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There should be an Oscar for playing a real person

Aunjanue Ellis, Mikayla Bartholomew, Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Daniele Lawson in <em>King Richard</em>.
Warner Bros.
Aunjanue Ellis, Mikayla Bartholomew, Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Daniele Lawson in King Richard.

Look, I know the Oscars are trying to streamline this year, even going so far as to pre-tape a bunch of the awards speeches in the hope of freeing up space for montages paying tribute to the magic of the movies. ("Up next: A Salute To... The Movies! Remember Casablanca? Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Enchanted? City Slickers 3? Well, you know what they all have in common, don't you? They're all movies!")

But I've got a modest proposal that would 1) make the Oscars better; 2) add a category that's sure to be packed with A-list headliners; and 3) solve an issue that's been irritating me for years, all at once. If it makes the Academy feel better, they can even eliminate some gross, unsexy category to compensate. I mean, who needs cinematography with all the fancy cellphone cameras they've got nowadays, right?

That new category: best adapted performance.

You may have heard me rail on this issue in past episodes of Pop Culture Happy Hour. But if I could send just one message to Academy voters, it'd boil down to nine simple words: "They don't give MacArthur Genius Grants to Frank Caliendo." Rich Little has never won an E, let alone an EGOT. The Emmys have honored the occasional celebrity impersonation, often inexplicably cough Alec Baldwin cough, but the Oscars routinely go a step beyond in bestowing their highest acting honors on historical mimicry.

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in <em>Being the Ricardos.</em>
/ Glen Wilson/Amazon Content Services
Glen Wilson/Amazon Content Services
Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos.

Just this year, the five nominees for best actress include Nicole Kidman (as Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos), Jessica Chastain (as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye) and Kristen Stewart (as Princess Diana in Spencer), while nominees for best actor include Will Smith (as Richard Williams in King Richard) and Javier Bardem (as Desi Arnaz in Being the Ricardos). Those five performances include some true standouts: The Eyes of Tammy Faye is flawed, to put it lightly, but Chastain's take on Bakker is deeply weird and wildly committed, while Smith's take on Williams certainly transcends mere impersonation.

But if you've seen Being the Ricardos, ask yourself: Did you ever, even for a nanosecond, forget that you were watching Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem play the imitation game?

Impersonating a famous person employs a completely different skill set than fleshing out a new character, and it frequently involves a generous assist from the makeup-and-hairstyling department. Gary Oldman won a 2018 Oscar for his turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, but how much of the heavy lifting was done by the (also Oscar-winning) chin-putty people? Meanwhile, the other nominees for Best Actor that year — Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name, Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out and Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq. — had to craft their characters without prosthetics, without any preconceived understanding of how their characters were supposed to look or behave, and without the benefit of historical footage to study. Oldman does fine work in Darkest Hour, but he's got an entirely different job to do.

The first time I proposed a category shift along these lines, I suggested forgoing gender binaries in favor of a realignment of best original performance and best adapted performance. Several people tweeted at me to warn of unintended consequences — particularly a dude-heavy lineup in which various Thundering Men of Importance crowd women out of the major acting prizes. I'm not 100% sure that'd be true, but I concede the point and instead suggest a realignment with three lead-acting categories: best actress and best actor — awarded exclusively to performances of fictional characters — and a gender-neutral "best adapted lead performance."

Looking strictly at this year's best actress lineup, the decision to move Chastain, Stewart and Kidman (or perhaps Jennifer Hudson in Respect) into best adapted lead performance could free up spots in best actress next to Olivia Colman and Penelope Cruz: say, Renate Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World, Ruth Negga in Passing, Emilia Jones in CODA and/or Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza. Nothing wrong with more opportunities to crown fresh A-listers, right?

I know we've still got kinks to work out here: whether there's a need to replicate this system in the supporting actress/actor categories, for example, or the particulars of how you define an original vs. adapted performance. But it's time for the industry to at least contemplate the idea that not all acting jobs are created equal.

Would it solve every problem with the Oscars — like, for example, their persistent tendency to favor grim dramas over every other genre, year after year, even though brilliant movie comedies are way harder to pull off? No.

But it'd be a welcome start.

This essay first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations on what's making us happy.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)