Monday, August 7, 2017

A Look at "Atomic Blonde" and the Ongoing Need for a Best Stunt Performer Category

Scene from Atomic Blonde
Today marks Charlize Theron's 42nd birthday. Like all celebrities, it is fun to spend this day commemorating their great achievements in pop culture. After all, who could forget the scene stealing work in Mad Max: Fury Road, or the snarky brilliance of Young Adult? To say the least, Theron has been busy trying to start up an amazing comeback that'll likely define her as one of the most interesting, if not best, actresses of her generation. However, there is another topic that I would love to discuss regarding her recent work: Atomic Blonde. If you've seen it, you know how great her performance in the movie is. It also serves to raise the question: When will there be a Best Stunt Performer category at the Oscars?

There are a handful of wishlist Oscar categories that I would love to see be added to the line-up. These include Best Voice Acting, Best Motion Capture Performance, and Best Stunt Performer. It may seem silly to think of these as valid categories, but think about the popular movies from this year alone. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 features some top notch voice work. War for the Planet of the Apes features yet another career defining example of motion capture acting for Andy Serkis. While the third category doesn't have quite as much of a cultural clout at the moment, it is hard not to talk about Atomic Blonde's one achievement. That's right. It is the fight choreography, which was performed largely by Theron and not a stunt double.

In a recent video for Wired, choreographer Sam Hargrave breaks down one of the scenes in intricate details:

This isn't even the soon to be legendary "stairwell scene" that took place in one long take and features definitive proof on how hard Theron and the crew worked on making the action intense and realistic. It's in watching this video that you get a greater appreciation for something as simple as slamming someone through a glass table. Things that are largely overlooked by film fans end up being thankless because of how swift and cool they look. Nobody questions whether that fridge slamming into a man's face was padded. Nobody questions why they chose to do less instead of something more gratuitous. These are all small decisions that make the best fight scenes in any movie.

This is far from the first time that I have petitioned on here for stunt performer recognition (I previously wrote about it in regards to The Revenant). The only difference from last time is that I'm not arguing the difference between acting (which I felt that Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't doing) and stunts (which was the reality). I'm arguing solely about the stunts. There's a certain balletic approach to it that is downright beautiful in Atomic Blonde. The movie itself is a fun and pulpy Cold War action film, but it does seem likely that the film's lasting legacy isn't even Theron's performance itself. True, she does own the confident and cynical woman role very well here, but it pales in comparison to how impressive the stories have been regarding her workout regiment for the fight sequences.

There was a story that she broke some of her own teeth while filming a scene. That story isn't even over yet, as she is reporting that she is still having surgeries to get her mouth back to normal. If anyone has to question her dedication to the role, one just has to notice the impressive physicality that went into those scenes depicted above. It's because of her that the action works so well, even as she fights nameless henchmen. Would it be as impressive if the actor wasn't as well known? It might be as anyone who has seen The Raid movies can attest. However, I do think that in order to make this category a reality, it does need someone of a high profile. Much like I believe that Serkis is probably the only one who's going to get Best Motion Capture Performer into the Oscar circles, it has to take someone of clout in the industry to finally recognize its value.

In some ways, DiCaprio's work in The Revenant was a missed opportunity for this. It was a marketing campaign that wallowed in its torturing of DiCaprio as he jumped in freezing lakes and ate raw bison liver. There's no denying that it was intense, but that's not acting. Acting is manipulating emotions. There's no manipulation to getting hypothermia. Still, I am willing to see it as a performance of stunts that enhanced the story. I don't know how it would've changed things to hear DiCaprio speak out for a Best Stunt Performer category during his acceptance speech, but it's the closest that the studio has gotten to giving someone in that field an award. After all, most performers mostly get attention for changing physically and not because they risked personal health for a dumb two hour movie.

I do believe that Atomic Blonde isn't going to be in the awards circles at all. I also think that it isn't Theron's strongest acting performance. She is fun, but it's a straightforward role of espionage with deadpan humor. I also don't believe that the whole "She chipped some teeth" sympathy card should be played in getting her into the circles. However, I do believe that she deserves to lead the rally this year for Best Stunt Performer, or at least help spread awareness. She wasn't just someone who let a body double fill in for the cool scenes. She actually did the work, and while I'd call it more of acting than what DiCaprio did, I think it's still something that's removed from the Best Actress category.

The concept of this would kind of be like Best Special Effects. It is true that at the Oscars' starting point, special effects were present but not considered a big deal. Then as the decades rolled on and blockbusters became more prominent, they began to recognize the incredible special effects work of the various companies whose work you see but never think of by name. While it's still true that you're not likely to think of Life of Pi's Rhythm & Hues company (unless you're as invested as I am in their tragic bankruptcy during Oscar season), there's at least now recorded evidence that these companies are valuable to the film industry. These people make the images that dazzle audiences, and in some ways validate the field in ways that simply giving someone else in an established category doesn't.

Stunt performances aren't anything new. They are as old as The Academy and cinema in general. However, they have never gotten a fair shake when compared to actors who get recognition for body morphing or making themselves ugly. There is an art to doing perilous stunts, but very few of these performers are known by name, and it's in large part because of (no pun intended) stunt casting by people like Quentin Tarantino with Zoe Bell. I think that by giving them a category, they too can have validation for what they do, which is often harder than any method acting that Daniel Day-Lewis ever achieved. It probably won't make them household names, but it will be recognized that much like set design, special effects, and even sound design; stunts are part of the great package of the cinematic experience.

There's many ways that The Academy can update to appeal to what makes modern cinema unique. I also think in doing so, they can raise awareness of different fields that audiences take for granted. I'm not too sure that people outside of action cinema circles will be talking about Atomic Blonde for too much longer (at least based on box office totals), but I do think that making it a category will help raise conversation as to what makes stunts so integral to cinema. It could've been the campaign for Mad Max: Fury Road or even The Revenant - films that actually got into the Oscar conversation. Instead, it remains a taboo subject. I hope that changes. The next time someone talks about Theron's physicality in Atomic Blonde, try and notice how enthusiastic they are. Then imagine if stunts weren't credible and that they were cheapened in some way. That is essentially why we need this category. 

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