Historically, the Oscars have a very particular definition of what makes for great acting. As far as the Academy Awards are concerned, a worthy performance typically has less to do with expression than it does exhumation — sometimes the little gold man goes to someone for bringing an original character to life, but more often it’s given to someone for bringing a real person back from the dead. At least, that’s been the case in the 21st century.
Truth be told, that’s perfectly understandable: Quantifying art is a fool’s errand, and biopics provide voters with a way of measuring how close someone has come to hitting their target. It isn’t necessarily a good way, but it’s a way all the same.
Whatever their opinion on the role itself, it would be hard to watch Gary Oldman reanimate Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” and argue that he doesn’t capture the man himself, or at least our collective idea of the man himself. When it comes to the movies, imitation is often the sincerest form of — and the shortest road to — flattery. There are a zillion exceptions to this rule, but the fact remains that if you want to win an Oscar, you’d be wise to play somebody else.
At least, that’s been the conventional wisdom for the last 90 years. But this is 2017, and adopting conventional wisdom is just another way of being wrong. It’s time to re-write the playbook and invert everything we think we know. Case in point: Where the Academy Awards used to focus our attention on actors who play historical figures, this year our attention is just as focused on actors who are effectively playing themselves.
First and foremost among this group has to be Kumail Nanjiani, whose breakout performance in “The Big Sick” will be remembered as one of the year’s great Hollywood success stories, regardless of how it fares in the horse race.
The comedian has become enough of a household name that repeating his story for the umpteenth time feels wholly unnecessary, but please allow a quick reminder for anyone who’s been in a medically induced coma for the last few months: A Pakistani immigrant who parlayed a brilliant stand-up career into a major role on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” Nanjiani began the current phase of his career when kingmaker supreme Judd Apatow encouraged him to make a movie about the strange circumstances under which he fell in love with his wife, Emily V. Gordon.
Given that Gordon is an extraordinary writer (with a very different perspective on their personal history), Nanjiani wisely collaborated with her on the script, and the couple has distilled their unique courtship into a hilarious rom-com that’s shaped by the joys and challenges of the modern immigrant experience. (Also, the joys and challenges of dealing with your ex-girlfriend’s parents when she nearly dies from a mysterious infection a few days after you broke up.) A fresh spin on the formula that Apatow had perfected with the likes of “Knocked Up” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “The Big Sick” is the best rom-com in years, an open-hearted true story for close-minded times.
One of the reasons that the movie works so well is because it feels honest, and one of the reasons that it feels so honest is because Nanjiani plays himself. The extended Judd Apatow Cinematic Universe is full of films in which people riff on their public personas, but there’s a big difference between what Adam Sandler is doing in “Funny People” and what Kumail Nanjiani is doing here. “The Big Sick” isn’t a documentary, and it doesn’t purport to show us the story exactly as it happened, but Nanjiani is still working without a safety net; there’s no layer of protection between himself and his character. If audiences didn’t like the movie, it would mean that audiences didn’t like him.
At least, that’s how financiers might have interpreted the results in a punitive entertainment landscape that still sees every movie about women and/or people of color as a sweeping referendum on the commercial viability of their entire group.
The connection wasn’t supposed to be so direct; while the great Zoe Kazan assumes the role of Emily Gardner, an on-set snafu resulted in Nanjiani’s character keeping his full name. He’s referred to the incident as “a huge misstep,” and it’s easy to appreciate how erasing the last clear divide between fact and fiction might have complicated his feelings about actively reliving the most traumatic chapter of his adult life. Be that as it may, the lack of separation between Nanjiani and his on-screen alter-ego is emblematic of a movie that always embodies its own message about the sheer bravery required to be yourself in a time when everything we have is invested in our identities
Somewhat inevitably, Nanjiani’s performance is so natural and “effortless” that it may not draw the attention it deserves, but there’s a fine art to performing your own pain, and an even finer one to palpably conveying the love that pulled you through it. Comedic roles are overlooked every year, but the grace with which Nanjiani leverages his personal experiences into something universal, does so without sacrificing what makes them special, and uses them to hold his own against Holly Hunter and Ray Romano is a remarkable feat. Transforming yourself isn’t easy, and Gary Oldman is a world-class chameleon, but revealing yourself is just as hard.