For Best Actor in an Historical Role

Art imitated life at last night’s Tony Awards, and no, it had nothing to do with Hugh Jackman being a kangaroo. Three out of the four winners for best lead actor honors—Bryan Cranston, Audra McDonald, and Jessie Mueller—not only portrayed real people (Lyndon Johnson, Billie Holliday, Carole King, respectively), but real people from recent historical memory. Most of us know what these figures looked and sounded like. It’s not like these actors brought long-lost figure to life in a way that we could only imagine.

I’m not here to comment on the relative merits of each actor’s performance (I’ve only seen Cranston’s as LBJ). Instead, I’m wondering why it’s easier to give a prize to an actor portraying a person that we’ve heard and seen, rather than a purely fictional one?

Depictions of contemporary public figures have recently been extremely well-represented in the Oscar lead actor and actress categories as well as the Tonys. Just in the past 10 years, actors have won the top Oscars for depictions of Ray Charles, June Carter Cash, Edith Piaf, Truman Capote, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Harvey Milk, Margaret Thatcher, and Idi Amin. Playing this kind of role carries more weight with awards voters—all but two of the winners above have only won the top prize by playing these kinds of characters.

One potential reason for this trend is what I’ll call the Fantasy Baseball Quotient. As an audience, we usually only know the public personas of the characters portrayed on stage or screen, but not what happened when the cameras stopped rolling, or the stage lights went out. We get excited by the fact that we’re let into these people’s worlds, that we get to be acquaintances, not just a throng of fans. These performances allow us to fantasize about being a part of an important, historical moment.

However, the Fantasy Baseball Quotient does not explain why these performances are well decorated, but not necessarily economically successful. None of the previous ten best actor/actress-winning movies involving an historical figure were top blockbusters. In terms of this year’s Tony winners, only Beautiful seems able to outlast this season and become a running hit, and that’s more likely due to the familiar jukebox musical material than Mueller’s depiction of King. All The Way has also sold surprisingly well for new, 2 hour 45 minute drama, but that’s almost certainly due to Bryan Cranston’s star casting. There must be another factor that increases the odds for an actor that portrays a recent public figure, one that takes into account how an awards voter thinks about a movie or play versus a typical audience member.

When awards voters watch a movie or play, they are thinking (whether consciously or subconsciously) about whether the work or a particular performance is more accomplished than the others that they have seen. They don’t just vote based on the emotional impact of a work or performance, but the craft of it. In the case of Audra McDonald, most people are overlooking the clear weaknesses of the play and rewarding her virtuosic performance. The problem here is the fact that some performances wear their craft on their sleeves more than others—namely, depictions of recent public figures. Because the voters have a sense of who the character is in reality, it’s very easy to see how a good actor can change their normal voices and facial expressions to inhabit this other person.

For instance, in a video by the New York Times, Bryan Cranston puts an 8×10 headshot of Lyndon Johnson next to his face. He then subtly pulls back his jaw and strains his eye muscles, and suddenly he’s inhabiting the face of the former president.

It’s a moment of real virtuoso acting, but more importantly, it’s a moment where the virtuosity is clear as day. It could be less virtuosic than what the other nominees did to inhabit their roles, but the virtuosity in the other roles is harder to see. Herein lies the major problem with acting awards—it’s not always given to the best performance, but rather the performance that is most recognizably accomplished.

This isn’t to say that Cranston, McDonald, and Mueller are undeserving of praise for their Tony Award-winning performances. Portraying a figure that the audience knows presents many challenges—how does one make the performance believable without resorting to crass mimicry, how does one make the figure a believable character within the work? However, the fact that these kinds of roles have a leg-up in terms of winning awards shows how voter bias can distort what constitutes meaningful work for an actor. Instead of rewarding the risky and new and groundbreaking, voters reward the flashy and familiar. Thus, instead of seeing a slew of new and exciting plays and movies come out each year, we are treated to the same slate of awards-grubbing historical docudramas.

In the New York Times on Friday, arts reporter Patrick Healy noted that many of the Tony Award voters that he has talked to were dissatisfied at the slate of new dramas up for awards this year, including the eventual winner All The Way. However, these 800 Tony voters are partly culpable because they continue to reward these kinds of plays and performances year after year. Instead of reaching for the easy and clear choice, voters can step back and think, “What kind of art do I want to see? How can I reward those who take a risk to make that art happen?”

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