Oscar Memo: Go Ape

Fox’s push for an Academy Award nomination for Andy Serkis as simian rebel Caesar in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" offers the strongest case yet for rewarding computer-enhanced performances.

By Jere Hester
|  Tuesday, Nov 29, 2011  |  Updated 8:18 PM CDT
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Andy Serkis is the face behind Caesar of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

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Andy Serkis played one of the most memorable movie characters of the year, even if he didn't say much – and even if, as some might reasonably argue, the actor didn't actually appear on screen.

But we’re rooting for Fox, which The Hollywood Reporter notes plans to push Serkis for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for helping bring the digitally rendered simian rebel Caesar to life in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Serkis' latest amazing performance combining his endlessly expressive rubber face with state-of-the-art visual technology offers a strong case for Oscar to go ape.

We've been building toward this in the decade since "The Lord of the Rings” trilogy forever changed filmmaking by introducing the computer-generated Gollum, who embodies the eternal – and internal – battle of good vs. evil as effectively as any flesh-and-blood character could. Rumblings of an Oscar nomination for Serkis at the time were quickly dismissed.

Since then, the CGI influence has only grown, transcending novelty and becoming a vital part of cinematic storytelling, though acknowledgment of the digital art form remains spotty.

Brad Pitt earned a Best Actor nomination for 2008's reverse-aging fable "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," although his head appeared, at different points, atop the bodies of three other actors. James Cameron's "Avatar," much like Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" series, transported moviegoers to another world, pulled in record money and picked up nine Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. Still, there weren’t any nods for the actors, who spent varying degrees of time as the blue Na'vi and provided the heart of the fantasy epic.

There's a danger, of course, in opening a Pandora's box with a nomination for Serkis. Actors who perform their lines and emote – in other words, act – should be eligible for honors, even if their captured movements are digitally enhanced for the screen. Film actors have been undergoing transformations in one way or another, since the beginning of movies, well before Lon Chaney famously used makeup and his performing skills to become the Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923.

Serkis eloquently made a case for recognition for his evolving art in a 2009 interview with NPR: "Actors' performances in films are enhanced in a million different ways down to the choice of camera shot by the director – whether it's in slow motion or whether it's quick cut – or … the choice of music behind the close-up or the costume that you're wearing or the makeup. … You know, actors' performances do not stand alone in any film, live action or whatever."

The enduring appeal of the movies rests in escapism fostered by illusion. We're reminded of a line spoken by Mia Farrow's character in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" after a heartthrob film character jumps off the screen and into her bleak life: ''I just met a wonderful man. He's fictional, but you can't have everything.''

Serkis, who used facial expressions to brilliantly portray Caesar’s transformation from lost boy into angry insurgent, helped create a character as real as any we’ve seen on the big screen. To paraphrase Caesar, it's time for Oscar to welcome him home.
 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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