Here’s hoping that a handsome leading man wins this year's Academy Award for Best Actor (Who Went Beyond Pretty-boy Parts and Did Real Good)

In two weeks, the madness we call the Oscar awards — and which we just can't seem to stop talking about, at least those of us who make a living talking about cinema — will come to an end, and I will know who won Best Actor. We know now that it's going to be a race among Demián Bichir (“A Better Life”), Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”), Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”), George Clooney (“The Descendants”) and Gary Oldman (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”). And, it will please me very much to have either Clooney or Pitt win, regardless of how worthy the other contenders are — simply because they are representatives of a rare species, the handsome box-office star who's also a damn fine actor.

I realise this sounds, at first glance, somewhat shallow — for what have good looks to do with a good performance? After all, no one went to see Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart or Robert De Niro or Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman because they resembled Greek gods. In fact, you could say it was exactly the lack of Greek-god looks that made their performances so vital. They looked like ordinary people, so when they played ordinary people we believed them in a way we never would have believed, say, Cary Grant (instead of Bogart) as the uncouth and drunk and dirty riverboat captain in “The African Queen”.

It is almost a form of divine justice, as if God looked down at the handsome leading men and said: “Listen boys, you have the looks, and the price you're going to pay for those looks is being typecast in pretty-boy roles. Those others, the ones you wouldn't give a second look at if they passed by you on the street, they will get the great parts.”

And yet there are some who manage to cheat God, sneaking away with good looks as well as solid performing capabilities, actors such as Paul Newman and George Clooney and Brad Pitt and (now) Ryan Gosling. Can they play everything, anything? Perhaps not. Every actor is limited by his physiognomy, the associations he brings with him, the expectations his audiences have of him (and therefore what they'll pay to see him in) — but these actors have found a smart balance between pleasing their legions of fans (as Clooney and Pitt did in the Oceans Eleven movies, where they did little but advertise their pretty-boyness) and ensuring they don't get stuck in a rut.

One of the principal pleasures of the movies is gazing at stars, those perfect creatures with perfect features, and these actors give us that satisfaction, but they've also gone beyond, giving us characters we can take home with us — and it would be nice if this aspect got recognised during this year's Academy Awards, if Clooney or Pitt won an Oscar for not just being content to coast along with their looks, but also slipping into slightly difficult films and making these films bigger grossers than they would have been without these names at the top of the cast.

And every time I look at these actors, I wish more of our big stars would do their bit to foster a slightly different kind of mainstream cinema. This isn't about Aamir Khan using his clout to make “Dhobi Ghat” — that's a little too arty to sustain consistently in an Indian context. But a grown-up cinema (such as “Up in the Air” or “Moneyball”), I'd think, is viable if budgets were kept low and up-front salaries made way for back-end percentages. Audiences all over the world pay to see stars on a giant screen, and it is nice when this star makes them stand in line to pay for something else, something more than just a nicely sculpted face.


Performance index February 20, 2012