Oh, goodie. Goodie, goodie gumdrops. Oscar nominations are out.
Just for giggles, I thought I’d see if I could guess this year’s winners cold. By that, I mean before any of the Big Predictor Preliminary Awards have been doled out. In my book, the BPPAs include the Golden Globes (sorta), the SAG Awards (definitely) and the BAFTAs (also relatively reliable). Since the Golden Globes are this Sunday (whee!), I’d best get cracking.
Now, regular readers know I have two small children. Which means that I don’t get out like I used to. I love movies, and at my viewing peak I prided myself on having seen most (or all) of the movies nominated in major categories before the nominations were even announced, and always before the awards ceremony. This year? I’ve seen zero of the nominated films (though I hope to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in the near future.) So that means my predictions have zero to do with my opinions about the quality of the films or performances. Which is fitting, since their quality has only a small amount to do with who wins, anyway.
No, my predictions are based on my understanding of what the different awards Mean, and thus why they’re given to the lucky winners every year. Each major award (Picture, Director, and Lead and Supporting Actor/Actress trophies) has a different valence, and is given out for a different reason. We’ll see how good my understanding of the Academy Awards is.
Before I lay out a rough sketch of the different Awards, I need to discuss the Wild Card and the Trump. If either are in play, it skews the prediction.
First, the Wild Card. That’s when a performer or director is Due. The epitome of this kind of winner is Kate Winslet. She is widely regarded to be among the finest (or, indeed, the finest) actress of her generation, and she’d been nominated quite a number of times before she finally won Best Actress for “The Reader.” That win was despite her role really being more Supporting than Lead (made even more confusing because she didn’t get nominated for her amazing [if incredibly depressing] lead performance in “Revolutionary Road”). Didn’t matter. She was Due, and she won. (Meryl Streep’s win last year also falls into this category. Even though she gets nominated every time she sneezes, she hadn’t won since 1983. She was Due again.)
The Trump is what I call the Incandescent Performance. That’s when an actor or actress has delivered such a universally acclaimed performance that it’s obvious they’re going to win. Now, delivering a breathtaking performance isn’t enough. (I defy you to find a more flawless, award-worthy acting turn than Imelda Staunton’s superlative “Vera Drake.” She lost.) No, it has to have gotten sufficient attention in the American press, as well. The quintessential winner in this category is Hilary Swank for “Boys Don’t Cry.” Annette Bening was arguably Due for “American Beauty” (which swept all of the other major awards), but Swank’s performance was simply too good for anyone else to win. (I remember that, after her win was announced, several of the other nominated actresses stood up and shook her hand as she made her way to the stage. That is respect.)
So, with that out of the way, on to the Awards themselves.
Best Supporting Actress (The Consolation Oscar) — this is the Oscar actresses get when the Academy wants to honor someone who will never be a big box office draw. It’s not the Superstar Oscar. (That would be Best Actress, but we’ll get to that soon.) They turn in good (or great) performances, but they aren’t marquee names. Octavia Spencer’s win last year was a perfect example. (She also stole the movie she was in.) With that in mind, you can draw a line through both Sally Field and Helen Hunt, who already have Best Actress wins and don’t need this one. Jacki Weaver is too unknown in the US. Both Amy Adams and Anne Hathaway fit the bill, but “Les Miz” is a bigger crowd-pleaser than “The Master.” I think Hathaway is a lock.
Best Supporting Actor (The Career Achievement Award) — this is for actors who have paid their dues and have long careers of quality work. Tim Robbins, Alan Arkin, Christopher Plummer, Morgan Freemen, etc. (Javier Bardem’s win for “No Country for Old Men” counts as an Incandescent Performance, hands down.) What makes this year’s nominees tricky is that they’re all past winners, so none of them are lacking the Academy’s benison for their body of work. However, I’m going to go with De Niro. He’s Due (in a manner similar to Streep, having last won in 1981) and it would be a way of the Academy honoring his lengthy and varied career.
Best Actress (The Gravitas Award) — this is for stars. It’s the Academy’s way of adding legitimacy to someone’s fame, of bestowing gravity to go with the star’s light. The quintessential winner was Julia Roberts, who was Due and won for a particularly good variation of her usual Julia Roberts performance in “Erin Brockovich.” Reese Witherspoon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry are all other examples. (It also helps to abnegate your glamor.) This year’s field lacks any established superstars. Jennifer Lawrence comes closest, but her “Hunger Games” fame accrued more to the role than to her particularly. While I’m rooting for her (and she’s already been nominated once before), I kinda think the winner will be Jessica Chastain. She’s not a superstar yet, but I have this suspicion the Academy feels like she should be and wants to make her into one.
Best Actor (The Actual Best Actor Award) — this one is all over the place, and perhaps the hardest to call. If there is one major award that seems to most consistently go to the genuine “best” performer, it would be this one. Forest Whitaker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis (both times), Geoffrey Rush — none are huge stars, all are past winners for truly fantastic performances. If anything, being a megastar seems to be a liability in this category (NB losses by Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and George Clooney). I think it will come down to Day-Lewis or Hugh Jackman. Both star in box office winners (always a plus) and neither have made jackasses of themselves on “Letterman” in service to masturbatory movies about the meaning of fame. I’m going with Day-Lewis, on the assumption that the Academy want to honor his incredible talent by putting him in the rarefied company of three-time winners. Not enough people saw “Flight” to confer a third Oscar on Washington (though I imagine he’ll win another one eventually) and Bradley Cooper hasn’t proven his “quality actor” bona fides enough to shake his “People’s Sexiest Man Alive” silliness.
Best Director (The Pantheon Award) — this is to elevate the winner into the hallowed halls of the Artists, the Auteurs, the True Greats. Usually winners have created a name for themselves and have their own distinctive style, such that their win honors their contribution to cinema as an art form. (It’s also the award that is almost always linked to the winner of Best Picture.) This year is kind of a head-scratcher, since a couple of the ones I would have called frontrunners (Tarantino and Affleck) were snubbed for nominations; “Django Unchained” is too bloody and controversial for it to have given Tarantino a win, but I would have given Affleck good chances based on the notion that the Academy wanted to validate his transition from so-so actor to genuinely talented director. Oh, well. Of the nominees, it’s between Spielberg and David O. Russell. I’m betting on the former, for a similar kind of Official Stamp of Greatness as described for Daniel Day-Lewis above.
Best Picture (The Mediocrity Award) — this is the award that makes me yell at the TV most reliably. (Must… fight… urge… to rant… about “Crash.”) While there is the occasional win for a truly remarkable film (“American Beauty,” in my opinion, or “The Hurt Locker”), often winners are box office hits that strive for a Certain Quality. They’re usually good films that aren’t terribly challenging, novel or visionary. I can almost always think of another nominated film that really should have won but didn’t. Looking at this year’s list, it actually seems like a very strong group of genuinely high-quality films. Having seen none of them, I can’t say which I think should win. (As I’ve said, the one I want to make sure I see soon is “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which seems the one most likely to appeal to my taste.) My money’s on “Lincoln,” given its pedigree and its critical appeal.
So there are my picks. I will offer a revised list of guesses after the BPPAs have aired, but just based on my understanding of how the Oscars work after years of slavish devotion, these are my best guesses right now.
Update: In the comments, Burt reminds me of yet another phenomenon that can skew predictions. It’s a variation on being Due, and is the Make-Up Oscar. The ultimate and unmistakeable example is Judi Dench’s win for “Shakespeare in Love,” in which she was very good in what amounted to a glorified cameo. But she won because the Academy had stupidly given the Oscar she should have won for Best Actress for “Mrs. Brown” to Helen Hunt instead. (In so doing they robbed poor Lynn Redgrave of the Oscar she deserved for “Gods and Monsters.”) Another good example is Cate Blanchett’s win for “The Aviator,” when she should have won for “Elizabeth” instead of Gwyneth Paltrow’s least-convincing-gender-bending performance ever in “Shakespeare in Love.”