Despite critical raves and big box-office success, Roddy McDowell wasn’t nominated for his work as the sympathetic chimpanzee Cornelius in the original Planet of the Apes. Unless things change radically in the next few months Andy Serkis, star of War for the Planet of the Apes, won’t be either. He’s getting the best reviews of his career for playing chimpanzee Caesar, leader to a tribe of genetically enhanced apes in the new film, but the Academy refuses to recognize his style of acting.
Unlike Serkis, McDowell wore a rubber mask that took hours to apply, even for quick promotional appearances like his 1974 spot on the Carol Burnett Show.
Burnett introduced McDowell as “one of Hollywood’s most familiar faces,” then feigned shock as the actor came onstage in a tuxedo, but in full Planet of the Apes facial makeup. They launch into a spirited version of the love ballad They Didn’t Believe Me. By the end of the tune the audience roars as Burnett warbles, “When I told them how wonderful you are, They didn’t believe me,” as she mimes picking a bug off his lapel.
Later she thanked Roddy for undergoing the three-and-a-half hours it took to put on the makeup for that bit of funny business.
It’s not likely you’ll see Andy Serkis partaking in the same kind of promotional monkey business.
Times have changed since McDowell had to endure untold hours in the makeup chair, then smoke using an extra long cigarette holder so as not to light his faux fur on fire. “It’s about a foot long and makes me look like the weirdest monkey you ever did see,” McDowell told Newsday.
These days Serkis, who is best known for his motion capture performances of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films and The Force Awakens’ Supreme Leader Snoke, performs on a soundstage in front of multiple cameras that film his performance from every angle. He wears a body suit dotted with spots that allow the computers to register even the slightest movement. Serkis calls this “a magic suit” that “allows you to play anything regardless of your size, your sex, your colour, whatever you are.” Later, in post production the “digital makeup” adds in the costume and character details.
It saves hours in the makeup chair, but is no less a performance than McDowell’s more organic approach. “I’ve never drawn a distinction between live-action acting and performance-capture acting,” Serkis says. “It is purely a technology. It’s a bunch of cameras that can record the actor’s performance in a different way.”
Which raises the question of why the Academy refuses to acknowledge the work of Serkis and others who specialize in motion capture? The Independent calls him one of the greatest actors of this generation and the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films recognize his work but the Oscars have steadfastly ignored his specialty. It’s a slap in Serkis’ face that The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers won an Oscar for Visual Effects in part because of the genius of his performance.
Whether included in the Best Actor category or another, new grouping for Best MoCap Performance, it’s time Serkis and others were recognized for their work.