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Monday, March 22, 2010

Unsung Performances: Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back for being groundbreaking and ahead of the curve but more often than not it fails to acknowledge the real game changers. Case in point: Andy Serkis' performance as Gollum/Smeagol in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Sure, the effects that helped bring the character to life were much lauded, but the performance itself - written off, perhaps, as mere voice work - was ignored. The effects are amazing, but they don't create the performance/character, they supplement Serkis' work. The audience doesn't respond to Gollum merely because of the technology, but because of the vibrancy and nuance that Serkis brings to him.

The supporting actors recognized by the Oscars in 2002 were Chris Cooper, the eventual winner for Adaptation; Ed Harris for The Hours, Paul Newman for Road to Perdition, John C. Reilly for Chicago, and Christopher Walken for Catch Me If You Can. Fine actors all, but if it were up to me Harris would be swaped out in favor of Serkis.

Gollum is a character with a dual nature and a dual purpose to the story. He is at once a menacing figure who threatens to derail Frodo's efforts to destroy the ring and a figure worthy of pity who has been so corrupted by the greed the ring inspires that he has been turned into a monster. He is at once Gollum, the calculating villain driven to repossess his precious, and Smeagol, the hobbit who doesn't want to do bad but is weak in the face of his alter ego. In one scene - one of my favourites of the whole trilogy - these two halves of the character battle it out, engaging in an intense back and forth that sees the good side finally refusing to submit to the bad. Serkis so expertly conveys the personalities of these two opposing forces that you forget that you're watching one character, not two. The effects that capture the facial expressions and physical movements of Serkis are of course important in this endeavor, but it's still Serkis' performance, his energy, that is coming through to bring Gollum and Smeagol to life.

By the end of The Two Towers Gollum is not just a technological marvel, but a compelling character as well. In his twisted, emaciated frame we see the consequences of greed, the possible future for Frodo unless he can stay strong and on course. We see the shadow of what he once was, the whisper of humanity that still exists within him, fighting against the power the ring has over him and we care. We want his better nature to succeed, even though we know deep down that it will be impossible. When he's playing off of Frodo and Sam, being alternately helpful and malicious (and hilarious: "Stupid fat hobbit!"), it seems so natural that you don't even think about the fact that you can't see the actor behind the character. You don't look at Gollum and think, "wow that's some great CGI;" the performance is so engaging and engrossing that you can forget that he isn't as real as Elijah Wood and Sean Astin standing next to him.

It will probably take a long time for performances like Serkis' to really be embraced and properly recognized, though with the recent success of Avatar these kinds of performances will probably become more common in the years to come. I think that there's an understandable resistance to it on the part of actors, who likely see it as a threat to their livelihood, and it's so easy to just dismiss these performances as having been created by the effects people that you can take the actor behind the character for granted. Serkis, however, does some extraordinary work in The Two Towers and his Gollum will likely be the high water mark for this kind of performance for many years to come.

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