For an annual issue that’s been coming out in its current form for more than 15 years, New York Times Magazine’s “Great Performers” edition this year is made up of many firsts.
Most notably, it’s the first time the list has gone outside of theatrically released movies to include those seen on TV, on streaming platforms and even on TikTok. But it’s also the first time the issue has been produced during a pandemic, and with many photos taken remotely of actors and comedians in relative isolation in far-flung locales. That being the case, it’s the first time Taylor Swift probably should have gotten a credit for photo assistant.
Yes, that Taylor Swift ended up essentially enacting the remote photo shoot of Zoë Kravitz, on the magazine’s list for her performance in “High Fidelity,” a series from Hulu. The actual photographer, Christopher Anderson, directed Kravitz, and Swift’s camera angles, through his laptop, from his base in Paris.
“Zoë was being very strict about it anyway because she’s shooting a movie,” Jake Silverstein, editor in chief of NYT Magazine, said. “And Taylor Swift was in her pod and willing to assist.”
The result is an intentionally “dreamy” photo of Kravitz, according to Kathy Ryan, director of photography for the magazine. “We wanted that quality because it’s been such an off year,” Ryan added. “So we went a little more surreal, otherworldly. We’ve all been in an altered reality in some ways.”
While certain photos were shot live in a studio, about half were not. That’s unlike the typical “Great Performers” issue, selected by Times’ critics A.O. Scott and Wesley Morris and which is somewhat tied to the Oscars. It’s considered an early glimpse at actors in contention for an award and it gets a big production budget and usually a big-name photographer to do all of the portraits. But 2020 put pause on that, too. This year the photos were done by six freelancers. They’re simple but colorful and effective. And the list is made up of half comedy performances and half dramatic ones. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle from Hulu’s Pen15 made it, as did comedian Hannah Gadsby for her Netflix special, Jason Sudeikis for Apple’s “Ted Lasso,” Maitreyi Ramakrishnan for Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever, and Michaela Cole got the cover treatment for her role in HBO’s “I May Destroy You,” a comedy-drama that she also created and wrote.
But the firsts aren’t over yet. This year is the first time an actor not in a release from 2020 made it on the list. That would be Cher and her performance in “Moonstruck,” released in 1987. Silverstein admitted there was some debate about including a decades-old performance on the list, but ultimately 2020 won out. As it has all year.
“2020 was just a time to break down the walls,” Silverstein said. Apparently, “Moonstruck” had some competition from the mayor in “Jaws,” who insisted to the people of Amity that the water was perfectly safe, even as a giant shark with a taste for humans roamed. It became something of a cultural touchpoint, also known as a meme, early in the pandemic as outgoing President Trump and governors of certain states insisted much the same amid the coronavirus pandemic. But Cher is Cher and she’s well earned her place above the “Jaws” mayor.
As for the inclusion of performances on TikTok, like breakout Trump lip-sync-er Sarah Cooper, along with Kylie Brakeman and Jeff Wright, who also gained massive popularity with political humor on TikTok, Silverstien chalked up going from the list only allowing theatrical release movies to including the opposite to 2020, too.
“It was partly a reflection of us wanting to recount a year in which we were all so isolated from each other and we were more reliant on screens than ever before,” Silverstein said. “And what we turned to on those screens was not super big-budget scripted dramas. It was sometimes pretty raw TikTok videos. People using few tools and almost no budget were able to connect with millions of people. Ultimately, that’s what great performance is about.”
But don’t expect the political satire of TikTok and TV to be the way forward for “Great Performers” in years to come. Even though Silverstein admitted Scott and Morris have been saying for the last several years, “Jeeze, so many of the best performances this year are not in theatrical release feature films,” this genie could go back in the bottle.
“Never say never,” he said. “Partly, it depends on what happens in the world. But it may be awhile before people are congregating in theaters again.”
This year’s list is also the first time none of the 23 actors selected gave their performance in a project backed by a major Hollywood studio, or even a subsidiary of one. The sole exception is “Moonstruck,” put out by MGM. But again, that movie was released more than 30 years ago. The major players behind this year’s list are Netflix, Hulu, HBO, TikTok, Apple and Showtime.
“That’s a good indication of how quickly the streamers have come to take full seat at the table,” Silverstein said. After he flipped through the issue coming out in print on Sunday to make sure that was indeed the case.
“We’ll probably be watching a lot of movies next year from our TVs,” he admitted. “If that’s the case, why privilege movies over TV?”