By Christopher Campbell | Spout August 8, 2011 at 9:20AM
The last time a person received a Special Achievement Academy Award was in 1996, when John Lasseter was issued an Oscar statuette for "Toy Story." That honor recognized the accomplishment of 'the first feature-length computer-animated film,' which kind of recalled Walt Disney's special recognition 57 years earlier for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first feature-length animated film. Has there been anything of tremendous game-changing achievement since then? Some believe Andy Serkis displays award-worthy work in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," enough for an Oscar campaign for Best Supporting Actor, and those who recognize his performance-captured talent has no shot at being nominated by other actors say he should instead be given the first Special Achievement award in 16 years. Not just for his work in "ROTPOTA," but for his decade-honoring status as the go-to guy for this sort of role, which has included Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movies and the title beast of Peter Jackson's "King Kong" remake. Kristopher Tapley at In Contention writes:
So I, and I’m sure many more, would like to humbly suggest that the Academy consider dusting off the Special Achievement Award and really think hard about what Serkis and Weta started in 2002. This year’s Oscar ceremony will be close enough to the 10-year anniversary of that seminal moment in film history, so what better time to recognize — outside of the bloody arena of Oscar campaigning — truly visionary work that has made, and will continue to make, a considerable impact in this industry?
I agree to a large extent, and in fact I'm ignoring my usual disinterest in the Academy Awards of late primarily for the sake of championing this sort of honor. I'm far more accepting of awards handed out for an isolated achievement, including full or partial career triumphs, rather than something deemed the "best" over other contestants in fields so subjectively quantified. I could actually go for an entire overhaul of the Oscars so every trophy is handed out in this way, but I understand how this obviously would lack all the suspense that the ceremony requires to attract an audience.
Actors have been given special awards throughout Oscar history for specific roles, not just honorary lifetime achievement types. 1946 was an interesting year, for example, when non-professional Harold Russell got an extra Oscar (he also won Best Supporting Actor) for his work in "The Best Years of Our Lives," and Laurence Olivier made up for losing Best Actor and Best Picture, as well as not even being nominated for Best Director, by receiving an award highlighting all three jobs combined regarding his accomplishment in bringing "Henry V" to the screen. Claude Jarman, Jr., also took home a then semi-regular honor for his 'juvenile performance' in "The Yearling." A year later, James Baskett became the first black actor to win an Oscar, for his specially recognized portrayal of Uncle Remus in "Song of the South."
However, the Special Achievement Oscar that Serkis is being likened most to is Ben Burtt's sound effects honor for "Star Wars," because he helped give life to certain characters separate from the Oscar-winning visual effects contributions. This is somewhat akin to what Serkis does in his portrayal of the intelligent chimp Caesar in "ROTPOTA" and prior performance-capture roles. Also worth pointing out is how the original "Planet of the Apes" received a special honorary Oscar for its pioneering makeup by John Chambers. Serkis' performance is technically more comparable to the men and women who acted inside of that makeup, while WETA's CG mastery is the update on the makeup, yet it's still a kind of parallel achievement for how it significantly added to the overall development and result.
Responding to Tapley's post, Katey Rich at Cinema Blend (where she's just been promoted to Editor-in-Chief, so kudos to her) wonders if a Special Achievement Academy Award is the way to go. First she suggests a possible new category for general off-screen performances, which would pit Serkis and other performance-captured actors against voice acting talents from animated films (including partly animated, such as "The Smurfs," I imagine). However, she decides he still "wouldn't quite fit in" there anymore than he does in the live-action acting groups. Ultimately she labels Serkis too good for the Academy and claims it's better if he's ignored by them, as he likely will be:
Any real actor finds his reward in the performance, not in the statues, and will know that his work has succeeded without ever needing to hear his name read out on a stage. Andy Serkis is more than a real actor-- he's one of the best, and one of the most unique and forward-thinking. So long as Oscar doesn't understand that-- and all signs point to this being another year in which they won't-- it's a prize that's less than he deserves.
The problem I have with this statement, as much as I tend to agree actors and other professionals ought to be able to make do with self-awareness in personal achievements without awards, especially competitive kinds, is that I don't believe enough people recognize Serkis for his acting talent in general. Critics may state that he's terrific in "LOTR" and "ROTPOTA," and claim that performance-capture is only as great as the performer being captured. I do concur. But why is he never so praised with physical performances? Why is "Burke and Hare" not being championed for how hilarious he is as the latter titular grave robber? Why will "Brighton Rock" be dismissed for many reasons when scene-stealing Serkis could at least be recognized for deserving of bigger and better? How is "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" largely unseen despite Serkis' great, BAFTA-nominated lead portrayal of Ian Dury?
It is true, the Academy is way behind the times. Serkis was honored with a Best Supporting Actor trophy and then another nomination by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films for his portrayal of Gollum in the two "LOTR" films the character appears in. He also helped the same character beat out Dobby and Yoda for the BFCA's inaugural Best Digital Acting Performance award in 2002, though for some reason that honor hasn't been given out since. Giving the actor a special award next Spring would be a good way to remedy some of its reputation while also promoting more contemporary and future Hollywood blockbusters featuring Serkis' performance-capture work, in the "Adventures of Tintin" and "Hobbit" films. They do love being a staging ground for the upcoming year's movies as much as if not more than a celebration of the year prior.
But if the Academy does decide to recognize Serkis for "ROTPOTA," I have to plead with them to simultaneously recognize another ape performer: Peter Elliott. I know, I bring up "Project Nim" too much in discussions of "ROTPOTA," but Elliott's minimal work in the documentary is phenomenal. While Serkis is terrific as the character Caesar, he's not necessarily a believable chimpanzee, though this is partly because of the cartoony CG work and partly because he's not supposed to act like other chimps (for issues with the other ape characters, that's another matter). Elliott, meanwhile, is so acceptable as a real chimp, I thought filmmaker James Marsh had employed a chimp for the part and initially questioned the hypocrisy involved in this (then I saw the video of Elliott's contributions, which I included in this post).
Serkis is certainly well trained in realistic ape aping, seen already in "Kong," but Elliott is more of a method actor in this sense, and he has appropriately been labeled the film industry's "primary primate" for 25-30 years now. This is partly for his on-screen performances and work as a creature choreographer/coordinator as well as for being a drama teacher specializing in animal movement. Sure, many of the movies Elliott has worked on have had huge faults that left his accomplishments ignored time and time again, but special honors should be given for great achievements in otherwise mediocre or bad films anyway (it works for the sound and visual effects categories). Academy, you'll probably one day be beaten to the punch here by BAFTA, who needs to honor Elliott even more than the Oscars do, but I suggest you consider him for an honorary trophy this year, which could be given at the same time as Serkis' after some ridiculous ape-based dance number.
Or, yes, both these actors can keep patting themselves on the back, and we can praise them on blogs when and where deserving, as well. Or, perhaps they're not even worthy of that? I leave you with a quote from Film Drunk's Vince Mancini, part of his argument for why the Serkis praise is a bit much:
it’s ridiculous to me to assume that an actor is the ultimate instrument for rendering the emotions of a fictional, fantastical being. Is an actor really so much better than, say, an animator would be? Yes, Caesar was supposed to have emotions more complex than a simple chimp. But didn’t Nemo also have emotions more complex than a normal clownfish? And how did animators ever manage to give Wall E or Johnny 5 such complex feelings without covering Andy Serkis in a ping pong balls and taking pictures of his leotard while he acted like a love-sick robot? Would Jurassic Park have been greatly improved by Andy Serkis pretending to be all the dinosaurs? It’d be funny watching him shriek at goats and bite Jeff Goldblum, but I doubt it.
As for those of you who do think Serkis is the best thing ever, you can see him in the flesh in "Brighton Rock," opening August 26, and "Burke and Hare," opening September 9. For the Ian Dury biopic, try Netflix Watch Instantly.