“The funny thing about winning an Academy Award is that this will always be synonymous with my name from here on in. It will be Oscar-winner George Clooney, Sexiest Man Alive 1997, Batman died in a freak accident…”
– George Clooney accepting the Academy Award for “Syriana,” 2006
“I grew up in a place called Alcobendas where this was not a very realistic dream. And always on the night of the Academy Awards, I stayed up to watch the show. And I always felt that this ceremony was a moment of unity for the world because art – in any form – is, has been, and will always be our universal language.”
– Penélope Cruz accepting the Academy Award for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” 2009
“Did I really earn this, or did I just wear y’all down?”
– Sandra Bullock accepting the Academy Award for “The Blind Side,” 2010
Why the Oscars? Why the attention?
I had planned a whole, in-depth analysis here … but then I got sick today. I want to get something up, so let me lead off with this: the Oscars are about setting the tone for an industry. It’s about making and rewarding careers. It’s about celebrating the best of an industry. It’s about capturing a moment in time, reminding future generations of what the year meant to those who lived through it.
- The Artist
- The Descendants
- The Help
- War Horse
- Midnight in Paris
- The Tree of Life
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
As far as I’m concerned, the top six aren’t going to change. “Moneyball” may or may not make it in, given the passion for the movie that may or may not exist. And “The Tree of Life” could sneak in as the top choice of many voters, but I don’t feel comfortable predicting that, nor do I think the late surge of “Dragon Tattoo” love will translate into a Best Picture nomination.
Now, onto the state of the race. It looks like 2008 all over again in the Oscar race. The little movie that could then was “Slumdog Millionaire.” It was a consensus critical favorite and won the BFCA (Critic’s Choice), then trumped the more conventional Globes play “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in the drama category, and capped off its all-around sweep by taking the SAG ensemble prize without having any big stars to boast … and then pretty much every guild too just for fun. You could say “Button” or “Milk” posed a serious threat – and “The Dark Knight” might have been a formidable foe had it not been snubbed – but everyone knew it was “Slumdog” all the way.
Similarly, in 2011, the oh-so-typical Oscar movie yet anything BUT typical “The Artist” looks about ready to lap the competition. It’s been the critical darling of the year but doen’t have the unanimity that “The Social Network” had last year. Thus, it has become their gentle suggestion of the best movie of the year, not like the mandate that backfired last year. It has been scoring everywhere it needs to score – a field-leading 11 nominations at the Critics Choice Awards including Best Picture (which it will most likely win), a field-leading 6 nominations at the Golden Globes including Best Picture, and 3 nominations at the SAG Awards including Best Ensemble. Now all it needs to do is start winning things to make it undeniable.
Running closely behind is Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” which looks to be the “Milk” of 2011 as it seems to be the favorite for both the Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay trophies. It could win Best Picture; indeed, it seems likely to win Best Picture in the drama category at the Golden Globes. But in a year where nostalgia and an old-fashioned yearning for movies to take us out of our misery – not face it – could hurt this movie which is already burdened by comparisons to Payne’s last film, “Sideways.”
Then again, having a virtual monopoly on the brain vote may help “The Descendants” because the heart vote is being tugged in a number of directions. “The Help” makes a big case as it’s a period piece (Oscars love the past), it’s a feel-good movie (“The King’s Speech” won last year), it has real audience support ($169 million), and it has the actors behind it. Davis and Spencer are both serious threats to win their categories, and I would definitely consider “The Help” to be the favorite for the coveted SAG ensemble prize. Given how well-acted the movie is down to its core, this may be the movie that rallies the biggest branch of the Academy. But if “The Artist” wins that award, I would consider the race to be pretty much over.
There’s also the case to be made for “Hugo,” which harkens back to the pioneering days of moviemaking, and “War Horse,” which reminds all who see it of the weepy sentimentality and soaring scopes of a John Ford picture. But with neither making blockbuster cash and neither getting a single nomination from the SAG, it’s really hard to see either mounting a serious threat. It’s particularly problematic for “War Horse” as it missed a Best Director nomination for Spielberg at the Globes and a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination with the WGA. Spielberg’s legendary status will likely get him into the Best Director field at the Oscars, but not having a screenplay nomination will be problematic. Not since “Titanic” in 1997 has a movie won Best Picture without having a nominated screenplay, and only once in the last 10 years did the Best Picture winner not also win a Best Screenplay Oscar.
The acting thing is also an issue as it’s pretty rare for a movie to win Best Picture without an acting nomination. The last time two times it happened was with “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” – both of which had the actors’ support as shown by their wins in the SAG ensemble category yet were consensus favorites anyways. The nomination may be the prize for these movies.
As a final word on the category, don’t count out “Midnight in Paris.” It’s been flying under the radar, but it could win Best Picture in the comedy category at the Golden Globes. Woody Allen has won the category twice before, and this is his tenth film nominated for Best Picture overall. It’s also his fifth Best Director nomination and sixth Best Screenplay nomination. All this talk about career rewards for Spielberg and Scorsese need to be equally focused on Woody Allen. The movie has scored with the SAG, PGA, and WGA – so there’s no reason to take this movie lightly.
- Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
- Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
- Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
- Steven Spielberg, “War Horse”
- Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
It’s never wise to predict a split Picture-Director ticket … even when the director is as widely regarded as David Fincher, who may come into play as a dark horse for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” But in my mind, the top four is set with Hazanavicius, Payne, Scorsese, and Spielberg, who were all BFCA nominees (and all but Spielberg were HFPA nominees). Woody Allen, to me, seems like the logical fifth nominee. The director’s branch has nominated him six times, four of which were not a complement to a Best Picture nomination. They like him, even when they don’t like his movie. While Terrence Malick may have crafted a more ambitious, director-driven movie, I still don’t see them opting for him over Allen.
- George Clooney, “The Descendants”
- Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
- Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
- Michael Fassbender, “Shame”
- Leonardo DiCaprio, “J. Edgar”
The top three are locked in after getting nominations from the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA. Fassbender can’t be put in the same category since he missed with the SAG, the group with the most overlap with Academy voters, but he seems pretty safe given that the nomination would be a reward for his ubiquity just as much as his performance. In addition, physical commitment to a role always plays well with the actors branch; see nominations for James Franco in “127 Hours” and Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” as proof. “Last Tango in Paris,” another controversial NC-17 film, received a nomination for its leading actor back in 1973. However, his name was Marlon Brando.
Leonardo DiCaprio, after garnering notices from all three of the major groups, would normally be considered a lock. But here’s my hangup on predicting him: this is a category that almost always requires a quality movie behind a quality performance. You have to look back to ten years ago when you saw a movie with a Rotten Tomatoes score below 70% – “Ali” at 67% and “I Am Sam” at a staggeringly (and unfairly) low 34%. “J. Edgar” currently stands at 42% on the review aggregator. Not since 2005 has anyone with nominations for BFCA, SAG, and HFPA missed an Oscar nomination in this category, and that was previous winner Russell Crowe who was up this time for “Cinderella Man.” It also happened to Paul Giamatti for “Sideways” in 2004, the victim of Clint Eastwood coming out of nowhere and scoring a nomination thanks to the rising tide of “Million Dollar Baby.”
But if DiCaprio misses, who gets in? Ryan Gosling is having a great year but his two performances could cancel each other out, and neither “Drive” nor “The Ides of March” seem to have much momentum. There isn’t consensus either on which is the more deserving performance; BFCA nominated him for “Drive” while HFPA nominated him for “The Ides of March.” I feel like this is prime territory for a dark horse candidate to rise … but who will it be? Michael Shannon for “Take Shelter?” Joseph Gordon-Levitt for “50/50?” Woody Harrelson for “Rampart?” Or will SAG nominee, but still underdog, Demian Bichir capitalize on the actor’s love for his work in “A Better Life?” Unfortunately, there’s not much opportunity for any of these candidates to gain traction in the race, so you either go smart and pick Leo here or go with a hunch.
- Viola Davis, “The Help”
- Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
- Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”
- Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
- Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
For the past 15 years, the SAG field has provided a clue to at least 4 of the 5 eventual nominees for Best Actress at the Oscars. The top four in the field – Davis, Streep, Williams, and Swinton – have all scored nominations from the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA. Then, the plot thickens. The way I see it, there are three actresses competing for that final slot. History says go with the SAG nominee, which is Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs.” But Charlize Theron is also a threat for “Young Adult” after cracking the field for both the BFCA and HFPA.
And I definitely don’t think anyone can count out Golden Globe nominee Rooney Mara for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” People sensed the passion wasn’t there for this film, but it’s been stealthily building a healthy résumé throughout the season. It was one of the top ten movies for the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute; this week, it was nominated by both the Producers Guild and the Writers Guild.
The movie has supporters where “Albert Nobbs,” which currently sits at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, has few. But love from producers, directors, and critics doesn’t provide any direct aid to Mara, who must be nominated by her peers in the acting branch of the Academy. They may be more inclined to vote for Glenn Close because she’s a five-time nominee who worked tirelessly for three decades to get this story on screen, whereas Mara is making her first big splash (and will likely have two other chances to be nominated for this role) and Theron seems to have had her moment in the sun.
Here’s an interesting mini-trend I’ve picked up on: since 2003, only once has the Academy not included an actress under the age of 30 in the field. Michelle Williams is now 31, so only Mara (or dark horses Felicity Jones and Elizabeth Olsen) fills this new quotient.
Best Supporting Actor
- Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
- Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”
- Albert Brooks, “Drive”
- Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
- Brad Pitt, “The Tree of Life”
At once, this is the most solid and the most fluctuating race this year. The frontrunner still is – and has been since June – Christopher Plummer for his incredible turn in “Beginners.” I don’t really think anyone else has a prayer because this is both a sentimental, Lifetime Achievement Oscar (think Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin) and a consensus pick (think Tim Robbins and Javier Bardem). Of course, this assumes that he will steamroll to wins from the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA, a scenario which I think is incredibly likely.
Branagh is the only other sure-fire nominee after scoring nominations from all three of the big organizations thus far. Brooks also seems pretty secure, although the SAG omission raises some eyebrows since the Oscars have matched the SAG five in this category for the past two years. I would also say that given the support for “Moneyball,” Jonah Hill seems like a decent bet after SAG and HFPA nominations. It’s that very support and presence that I think is the X-factor for him and perhaps the nail in the coffin for Nick Nolte, whose movie “Warrior” is totally absent on the precursor scene.
As for that final slot, I’m going gusty and saying it will be Brad Pitt in “The Tree of Life.” I don’t see why this performance can’t ride in on the coattails of his sure-fire nominated one in “Moneyball.” And it would make Pitt both a competitor and a co-star of Jonah Hill; how awesome would that be? Dark horse nominees, unnoticed by the big three organizations, happen in this category – look to Michael Shannon in “Revolutionary Road,” William Hurt in “A History of Violence,” Alan Alda in “The Aviator,” Djimon Hounsou in “In America.” But this is a gusty pick; smart money always goes the SAG five.
Best Supporting Actress
- Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
- Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
- Jessica Chastain, “The Help”
- Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
- Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”
BFCA/HFPA/SAG only agreed on Bejo, Spencer, and Chastain. This is the only category where, to my knowledge, getting all three of these nominations does not ensure a nomination. Last year, Mila Kunis missed for “Black Swan,” and Cameron Diaz missed in 2001 for “Vanilla Sky.” It happens, although I’d say that that was more of a character judgement disapproving of some of their other, non-Academy friendly projects. None of these actresses seem to be at risk for a similar fate.
I’d call Bejo the frontrunner because there might be some vote-splitting for the scene-stealing Spencer and the year-stealing ubiquitous Chastain. If Viola Davis emerges as the one to beat for Best Actress, I would guess that the urgency to reward one of the ladies of “The Help” here will go down.
The race gets murkier beyond that, though, as the three organizations differed on how to fill those final two slots. BFCA went Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids” and Shailene Woodley in “The Descendants” (they nominate six, so Carey Mulligan was also in there for “Shame”). SAG went McCarthy and Janet McTeer in “Albert Nobbs.” HFPA went Woodley and McTeer. Again, the rule is usually to follow SAG … but I just don’t think Melissa McCarthy can manage a nomination because comedic actresses just aren’t usually the Academy’s cup of tea. I think the only precedent is Robert Downey Jr. being nominated for “Tropic Thunder,” but that was a lot more daring and probing of a performance. McCarthy just – drains her plumbing in a sink.
McTeer disappears in her role (so I’ve heard) and Woodley is in the #2 movie of the year. I think those are my other two.
Best Original Screenplay
- Midnight in Paris
- The Artist
- Win Win
Here is where I think the surprising “Bridesmaids” love – among the top movies feted by the AFI, SAG, HPFA, PGA, and WGA – will register. It’s a well-written movie where the comedy is so heavily in the dialogue and the plot; while Apatow movies have yet to show up here, there has to be a first time for everything.
“Midnight in Paris” and “The Artist” are slam-dunk nominees destined to duke it out until the end, unless “The Artist” just pulls away and can’t be stopped. I hope the WGA nominees “Win Win” and “50/50” translate their success there into Oscar nominations, but this category could go a number of directions. It’s hard to imagine that they would spring for a slate of five comedic nominees, but it could very well happen.
There’s a chance that “The Tree of Life,” thinly plotted as it is, will show up here. “Beginners” is also an option; “Margin Call” could surprise. It was a very good year for original screenplays, so many things are fair game.
Best Adapted Screenplay
- The Descendants
- The Help
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
“The Descendants” is about to lap the field here; barring a huge surge for “Moneyball” (which would make Aaron Sorkin a back-to-back winner), I don’t see anything standing between Alexander Payne and a second Academy Award win in this category.
As for the rest of the field, it’s kind of a mess. I went with the WGA five here, which subbed the surging “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” for the sagging “War Horse.” (Funny enough, that would make Steven Zaillian nominee again in the category – the Oscars are seeing double this year!)
I think Tate Taylor, who will most likely miss for Best Director, can earn a nomination here for his work adapting “The Help.”
And while “Hugo” is a director’s movie, I don’t see why hot scribe John Logan (who also penned “Rango” and “Coriolanus” this year) can’t score a nomination.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” ineligible at the WGA, could also sneak in for a nomination given its labyrinthine plot. But given its total radio silence during the season, I’m seeing that as a long shot at best.
Tune in this time next week for my LIVE BLOGGING of the Golden Globes!