Here, better late than never is my annual Oscar Dossier, number thirtysomething in a series as I’ve been doing this a long, long time–well before the popularity of the Internet. Honestly, I didn’t think it would happen this year. I’ve been distracted by a major family emergency, so some of my life’s little pleasures, such as rhapsodizing over Uncle Oscar, have been put on the back burner. Seriously, this thing has impacted every aspected of my life though things are looking much better now; however, I saw some pretty dark days beginning in early January and continuing through most of this month. Still, I spent as much time working on this extravaganza as possible. I even got sidetracked by the deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Maximilian Schell, but I persevered; however, I decided not to write about the passing of either Shirley Temple or Harold Ramis in order to stay focused on this particular task. Rest assured, I’m a big fan of both and plan to honor them in some way soon. Oh, and you know what else I let go? A tribute to Steve Martin, the winner of the Academy’s lifetime achievement award (presented in the fall). For now, here’s what I offer…I’ll be tinkering with this including revising and checking facts between now and Friday, still two days ahead of Oscar time.
KEY: ASC (American Society of Cinematographers); BFCA (Broadcast Film Critics Association); DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics); DGA (Directors Guild of America); GG (Golden Globe); LAFC (Los Angeles Film Critics); NBR (National Board of Review); NSFC (National Society of Film Critics); NYFC (New York Film Critics); OFCS (Online Film Critics Society); PGA (Producers Guild of America); SAG (Screen Actors Guild); WFCC (Women’s Film Critics Circle), WGA (Writers Guild of America); USC (Friends of the University of Southern California Scripter Award)
American Hustle – NYFC, GG for Comedy, and SAG Award for Best Ensemble | PGA nom | Writer-director David O. Russell turns the Abscam scandal that rocked Congress in the late 1970s and early 1980s into a caper film with plenty of twists and turns (not unlike 1973’s Best Picture winner The Sting). Even so, the movie plays fast and loose with the facts and begins with a curt disclaimer, allowing only that “some” of what follows is actually true. What the movie is really about is a celebration of 70s excess with heavy emphasis on wigs and Halston and Bob Mackie inspired fashions. Still, American Hustle showcases some of today’s hottest stars: Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner. Fun stuff, but is it a winner? American Hustle has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.
Captain Phillips – PGA nom and GG nom for Best Motion Picture Drama| This fact based story about the 2009 hijacking of a cargo ship by Somalian pirates–and the American captain held hostage during the standoff–has been a competitor for much of the awards season, and that includes nominations from the Producers Guild of America, the Directors Guild (for Paul Greengrass), the British Academy, the Golden Globes, and Screen Actors Guild nominations for star Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi; however, it seems the campaign has stalled, what with the high profile omissions of both Greengrass and Hanks in their respective Oscar categories. Beyond that, there’s the matter of reports that the movie sacrifices the importance of other crew members in order to play up Phillips and his star incarnation. Captain Phillips has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Dallas Buyers Club – PGA nom and SAG nom for Best Ensemble | The head-to-toe transformations of actors Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are not the only shocking things on tap in Dallas Buyers Club. What’s shocking is the way that the Food and Drug Administration was slow to approve medications, other than problematic AZT, to help treat AIDS patients during the 1980s and early 1990s as dramatized in this nominated film. Shocking is also the way to describe the lengths McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof had to go to in order to obtain such medications and bring them into the country illicitly. Woodroof’s “club” (in which participants bought memberships in order to zip through a legal loophole so as to avoid buying illegal drugs) was not unique, but Woodruff was certainly a unique individual, and his club was reportedly better and more elaborately organized than similar outfits that dotted the country during the same period. Dallas Buyers Club is not likely to win in this race as its director is not also in the running; however, the fact that the movie is actually in the running says a lot about its staying power since skeptics were initially too eager to write it off as simply a vehicle to bolster its leading actor’s credibility. Dallas Buyers Club has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay.
Gravity – DFW, LAFCA [TIE], PGA [TIE] | GG nom for Best Motion Picture Drama| The fall’s runaway smash hit, about a pair of astronauts hurtling through space after debris from an exploded satellite destroys their space station, is also a critics’ and industry favorite based on a spate of awards that includes a tie for top honors from the Producers Guild of America, director Alfonso Cuarón’s Directors Guild prize, and Emmanuel Lubezki’s ASC victory. Believe me, if you haven’t see it, please be aware that Cuarón pulls out all the bells and whistles to create a technological tour-de-force–in 3-D for those so inclined; 2-D for the less, um, easily swayed (such as myself). The naysayers complain that the movie is big on effects and short on substance. I’ll admit that it’s not necessarily profound, in the same sense as, say, 12 Years a Slave, but it still works as excellent story-telling, again, for those so inclined to exercise a little patience and ferret out some of the deeper meaning. Gravity has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects.
Her – LAFCA [TIE], NBR | PGA nom and GG nom for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy | Spike Jonze’s first film since his overblown 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are features the always watchable Joaquin Phoenix as a man–specializing in writing on-demand personalized correspondence–who falls in love with this operating system, voiced with aplomb by Scarlett Johansson. This futuristic tale boasts impressive design elements and occasional wit, but it errs by being too earnest and philosophical when it should be dark and biting. Plus, it’s not so original though it appears Jonze is on track to cop an Oscar for his–“original”–screenplay. We’ve already seen similar episodes in everything from Ovid’s “Pygmalion and Galatea” to Lars and the Real Girl, and, heck, even 1988’s Mannequin if you really want to go there. Her’s chances are hurt in this category because Jonze failed to make the cut for the Best Director award. Plus, despite loads of acclaim well in advance of its national release in January, it’s been a hard sell with the American public, grossing a mere 23 million since it opened for awards consideration back in December. Her has been nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay and Best Production Design.
Nebraska – GG nom for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy| Alexander Payne’s black and white road movie concerns an elderly man desperate to claim what he believes are sweepstakes winnings, or somesuch, worth one million dollars. Payne’s view on modern life in the heartland is unflinching, and his trademark dark humour doesn’t always add lighten the proceedings. Still, after sojourns to California’s wine country in Sideways and Hawaii in The Descendants, this is a return for the Omaha native whose early films, Citizen Ruth and Election, explored the darker side of life in his home state as a microcosm of America at large. Nebraska has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay.
Philomena – WFCC | Based on a shocking true story, Philomena stars the great Judi Dench as a plucky Irish woman tormented by the past and determined to find out what happened to the son she was forced to give away while a young unwed mom in the years right after World War II. Philomena‘s inclusion in the Best Picture race is a nice touch, but its odds of winning are slim. Philomena has been nominated for 4 Academy Awards including Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.
12 Years a Slave BFCA , OFCS, PGA [TIE] – | SAG nom for Best Ensemble | This the incredible true story of Solomon Northrup, a 19th century free man of color (with a wife and children) living in New York , who was tricked, drugged, and sold into slavery. Transported to Louisiana, he endured multiple humiliations but never gave up, and eventually he was freed and reunited with his family. He published his story the year after his release. This is no doubt one of the most painful accounts of slavery ever committed to film, and while Northrup’s ordeal is no more humiliating nor dehumanizing than those of people actually born into slavery or sold into slavery as children, it is a potent history lesson that, among other things, pounds home the message that freedom is something most of us take for granted, and the film serves as a reminder that all humans need to be treated with dignity and respect. That’s a lot for one movie, but this one delivers. 12 Years a Slave has been nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The Wolf of Wall Street – PGA and GG noms | I’m at the end of the alphabet here, and I’m all out of words. I honestly don’t know where to begin with this one. It’s from ever-celebrated director Martin Scorsese, and it’s based on the true story of Jordan Belfort a former stockbroker convicted of fraud in the 1990s. Of course, Scorsese has legions of die-hard fans, and good for him. On the other hand, this film has tested the patience of many. I freely admit that I’m not a Scorsese fan, and I take each film on a case-by-case basis. The trailer for this one was a huge turn-off for me, so I skipped it. Even so, I do know that some critics have carped that Scorsese’s take on a known crook–not to mention his high rolling, indulgent lifestyle–is a tad too kind, leaving viewers scratching their heads; meanwhile, the movie also has the distinction of setting a record for most uses of the “f-word” in one film: reportedly 506 times in 108 minutes, yet even with Scorsese’s nod as a possible boost, this one seems to have already faded as a viable contender. The Wolf of Wall Street has been nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor.
Amy Adams (American Hustle) – BFCA and GG for Comedy | SAG nom| – This is Amy Adams’s fifth nomination, and her first as a leading actress. Previously she was in the running for supporting performances in Junebug (2005), Doubt (2008), The Fighter (2010), and The Master (2012). In her first few high profile roles, Adams portrayed sweet, naive women, and that includes her starring turn as a fairytale princess in Disney’s Enchanted; however, lately Adams has found success with darker material. In American Hustle, she plays a sexy con-artist with a British accent and a heart of steel. The Academy likes to reward performers for taking chances, and apparently everyone in Hollywood is in awe of Adams. Plus, she’s the only one in this bunch who doesn’t already have an Oscar. She also earns bonus points for appearing in two Best Picture nominees in one year, the other being Her.
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) – BFCA, DFW, LAFC [TIE], NSFC, NYFC, OFCS, GG for Drama, and SAG| Blanchett won Best Supporting Actress for impersonating–that’s the most appropriate word–screen legend Katharine Hepburn in her dewy youth in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. It was Blanchett’s second nomination after dazzling audiences and critics alike in 1998’s Elizabeth. During the 2007/08 Oscar race, she scored double nominations for playing England’s Queen Elizabeth I for a second time in Elizabeth: The Golden Age AND for portraying iconic folk-singer Bob Dylan of all people in I’m Not There. She also snagged a supporting actress nod for 2006’s Notes on a Scandal (more or less opposite fellow nominee Judi Dench). She’s been the frontrunner in this category for most of the season thanks to a striking performance in a gem of a role, that of a once fabulously affluent Manhattanite whose world comes crashing down around her once her wheeler-dealer husband is arrested for fraudulent business deals. There’s no doubt that this is the kind of full-tilt movie star role that the Academy has long favored. There’s also no doubt that writer-director Woody Allen owes more than a smidge to Tennessee Willams’s Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Blue Jasmine is an update, and it’s very good for what it is, but it’s also too transparently mechanical for my tastes, and that keeps me at arms length. Interesting fact: Blanchett and fellow Blue Jasmine star Sally Hawkins are the 12th and 13th nominated performances by actresses in Woody Allen films (along with 5 additional nominations for actors in leading and supporting roles); if Blanchett wins she’ll join a winners circle that includes Diane Keaton (Annie Hall, 1977), Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite, 1995), Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2008), and Dianne Wiest, a double victor for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994).
Sandra Bullock (Gravity) – BFCA for Action | GG and SAG noms| This is Bullock’s second Oscar nomination. She won for her first nominated effort, 2009’s fact-based The Blind Side–like Gravity a huge box-office hit. Though Bullock has not dominated this year’s awards season, she copped multiple honors at the People’s Choice awards, no surprise that. This likable actress has enormous audience appeal, and it’s that quality that director Alfonso Cuarón celebrates in Gravity as Bullock portrays an astronaut seemingly lost in space. I honestly don’t think the movie would work with anyone other than Bullock in the lead role.
Judi Dench (Philomena) – WFCC | Golden Globe and SAG noms| I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest Judi Dench fan. Indeed, I sometimes snicker and refer to her as Judi Stench, but when she’s good–as in Philomena and even 2012’s lavish James Bond opus Skyfall–she’s great. Plus, you’ve got to hand it to this British theatrical giant: she’s earned seven Oscar nods in the past 16 years, including a win for a pivotal (supporting) turn as Queen Elizabeth I in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. Dench’s multiple Academy nominations are even more impressive given her age. She was over 60 when she secured her place as a finalist for 1997’s Mrs. Brown (in which she played Queen Victoria). Few actresses over 50, even 40, work with as much regularity as Dench, let alone in award caliber projects. With the exception of 2000’s supporting role in 2000’s Chocolat, Dench’s remaining Oscar nominations are all for Best Actress: Iris (2001), Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005), and Notes on a Scandal (2006); she’s particularly good as a manipulative school teacher in the latter. If you haven’t yet seen it, put it on your list. Working in her favor this year is the the fact that hers is a true story, a gut wrenching one at that (always a plus), and the fact she stars in a Best Picture nominee though Adams and Bullock claim that distinction as well.
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) | SAG and GG noms| Streep keeps breaking her own records. This is her 18th nomination–her 15th in this category–and her hold on the title of Oscar’s most nominated performer will likely hold for some time. Katharine Hepburn, the second most nominated actress, clocks-in with 12 nods while Jack Nicholson weighs in with a dozen noms as the most situated male performer. On the other hand, even with three Oscars, two for Best Actress (Sophie’s Choice, 1982, and The Iron Lady, 2011) and one for Best Supporting Actress (Kramer vs Kramer, 1979), Streep still lags a wee bit behind Kate Hepburn’s record breaking four wins for Best Actress. And that is not likely to change this year. Despite the well-pedigreed material–actor/playwright Tracy Letts’ Tony and Pulitzer winning play–Streep’s film performed well enough when it first opened though it has also stalled in the past few weeks, and, at least to me, it’s telling that Letts wasn’t even nominated for adapting his own work. Still, Streep, ever the professional, delivers during the story’s “big” moments though the overall effect is still on the stagey side (and sometimes, her makeup, designed to show her in the throes of cancer, is a little too obviously just that: makeup).
Christian Bale (American Hustle) – GG nom for Comedy | Christian Bale’s much heralded gift for metamorphosis is all over the place in American Hustle. Whereas in director David O. Russell’s The Fighter (2010), Bale displayed a dramatic weight loss in order to convincingly portray a real-life drug addict–and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as a result–in Russell’s newest the now 40 year-old former child star shows plenty of extra poundage and a ridiculous comb-over as a slimy, middle-aged con- artist with marital issues and a girlfriend on the side. For all the praise Bale has earned over the years–no, decades–he has not generated as much buzz this season as have Dern, Ejiofor, and McConaughey though he (Bale) was among the honorees for the SAG’s Best Ensemble prize, and he was nominated for a Golden Globe. Here’s an amusing tidbit. Fifteen or so years ago, Bale was lauded as the prime candidate to play the lead in the big screen adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial best seller, American Psycho; however, in the wake of Titanic‘s astronomical grosses, studio personnel were eager to court newly minted superstar Leonardo DiCaprio for the project. The decision to replace Bale with DiCaprio sparked an outrage while also leading from one complication to the next. In the end, DiCaprio bailed, so to speak, and Christian was back on board–in one of his most iconic performances. Today, of course, Bale and DiCaprio are competing against each other for an Oscar. Let the grudge match begin. (Additionally, Best Supporting Actress frontrunner Jared Leto also appeared in American Psycho.)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska) – LAFCA, NBR | SAG and GG noms| This is Dern’s second nomination. His first came over thirty years ago–Best Supporting Actor for 1978’s Coming Home, in the role of Jane Fonda’s Vietnam vet husband: gung-ho for the war at the beginning of the film, miserably unstable upon return. He won the Best Actor prize last May for Nebraska, in which he plays an ornery codger, a former mechanic who has sacrificed too many years to drink, who sets out on a road trip with his son, bound and determined to claim what Dern’s Woody believes is a million dollar jackpot. I’m not a fan of the word “quirky,” but that’s what Alexander Payne’s black and white film is. A slice of faded Americana in the new millenium, true enough, but quirky nonetheless. Dern’s performance is a bit understated compared to say either Ejiofor’s or McConaughey’s, and his character doesn’t really change from the beginning of the film to its end, but the Academy loves a sweet comeback, and Dern may very well be just in time. Plus, speaking of quirky and sentimental, please remember that back in the 74/75 race, no less than seasoned veteran Art Carney won an Oscar for playing a much older man on a road trip in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto, outpacing the likes of Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), and Al Pacino (Godfather II)–all of them higher profile candidates in Best Picture contenders.
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) BFCA (Comedy), GG (Comedy) | Wow! Can you believe it’s been exactly 20, yes, 20 years since DiCaprio earned his first Oscar nod? He was a barely known teen at the time, breaking into the big leagues as the mentally challenged younger brother of Johnny Depp’s Gilbert in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, filmed on location in Texas. DiCaprio was a revelation in a film that, while more a critical than commercial hit at the time, has endured as a classic. Of course, one reason that Gilbert Grape was rediscovered probably had something to do with the gi-normous success of 1997’s Titanic which found DiCaprio and Kate Winslet playing star-crossed lovers. These days, DiCaprio is about as in-demand as any actor in Hollywood, and his resume includes additional Oscar nominations for 2004’s The Aviator (as Howard Hughes) and Blood Diamonds (2006). He’s been busy lately what with The Wolf of Wall Street and last spring’s splashy 3-D adaptation of The Great Gatsby. One line of thought regarding this year’s race is that the Academy really, really wants to reward DiCaprio at long last (and as producer, this is a dream project for him), while another school of thought is that the film is too divisive with the naysayers harrumphing that director Martin Scorsese, despite his statements to the press, is too dazzled by his morally bankrupt lead character, and that makes some audiences uncomfortable. It’s easier to root for other characters in other films. On the other hand, the fact is that regardless of the controversy, DiCaprio’s peers nominated him for Best Actor, and he’s very much in the race.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) OFCS, WFCC | SAG and GG noms| London born Ejiofor has been shining in a wide range of roles for more than a decade with such highlights as Kinky Boots, in which he played a drag queen on a mission. His performance signaled a wave of accolades, including Golden Globe and British Independent Film Awards nominations (for Comedy) as well as a nod from the London Film Critics. Prior to that, besides multiple stage roles abroad, he appeared in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (a rare feat for a leading black actor), as well as Inside Man, Children of Men, and Salt. Now, he’s garnering more praise than ever, and approaching frontrunner status, for playing Solomon Northrup, a real-life 19th century American and free man of color who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, as the title of Ejifor’s nominated film confirms. Since I began writing this profile, he has claimed Best Actor honors from the British Academy, a reminder that among his other skills, he knows his way around an American accent.
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) – BFCA, DFW, GG for Drama, and SAG | The Texas native made the leap from attention nabbing supporting player, in such films as Dazed and Confused (1993) and Boys on the Side (1995), to full-fledged stardom when he scored the leading role in Joel Schumacher’s 1996 adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. A year later, he appeared in such high profile films as Contact and Amistad. That early promise was somehow subverted by a string of mostly silly and/or forgettable films, mostly romantic comedies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but what seemed fresh and fun in the popular How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days co-starring Kate Hudson seemed worn-out by the time he reteamed with Hudson for Fool’s Gold. Over the past two years (or so), McConaughey has been busy reinventing himself, as both a leading and a supporting player, in such varied films as The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Bernie, The Paperboy, Mud, and even The Wolf of Wall Street. Dallas Buyers Club may very well his most challenging role yet, though the true story of a Dallas man who helped bring experimental drugs to HIV patients, including himself, plays a little fast and loose with the facts. Still, the movie’s Best Picture nomination proves that it has legs, and McConaughey’s recent triumphs, such as his SAG award, show that–contrary to early reports–the role offers more than a gimmicky physical transformation. In other words, there’s a huge emotional arc as well.
Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) – BFCA, DFW, LAFCA, GG, and DGA | With Gravity, Cuarón puts his money and technical know-how where his vision is and creates a cinematic marvel. This is his first nomination in this category though he has been nominated in the past for co-writing Y tu mamá también and for co-writing and co-editing 2006’s Children of Men. This year, he’s a triple threat with nominations for producing, directing and editing.
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) – NYFC | DGA nom| British born McQueen–no relation to America’s matinee idol of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, is only the third black director ever nominated in this category, after John Singleton (2001’s Boyz n the Hood–also the youngest, at 24, to be nominated in this category) and Lee Daniels (2009’s Precious). Perhaps the telling difference between McQueen and the other two is that McQueen’s film is actually a Best Picture frontrunner, and that could make all the difference. Oh, and McQueen’s film boasts three acting nods, another plus.
Alexander Payne (Nebraska) On the upside, Payne has been down this road twice: for 2004’s Sideways, and for 2011’s The Descendants; however, he’s the only director in this bunch who wasn’t also nominated for the recent DGA prize.
David O. Russell (American Hustle) – DGA Nom | Will the third time be the charm for Russell? He was first nominated in this category for 2010’s The Fighter, and then he was back in the thick of it for 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. Ironically, given his once highly reported on-set rows with high profile actors, Russell is now highly regarded as an actor’s director. Not only has he guided three actors (Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, and Melissa Leo) to Oscar winning status, he’s accomplished the singular feat of directing two films in a row with nominations in all four acting categories. To clarify: only fifteen films can claim such distinction though none of them have featured four winners. Still, if actors/actresses–the Academy’s largest voting bloc–unite, Russell could pull ahead of critics’ darlings Cuarón and McQueen; however, even Rob Marshall, the DGA winner for 2002’s Chicago, ended up an also-ran 11 years ago even though his film was the Best Picture frontrunner (and did in fact take the top award), and even though Chicago boasted four acting nominations in three categories.
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) – DGA Nom | After years of unsuccessful bids, Scorsese finally hit the jackpot with 2006’s The Departed. Prior to that victory, he’d been nominated in this category for Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Goodfellas (1990), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Aviator (2004). He was infamously snubbed for 1976’s Taxi Driver even though the film was in the running for Best Picture. More recently, he was back in the game for 2011’s–to me, underwhelming–Hugo.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) – GG nom | If Blue Jasmine is an update on Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (and it clearly is), then Hawkins’s Ginger is also clearly playing Stella to Cate Blanchett’s Blanche. (Blanchett’s Blanche. Ha!) It’s actually a thankless role because it’s obvious that writer-director Woody Allen is more excited by the title character and has only a limited understanding of women in Ginger’s socioeconomic class. In other words, Allen condescends to Ginger, and Hawkins has the unenviable task of making it work. Fortunately, Hawkins is a resourceful actress. Her nomination is well earned and, perhaps, almost overdue. She’s been, or has almost been, down this road in the past with acclaimed performances in Happy-Go-Lucky and Made in Dagenham.
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) – NSFC, NYFC, GG |SAG nom| Lawrence won the first prize of the season and went on to claim a Golden Globe as well, but in spite of her enormous charisma, it’s quite a stretch to think that this popular actress could claim back-to-back Oscars before turning 24. Sure, the Academy is all about attracting younger members–and younger viewership–but back-to-back Oscars are rarities. Of course, Lawrence’s first Oscar, for 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, was actually for Best Actress–another reason why it would be odd for her to reign as a supporting player at this point. She’s a star, after all. Her role in American Hustle, that of a comically needy wife seemingly incapable of NOT creating havoc wherever she goes and whenever she speaks, is a nice change of pace given the conscientious roles she plays in such enterprises as Winter’s Bone (her first Oscar nomination) and The Hunger Games franchise–and maybe even her award winning turn as a young emotionally fractured widow in Silver Linings Playbook.
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) – BFCA, DFW, LAFCA, OFCS, and SAG | GG nom | Per the IMDb, Ms. Nyong’o was born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, and attended college in the U.S.–including studying acting at Yale University. 12 Years a Slave is her movie debut though not her first professional gig as she previously appeared in MTV’s apparently controversial Shuga. Her brutally broken Patsy (in 12 Years) may very well be the most compelling, most heartbreaking character of the year, and Nyong’o just throws herself full-force into the devastation. On the other hand, some Oscar forecasters believe that Nyong’o is perhaps earning too much acclaim due to the assumption that audiences are responding to the plight of the character rather than the actual performance, meaning the award should go to an actress who had to do “more” with “less” (such as Hawkins). I believe that it is indeed possible for voters and viewers alike to be manipulated, for lack of a better word, in such a way, but I also think that audiences wouldn’t be responding the way they do to this character if they didn’t feel the connection to Patsy right from the start, and Nyong’o defintiely deserves credit for that. She faces considerable competition, most likely from Squibb, possibly Lawrence, but her SAG win is telling.
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) – GG and SAG noms | Seems hard to believe, but it’s been a whopping 13 years since Roberts triumphed in the Best Actress category for her straight-up performance as real-life colorful crackerjack legal investigator Erin Brockovich. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks time has raced by in the years since then. Roberts didn’t disappear in the role. Rather, she used her staggering movie star appeal to create a singular achievement that left audiences and Academy members cheering. It was her third nomination and first win after early triumphs in Steel Magnolias (Best Supporting Actress, 1989) and Pretty Woman (Best Actress, 1990). In August: Osage County, she plays the oldest of three sisters dealing with a helluva-cantakerous matriarch (the formidable Streep). Roberts’ Barbara is the one sister who’s unafraid to stand up to her mom even when it hurts, and Roberts attacks the part with gusto. For my money, she’s easily the best thing in the whole disappointing mess, but, as was the case with Erin Brockovich, she’s still very much Julia Roberts too. What does that mean? She’s a gifted actress, but her star wattage blazes brighter than her talent. In other words, she’s no chameleon, but she’s the very best possible Julia Roberts that we have. I can’t imagine her winning for this odd little curio, but I’m glad to see she’s got her game back after years of working rather selectively, though she had her moments in Mirror, Mirror, and I enjoyed watching her in Eat Pray Love.
June Squibb (Nebraska) GG and SAG noms | Hard to believe, perhaps, but this tiny octogenarian, who looks like a run-of-the-mill dotty old lady, worked for decades in theatre before she started making films, including a stint as Electra in the original Broadway run of Gypsy. In movies, she frequently portrays stock characters, but in Nebraska, she has a role of consequence as the much beleagured wife of Bruce Dern’s Woody. For decades, it’s been her duty to try to reign in her wild card of a husband and though Squibb’s Kate might look and sound like a nag, it becomes clear over the course of the movie that she has a deep abiding love for Woody, a point made abundantly clear in a zealously delivered speech late in the film. This is the stuff of which Oscars are made, and I’m fine with that, but as good as Squibb is, her character lacks the staggering arc that Nyong’o embodies in 12 Years a Slave. Furthermore, this is a category, unlike Best Supporting Actor, in which newer talent is often–though not always–rewarded over sentimental favorites. Just ask Lauren Bacall (The Mirror has Two Faces, 1996), Gloria Stuart (Titanic, 1997), and Ruby Dee (American Gangster, 2007).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) GG and SAG noms | This 25 year old Somali native makes his film debut as the chief pirate in the fact-based Captain Phillips. Per the IMDb, Abdi moved to the U.S. with his family when he was fourteen years old. He was living in Minnesota when cast in the film. He attended college at Minnesota State and had apparently never entertained any notion about acting professionally when he showed up at an open casting call. The rest is history. His isn’t exactly a Cinderella story, however, as he has reportedly had multiple run-ins with the law. Of course, studio personnel are working overtime to downplay all that because it disrupts their narrative. Abdi is not the frontrunner in this category, but I liken his chances to that of the late Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a transplanted Cambodian who achieved cinematic immortality, and an Oscar, after being cast as Dith Pran in 1984’s The Killing Fields. If Oscar voters feel inclined to send a message and break the steady hold that Jared Leto has in this category, thereby adding an element of surprise to what appears to be an open and shut case, Abdi stands to gain the most.
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) – GG noms | Bradley Cooper earned his first nomination just last year for starring in director David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. I think it’s great that Russell and Cooper have such rapport–and that Russell is steadily amassing a crackerjack repertory company (including Bales, Lawrence, and Adams), but Cooper’s role, as a federal agent who teams up with known con-artists to put the sting on corrupt politicians, is hardly supporting. He’s one of three co-leads, and that’s all there is to it. Still, the actor deserves props for letting down his guard long enough to play someone who often looks foolish whether that means sporting a ’70s era curly home-perm or being a romantic sap.
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) – OFCS | GG and SAG noms | This German born, London based, actor has been a star on the rise for a few years, beginning, say, with his portrayal of IRA member Bobby Sands in director Steve McQueen’s Hunger (which recreates Sands’s fatal 1981 hunger strike while he was imprisoned); from there, he appeared in the likes of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (a prequel to the director’s classic Alien). In 2011, he was all over the place, appearing in Jane Campion’s adaptation of Jane Eyre, yet another X-Men blockbuster, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (as Carl Jung), and, most notoriously, Steve McQueen’s Shame, in which he dazzled many critics as a sex-addict. He was reportedly well-positioned to earn his first Oscar nod for the latter, but that didn’t happen. Now, he and McQueen–obviously a potent partnership–are both nominated for 12 Years a Slave. Fassbender goes all out in his nominated performance–some might say, “over-the-top”–as he tries (valiantly?) to humanize a sadistic slave owner, the point apparently being that the character is so consumed with conflict–due to his sexual attraction to a favored female slave–that he spirals out of control. No offense, Michael, but as fascinating as you are to watch, I think you’re still playing a conceit, a thoroughly contemporary , and misguidedly romantic one at that–as though he wandered in from a different movie. (What I get is that we’re supposed to see Fassbender’s character as yet another victim of the institution, and I think that’s an easy trap). I can see the appeal to other actors however, because Fassbender’s approach seems all Method-y and obvious. (I’d be prepared eat my words, however, if someone could show me that the character is presented in similar terms in Northrup’s original text.)
Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) Jonah Hill’s nod proves that his first nomination for 2011’s Moneyball was no fluke. At the time, Hill worked hard to rehabilitate his image–as a slobby frat boy-type–including a well-publicized weight-loss. Hill showed that he knew how to play the game. Since then, he’s gained back the weight, but his career has not suffered. Even so, he must be considered the longshot here as he was not included among the nominees for either the Golden Globe or the SAG award. On the other hand, the fact that he is nominated here, in spite of being overlooked earlier in the season, indicates that support could be stronger than originally estimated.
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) BFCA, DFW, LAFCA [TIE], NYFC, GG, and SAG | This 42 year old actor is currently in the midst of one of the most stunning comebacks in recent showbiz memory. The Louisiana native was in his twenties when he catapulted to teen-dream status in the short-lived if cultishly renowned TV series My So-Called Life starring 15 year old Claire Danes. After the show was cancelled, Leto tried to hard to reinvent himself in such high profile projects as Prefontaine, as 1970s track sensation Steven Prefontaine (later eclipsed by Billy Crudup in Without Limits) before segueing to The Thin Red Line, American Psycho (starring Christian Bales), Requiem for a Dream, and Panic Room. Sure he worked, but he wasn’t a star. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but when the offers became fewer and fewer, he retreated and pursued a career in music instead–and that seemed to be that. Now that he’s seemingly on the cusp of winning an Oscar, it will be interesting to see what he does next–and when that might be.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:
Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine)
Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack (Dallas Buyers Club)
Spike Jonze (Her)
Bob Nelson (Nebraska)
David O. Russell and Eric Singer (American Hustle)
Relatively slim pickings if you ask me. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I have serious issues with Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. To me, it’s too nakedly a rip-off of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire to be wholly original. What’s funny, even to me, is that I wasn’t similarly outraged when Allen was nominated for 2005’s Match Point even though it was clearly inspired by A Place in the Sun (itself adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy). The difference between then and now is that in Match Point, Allen cleverly aped the inspirational source, setting the audience up for one expectation, before deconstructing it and spinning it in an all-new direction. Not so with Blue Jasmine. Whatever. It’s not Allen’s year. No matter. He’s not a fan of the Academy. Plus, he’s already won three Oscars in this category (Annie Hall, 1977; Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986, and Midnight in Paris, 2011), and he holds the record for most nominations in this category as well: 16 total. Spike Jonze, who boasts a previous Best Director nod for 1999’s Being John Malkovich, has won some of the season’s high profile awards, but Her might not be a significant enough achievement despite the hoopla. On the other hand, the time may very well be ripe to honor David O. Russell, who was nominated for adapting Silver Linings Playbook last year, and is also in the race for Best Director. Plus, those who like his movie are nuts for it. If I were voting, I’d probably go with Dallas Buyers Club because it’s the one movie in the bunch that actually surprised me–even if it is based in a true story; however, after careful consideration, I must confess that my true favorites aren’t even nominated: Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón, and In a World by Lake Bell.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (Philomena)
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Richard Linklater (Before Midnight)
Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Terence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street )
As Steve Coogan is also one of the producers and stars of Philomena, I can easily imagine him being honored as a so-called triple threat. I also think that Richard Linklater and his collaborators are an upset waiting to happen based on their unique history: they first collaborated on 1995’s Before Sunrise and have followed that offering with two more entries in the ongoing, and critically acclaimed, saga of the characters portrayed by Delpy and Hawke. The second feature, 2004’s Before Sunset also scored a screenwriting nod, and I think they’re well-positioned to hit the jackpot, but, of course, they’ll have to get past 12 Years a Slave, which has already claimed two of the biggest prizes: the WGA and the Scriptor, awarded by the Friends of the USC Library to writers of book-to-film adaptations.
Besides the Best Animated Feature award, Frozen is also heavily favored to snag the Best Song trophy thanks to the insanely catchy “Let It Go” by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, robustly performed within the film by Wicked Tony winner Idina Menzel (and on a smash pop single by Demi Lovato). Not only is “Let It Go,” an inescapable Girl Power anthem, replete with dozens upon dozens of YouTube cover versions, I’m sure it’s also a big hit with drag queens and future beauty pageant contestants; after all the film version features a complete hair and costume change. Of course, it’s not the only song in the game, and some voters might be sick of “Let it Go” by now. Rock gods U2 won the Golden Globe for their contribution to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Pharrell Williams, of “Happy” (from Despicable Me 2) is also incredibly buzzworthy right now thanks to his recent Grammy awards for producing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” (along with nods for collaborating with Robin Thicke on “Blurred Lines”). On the other hand, there’s probably little or no chance for “The Moon Song,” which was actually composed by Her‘s writer-director Spike Jonze.
Thanks for your consideration…