What is good acting?

I think there are at least two ways of looking at it. One logical approach is to say, acting is the art of pretending to be something you’re not... therefore the most impressive acting is successfully pretending to be something very different from what you are. By this reasoning the best actors are the ones who have “range” and are capable of playing many different personae, taking on different accents like Meryl Streep. This is why actors win Best Actor Oscars for playing characters with mental illnesses that the actors presumably don’t actually have. The Academy also likes it if an actor puts on a lot of weight, or loses a lot of weight, in order to play a particular role. But you don’t get any points for playing a fat or thin character if you actually are fat or thin.

Another school of thought, which also makes sense to me, is that the portrayal is what matters and it shouldn’t be graded on effort. If your acting career consists primarily of playing fat, grouchy detectives and in real life you’re just naturally fat, grouchy, and suspicious, then more power to you. It’s still an acting job to portray those attributes on screen. Under this line of thinking, it’s possible for us to say that Clint Eastwood and Jimmy Stewart, Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock, are good at acting. They do one thing and do it well. After all, if you need a screwdriver, then a Swiss Army knife is great, unless you have a screwdriver.

It may be paradoxical that the Academy seems to lean toward the “range” theory of acting, yet most of their awards are supposedly for individual movies rather than career or lifetime achievement awards. It seems to me that, by definition, if a role is considered in isolation, then the actor shouldn’t be penalized because all their other roles are similar.