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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Who Gives the Best Performance in The People v. O.J. Simpson?

Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian in The People v. O.J. Simpson.
We all know how tonight’s finale of FX’s pop-culture-conquering, fake-eyebrow-raising American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson is going to end. After all, the 10-part mini-series has kept (mostly) faithful to the 1995 double-murder trial of its titular character—who went from football hero to prime-time prime suspect overnight—and the jury’s verdict was so instantly infamous that it’s nearly impossible to spoil, let alone alter in any drastic way.
Still, the other central cliffhanger of The People v. O.J. Simpson remains unresolved: Namely, in a show featuring some of the best small-screen ensemble acting since (no joke) 2003’s Angels in America, which of its performances will remain in our memories long after People rests it case? We assembled WIRED’s own jury of TV lovers—who’ve been watching (and deliberating) this series since it premiered earlier this year—and tasked them each with picking their own favorite actor from Ryan Murphy’s recreation of O.J. trial. As we get ready to make a “Brentwood goodbye” to one of the most compelling TV series of the year, here are our arguments for the performances that made Simpson so scintillating:

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Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark

The People v. O.J. Simpson is all about hindsight—looking at a 22-year-old case with 2016 eyes. While most of that Monday morning quarterbacking is rightly reserved for re-examining the racial politics of the era, no single character puts the gender politics of the time into sharper focus than prosecutor Marcia Clark, who was scrutinized during the trial for everything from her childcare methods to her hairstyle. Played deftly by Sarah Paulson—gunning to win an Emmy like it’s the Trial of the Century—Clark is a professional battling to be respected in a courtroom run by men, but she’s also a truth-teller struggling with how much actual humanity she could display during the fight. (Still relevant!) This was evident from the start, but by the time People got to the sixth episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”—which follows Clark as she deals with a new hairdo and a set of leaked nudes—Paulson was switching from I-Dare-You toughness to How-Dare-You vulnerability from one scene to the next, with ease. If you followed the case in 1995 you remember just how much the public and media felt entitled to pass judgment on Clark—and how often that judgment came down to some variation of “appalling harpy.” If you’re watching Paulson portray her now, with all of her strength and flaws, it’s easier to see just how unfair her own trial was. No wonder Paulson thinks she’s a “hero.” —Angela Watercutter

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Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson

Let’s get an uncomfortable truth out of the way: He looks nothing like the guy. He’s a bit too short, for starters. His walk, meanwhile, lacks the barrel-chested certitude with which O.J. Simpson carried himself in his pre-murder peak. Even the voice, scratchy and high, can’t quite match up with Simpson’s deep rumble. But in The People v. O.J. Simpson, none of that matters, thanks to Cuba Gooding Jr.’s face. Just look at it—soft but firmly set, adorned with a few well-deserved crevices and crinkles, Gooding’s mug is revealing a secret every time you look at it.
For proof, just watch any of the series’ courtroom scenes, in which Simpson, knowing the court’s cameras are capturing his every move, tries to act like a normal person. It’s a trick the 48-year-old Gooding knows well, having been in the public eye for nearly a quarter-century now—more than enough time for him to have observed (and enacted) all the subtle, supple, autopilot expressions that a celebrity uses when dealing with the press and the public: The appreciative head-nods; the polite, wrinkling grimaces; the arched, watch-me-as-I-take-this-all-in eyebrows. You never know what Simpson’s really thinking, or even what he thinks he’s thinking; you just realize that whatever’s on the surface is an act. It’s only when Simpson is off-camera—such as when he’s confronting Chris Darden on his property, or browbeating his counsel behind bars—that Gooding’s scowl deepens, or his eyes become shark-like narrow, and we see how much emotion the character (and the actor) has been burying deep down, a place he can barely touch anymore. Thanks to Gooding, it’s in moments like these that the series becomes less about the People v. O.J. Simpson, and more about O.J. Simpson v. himself. —Brian Raftery

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Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran

Writing for WIRED in 1995, Jon Katz argued that the O.J. spectacle demonstrated that America was “no longer one nation indivisible, if it ever was, but a land peopled by many bitterly divided tribes.” The trial, and its controversial, country-splitting verdict, represented a crisis of empathy—the first of many—and if The People vs. O.J. Simpson does nothing else, it attempts to heal that rift by making both sides seem, if not sympathetic, then at least comprehensible. Nobody deserves more credit for that achievement than Courtney B. Vance, whose masterful depiction of Johnnie Cochran argued away the impression of the crusading attorney as a ridiculous grandstander, instead turning him into a flawed hero of Shakespearian dimensions, a man whose justified fury and sense of mission slides too easily into cynicism and self-dealing. Take a look at the scene in which Cochran is pulled over by a white cop and thrown to the hood of his car in front of his own daughters. In that moment Vance cycles through caution, humiliation, anger, pride, sooth-saying, and tarnished triumph in seconds. You won’t necessarily like Cochran at the end of this series. But you’ll understand why he jumped at the chance to make the O.J. trial a broader discussion about policing and race in America. And while Vance’s portrayal may not make you feel differently about the verdict, it might help you understand why some people did.—Jason Tanz

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Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden

The People vs. OJ Simpson has been a lot of things, but “subtle” isn’t one of them. That’s a compliment—its very soapiness is what kept us caroming through melodramatic moments like pinballs on a Stern Presents: OH NO THEY DIDN’T! table. But in a 10-week cabaret of Big Performances, of preening Travoltas and hangdog Schwimmers and sacrificial Paulsons, the show’s most affecting performance is also its least affected. As prosecutor Christopher Darden, Sterling K. Brown communicates his torment—and, thanks to Johnny Cochran’s masterful manipulation, his professional impotence—not through words, but through pulsing jaw muscles and mute helpless stares. His castmates may traffic in unrestrained sturm und drang, but Brown waits, cannily, to ensure maximum impact: bellowing his frustration at Marcia Clark in a tiny elevator, or daring Judge Ito to hold him in contempt. It helps that back in ’95 Darden was in many ways the stooge of the actual proceedings, pilloried for forcing the Isotoner Offense and generally coming off like Cochran & co.’s chew toy. It was easy to dismiss the over-performer in the trial’s undertow, but two decades later, Brown knows exactly where to find Darden’s humanity: inside him. That’s where it always was—it’s just where a nation of armchair attorneys forgot to look. —Peter Rubin

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