There are so many spaces where we praise actors and actresses. Awards shows. End-of-year lists of performances. Reviews. Roundtables. Late-night shows. Gay Twitter. The comments section on Jennifer Garner’s Instagram posts. But not all performers are actors. Not all performers are even necessarily people.
Some performers are actually just dolls.
For whatever reason, film and television in 2021 was a real clown car of dolls, just spilling forth: creepy dolls, funny dolls, creepy-funny dolls, creepy-creepy dolls. It was as if casting scouts were only signing talent this year at the nearest American Girl Café. Less likely a performer will get COVID that way, if they don’t have lungs. Puppetry has long been used as an effect in movies, even nowadays, when it’s often augmented with CGI. But it’s one thing to puppeteer a monster or an animal; humanoids are something entirely else, too uncanny valley, too blinky and weird-limbed. And we’re not talking strictly about puppets, but also diegetic dolls — dolls that exist within their universes as dolls. Some of them move, some of them don’t. Some of them talk, some of them sing. Some are MacGuffins, others main characters. But all were dolls, and you couldn’t watch a thing in 2021 without them staring back at you. So please welcome your presenter, recent Vampire Week honoree Renesmée, as we present the First Annual Golden Dolly Awards.
DOTY (Doll of the Year): Young-hee, Squid Game
As if there was ever any competition. Young-hee, who also goes by “Chantal” according to her interview with E. Alex Jung, stood literal heads and shoulders among other influential dolls on screen this year. This massive killer-robot doll set the tone for the rest of the series in her first Squid Game appearance: threatening and captivating, weaponizing nostalgia against its players. If most dolls are uncanny and creepy because they look like people but they’re too small, Young-hee flips that paradigm on its head. Of all the dolls on this list, Young-hee has the highest kill count, and considering some of the other dolls here, that’s saying something.
Best Performance by a Supporting Doll, Sketch and Variety: Tammy Craps, I Think You Should Leave
This sketch stars Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Julia Butters, but it has writer Patti Harrison written all over it. This toy commercial spoof centers around a popular baby doll called Tammy Craps, sending up children’s decades-old love of dolls that piss and shit themselves. While confounding to adults, there’s definitely some child-psychological reason for why this is such a thing. But every additional detail in the Tammy Craps ad grows more and more disturbing. Kids need to be a certain minimum weight to play with Tammy Craps, otherwise she’s as poisonous to them as five packs of cigars. She “doesn’t have farts in her head anymore,” a feature that raises more questions than it quells, but yes, she does still lie. Like the Claire’s sketch that closes out the season, “Tammy Craps” feels ripped from Tim Robinson’s experience as a father and Harrison’s love of all things grotesque and surreal. And as a fake ad, it also plays into the lunacy of Robinson’s Comedy Central series Detroiters. In a world where a diaper-dumping unicorn called “Poopsie Slime Surprise” is a best-selling toy, does Tammy Craps, the poison doll that craps and lies about it, seem all that strange?
Best Performance by a Doll Opposite Adam Driver: Annette, Annette
The one concession this list will make to a doll who is arguably more puppet than doll is Baby Annette, the star and centerpiece of Annette. Leos Carax’s woozy Sparks musical about fame, love, and obsession wouldn’t work without this scary wooden girl playing the exploited and beloved daughter of star soprano Marion Cotillard and edgy comedian Adam Driver. Annette is gifted and sort of floats when she sings, and she’s an object celebrated and torn apart by the world, but she’s also a child: observant, scared, holding an even-smaller doll and waddling around and sitting on Simon Helberg’s lap. She is arthouse Renesmee. You might not think everything this movie is setting out to do clicks. The songs suffer a massive dip in quality after the opener. The comedy set pieces really feel like a French person’s understanding of what stand-up is, and that’s not a good thing. But don’t blame Baby Annette. As the best line in the movie goes, “She is a baby, after all.”
Breakthrough Performance by a Doll, International or Staten Island: Nadja’s Doll, What We Do in the Shadows
Ever since the vampire Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) summoned her soul’s ghost, became besties with it, and found a Gothic doll for it to possess, that haunted doll has been a key member of the What We Do in the Shadows gang. Because the show is filmed in handheld mockumentary style, the Doll’s movements in vérité are especially funny, whether she’s rolling her eyes or doing a little jig in her seat. The Doll comes in handy for scenes where Nadja is out of the house in some other plotline, but a Demetriou zinger is needed to punctuate a scene. The show is very smart about not overusing the Doll, almost to the point that the viewer can forget she’s there, until she pops up again for a hilarious reaction shot or visual gag. But it’s that very restraint with the character that spurs the Doll’s best episode to date: Season three’s “The Siren.” The Doll is frustrated that everyone in the house is too busy to pay attention to her, and so she runs away. This leads to some great shots of the Doll in action: practicing sword fighting, tugging at Nadja’s skirt, and eventually, packing up a bindle and toddling away. Eventually, she goes on a possession spree, leaping out of the doll body into a mannequin, a statue, and Scabby the Rat, before reuniting with her chosen-ish family. “More comedies should have standalone episodes for their haunted doll characters” … is what I would say if more comedies had haunted doll characters.
Most Cursed: Schneider Kinder “Upside Down Boy,” Home Sweet Home Alone
Arguably the best thing about Home Sweet Home Alone, the Disney+ reboot (and, in certain scenes, remake) of the John Hughes classic Home Alone, is that the action all revolves around a malformed porcelain German doll with an upside-down head. A synopsis: Rob Delaney and Ellie Kemper, this film’s wet bandits, have to break into Archie Yates’s house to steal back the antique, a “Schneider Kinder” little doll boy, so they can sell it on eBay and keep their house. It’s a goofy and irreverent premise that saves the movie from being too wishy-washy a retread and leads to a perfect use of Rob Delaney: as an adult doll man.
New Media Vanguard Award: Ensemble, @Sylvaniandrama
In the second-ever episode of Pen15, Maya and Anna “play Sylvanian” by sitting on Maya’s bedroom floor and moving cute animal figurines around. They play out slightly more mature scenarios than they might have before middle school: They make the little cats and hedgehogs fight, make out, and cheat on each other. It’s a perfect shorthand for their bittersweet moment in life, awkwardly existing between childhood and adolescence. The TikTok account @sylvaniandrama is like if that scene got into its mum’s drug cabinet and was given a 1,000-episode series order to play as a daytime soap. Set to pop songs both new and nostalgic, @sylvaniandrama’s cinematic mastermind sets up these cute figurines in scandalous scenarios, making them bully each other, take crash diets, get married, get makeovers, get murdered, go on benders, and have midlife crises. What sets these videos apart from something like “The Most Popular Girls in School” is that there is capital-A ACTION and the action moves fast. There are boat crashes, car crashes, hospitalizations, and characters jumping from great heights (dollhouse roofs) to certain peril. All of this atrocity done with blank-faced little Calico Critters and sassy overlaid captions. It is the year’s best soap. What Happy Tree Friends was to the Flash animation era, @sylvaniandrama is to TikTok.
In Memoriam: Manny, Yellowjackets
None of the youth on Yellowjackets are okay, but Taissa’s (Tawny Cypress) son, Sammy, is particularly not okay. At least those other kids have the understandable excuse of being stranded in the wilderness for months on end. Sammy is clearly disturbed, and the show hints at some kind of intergenerational trauma that’s potentially supernatural in nature. He has a hard time making friends and he’s been drawing some really spooky shit, both classic trademarks of a horror-film kid. Sammy’s only companion besides his mom appears to be a doll named Manny, which looks like an American Boy™, if that’s even a thing. When Sammy gives Taissa sass, she confiscates the doll, only to find it in the basement, in the middle of a summoning circle, its eyes gouged out. Here’s to a doll who died in the line of duty: helping a haunted kid work through some shit.
The Annabelle Memorial Award for LGBTQ+ Allyship: Chucky, Chucky
Chucky and his bride, Tiffany, have always given off the aura of the straight couple that’s allowed at Pride. He punked John Waters. He fought with Kathryn Heigl on the set of Bride of Chucky. He recently made a guest appearance accosting Miranda on And Just Like That …. And this year, he got a new show on USA and Syfy and used it as a platform to give a surprising pep talk to the current poor human he’s terrorizing, a gay teen named Jake (Zackary Arthur). In a clip that went viral, Chucky talks about his own “queer kid,” Seed of Chucky’s genderfluid Glen/Glenda. Chucky may be a homicidal doll from Satan’s own private toy chest, but he’s “not a monster, Jake.” Chucky is absolutely coming for Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me By Your Name’s lunch. Dad of the Year over here.