The film award season is upon us again. Rather typically, this year there are a disparate collection of films under consideration by the relevant academies, associations and members that will culminate in acceptance speeches that range from the touching and inspiring to those that make you shake your head and reach for the remote.
Despite the eclectic range of films, most if not all follow the tropes of Joseph Campbell’s archetypal storytelling structure. The protagonist (hero or anti-hero) is confronted with an obstacle (whether real or imagined, in human form or circumstance) that they struggle to at first accept before moving past the point of no return headlong into the story. Add a three-act structure, applicable tension and subsequent reprieves, culminating in a fitting climax and denouement and you have the skeleton of a universal story on your hands.
Movie-buffs, or really, anyone who possesses even a smidge of situational awareness, also picks up on another award season trend that at times proves even more obvious than Campbell’s aforementioned structure. When it comes to awarding artists in the categories of Best Actor/Actress in lead and supportive roles, (convincingly) portraying a character that requires a transformation – the more blatantly physical the metamorphosis the better, seems to be a lock in receiving a nomination if not an outright win (Hollywood politics and machinations notwithstanding). Cast your mind back over the last decade and try to recall all the weight loss/weight gain; prosthetics; uglifying/beautifying, and ‘against type’ roles. Chances are you’ll easily manage to find a whole bunch of them.
So why do we tend to salute these characterizations?
Is it because such roles overtly display what is usually more nuanced in other less ‘flashy’ roles – that is, it heavily showcases the individual artist’s skill? Do such roles come with a neon sign that says: Quiet! Serious thespian at work: for the consideration of the Academy. Or conversely, is the portrayal so quietly riveting, uncanny, haunting, etc., that the viewer plum forgets that they’re watching a film and a person who is at the end of the day just ‘playing pretend?’
Perhaps the answer is one, none, or a combination of the above. What is certain is that the ability to successfully take a viewer (or reader) on a journey – and to make them feel, think or simply escape whilst they’re in the middle of the applicable medium, is a potent one, which seems to hold us in its thrall.
Campbell’s storytelling arc can only truly resonate when the characters that play out the drama are as fully fleshed, idiosyncratic and complex as we ourselves are. It’s most definitely something to keep in mind for those who feel compelled to create.