Year of the Dog in Film Has Some Clamoring for Animal Oscars

The temptation to honor animals for acting has long existed in Hollywood. Sometimes an animal’s performance appears so skillful and so integral to the success of a film that it seems blind not to consider recognizing it. Although there is increased chatter about acknowledging outstanding animal performances, there continue to be doubts as to what constitutes animal acting and if a dog, for instance, should be able to take home a prize conventionally intended for a human.

This year’s non-human star is Uggie, a Jack Russell Terrier who played The Dog in the black-and-white, silent film, “The Artist.” He has made appearances at press events and award shows, often stealing the spotlight from his human costars, but he has not garnered any serious attention from award-giving entities for his work in the film. He is joined in popularity and achievement by another of his breed – Jack Russell actor Cosmo who captured hearts with his knowing performance as Arthur in “Beginners” – as well as a capuchin monkey, Crystal, seen in “The Hangover Part II,” and the team of horses who played “War Horse” hero Joey.

Other animal stars going back to the beginning of the film industry have been greatly admired, but none has received any major awards or nominations. Probably the most notable snub of animal acting is that of Rin Tin Tin. In her recent book, “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” Susan Orlean writes that her research uncovered evidence that Rin Tin Tin received the greatest number of votes for Best Actor for the very first Academy Awards but was not given the prize, for fear the fledgling award show would look ridiculous. The Oscar was instead given to silent film actor Emil Jannings, who later went on to make propaganda films for the Third Reich.

From the standpoint of pure entertainment value, allowing animal nominations for awards would be an effective strategy for increasing viewer interest in award shows. Easily the cutest part of Sunday night’s Golden Globes telecast was Uggie’s prancing across the stage as the cast and crew of “The Artist” accepted the award for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy. Producer Thomas Langmann had to put his speech on hold as the audience’s “awws” showed it was clearly more entranced by the terrier. In fact, Uggie’s adorable mugging for the camera has propelled him to fame, as he now has a fake Twitter account (the handle is @artist_dog, and beware: it’s rather salty) and an unofficial For Your Consideration campaign.

It’s not only about entertainment. Animal acting now has important champions like Steven Spielberg. But with all award shows except the Oscars having announced their nominations, it is all but certain Uggie and his fellow animal actors will again go unrecognized. Animal actors have obviously not been given their own category by any of the major groups. As reported by The Independent, the British Film and Television Academy wrote to members that Uggie could not be considered for one of its regular awards because “his unique motivation as an actor was sausages,” clearly implying that his work was not acting, but rather the performing of previously learned tricks.

It is unclear how BAFTA has concluded that Uggie’s only motivation was sausages. First off, human actors work for their own version of sausages – big paychecks, increased fame, or critical recognition. But more importantly, there is so much we don’t understand about animals’ brains. After all, only fifty years ago it was not commonly acknowledged that animals felt pain. It is arrogant to say they lack the emotional capacity to act and behave only in Pavlovian reactions. We do not really know whether animals could conceptualize the idea that they are portraying another character as human actors do, but should that make their performances less valuable? If an animal’s performance elicits an emotional reaction in an audience, as Uggie’s work in “The Artist” has, or Cosmo’s in “Beginners,” who is to say his lack of self-awareness prevents him from being considered an actor?

Even if Hollywood power brokers will agree that animals such as Uggie are indeed acting, it would not make sense to create a permanent category for them at awards shows. The film industry is not consistent in producing movies with prominent roles for animals, so there might not be performances worthy of acknowledging every year.

However, if voters wish to consider animals for regular acting awards, they should have that right. But it also bears mentioning that many human actors are not fairly recognized for their work in less conventional roles. Human actors playing animals, monsters, or other creatures with the aid of motion-capture technology have not been nominated at any of the major award shows. Voice actors have experienced the same fate. The goal should not be to get animal actors or motion-capture actors their own categories, but to recognize them alongside conventional actors if critics and voting members believe their performances merit it. Oscar nominations will be announced on January 24, 2012. Will Uggie be among the names mentioned?

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