Critics and Awards (Should They or Shouldn’t They?)

Incomparable: Audra McDonald, Cherry Jones, Estelle Parsons

Incomparable: Audra McDonald, Cherry Jones, Estelle Parsons

Last week, a Philadelphia arts journalist colleague asked me for a list of some of my favorite theater events last season – sorted into several categories, since he does these as a kind of personal awards for favorite shows, directors, actors, etc. I was flattered, of course.

But another reaction I had – a kind of starchy disapproval of awards in general – took me by surprise… because I suppose I’m a hypocrite.

Without my critic’s hat on – meaning when I’m just another consumer of pop culture – I’m a voracious awards fan. For years, I followed the Tonys, Oscars and Emmys with gusto. I talked about them endlessly with friends. We traded our own list of favorites (along with a lists of “if person X wins I’ll scream”). I never missed an awards telecast.

Yes, part of me loves the awards game – hoping my favorite artists are recognized… and sometimes that my unfavorites go home empty-handed, their losses punctuated by humiliating close-ups. What can I say? It’s my bloodsport. (Am I the Michael Vick of the Tonys?)

Joan Crawford knows the value of an Oscar!

Joan Crawford knows the value of an Oscar!

Yet when I’m thinking as a critic, awards make me queasy. Ranking seems absolutely antithetical to what we should aspire to do – treat every show we see as a unique experience, and assess it on its merits. Comparisons are odious, even impossible.

As a case in point, consider one of the hottest category races in recent years – the 2014 Tony for Best Actress in play, where the nominees were Tyne Daly, Cherry Jones, Audra McDonald, Estelle Parsons, and LaTanya Richardson.

I think anybody would acknowledge that’s a pretty stellar lineup – five really outstanding actors. More than that, in the truest sense of the word, they’re incomparable.

Tyne Daly and Estelle Parsons (in Mothers and Sons and The Velocity of Autumn respectively) were creating roles in new plays, which has advantages (sometimes the ability to work with the author; to forge unknown territory) and risks (unknown territory again – it can be tough when you don’t have a sense of how this was done before).

Cherry Jones (The Glass Menagerie) and LaTanya Richardson (A Raisin in the Sun) had the opposite situation – they were appearing in classic American dramas, where their roles were indelibly attached to others who created them. Claudia McNeill’s incandescent performance in Raisin was committed to film, and available to all to see as a benchmark. Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie remains the stuff of legend, and a legend it certainly became. (If you’re interested, watch the section about Taylor in Rick McKay’s sensational documentary, Broadway: The Golden Age, and weep that you weren’t there to see her.)

Then there’s Audra McDonald, who (as her fans would undoubtedly agree) was in a category all her own. Playing Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, McDonald’s job was to recapture an actual historical figure, one who was memorable and familiar to most of the audience. It would probably be too crude to call what McDonald did “impersonation,” but certainly most critics praised her for the astonishing accuracy of her Billie. (McDonald ultimately won the Tony in a record-breaking victory.)

But, again – how do you compare these very different challenges?

As a critic, I sometimes compare two performances in the same role – thinking again of Glass Menagerie, I might comment on how Amanda Wingfield was played by different actors. That, at least, is apples-to-apples.

Yet it’s harder than you might think, particularly if you’re looking to come up with a ranking. Amanda Wingfield again – I saw Cherry Jones, and also Jessica Lange, who did it on Broadway in 2005. Reviews for Jones – and the 2013-14 revival in general – were exceptionally positive (rapturous from the New York Times). Response to Jessica Lange and her revival was more measured.

I’d characterize Jones’ Amanda as radiant and heartbreaking in her emotional commitment. Lange was something quite different – brittle, sardonic, even sexy (Brantley’s review describes her “sleepy, neurotic sensuality,” and also calls her “miscast.”) It was a quirky take on the character to be sure, but in a number of key scenes – the famous jonquils speech, also some of the charged interplay with Tom – she was a revelation.

Jones was probably closer to what Tennessee Williams’ himself imagined, and more consistently successful. But to me, in her best moments – of which there were many –  Lange was more interesting.

Maybe this is why critics shouldn’t be in the awards business.

But I was asked, so I thought about it – and I sought some guidance from Mark Cofta, my friend and co-critic at City Paper.   Mark’s thoughtful even-handedness and strong sense of ethics always impress me. What would he do in this situation?

It turns out that Mark was asked, too – and had some good advice. “Well, we go on record one show at a time, right?,” he wrote. “To look back at the season and mention the highlights seems like a good thing.”

He also pointed out a small but crucial element about the awards we were asked to submit. “The idea of calling it ‘favorite’ rather than ‘best’ seems like a step in the right direction.”

For me, that small detail was highly significant – a game-changer, really. “My favorites” – who could argue with that? Also, even if the ultimate goal was to choose one in every category, I could submit several – and also leave out categories where I didn’t have a favorite.

So that’s what I did – submit nominees in some (not all) categories. Ultimately, it made me happy – here was an opportunity to celebrate what I enjoyed, and perhaps bring them to the attention of a few more people.

To quote Mark again: “I share your reservations about any awards, though I do participate in the Barrymores because I think the public recognition and celebration is ultimately worthwhile.”

Sounds right to me.

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