Opinion: The Oscars Need a Best Voiceover Category

In 1992, The Primetime Emmy Awards introduced the Best Voiceover Category to the awards ceremony primarily due to the popularity of The Simpsons. The Emmys had long shown appreciation for animated programs, which started in 1979. The primary rationale for the voiceover category was that, like actors and actresses in a movie, without proper voiceover actors, an animated show lacked the capacity to succeed. There is acting through voiceover, which can actually be more difficult than physical acting, in that there is only vocal range to connect and convey emotions between actor and audience. In fairness, The Emmys only begun having the category be competitive since 2009, having named the category winner(s) with the overall nominations in the past. Yet nonetheless, the ceremony has been recognizing the variety of acting-through-voiceover for nearly 10 years.

The same cannot be said with the film industry. Regarding the Academy Awards, it wasn’t until 2001 that the Best Animated Feature was introduced to the canon of awards given out on Oscar night. In the Academy Award’s defense, to a degree, it is not as if the Academy Awards were not awarding animated works. Yet they limited the scope of what could be nominated. The category was, and still is, the “Live Action Short Film” category. Through this category, the names of Walt Disney and Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit) were able to be both nominated and have the potential to win an Oscar. However, as the category title suggests, those who had the potential to be nominated were solely animated shorts that did not extend past thirty minutes. Animated feature films were, as a result, grossly underappreciated by the Academy.

However, the conception of The Best Animated Feature category was perhaps a little too late. In fact, The Best Animated Feature category was created in a unfair, and somewhat unforgiveable manner: The category was created in an effort to award 2001’s animated film, Shrek, with an Oscar. Knowing Shrek couldn’t conceivably be nominated for Best Picture, which was, at the time, the only method of awarding an animated movie, the category was created specifically for Shrek to walk away as a winner on Oscar night. While Shrek was exceedingly brilliant and deserving of the Oscar, it was, and still is, somewhat deplorable that the Academy recognized the need for the category to be established because of this film. The animated boom began in 1993 with The Nightmare Before Christmas – which was technically eight years the Academy Awards grossly under-awarded animated features.

Beauty and the Beast

Yet it doesn’t go to say that Academy Awards were entirely unfair towards animated films. In 1991, Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film to be nominated in the Best Picture category. It was a stunning first for the awards ceremony, one that had many speculating whether it was possible for the film to win the ultimate prize. Speculation rose even further when that year’s Best Picture frontrunner, Silence of the Lambs, began to get bad press with LGBT activists who were claiming the film portrayed a ill-representation of transgendered individuals. Additionally, critics and fans wondered whether Silence of the Lambs was too dark of a movie to be awarded with the ultimate film prize. Yet this wasn’t enough to stop the famous Hannibal Lector film from beating Beauty and the Beast for the Best Picture of the year. While Beauty didn’t win, it was at least an acknowledgement of the animated film, but 1991 should have been the year that the Best Animated Feature category was conceived. In comparison to Shrek, which wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, by creating the animated category, it offered no real competition for it. Beauty had to compete for an award and got the more obvious one of the night, Best Original Song.

The purpose behind explaining the poor judgment of the Oscars with the animated category is because we are seeing the same mistake being made currently with the potential for a voiceover category. This argument extends outside of animated films, since there are many films outside of the animated canon that would fit into this category, especially with the avert of film technology and CGI. Point being, there must be an acknowledgement from the Academy Awards that voiceover work is just as valuable as physical acting. Yes, the two are different variants of acting skills, but voiceover work can no longer be minimized, especially since physical acting does have the capacity to be incorporated into voiceover work now and occasionally voiceover acting has the capacity to lead a film.

HAL

Before a few examples are listed, it is necessary to write that these examples are in association when Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture, which should have trigged both an Animated Feature and Voiceover category. This leaves out some major possibilities, such as Douglas Rain, who did a tremendous job as the mechanical HAL 9000 in 2001 Space Odyssey. To have an audience associate human-like characteristics to a systems computer was entirely due to Rain’s steady voiceover work that gave the voice of HAL a mechanical computer sound, yet with undertones of humanity that would dare to give it the ability to evolve beyond being a machine.

Yet more the more notable choice would be James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy. Considering the physical body of Darth Vader was done by actor David Prowse, Jones’ voiceover work would qualify in this category. While his work in the original Star Wars trilogy was astounding, it was primarily his work in The Empire Strikes Back that was his true achievement. Jones conveyed sheer ruthlessness through the character, but also applied undertones of submission, such as when he speaks to the Emperor, while also expressing a discreet sense of being impressed during his confrontation with Luke Skywalker. The Empire Strikes Back is arguably the most popular of the Star Wars franchise and much of that must be accredited to the character of Darth Vader, thereby James Earl Jones brought Empire most of its glory.

Darth Vader Empire

While Jones can be considered the precursor to a category that should have been created nearly forty years ago, for the sake of this feature, we are going to focus on some examples that date from 1991 onwards:

Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Mrs. Potts Beauty and the Beast
If anyone should have been a first in such a category, it should have been Angela Lansbury, who brought both her decades of acting and her Broadway credentials with her for the performance of the matron teapot. Lansbury didn’t merely speak the lines offered to her, but through the power of her voice, she placed emphasis as protector towards all who lived within the Beast’s mansion. Furthermore, her musicality when singing “Beauty and the Beast” is still one of the most touching songs-within-a-movie to date. Click HERE to see the famous Belle and Beast dance scene set to Angela Lansbury’s singing.

Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin (1992)

Genie Aladdin
In all fairness, The Academy Awards wanted to nominate Robin Williams for his scene-stealing and hilarious voiceover work in Aladdin, but they couldn’t find a way to nominate him. They even speculated about awarding Williams a special Oscar, which would have been equally as worthy, but again, they opted to giving him nothing instead.

What Robin Williams did with his voiceover work as “The Genie” was the first of its kind considering he completely deviated from the script provided to him, which created one of the most infamous clashes in Hollywood history with Disney despising Robin Williams for not sticking to the script. Williams, instead, interjected as much ad-libbing into the script as he could, thus he made the character exclusively his own. This is what made Aladdin outside of the Disney canon and somewhat of an outlier; Williams changed the tone of the film entirely, thereby making it even more successful than it would have initially been.

In many regards, most people watch Aladdin not for the love story, but for the Genie. This is because Robin Williams provided so much life and comedy into the character, that everything else doesn’t compare. For example, Click HERE for the “Prince Ali” scene, which gave Williams the opportunity to sing, but also interject his style of comedy and ad-libbing into the song and lyrics. It’s one of the greatest moments in animation history.

Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as Woody and Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story (1995)

Toy Story
The Academy Awards missed the mark with seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993 changing how animation could be viewed and again missed the obvious when Toy Story truly revolutionized animation. Toy Story did manage to get three Oscar nominations, but they were relegated to Screenplay, Song, and Score, all of which didn’t honor or appreciate the animation itself. Even more glaring was how both Tom Hanks and Tim Allen changed how voiceover work could be done within a film.

Despite not being physically within the film, Hanks and Allen had to convincingly become the characters in order for their voiceover work to be realistically done. In the past, animated voiceover work was merely reading the lines, but with Hanks and Allen, they placed mannerisms within their dialogue, which was the first of its kind. Added to that, Hanks and Allen actually conveyed their acting skills through dialogue, which was also a feat in itself. Hanks had to convey feelings of sadness and the realization he’s no longer the favorite toy, while Allen had to portray himself as blissfully ignorant to the fact that he is a toy and then convey utter devastation when he realizes he was not really the spaceman he thought he was.

Ed Asner as Mr. Frederickson in Up (2009)

Up Mr. Frederickson
Up was a true achievement of film and it can be claimed that it was one of the first animated films that successfully tackled dense themes that appealed to both children and adults, thereby giving both an experience of their own. It is particularly for this reason as to why Up was the first movie since Beauty and the Beast to be nominated for Best Picture. Up transcended from being a mere animated film, to which a lot of that must be credited to both the script writing and the stellar direction from Pete Doctor. However, the glue that held all these components together was the emotional voiceover work Ed Asner gave to Mr. Frederickson.

Asner is one of the greatest examples of acting through voiceover, by successfully conveying a character who is emotionally defeated, devastated by the loss of his wife, which makes him bitter to the world. All he has is his dreams of being an explorer (“Adventure is out there!”), but even that dream is marred with sadness. By firmly establishing the character as such, Asner then had the secondary task of having his character embark on a emotional odyssey, to which he evolves as the film progresses. This extremely difficult to achieve since all Asner had to offer was his voice work, to which he had to give it his all in order to make the character convincing. Asner not only succeeded, but even went a step further with it; He applied both humor and sentimentality into the character, which gave both children and adults connectedness with the character. This was a tremendous achievement.

Andy Serkis as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings Series (2002-03)

Gollum
This is where the voiceover category has the possibility of surpassing animated films and can also incorporate films that utilize CGI and other technological effects. In 2002, for the first time in film history, there was a “animated performance” that couldn’t exactly be labeled as such. This was because Andy Serkis, not only provided the voice work for Gollum, but also provided the facial expressions and the movements of the character. This was achieved by having Serkis attached to nearly 900 pressure points on his body, to which it captured every movement he made, therefore Serkis was technically acting within the film, opposed to the character being computer-generated and thrown into the film. Through this computer capturing of Serkis’ movements, it allowed for the film’s photographers to then “paint” the visual of Gollum over the body movements Serkis provided. Of course, this also includes the stellar voice work he did for Gollum, as a tortured creature whose fate is entirely linked to the ring of power.

In 2002, The Academy Awards wanted to nominate Andy Serkis in the supporting category for a performance that was truly transformative and utterly revolutionary. It was the first, and to-date, the only performance of its kind. In the end, the Academy unfairly decided that Serkis’ performance as Gollum was only “half a performance,” thus snubbing him when he was deserving of recognition. There is no doubt that if a voiceover category had existed, Serkis would have claimed the award long before the nominations were even announced.

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Her (2013)

Her
She is merely a voice within the film. We do not ever have a physical presence of Johansson’s “Samantha” throughout the entire film because she is a computer, more specifically she is a OS1, which is an operating system with the capacity to communicate with the owner and continually evolve with the changing of culture and society. The film focuses on Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who purchases one of these operating systems and immediately takes a liking with the personality of Samantha, his operating system. Very quickly Theodore’s relationship with Samantha extends to them dating, which formulates Her’s commentary of society being so attached to their technology that they are essentially married to it. However, rather than diminish technology, the film explores the tender, but often complicated relationship, of a grown male dating his operating system.

Despite the fact the audience never actually sees Scarlett Johansson, Her was entirely dependent upon her performance. Her voiceover work carried the entire film since her character was the focal point of the film, to which all were reactionary upon her. Johansson had a complex task of conveying sexuality through her voice, but also confusion by never truly being able to understand what it is like to be that of a human being. Therefore, her reactions and her sentimentality had to be done in the style of how an operating system would react and ultimately have a progression of knowledge through the experiences she encounters within the film. This is especially complex considering Johansson had to craft her character as having so much enhanced knowledge that it devastates her and causes her, as an operating system, to be depressed.

Again, the Academy Awards considered nominating Scarlett Johansson in the supporting actress category, but opted out of it when they, like when they were considering Andy Serkis’ performance as Gollum, claimed it was only “half a performance.” Also, like Serkis, if a voiceover category existed, Johansson undoubtedly would have taken home her first Oscar.

 

As these seven examples represent, the Academy Awards is committing a disservice to the film industry by not having a voiceover category. The awards ceremony has already done a disservice by choosing not to incorporate a animated feature category until 2001, 72 years after the first Oscars night. The same mistake shouldn’t be committed any longer with voiceover work, with many performances being snubbed and cast aside merely because they didn’t fit within the parameters of the acting categories. If they do not fit, then a category ought to be made that can be applied towards these performances. Film is continually evolving and challenging its boundaries, as evidenced by Scarlett Johansson and Andy Serkis’ performances. Rather than having these performances minimized, they ought to be honored. It is a hope that in due time that the Oscars will recognize the need for this category and will introduce it into their canon of awards.

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