Does an actor need to be on screen to be recognized?

Essay Sharkey
A scene from “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

As a film critic, I spend many hours thinking and writing about performances each year. Yet when the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. announced that it would not consider Scarlett Johansson’s work in “Her” for a Golden Globes award, it stopped me.

Their reasoning: She did not have a physical presence on screen. That we can agree on. But she did have a very real presence nonetheless. “Her” would not be the same film without her. The decision has an arbitrary, old-fashioned feel to it in this new techno-centric age.

It seems particularly ironic given the topic writer-director Spike Jonze is toying with in the film. His cut at our evolving relationship with technology and his observations on “artificial” intelligence is as acerbic as it is astute.

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As an operating system that dubs herself Samantha, the character is not only mere sound but the very spine of Jonze’s story. I was hooked as quickly as Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore was, getting to know a very specific personality, sensing her hesitations. In their growing interdependence, I began to worry about her as much as him.

As Jonze examines it in the film, “intelligence” — nature or artificial — is about understanding and adaptation, adaptation means change and choice, and all of it implies thought and contemplation. Samantha’s very existence — whether visible or not — brings that home powerfully.

Johansson certainly represented something specific for the director. Jonze first cast and shot the movie with Samantha Morton as “Her,” only to recast with Johansson and then reshoot the scenes with Phoenix. It seems that her — whether Morton or Johansson — performance affected his.

There were other performances that caught my attention this year that we also didn’t see but which certainly factored in to the success of their films.


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What is “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” without Smaug? And yet beyond a random line here or there in a review, Benedict Cumberbatch’s scorching performance will go unnoted.

Physically what we see in Peter Jackson’s film is a fierce fire-breathing dragon, devilish eyes, tail switching, belly glowing. Not a single scale is Cumberbatch’s doing. But the fire in Smaug’s belly? It would have no meaning without the menace that slithers into the actor’s voice. When Smaug speaks, the sound curls around you like smoke — insinuating, sneering, scathing.

And, oh, what a voice. Smaug sounds not a bit like Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series, or “Star Trek’s” Khan, or “12 Years a Slave’s” Ford, or “August: Osage County’s” Little Charlie, or “The Fifth Estate’s” Julian Assange. Same actor, different sense, sensibility — and sound — for each.

Let me not forget Josh Gad. His is the voice behind the charmingly comic innocent Olaf in Disney’s animated “Frozen.” If you were to see Gad in the flesh, he is nothing like Olaf. No snow, no buck teeth, no bald pate. But Olaf would not be Olaf, not as lovable, not as forgivable, without Gad’s warm self-deprecation.

The time seems right for a serious reconsideration of what defines a performance, whether flesh and bone is a requirement. After all, technology is not going away, it’s only going to get more sophisticated, pushing filmmakers and actors into new territory. Shouldn’t we celebrate the risk-takers willing to go there first?

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What about motion-capture? An actor in front of a green screen, sensors transmitting his movement into a computer that builds the image we see. “Avatar’s” Na’vi would have been nothing without it, or certainly not the stunning blue creatures they were. Is that acting because we can see it? Or because of its effect? Or some amalgam of both?


Let me leave you with this. What I experienced from these three exemplary actors was something tangible. Something real. Something noteworthy. So until Hollywood sorts it out, consider this my awards for the best disembodied performances of the year.

The gold for best unseen intelligent being goes to Scarlett Johansson for “Her.” The prize for stellar villainous vocalizations belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch for Smaug. And the winner of the finest inner-voice of a comically cartoon character is Josh Gad, hands down.


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