Last year, Kate Winslet first won a Golden Globe, then also got the Oscar;… (Kevin Mazur / WireImage )
Awards shows have a way of bringing out the emotional mess in an actor. Vanity, neediness, exhibitionism -- we've seen it all, from Sally Field's wildly ridiculed "I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!" to Kate Winslet's gooey meltdown at the Golden Globes last year, when she looked in need of psychiatric paramedics.
Cynics will tell you that these coveted statuettes are nothing more than a marketing tool, a way to drive up box office and stars' salaries, while jaded insiders will mention careerism, egomania and the cult of celebrity. But none of this does justice to the ridiculously prominent -- indeed mythic -- role these awards play in our cultural life.
Indulge me for a moment while I propose a theory of acting awards. My contention is that these accolades are not ancillary to the art of acting but instead shed light on a central dynamic -- one, you may be surprised to hear, that implicates us ticket-holding bystanders every bit as much the performers themselves.
In a nutshell, actors make explicit thoughts and feelings that are normally kept implicit. They slip inside a writer's fantasies and enact what has been silently imagined, from kitchen-sink actions to the most furtive wishes. Stealth truth-tellers, actors bear a fugitive guilt for their impersonations -- they're operating beyond the long arm of societal law, which explains perhaps the mix of condemnation and awe they have inspired throughout history.
"When I work, I get dirty and sloppy offstage," Maureen Stapleton (a supporting actress Oscar winner for "Reds") once remarked. "I don't take as much care of myself personally. It could be plain old-fashioned laziness, but I think it's a moral tendency. I feel I don't have to bother as much about matters I don't really care about."
This laxity for convention is just the tip of the anxious iceberg. Actors enjoy an enviable freedom yet their liberty is not without penalty. Apprehension is everywhere. Will the new drama be a flop? What if their fans grow indifferent? When will time pull the plug on all this heretical fun?
But there's another less obvious yet equally powerful source of worry: the threat of being punished for exposing the hidden parts of ourselves, for tattling on our collective secrets, for transgressing that line of what is permissible to show. In short, for doing everything that an Oscar-worthy performance is supposed to do.
The ensuing fear of reprisal, of being called out for objectionable behavior, is, of course, one of the psychological hazards of the profession. Applause, that custom of expressing approval by the clapping of hands, is a way of soothing this primal terror, of assuring actors that their game of make-believe hasn't offended, that those in attendance aren't going to renege on the conditional agreement (you'll act out, we'll for the time being consent). Ovations, like awards, are an endorsement -- as well as a reminder of who ultimately holds the cards.
In his fascinating book "Stage Fright: Its Role in Acting," Stephen Aaron, a clinical psychologist who has taught acting at Juilliard, connects these ideas with stage fright, a condition that is common to all modes of performance but most intensely experienced by actors. It's easy to understand the reason. The arduous journey of technical mastery is personalized in a unique way. To make vivid the subtext of their roles, actors must tap into what has been repressed within themselves, mining their own conflicts to more potently draw out the conflicts of their characters.
Stage fright isn't just about knocking knees and blown lines. The classic loss of control -- memories that seize up, mouths that refuse to work -- is symptomatic of deeper fears. Guilt, elusive yet ineradicable, lurks in the shadows of memorable character work, which invariably entails the dangerous rustling of secrets.
Great dramatic writing, from "Oedipus Rex" on, delves into shame -- yours, mind and ours. Performers are required to stand naked in this unflinching light, baring all for the sake of art. It's a fearsome psychological business, and the attendant paralysis that afflicts the profession can hit as easily in solitary studio trailers as it can backstage.
In an interview for the anthology "Actors at Work" by Rosemarie Tichler and Barry Jay Kaplan, Meryl Streep used the Yiddish word shpilkes ("rampant anxiety") to describe the terror that can strike on a film set. "I go nuts inside. I sweat and worry and say, 'I need a moment.' I go into my trailer, and there's nothing there that will help me. Nothing. It's a horrible way to make a living."
Perfectionism is a notorious albatross. Careers have been shipwrecked by an intolerance for anything less than the ideal, as those reading between the line of the lives of Orson Welles and J.D. Salinger can tell you. But imagine how this destructive loop can strangle when an artist's very being is the starting point.