Voice acting and the Oscars

On the heel of the Academy Award nominations last week, there has been plenty of analysis over who got just recognition and who got snubbed. There will always be performances that are overlooked by the Academy (and the seemingly endless string of yearly awards that precede the Oscars). This year, one in particular is not only getting overlooked, but is also being explicitly disqualified by some award events. Scarlett Johansson’s performance in Spike Jonze’s Her was disqualified from contention in the Golden Globe Awards because she played the voice of an artificial intelligence and thus never had a moment on-screen. She also failed to get an Oscar nod. The conventional thought is that her lack of time in front of a camera made her a complete longshot in the race for a nomination, let alone the award itself. These complaints are absurd, as Johansson put on a wonderful performance, easily good enough for a nomination — and just maybe for the award itself.

The discussion about Johansson’s eligibility is reminiscent of the 12-year-old debate over Andy Serkis’ eligibility for an award for his motion capture performance as Gollum in The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers. He gave a captivating performance, but since he never actually appeared on screen, similar criticisms of his candidacy emerged. If one looks deeper into the comparison of both roles, however, many important differences emerge. First and foremost, despite never actually appearing in the film, Serkis still did all of his work in front of the camera. His performance was a physical one as much as it was vocal. Johansson’s job was an entirely different animal. Where Serkis acted in front of the cameras and was later heavily modified with computer effects, Johansson never spent a day on the set. She came in after filming had been completed and was asked to perform in a sound booth, similar to any other voice-over actor in an animated movie.

And unlike the voice actors in Frozen, Johansson didn’t even have an on-screen character upon which to reference her performance. All she had was the equally impressive performance of Joaquin Phoenix to play off of to create chemistry. She was essentially tasked with creating chemistry with a recorded video. Johansson deserves quite a bit of praise for not only finding a way to do this effectively, but also movingly. Her lack of interaction with the camera should boost her candidacy rather than hinder it. Where other actresses in strong consideration for the supporting actress award such as Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle and Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave excelled in doing what they have been practicing for as actresses, Johansson excelled while venturing out into very uncomfortable and uncharted territory for an actress.

It is, by all ways of looking at it, a very unique role. There have been other voiced interfaces in film, most famous Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Hal, if anything, is famous for his cold robotic bedside manner in dealing with the humans on his space station. In Her, Johansson’s character Samantha is a polar opposite to Hal. She’s friendly, funny and even sexy — something that Hal never quite managed to achieve. Some critics described the sensual scenes in the film as being akin to phone sex, as Samantha’s lack of a body limits the possibilities of anything else, and thus being irredeemable. These are probably the same critics who occupy the camp that argues against Johansson’s candidacy, they seem to be missing the forest for the trees. The film acknowledges very well that a relationship missing any physical interaction would be extremely difficult, but it also shows that chemistry and even sensuality are possible. Phoenix and Johansson build up a painting of an evolving, tragic relationship, despite the constraints of their roles.

At the Rome Film Festival back in November, Johansson was not only nominated as a leading actress, but won the entire festival’s Best Actress Award for Her. Stateside, the actress had been submitted as a supporting actress candidate and this, in an ideal situation, should have allowed her even more leeway when it came to the selection process. The Academy’s supporting category is notoriously permissive in comparison to others. Beatrice Straight managed to win the award in 1976 for Network despite under six minutes of screentime, and Hermione Baddeley snagged a nomination in 1959 for her performance in Room at the Top with only two minutes and some change onscreen. It would be extremely difficult to argue that a two and a half minute performance could be more impactful to a film than Johansson’s role (even though Johansson would have technically surpassed Baddeley for the new screentime record). Here’s hoping that the Academy failed to nominate Johansson for an award solely based on the merits of her performance rather than her lack of screentime.


Daniel Gryzywacz is a senior majoring in neuroscience.  His column “The Reel Deal” runs every other Thursday.