy guy, that wouldn't make me like his American Psycho performance any less. So, I guess I'm with Paul.

And for the record, isn't Daniel Day-Lewis the king of the stretch/disappearance? The best actor working today...and you might not recognize him on the street if he were 10 feet from you. Nutso.

brian said...


I like Daniel Day Lewis as well, but I think Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the best actor working today. He has more range. He can play drama and comedy. I don't see Day-Lewis playing comedy.


Ray said...

@ brian - I think you meant "Fletch" not me ... I'm not that much of a DAniel Day Lewis guy either.

Chris said...

You make some good points. I'm thinking there is also a certain novelty factor that comes into the decision on who wins this award.

Sean Penn will be again in the running probably a few more times in his career. Mickey Rourke--who is a good friend of Penn--may not ever get a better role or a more Oscar-friendly role than what he got in the Wrestler. It never really felt like too much of a stretch, his playing a washed up, roided-up, has-been, but he still did a pretty darn good job.

I think the "story" element behind the Rourke comeback--the fact that he is back in the limelight after blowing it for so many years--may help him out.

I'm curious if you would like to exchange blogroll links with me--I love your site. Mine is and it's all about tv news, watching tv online, and reviews of tv shows. Let me know. You can hit me an email at freetvontheweb at hotmail.

Take it easy,

Inquiring Camera Girl said...

Anyone see Shirley Jones' oscar-winning performance in "Elmer Gantry" (1960)? It was not good - at all. She won because she was known for playing virginal goody-girls in musicals like "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel," and in Gantry she played a hooker. Strutting around in sexy clothes does not automatically make a performance Oscar material!