What Makes an Oscar-Winning Performance? A thick accent, putting on 30 pounds, or a strong studio campaign: What does it take to win an Oscar? What role do politics and money play?
NPR logo

What Makes an Oscar-Winning Performance?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5217620/5217621" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Makes an Oscar-Winning Performance?

What Makes an Oscar-Winning Performance?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5217620/5217621" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News in Washington, DC, I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

The nominated performances for best actor include a debonair news anchor, a gay cowboy, a country western star, a pimp who's a wannabe rap star, and a New York writer covering murder in the Midwest.

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Yeah, I've decided on a title for my book. I think you'll like it. It's very masculine. In Cold Blood. Isn't that good?

CONAN: Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role as Capote. Accent, weight, range, payback, or politics, what makes a great performance, and what transforms a star-turn into an Oscar winner? Plus, relative unknowns push some big names off the Olympic stage in Torino. It's the TALK OF THE NATION after the news.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

When we sit down to watch the Oscars or fill out the annual Academy Awards office pool, every one of us goes through a series of quick and brutal calculations. Let's take this year's nominees for best actress as an example. Judi Dench in Mrs. Henderson Presents. No way. People still wonder how she won for 30 seconds onscreen in Shakespeare in Love. Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. Desperate housewife plays against type. She's got a shot. Keira Knightley was very pretty in Pride and Prejudice, but Jane Austen is so 18th century. Charlize Theron in North Country. Been there, done that. And Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line. Comedy actress takes on a serious role, but is it enough to make us forget Blonde Ambition Two?

So what does it take to win an Oscar, and is that the same as what it takes to make a great performance? Is it the way a performer delivers a line, how well he or she moves or looks or captures a character's psychology? Or is it about putting on 30 pounds and a heavy accent? What role do politics and money play?

Later in the program, we'll go to Torino where some supporting players are grabbing some of the Olympics limelight, but first what makes a great movie performance, and is that the same as what it takes to win an Oscar? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

We begin with NPR's entertainment correspondent Kim Masters, who joins us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California. Thanks very much for being on the show today, Kim.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

Oh, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And before we get to nuances about aesthetics and acting, the skill of a director, the influence of a genre, what's the buzz? You're in LA, the epicenter of the movie world. What are people saying about frontrunners this year for acting Oscars?

MASTERS: Well, we don't want to condone office gambling, of course...

CONAN: Never.

MASTERS: ...but I would say the formidable frontrunner for best picture, certainly, is Brokeback Mountain, and the potential upset contender is Crash, which is a very small movie, came out months and months ago and was, I think even its director and writer, Paul Haggis, expected to be forgotten by the Academy by now, but it has come on, and it has a strange and cult-like following, I think...


MASTERS: ...here in Los Angeles. And the other ones, I don't think any of those guys, I think Steven Spielberg is grateful to be nominated for Munich, which came out of the box very slowly and has not really found any momentum. George Clooney is popular for Goodnight and Good Luck, but he'll probably be rewarded in other categories.


MASTERS: And, you know, Capote. Philip Seymour Hoffman, yes, the movie I don't think so.

CONAN: Yeah, well, you point out George Clooney might be rewarded in other categories. Inevitably, that's part of everybody's calculation. Well, he's gonna win for best supporting actor in Syriana, we're not gonna give him to it for this.

MASTERS: Right. It's a mysterious process. It drives, it's partly, you know, it explains some of the insanity in this community, in Hollywood, and there is a lot of Oscar campaigning, and what they're doing is throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall and hoping that some of it sticks.

I mean, they do everything from holding, you know, DVD release parties that happen to coincide with Oscar campaign season, to visiting the old actors' home, which is a trek that all these guys make when they're campaigning. You know, they don't know, maybe one or two guys live out there, or ladies, who still vote in the Academy. But since they don't know what works and they don't know what the margin of voting is, they never tell you you won by two or you won by three...

CONAN: Right.

MASTERS: ...they just do whatever.

CONAN: Didn't campaigns used to be measured by the column inches in Variety?

MASTERS: Well, column inches, anything, ads. I mean, they, believe me, I've talked to producers who are scrutinizing how big the ads are, what the studio spend is. You know, they want to make sure it matches. I remember Scott Rudin, the producer of the one, you know, with Virginia Woolf had the, The Hours.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yes.

MASTERS: He was furious because he felt Paramount's, the ads were smaller than the other guy's ads. And so, you know, it's, it is really a question of whatever works.

CONAN: All right, and at the same time, these are all, obviously, ad campaigns run in favor of somebody. Are there ad campaigns run against people?

MASTERS: You're not allowed to do that and, you know, you get, you can't, a couple years ago Miramax got somebody to endorse a film. You can't do something that, the Academy is constantly writing rules about what you can and cannot do, and the creative minds in the industry are constantly trying to circumvent them. If you want to be negative, you have to do a whisper campaign, and it has been done. There have been allegations, for example, when A Beautiful Mind was in contention...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MASTERS: ...that there was a smear against John Nash, the subject of the film, that he was secretly anti-Semitic which, you know, is a bad one. And there are always allegations that this one or that one is spreading a rumor. This year there was a, you know, it's not so ad hominine, but there was a rumor, people would start to say, oh, the Academy will never vote for Brokeback Mountain. They're older, they're too conservative, they won't watch the gay cowboys. And so far, that doesn't seem to be working, but early on I heard that from a lot of publicists for other films.

CONAN: Well, let's broaden out the conversation a bit. Michael Kahn is director of the drama division of the Julliard School in New York City, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater here in Washington, DC. Julliard has produced any number of Oscar winners over the years, including Kevin Kline, Kevin Spacey, Robin Williams, Laura Linney. He's been kind enough to join us here today in studio 3A. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL KAHN (Director, Julliard Drama Division): Well, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Can you spot an Oscar winner when you see it?

Mr. KAHN: An Oscar winner?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. KAHN: No. I can certainly hope that a talented person wins the Oscar, and I can sort of spot talent, but I have to say it's not always the most talented person who gets the Oscar.

CONAN: I'm, well, anyway. But you can...

Mr. KAHN: Or the best performance.

CONAN: Or the best performance.

Mr. KAHN: Right.

CONAN: But you can, when you see a young performance say maybe he or she could do it somehow.

Mr. KAHN: Yeah, of course.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah. What do you look for in an actor?

Mr. KAHN: Oh, originality, ability to make somebody else's word their own, a particular take on something that's just not ordinary, imagination, creativity, some of which work in an Oscar nomination, some of which don't.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And obviously, at Julliard you're, are you focusing mostly on stage work...

Mr. KAHN: Well, I mean, I think...

CONAN: ...or on film work as well?

Mr. KAHN: You know, you've mention Kevin Kline and Laura Linney, and when I say to them, shouldn't we be training actors for films, they say actually the truth of the matter is that acting's acting, and you can actually learn the issues about film pretty quickly, as both of them did, since they were both trained actors. Although when I, you know, when I look at early performances, let's say, you know, Kevin in Sophie's Choice...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAHN: ...you see that he's still working in the theater, and that pretty soon after that he began to understand that acting is different in film.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And what is it, do you think, that transforms an actor's performance from a very good to Oscar-winning?

Mr. KAHN: Very often the editor.

CONAN: The film editor.

Mr. KAHN: Pretty much so. I think so. There's that famous story of an actor called Mischa Auer who was a huge success as a comic.

CONAN: Character actor, yes.

Mr. KAHN: Yes, but he never did anything. They just, he just did a lot of takes with his eyes, and they kept sticking them in when it was supposed to be funny and people laughed.


Mr. KAHN: I don't mean to diminish the work of an actor, but I think the editor has a huge amount to do with what makes a good performance or not.

CONAN: But there are parts that are pretty flashy, that can certainly lead to a nomination.

Mr. KAHN: Of course.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. KAHN: And I think they seem to be more in the area of a very pretty person putting on a huge amount of weight or a part that you die in.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAHN: Or that you play a famous person so that actually everybody knows you're acting because they actually know the person and they see, oh, you're like them so you must be acting. I know that Kim mentioned Crash, and, you know, Crash has a lot of wonderful performances in it, but yet nobody in that film got nominated for an acting performance. Perhaps because it's a...

MASTERS: No, I have to correct you on that one. I think there is a supporting acting nomination...

Mr. KAHN: Who?

MASTERS: ...for Matt Dillon.

Mr. KAHN: Oh, for Matt Dillon.


MASTERS: But certainly, you know, people thought that Sandy Bullock early on might have a shot...

Mr. KAHN: Right.

MASTERS: ...because it was such a great little piece.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MASTERS: And then it was, I'm sure it was less than, you know, that they might have looked for.

Mr. KAHN: And I think Thandie Newton was wonderful. I mean, that just, that scene where, you know, the cop went after her was pretty extraordinary.

CONAN: Well, let me weigh in. I thought Don Cheadle was pretty good, too, but...

Mr. KAHN: That's right.

MASTERS: No, there were a lot of, and they did win the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble.

Mr. KAHN: In fact they won the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble.

MASTERS: Yeah. So...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. So, anyway we want your opinions as well. What is it that makes a great acting performance, and is that the same as what makes a great Oscar-winning performance. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail is talk@npr.org. Why don't we begin with Nathan. Nathan is calling us from Salem, Oregon.

NATHAN (Caller): Yeah.

CONAN: Go ahead Nathan, you're on the air.

NATHAN: Hey, I'd like to comment about Russell Crowe, because when I'm listening, when I saw that film I thought there's an Oscar winner right there. I mean he just nailed that part. It was a beautiful part, did a great job, phenomenal. But you know.

CONAN: So you really liked Gladiator.

NATHAN: Oh, I loved, no, I didn't like Gladiator that much, I mean I liked Gladiator, but I think I liked A Beautiful Mind a lot better as far as Russell Crowe goes.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

NATHAN: Compared to Denzel Washington in Training Day for that year. It just wasn't the same thing. I looked at Russell Crowe and I thought man this guy, why did, why did, why did Denzel Washington get this when Russell Crowe was so much better in his acting ability about, you know, what he did with that character. I was just blown away.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

NATHAN: I'm a big Russell Crowe fan now, I wasn't before, but, that's what happened when I, on the subject of what makes a good Oscar performance and what makes a good acting performance. They are not the same thing obviously or else someone like Russell Crowe, in my opinion, would have got it that year.

CONAN: Well Kim Masters, was that year some, part of, and I do remember reading this, of course, Russell Crowe had already won for Gladiator, somebody else's turn.

MASTERS: Well there's partly a feeling, you know, people in the academy are human and there are, and some of them I'm sure genuinely thought Denzel Washington's performance was better. And I'm not going to judge that. But you know there was also a bit of an outcry because actors of color had been under-recognized by the Academy. That might have played a role in peoples' thinking.

NATHAN: You know.


NATHAN: I think that was the same year that they recognized Sydney Portier for the lifetime award. And I think Halley Barry won for uh...

CONAN: Monster's Ball, yeah.

NATHAN: Monster's Ball, yeah. I thought that was kind of interesting too. With that year it's kind of like a, nothing against it, but kind of a colored sweep of the real big ones, you know, and I thought maybe that had something to do with it, but I don't know.

Mr. KHAN: Well, as opposed to the old white sweep almost every other years.

CONAN: Almost every other year.

NATHAN: Exactly.

Mr. KAHN: And Halley Berry was really good.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

NATHAN: Yeah, she was.

MASTERS: If you look at these, you know...

NATHAN: I saw that movie, it was great.

MASTERS: Look at actor this year, you've got an incredibly difficult field. It's probably the toughest category. You have Heath Ledger, well I don't think Terrence Howard is in contention this time, but certainly Philip Seymour Hoffman is a formidable front runner. Joaquin Phoenix with a fabulous turn as Johnny Cash. And so, David Strathairn with a very well, I mean these are all potentially recognizable. And somebody, four people are going to lose this year who might have very well deserved, and walk to a win in another year.


Mr. KAHN: And I think the men's category shows a lot of real acting and not necessarily in the women's category.

MASTERS: The women's category is in fact rather a weak category, yeah.

Mr. KAHN: Well, I think Judie Dench is just going to get nominated every year. I think she's wonderful actor.

CONAN: She's a great actor.

Mr. KAHN: She's never been wonderful, the parts that she gets nominated for, she's just much better than some of these.

MASTERS: Well and you see them nominating Charlize Theron for North Country, which I bet most of them didn't even see. And that's the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scrapped because they can't find five decent parts for women, you know, that were rewarded.

KAHN: And this wasn't a good year for women and Meryl Streep didn't have a good movie.

CONAN: Nathan, thanks very much for the phone call. And I guess we'll hear from you after Oscar night.

NATHAN: All right, thank you for taking it.

CONAN: Appreciate the call. We're going to take a short break and when we come back, more of your calls about what makes a great Oscar winning movie performance for an actor or an actress. Give us a call 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. We'll be back after the break. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In a couple of weeks, millions of us will gather to watch the Academy Awards, one of Hollywood's most prestigious occasions. Today we're talking about acting and what it is about a particular performance that merits an Oscar or not. Our guests are NPR Entertainment correspondent Kim Masters and Michael Khan, Director of the Drama division at the Juilliard School.

So who's your favorite to win an Oscar this year and why? Who gets them and why? You're invited to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, e-mail us, talk@npr.org. In the life of a film critic, predicting Oscar winners comes with the territory.

Joining us now is Carrie Rickey, film critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She's in the studios of RTE Radio in Dublin, Ireland. And Carrie, thanks very much for taking time out of your vacation to talk with us about the Oscars. Are they setting up film studios in Dublin now?

Ms. CARRIE RICKEY (film critic, The Philadelphia Inquirer): No, but as many movies made here, many Oscar winning movies including My Left Foot, and, well, isn't lots. But let me jump into something you were talking about before. When Denzel Washington won for Training Day it wasn't an Academy Award, it was an Academy reward for him not winning for Malcolm X years before.

And this year I'm betting that George Clooney will not win best supporting actor, but that Paul Giamatti will win best supporting actor. And it'll be the Academy reward for not winning for Sideways or American Splendor. It's the oops reward.

CONAN: Yeah, it's payback, people reading the reviews a year later saying, we really should have done it before.

Ms. RICKEY: Well, look what Al Pachino won for Scent of a Woman, not his best performance, but boy, Michal Corleone and Toni Montana deserves an Oscar, doesn't he?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. There is that. So, as somebody who's been watching these films for years, are, beyond those patterns, the payback if you will, there's also, I guess, the career achievement award. Maybe not a great movie, Paul Newman, but about time.

Ms. RICKEY: Yeah, Paul Newman won for The Color of Money, not his best performance, a good one but I would have given it to him for The Hustler, which was the original of that character.

CONAN: And other categories that you think Oscar is especially kind towards?

Ms. RICKEY: It doesn't hurt your chances, Oscar chances, if you're in a biography. And seven of the twenty candidates this year are in biographies. David Strathairn plays Edward R. Murrow, Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash, Phillip Seymore Hoffman, Truman Capote, Catherine Keener, Harper Lee. Should I go on?

CONAN: So I guess...

MASTERS: Well also just to add that homely is a good thing, disabled, and...

Ms. RICKEY: Yes, absolutely Kim.

MASTERS: And if you play those roles and if you are actually very old, it doesn't hurt.

CONAN: Hmm. Like in...

Ms. RICKEY: Also if you're a very beautiful woman and you play dowdy like Grace Kelly won for the Country Girl, or Nicole Kidman for the The Hours.

Mr. KAHN: Borderline...

Ms. RICKEY: Borderline homely.

Mr. KAHN: Or like Elizabeth Taylor in her death's door in the hospital and have a tracheotomy. That will also get you one.

Ms. RICKEY: Absolutely.

CONAN: There's another, there's some negatives as well. If you're funny you're going to have a hard time, aren't you Michael Khan?

Mr. KAHN: Well yes, although I think Johnny Depp began to break that with Pirates of the Caribbean.

CONAN: Was he meant to be funny there? I'm sorry.

Mr. KAHN: Oh really.

Ms. RICKEY: Oh yeah, I think he did.

Mr. KAHN: And I don't think people don't know that actually comedy is often much harder to do than drama. And how you do it without an audience laughing and how you do it when you film out a sequence and all that.

I think it's pretty extraordinary and I think it's about time that great comic performances are actually recognized by the Academy.

Ms. RICKEY: I agree. I can only think of three performances off-hand that have won. I mean Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Claudette Colbert in It Happened one Night, also Clark Cable in the same movie. It's very rare and as, wasn't it Edmond King who said, dying is hard but not as hard as comedy?

Mr. KAHN: Right.

MASTERS: I'm still campaigning for Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger.

Mr. KAHN: Forget it.

Ms. RICKEY: I mean he gives a great performance.

MASTERS: He was great.

Ms. RICKEY: I agree.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got very much along these longs from Courtney in Green Bay, Wisconsin. There was a lot of talk about Nicole Kidman winning an award for Moulin Rouge, she didn't but the next year won a best actress award for The Hours. I hear a lot of the same conversation about Paul Giamatti this year for his supporting role in Cinderella Man. That has to be his year to win after missing out last year for Sideways. So I guess that people have caught on to these patterns.

Ms. RICKEY: And don't forget in Nicole Kidman's case, the prosthetic nose.

CONAN: A nose.

Ms. RICKEY: Which the studio was opposed to and I believe that was the difference between winning and losing for her.

MASTERS: Plan is.

Mr. KAHN: One of the strangest things though is to go back and see on DVDs now winners of performances and wonder what happened. I just saw Crossfire, a movie from the '40s and there's Gloria Graham and Robert Ryan in tiny parts who won Oscars that year. And you wonder what was going on that this was the major performance of the year? So, sometimes it's a whim.

CONAN: Marrisa Tome, just the name popped into my mind.

Mr. KAHN: Uh-huh.

CONAN: Anyway.

Ms. RICKEY: Well, that was a comedy performance and she was splendid. But I think frequently as the supporting actress has to be very cute. That's a prerequisite.

MASTERS: Mira Sovino.

Mr. KAHN: And it really is a curse isn't it? I mean what happened to Mercedes Rule?

MASTERS: Great actress.

Mr. KAHN: Yes, and win that award and either your salary goes up and you don't get anymore work.

MASTERS: She's doing a lot of stage. She's not idle.

Mr. KAHN: No, I know.

CONAN: Let's get some more listeners involved in the conversation. Freddy, Freddy calling us from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

FREDDY (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi. Freddy you're on the air.

FREDDY: Yes, I just wanted to make a comment basically with regards to actually who should get awards. You know many times substance, as far as it being that the movie has and how it is better for the actor and the entire content of the movie is not taken into consideration. And many movies are very shallow in content, they don't have much, the plot is lousy, yet those actors seem to be getting awards left and right. I don't understand when are we going to analyze the actual essence of the movie which is very important, and should play an important role in letting our actors, you know, win awards.

CONAN: Well, let me ask you Michael Kahn, should the content of the, the award is presumably for acting rather than for social content.

Mr. KAHN: Well, I also think though that the writing is important, and if the writing is good, the actor has a better chance of being nominated. And in the case, I think, of the men this year, those are very well written films. And so, actually all of those films have content that should make this person who's listening happy.

CONAN: Let me ask you in this context, I mean there has been a whole category of films and you think of the Star Wars movies, you think of the Indiana Jones movies, you think about all of these winning loads and loads of awards for technical achievement, maybe sometimes for film editing, but they never win for acting. You can't win as an actor in an action movie, can you Carrie Rickey?

Ms. RICKEY: Not often. Off hand, I can't think of one. Although I would have nominated Naomi Watts for King Kong this year because I thought she was sensational.

KAHN: Well there were people who wanted to nominate the actor who, you know acted out King Kong.

Ms. RICKEY: Andy Sirkus...

Mr. KAHN: Andy Sirkus...

CONAN: Andy Sirkus, yes.

Ms. RICKEY: Who's fabulous and who also did the Golum in The Lord of the Rings series and he's just, he's wonderful. I don't know if it's acting, screen acting as we classically know it, if there can be classical screen acting. But Michael, I wanted to ask you a question. Why do you think that Oscars tend to go to actors who are more, do more character acting than personality actors? I mean, it used to be that Katherine Hepburn would win because, and she, the Katherine Hepburns would win but not the John Waynes or the Clint Eastwoods because they did not vary from role to role as much.

Mr. KAHN: Well I think now people are looking to say, well, I think that's acting. And so when you're playing a character and people can sort of see that you're acting, they actually can have some idea that you're working. I mean, you know, when Kate Blanchet, who probably should have won for something else, won to be playing Katherine Hepburn, it's because they could tell that she was acting. She had a different accent.

CONAN: And it was gutsy too. I mean we all remember Katherine Hepburn.

KAHN: Well I didn't think it was a very good performance. I mean, she's a wonderful actress and I'm looking forward to seeing her again on the stage. But you could tell, I suppose, that Philip Seymour Hoffman and you've seen in other films, is clearly giving a performance because he's unrecognizable.

CONAN: Here's a famous example of this phenomenon, Dustin Hoffman in his Oscar winning role as autistic genius, Raymond Babbit, in Rain Man.

(Soundbite of "Rain Man")

CONAN: Michael, go ahead I'm sorry.

Mr. KAHN: Yes, sorry there's also something I think that when people like Katherine Hepburn and Betty Davis were winning that they had big studios behind them. And now that there aren't studios, I think, and it's more independent work from actors, people are looking to see what looks like acting to them.

Ms. RICKEY: But is it harder to be Clint Eastwood and do that every time? Or is it harder to be Robert DeNiro and be a chameleon and start from scratch every time?

Mr. KAHN: Well, I think it's hard to be yourself every time and still be interesting, but it's probably more difficult to try to characterize and transform in a film.

CONAN: And Kim Masters, let me ask you, just weighing in, again that idea of studios, this year it seems to be a year of much smaller pictures. At least for the most part.

MASTERS: Yes, it is entirely, except for Munich, it's the only big studio picture in the race. I think the Academy is somewhat panic-stricken about ratings because some of these movies, most of these movies are smaller movies and maybe a lot of people haven't seen them. And, you know, we're in this strange time where the studios are making a lot of sort of junky programmers, movies that are not really connecting, and we have a big box office slump going on for that reason.

But again, the labels that did these mostly are quasi-independent. They're the independent branch, arms of big studios. So, you know, it's an odd time to be an independent, to define what an independent film even is.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Nancy's with us. Nancy calling from Berkeley, California.

NANCY (Caller): Hi, actually I'm on the road, but I was in Berkeley.

CONAN: All right, well, we hope you're not too far away from it.

NANCY: I really thought Felicity Huffman was really terrific in Transamerica. I've never seen Desperate Housewives, so I don't know her work otherwise, but I just thought that was just an incredible performance, and I also felt that Philip Seymour Hoffman was really wonderful with Capote.

But I was really surprised, unless this is a movie that is considered 2006, the White Countess, I just, I would see that, I mean I just saw it a few weeks ago, and I would see it again and again. I thought it was extraordinary. And I thought...

Ms. RICKEY: Nancy, I am with you.



Mr. KAHN: Well, I think he's a modest actor. I think that's part of it. I think that his performances are always understated and they're not showy and sometimes showiness is actually what attracts the nominees.

NANCY: But I thought Ray Fiennes in the White Countess was the best performance I saw all year.

Mr. KAHN: Well, good.

Ms. RICKEY: I'm glad you said that. I did too.

MASTERS: Well, if it's any consolation...

NANCY: And I thought it was a wonderful movie and it was never even mentioned.

CONAN: Go ahead Kim.

MASTERS: If it's any consolation I think Felicity Huffman is definitely going mano a mano with Reese Witherspoon for Best Actress and I think Philip Seymour Hoffman is definitely the front runner in the male category.

Mr. KAHN: Let me ask you, do you think though that sometimes if somebody has a lot of films in the can coming up that people vote because they know that that award is going to help their next movie? Like we know Reese Witherspoon's going to have a lot of films and we know that Felicity Huffman probably won't.

MASTERS: I don't, I mean, that Academy members would think that way?

CONAN: Or industry members putting it that way.

MASTERS: No, I don't think so. I think in the privacy of filling out, I know that, I've heard people say, I think this is the best movie, but I hate that guy so much that I can't vote for him, but I think generally in the privacy of their balloting they just go ahead and vote for what they commit, I think emotional connection is what drives Academy Awards mostly. I mean, you may not agree with what they connect with, but I think to them that is what kind of defines it.

CONAN: Nancy, thanks very much for the call. Drive carefully please.

NANCY: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about what it takes to make a great Oscar winning performance and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's talk with John. John calling us from Redding, California.

JOHN (Caller): Yes. Hello. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

JOHN: I thought it would probably be good to cut to the quick of the issue. The gentleman that you're speaking with made the comment that we were indebted to editors. The fact of the matter is that editors are indebted to directors. And if you want to categorize all of the truly great acting performances that have been done, let's say over the last 45 years, what you do is you look for the names Lean, Fellini, DeMaulde, Houston, Peckinpah, these are the people that make film. Actors do not make film. Editors do not make film. Directors make film and we're not talking about movies. We're talking about film.

CONAN: Well, as somebody who trains actors, Michael Kahn what do you think?

Mr. KAHN: Well, I'm a director too, so I'm very happy to hear that. When I said that about editors, what I suppose I should have said that's a collaboration. But that that what's shot gets on the screen very often is what makes an important performance, than just the performance of the actor.

MASTERS: But there's a very high...

JOHN: But that's not what...

CONAN: Go ahead.

JOHN: What's generated by the director. The director, every time that, well, once again I happen to be one. Yesterday I couldn't spell it, today I am one.


JOHN: The fact of the matter is that directors are those people that ultimately are saying no, no, I want it back four frames.


JOHN: Is that true?

CONAN: I think that is unquestionably true, certainly if they have control over the cut.

MASTERS: I mean in some cases it's true. There are definitely films that have been saved by the editing. I mean, there are directors, and people in the community might know who they are, who rely on an editor to save them. And then there are directors who have an incredible vision. It's a very, these things, you know, vary from picture to picture.

JOHN: I'm betting that's so.

MASTERS: It's a huge correlation between certain directors and Oscar nominated performances. If you look at Elia Kazan, or William Wyler, or Martin Scorsese, they get nominations for their actors.

CONAN: Hmm. And I guess Elia Kazan, the one that everybody's going to remember was, of course, is staged in the back of a car in Hoboken, New Jersey. Let's listen to this clip from On the Waterfront.

Mr. MARLON BRANDO (As Terry): It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and said, kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson. You remember that? This ain't your night! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville. You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money.

Mr. ROD STEIGER (As Charley): I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Mr. BRANDO: You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley.

CONAN: Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, along with Rod Steiger. When we come back from a short break we'll continue our discussion about actors and Oscar winning performances. We'll also check in with the Winter Olympics in Turin. I'm Neal Conan, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Palookaville.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Right now we're wrapping up our conversation about the Oscars and what makes an Oscar-winning performance. Our guests are Kim Masters, who's NPR's entertainment correspondent, Michael Kahn, director of the Julliard Drama Division and artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre here in Washington, D.C., and Carrie Rickey, film critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, or email us, talk@npr.org. And let's turn to Sarah. Sarah's calling us from Milford in Michigan.

SARAH (Caller): Yes, hi. I wanted to say that I thought acting performances that I remember are the ones that are such a different part then what I'm used to seeing the actor do. For instance, like Jamie Foxx. Usually he's a comedian and he comes out and he plays Ray Charles or Tom Hanks the same way, doing Forrest Gump.

CONAN: Yeah, well, maybe more so for Jamie Foxx there. But playing against type, Michael Kahn, that certainly has rewarded other actors in the past.

Mr. KAHN: Oh, all the time, and I think it's because we can actually see that they're actually not playing themselves and we have some sort of judgment about what they're doing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And Carrie Rickey, that plays into, I guess, this year's nomination, Felicity Huffman, again, a Dangerous Housewife. Although a long time actress on stage, well known around the community, best known now as sort of a TV glamour puss and playing very much against type.

Ms. RICKEY: Felicity Huffman's playing against type in Transamerica, but Reese Witherspoon after a couple of Legally Blonde movies and Sweet Home Alabama, she's playing June Carter Cash. So that's also a change of pace.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RICKEY: So, but I absolutely agree. If a comedian goes serious, or if a serious person goes to comedy, that's very eye-catching.

CONAN: Sarah thanks very much for the call.

SARAH: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, here's an email that we got from Leslie in Alameda, California. Heath Ledger, she's talking about this year's awards. Hands down, she says, he created a new character, the likes of which we rarely see, out of only written words and incorporated the persona of Ennis in voice, stance, walk, manner, even smile, and laugh, except he's only 26-years-old and needs to pay dues in time and work for the Academy to recognize his extraordinary talent. The others, she says, they all mimic existing or deceased persons or play up stereotypes. Age, Kim Masters, does the age of an actor seem to play a large roll, a feeling that they may have to pay more dues?

MASTERS: Well, maybe Carrie remembers these, some of the numbers better than I do. Certainly there have been young winners. I think, probably, people feel a little more settled about it in the supporting category maybe then in a mainstream category. But, I mean, Patty Duke, who won...

Ms. RICKEY: Patty Duke was supporting as was Tatum O'Neal and Tim Hutton.

MASTERS: Yeah, I think it's more palatable in supporting.

Ms. RICKEY: But, you know, it pays to be very old too. Look at Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy. You know, you want to, I think either end of the spectrum, it helps to get attention, if you're very young or very old. But I think Keira Knightley, who's only 20, will probably have to work a little more. Heath Ledger is also a very much a change of pace pace. We've seen him in a lot of broad comedies and action movies. And to see this kind of clinched, clamped down personality in Brokeback Mountain is very much a change of pace performance.

MASTERS: Although, don't forget Monsters Ball, he had a short but...

Ms. RICKEY: He was great. He was in it for three minutes, though.

MASTERS: Very short.

CONAN: Let's talk now to John. John calling from Foster in Oregon.

JOHN (Caller): Hi.


JOHN: Say, could you possibly have your guests discuss the success of Mr. Jack Nicholson as a multiple Oscar winner?

CONAN: You sound...

JOHN: That's one actor who's so successful.

CONAN: You sound skeptical John?

JOHN: Oh, no. Absolutely not. I'd just like to hear why they think he's so successful.

CONAN: All right. Kim Masters?

MASTERS: Well, I think he's part of, he is one of the dying breed known as a movie star. And we're seeing, we don't have those anymore. He is a guy who plays essentially himself in different settings. He's a towering personality and he as what I think is an incredible confidence and assurance that you saw in movie stars back in the day, but you don't see anymore.


MASTERS: This sense of absolute supreme confidence.

Mr. KAHN: It's also wonderful to see him actually be willing to show his age, be his age, in the film with Diane Keaton. That's, I think, takes a lot of courage, at a time in your life, a movie star, and he was willing to do that. And that's wonderful to see.

Ms. RICKEY: I have another theory. I think he has a Vulcan mind-meld with his characters. I think JJ Gittes in Chinatown is very, very different than his character in Something's Gotta Give, or About Schmidt. I think he finds the center of himself and the core of the character and melds the two. And he can always find that space.

Mr. KAHN: And I saw, I was so surprised to see him in Tommy the other day. He was singing and looking so young, it was quite extraordinary. What a journey that man has had in front of us.

CONAN: Yeah, Five Easy Pieces, sure. John, thanks very much for the call.

JOHN (Caller): Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And, let's go to Perry, Perry in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

PERRY (Caller): Hi there, how are you doing today?

CONAN: I'm doing okay.

PERRY: Good. Neal, isn't the Olympics in Torino, not Turin?

CONAN: NPR has decided that the city in Italy is Turin, like the capital of Italy is Rome.

PERRY: Okay. But my question for your guests today, is there any performance or movie, you know, historically that got passed over that they really thought would've won? For me, personally, if my facts are correct, I thought The Color Purple lost out to Out of Africa, way back when, and to me, I thought they should have gone the other way. So I was wondering if any of your guests had a category or movie that, you know, just got completely hosed?

CONAN: Carrie Rickey, a nominee in that category and a reason why?

Ms. RICKEY: Denzel Washington, Malcolm X, because he has to, his character has such an amazing arch in that, he's four different personalities in that movie, and he shows how each personality builds on the previous one. And it's a great movie and it should have won Best Picture too.

CONAN: Michael Kahn?

Mr. KAHN: Every movie that was up against The Greatest Story Ever Told, I mean... Every movie that was up against Ben-Hur.

CONAN: Mm. Kim Masters, let me put you to that same question, but with a little spin. We were talking earlier about big campaigns that studios run, are their famous campaigns that studios have run for people that have flopped?

MASTERS: That flopped... I think that I, if I'm remembering correctly, I think it was the, was it the Avi, oh, there was, no there, I think it was The House of Sand and Fog, they tried to get a Best Supporting Actor's campaign and they were construed to have disparaged the competing actresses, which is a violation of the rules and probably didn't help her. But there are a lot of times where I think it's very dicey. If you're going to go negative about another movie, even if it's not something with fingerprints attached to it, there may be a little bit of backlash if you are perceived, as usually, I mean it usually is the Harvey Weinstein, formerly of Miramax, now with the Weinstein Company, many, many Oscar contenders, The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, and so on, usually he is the guy, I mean we may as well say the reality of it, who has been perceived as the negative campaigner. And I think it's a dicey game, it can backfire.

Ms. RICKEY: And also his campaign for Gangs of New York also totally backfired.

CONAN: All right. Perry, thanks very much for the call.

PERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: And, we wanted to thank all of our guests but we're not going to let you leave without your suggestions as to who might be the most deserving winning to open the, to get the statuette this particular year. Carrie Rickey, in the acting categories?

Ms. RICKEY: I'm looking for Paul Giamatti for Best Supporting Actor.

CONAN: Payback?

Mr. RICKEY: Ah, he was great as Joe Gould. It's a wonderful performance. I've never seen him give a bad performance.

CONAN: All right. Michael Kahn, who do you think?

Mr. KAHN: While I loved Heath Ledger, I think Philip Seymour Hoffman's work in every movie has been pretty extraordinary.

CONAN: And, Kim Masters, what do you think?

Ms. MASTERS: Well, you know, I'm a journalist, and I...


Ms. MASTERS: ...I just cover them all with equal love.

CONAN: We're not going to Kim's house on Oscar night, let me tell you that. Thank you all...

Ms. MASTERS: From the privacy of my home....

Mr. KAHN: That's how you win the pool....

CONAN: Kim Masters is NPR's entertainment correspondent. She was with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Carrie Rickey, film critic for the Philidelphia Enquirer, kind enough to join us today from RTE Studios in Dublin, Ireland. Michael Kahn, Director of Julliard's Drama Division and Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theater here in Washington, D.C., kind enough to be with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks to you all.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.