Complete coverage of the 85th annual Academy Awards

A Curious Case for the Oscars

By Jere Hester
|  Friday, May 15, 2009  |  Updated 1:44 PM EDT
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A Curious Case for the Oscars

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Brad Pitt's special effects-aided performance in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is shaping up as a test case for the Academy Awards. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

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If Brad Pitt wins the Best Actor Oscar for his impressive performance as a man who ages backward in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” he’ll have a lot more folks than Angelina Jolie to thank.

Pitt will owe a debt to the three actors who lent him their legs for a key portion of the film – as well as to Andy Serkis, who gave life to the evil Gollum in “The Lord of Rings” movies.

But will Academy Award voters be bold enough give the precious to an actor whose performance was aided by startlingly realistic special effects?

The bodies of actors Robert Towers, Tom Everett and Peter Donald Badalamenti II were used during the title character’s early years as a young-old man. Pitt’s heavily made up face was later digitally attached to the bodies.

It’s a remarkably effective performance all around. But it’s sure to raise doubts in some minds as to whether Pitt is Oscar worthy.

A similar debate first reared its head in the form of the hideous Gollum, a digital character created using Serkis’ amazingly expressive face, movements and voice. Murmurs that Serkis should be nominated for an Academy Award were quickly shouted down by the Oscar establishment.

Things have changed in the last few years, as digital effects have become more commonplace. Some – including Serkis – make the argument that shutting out those whose performances are aided by state-of-the-art technology is akin to penalizing an actor transformed through makeup alone.

"Actors' performances in films are enhanced in a million different ways," Serkis recently told NPR, "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."

Pitt’s Benjamin Button isn’t a purely digital character, but benefits from special effects in the crucial early portion of the film -- the part where the audience either buys the concept or doesn’t. If no one believes the story, then it’s going to be a mighty long two hours, 47 minutes.

Judging from the film’s generally strong critical reaction and box office – not to mention a leading 13 Oscar nominations – Pitt gets the job done through some old-fashioned acting.

He faces some formidable competition in the Best Actor category. But voters shouldn’t automatically knock him out because of the film’s special effects.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is shaping up as a test case for Hollywood. A film that has audiences counting backward for nearly three hours should have Academy Award voters looking forward.

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.


Andy Serkis' Gollum
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