What To Read: Andrew Zeveney is judging half a century of Oscar winners

This week, we interviewed Andrew Zeveney, who writes I’d Like to Thank the Academy, a publication reviewing all the Oscar-nominated acting performances over the past 60 years.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

On I’d Like to Thank the Academy, I watch and discuss all of the performances that won Best Actor Oscars since 1960.

Why start a newsletter about these performances? 

I’ve always been fascinated by cultural lists – number ones on the Billboard Hot 100, Booker Prize winners. Having lots of time for movies during the pandemic put me on a mission to see all of the Best Acting Oscar winners.

People always complain about the bad choices that the Academy makes, and honestly, I agree. It’s interesting and often depressing to see what we’ve held up, culturally, as “good.” The list of awardees is ridiculously white, contains far more people playing disabled than actual folks with disabilities, and is often based on “eh, I guess we should finally give Kate Winslet an Oscar”-type politics. The Oscars frequently overlook genre films, subtlety, and movies that might actually be fun to watch. But I hope that thinking about the specific ways that we’ve gotten things wrong in the past helps us to do better moving forward.

While part of the fun of the newsletter is ripping on the Academy and the system’s major flaws, I’ve also been incredibly impressed by how many great performances I’ve enjoyed.

How have the winning performances changed (or not changed) over time?

The types of performances that win have remained oddly consistent across time. The Academy loves sassy, down-to-earth young moms (à la Erin Brockovich), curmudgeonly old men (every Jack Nicholson performance) and put-upon wives (so many of these characters need to Break Up with Your Husband, I’m Bored). The particulars of the movies have changed, but the Oscars mostly haven’t.

What have you realized about great acting through reflecting on the winners?

The cultural image of great acting is an impassioned speech and a single tear rolling down someone’s cheek, but I’ve found that a great performance is often about presence even more than someone’s words and actions onscreen. I frequently find myself using words like “captivating” or “enchanting.” Copying an accent is one thing, but really engaging your audience? That’s an incredible ability, and it’s an ability that I’ve been able to see in performers much more clearly since embarking on this project.

A great performance is often about presence even more than someone’s words and actions onscreen.

One thing that really endears me to your project is that your readership is quite small, but that doesn't deter you from writing. I believe your first 96 posts had only one steady reader.

What motivates you to keep going with this newsletter?

I’ve always written for myself. Pretty sure that’s exactly the opposite of what any writing advice tells you, but hey! I put it out there, and if someone else discovers it and enjoys it, great. I have a lot of fun writing the newsletter, regardless of readership.

What’s one performance we should all watch, but likely haven’t?

I’ve discovered so many great performances through this project: Susan Sarandon’s quietly empathetic nun in Dead Man Walking, Faye Dunaway’s calculating executive in Network, Ellen Burstyn’s warm single mom in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

But the performance I find myself telling people about constantly is Cher’s in Moonstruck. It’s a great film, and if you’re a millennial like myself, who knows Cher through her cultural reputation as a larger-than-life diva, her performance is shocking. She’s restrained, slyly funny and deeply grounded.

Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend? 

I genuinely love so many, but I’ll shout out One Good Song by Jamieson Cox. It’s great music writing, and after reading, I get to add a great new song to my playlists.

Subscribe to Andrew’s newsletter, I’d Like to Thank the Academy.