E: Here it is, that time of year again, that day again. Wondering what’s most likely to happen tonight at the Oscars? Let’s get to it, then.
Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
How Sure Am I?
I love Christopher Plummer, and I think it’s a puzzle he’s never won an Oscar. He’s only ever been nominated once before, for 2009’s marvelous literary biography The Last Station. It’s a bit of a shame that the reward will come to this iconic actor for such a quiet role – I can’t help but thinking the hoopla around this performance is all about the role. Wow – you have an old man (best known for his manly romantic Captain Von Trapp) coming out! Taking a younger lover! Then dying of cancer! Of course most Oscars are won because the right actor united with the right role and people collectively decided they were either overpoweringly wonderful, or overpoweringly due. Or both. So shouldn’t be a surprise that this year’s supporting actor award will go to the man who kissed a boy.
Though the role is very subtle, Plummer’s been helped to his win by his colleagues, who were mostly busy not chewing up the scenery themselves. First time nominee Jonah Hill is deadpan, but more serious than we’re used to. He’s good in the role, but Oscar nomination good? I can’t help thinking he was helped by our collective surprise at his ability to be more subtle and believable than we’re accustomed to see him. Three time nominee Nolte, on the other, does chew the scenery – quite ferociously at times – as the recovering alcoholic hoping to make good with his two mixed martial arts fighting sons. (This movie was a mere blip at the box office, but if you like boxing movies I highly recommend The Warrior, and Tom Hardy’s performance in it as well.) Max Von Sydow breaks hearts as the achingly silent Renter, who communicates through a writing pad, and the words No and Yes written permanently on his palms. (Now that, my friends, is a movie you should see.) Think The Artist was the only silent game in town? Two time nominee Von Sydow doesn’t speak a word in Extremely Loud and Incredible Close, which makes his acting achievement both more impressive, but also perhaps easier to dismiss. Kenneth Branagh brings up the rear playing his idol, Lawrence Olivier, who does actually chew up a bit of scenery, too, as the frustrated director/star hoping to use a beautiful American to boost his own box office (and maybe even spice up his romantic life). It’s nice to see Branagh receive his first acting nomination since the 80s (1989 to von Sydow’s 1987), when he burst onto the international scene as Henry the 5th. As with every film in this category except Moneyball, My Week With Marilyn wasn’t widely seen. If one of them can beat Plummer, we haven’t seen it yet. (In fact, the only things he didn’t win were critics prizes which went to Albert Brooks for Drive, and he isn’t even nominated tonight.)
The elegant Canadian Plummer has won every pre-cursor award, from the Golden Globe to the Critics Choice to SAG and BAFTA. He’s as much a lock as it’s possible to be. His speeches are short, well made, and classy – and more than likely he’ll have a funny little go at his costar, the delicious Ewan McGregor.
Best Supporting Actress
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help
How Sure Am I?
Guess who joined Christopher Plummer on the podium on every single one of those award shows I mentioned? Octavia Spencer. Unlike the men’s supporting race, this category bursts with larger than life, memorable characters. The very words “memorable” and “burst” probably bring to your mind Melissa McCarthy, a sink, and her break out role in this years breakout comedy Bridesmaids. That comedy might just be a touch too broad for the Academy (and all those other awards-giving organizations), however, and so the Oscar seems likeliest to go to McCarthy’s good friend who found an even more colorful on-screen use for poop in The Help.
The character Minnie Jackson was actually inspired by Octavia Spencer, a friend of writer Kathryn Stockett’s and former roommate of director Tate Taylor. Though she wasn’t a star, the two childhood pals fought for her to be given this role, and their instincts will be rewarded along with her acting at tonight’s ceremony. There is everything to feel good about here; audiences loved this movie, and the Hollywood community listened. With her first nomination, Spencer will take home her first win, and she will do it with style and emotion and a nod to the broad, important themes of her film, and that’s everything I look for.
Janet McTeer receives her second nomination as bold, brassy Hubert Page, Victorian housepainter who serves as a mentor to Albert Nobbs, showing the repressed waiter how to live a full, free life while passing as a man. This is big, powerful work. First time nominee Jessica Chastain was everywhere this year (The Debt, Coriolanus, Take Shelter, Tree of Life) and never more memorable than as the bubbly, loving Southern girl desperate to prove she belongs (and desperate to give her husband the children and home life she feels he deserves). The relationship between her Celia and Spencer’s Minnie is one of the most moving in a very moving film. I loved Chastain here, and I’m super happy she got this recognition. French actress Berenice Bejo picks up her first nomination as charming actress Peppy Miller in her husband Michel Hazanavicius’ delightful labor of love, The Artist. She’s pure joy (that scene where she dances with Valentine’s coat? a masterpiece) and the only thing I can say against her inclusion on this list is that her role is really a leading one.
It cannot be denied that – wonderful as Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph are – first time Oscar nominee Melissa McCarthy steals every moment she appears on the screen in Bridesmaids. She’s just that hilarious and that fantastic. So why won’t she win? Well, her Megan isn’t exactly realistic. The Academy rares recognizes comedy, let alone broad, bawdy comedy. Did anyone get nominated for The Hangover? Heck no. So for McCarthy, it really is an honor and a triumph just to be nominated. Plus, you can probably attribute her Emmy win to this role, too; ostensibly it’s for her work on Mike and Molly, but if nothing else it was her work as Megan that made voters take a serious look.
2011 was an outstanding year for actresses in supporting roles (this list doesn’t even include all my favorites), and I salute all of these women. I can’t wait for the clips and for Spencer’s speech.
Demian Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
How Sure Am I?
If Not Him:
Here we are at the first – perhaps the only – genuine horse race of the night.
Third time acting nominee Brad Pitt has had a really good year, career-wise. Like Jessica Chastain, Ryan Gosling, Christopher Plummer, Viola Davis and his pal George Clooney, to name a few, he’s appeared in several of this years Oscar nominated movies. He’s a nominated producer for Moneyball. He could have been nominated for a supporting award as well as a lead one; his work in The Tree of Life drew a good bit of acclaim as well. Many critics feel that his work as baseball manager Billy Beane in Moneyball is a career best and should win him this award. But if all of the precursor awards are any indication (and they always are), he won’t.
Mexican actor Demian Bichir hit the American big time with his role in a tiny independent movie, a tense and thrilling story of a immigrant father and son in contemporary LA. Quiet bilingual gardner Carlos Galinos is genuinely enthralling; and elevates his movie from something which starts off feeling predictable, but in the end, feels worthy and earned. As he shows his son how to be a man, he makes us all wish we were better.
But he’s not going to win, either. No one saw that movie. Fewer people saw it than saw Albert Nobbs, and that’s saying something. If he was going to win anything, it would have been the Independent Spirits, and he didn’t. This is one of those cases where being nominated alone is just an amazing, unexpected (though not undeserved) gift.
Then we have Gary Oldman, who scored his first nomination (I know, crazy, right?) for his work as superspy George Smiley, the John LeCarre character first portrayed on the screen by Alec Guiness. Now, this movie was a big hit across the pond, but the waves did not travel this far. The movie was too slow for American audiences. Well, maybe I’m extrapolating. It was too slow for me – and I can see my brother gasping at that, because I watch and like a lot of movies he’d consider to be slower than growing grass. Oldman was good – he’s always good – and this movie has a tremendous cast. But it doesn’t make up for the tedium, or even for something so shallow as the ugly clothes and aggressively hideous hair.
Which brings us to the real contenders. First, there’s 2006 supporting actor winner George Clooney; this year, the multi-hyphenate brings his nomination total to 7 for acting, writing and directing. Like Pitt, he’s had a pretty good year; he could have been nominated as a supporting actor in Ides of March, and in fact, he’s nominated for its screenplay up against The Descendants screenplay. Up until SAG, everyone was sure that Clooney was this year’s best actor winner for his work as beleagured Matt King, learning to connect with his daughters in the wake of his wife’s accident, and deciding whether to sell his family’s land on Kauai. He’s funny and moving and he’s not afraid to look ridiculous or pathetic. It’s really a fantastic turn.
But somehow, the season turned on him. After picking up the Critics Choice and the Golden Globe for drama, his sail to Oscar ran into an iceberg. A French iceberg named Jean Dujardin.
Since then, Dujardin has picked up the SAG and the BAFTA and seems pretty much ready to dance off with that Oscar. If you saw The Artist, you’ve seen his charm; the dancing, the dog, the funny faces, and sad clown heart. As the smooth silent film start George Valentine, Dujardin carries the movie about a man who wants to make his own way in an industry dependent on fickle trends which have left him behind. And the Academy sure does love movies about Hollywood. Oscars are about popularity and momentum; it’s not just about being the best, and not even about being worthy (though that’s important too) it’s about having the buzz. So in many ways, it depends on when people voted. Late votes will flow for Dujardin; early voters might have gone with the original presumed winner, Clooney. Entertainment Weekly’s Oscar guru Dave Karger thinks it will go Clooney, but even though he knows Academy voters and I don’t, I will be surprised if he’s right. The dreamer Jean “De La Lune” gives an adorable acceptance speech. And though he’s lost the pencil thin mustache, he’s still got the smile and the tap dancing chops, and if he is indeed the winner, as I’m guessing, we’ll get to see both. If we’re lucky, he’ll even bring Cosmo the dog.
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn
How Sure Am I?
If Not Her:
Now, if you know me or if you read this space, you know that it drives me out of my mind that the world’s most admired actress hasn’t won an Oscar since 1984. Yes, Meryl Streep’s nominated roughly every other year. Yes, she is everyone’s inspiration. Yes, she has two Oscars. But it’s also fair to say that the woman cannot win these days. And that any time someone tells you “it’s a race between Meryl Streep and X,” X always wins. I know this; it’s one of my firmest Oscar-watching mantras.
And yet…. and yet… I can’t help hoping that this will be the year.
Okay. First. Let me start with the people who have no chance.
Rooney Mara, it’s an honor to pick up your first nomination. The Academy seems strangely cold to David’s Fincher’s adaptation of the Swedish bestseller; it did pick up some technical nods, but despite Mara’s fierce, scorching performance as quiet, deadly hacker Lisbeth Salander and the enormous popularity of the books, the movie didn’t take off as expected. Oh, it did well enough, but I thought it was going to be huge. Making 100mil when people expected 250? Eh. Maybe book lovers were just too nervous to see the dark stuff; that’s harder than reading about it.
For somewhere near 30 years, Glenn Close has been trying to bring the play Albert Nobbs to the screen. She plays a woman passing as a man to get work in Victorian Dublin, but unfortunately, even this kind of attention grabbing stunt isn’t going to be enough to gather her an Oscar even after 6 nominations. Maybe it’s just her competition, or maybe it’s that the character is rather dour and represents and not very entertaining. Whatever it is, this is not Close’s year. It’s nice to see her get her first nomination since 1989, though.
This isn’t the year for three time nominee Michelle Williams, either, though she can be proud to have been nominated in this category twice in a row. She’s building toward inevitability (or at least, so her fans can hope; we’d have said the same thing of Close or Julianne Moore). Her turn as Marilyn Monroe is certainly an inspired one; vulnerable, emotional, and truly Marilyn.
No, there are two real contenders. The lovely, lovely Viola Davis (who has an effecting turn in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as well) stars in the ensemble drama The Help as Abilene, a grieving mother who cooks and cleans for a weak willed, careless, thoughtlessly cruel Southern belle and incurs the ire of another. She finds the strength to tell her story, which is published in a tell all book; she’s the one who gets the other maids to join in the project. She’s the quiet strength, the emotional core of an emotional movie. I can’t even talk about her relationship with her employer’s little girl, whose mother ignores and neglects her because she’s not the tiny pretty thing the mother wanted.
And then there’s Meryl. Marvelous, incredible Meryl, who is generally and consistently just so much better than anyone else that there’s almost nothing to say. (Not that I’m going to let that stop me.) The biggest criticism of The Help is that it’s not a new story, and that the characters are familiar types. There’s little familiar about Margaret Thatcher’s story, and her character is definitely specific. But the movie isn’t as tightly made and not nearly as well told; it can’t seem to make up its mind about Thatcher and her complicated legacy. Is she a hero? A villain? The movie works best when it’s simply the story of a marriage, when senile Margaret bickers and dances and argues with her dead husband Dennis (the extraordinary Jim Broadbent, whose omission from the supporting actor list is unconscionable) . It’s the most realistic aging (both in make up and in physical acting) I’ve ever seen. And at that point, it’s a marvelous reflection on a challenging life; did she make the right choices, and what did it cost her family and her country? Oscar watchers have been waiting for this movie since the casting was announced; could this be the year? Could Meryl finally do it?
First, Viola won the Critics Choice. Meryl picked up the Golden Globe for actress in a drama; of course, she’s won many more Globes than she has Oscars, and not just because Postcards From the Edge and The Devil Wears Prada were placed in the more easily winnable comedy category. Viola countered by winning SAG, which has a massive voting base and the biggest voter overlap with Oscar. But Meryl’s muddied the waters by winning the BAFTA award. Is this because it was a British movie about a British historical figure? Could be. But Margaret Thatcher has to be an unpopular historical figure within the British arts community.
I have to go with history and assume that Meryl will lose. And gosh, just from a superstitious point of view I would never pick Meryl; I’d rather be wrong than assume she’s going to win and break my heart. Normally I’d have been thrilled to see Viola win; I know I’ll respond to the emotion of it when it happens, but this is Meryl’s best chance since Adaptation in 2002, and I’m going to be sorry to see her lose it. This is one of those times when I wish really passionately for a tie.
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
How Sure Am I?
If Not Him:
Almost every year, Best Picture and Best Director line up. Despite his complete lack of name recognition with the American public (and his long, tricky name), French director Havanavicius will win because his movie’s going to win. Allen and Scorsese have Oscars to their names; in fact, they’re two of the biggest, most famous, most lauded directors in Hollywood. Malick and Payne are previous nominees, both hugely respected by their peers. But Hazanavicius has picked up the BAFTA and the Director’s Guild, the Critics Choice, the Independent Spirit and the Palme D’Or. Those last two don’t usually line up with Oscar (hmm, is there more to this race than everyone supposes?), but this year, it appears that they will.
Golden Globe winner Scorsese has a shot for his ode to both cinema history and his 12 year old daughter. Marty, you showed us that you can make a classic film in 3d. You proved you really could make a movie your daughter and her friends could enjoy. You showed us that Sasha Baron Cohen can be actually bearable. So be happy, even when you probably lose tonight.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
How Sure Am I?
All of these movies have something going for them, although most have failed to fully ignite the public imagination. War Horse is Steven Spielberg’s rather square, earnest epic about a boy and his horse, set largely in the battlefields and trenches of World War 1. It’s done well enough, but hasn’t achieved the must-see popular status Spielberg’s name often guarantees. Though it’s lush cinematography and score are nominated here, the film has failed to find either the audience or the larger awards season presence originally predicted for it. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is replete with lush, dream-like images which leave a strong emotional impression, but left many viewers longing for a more typical narrative structure. And fewer dinosaurs in it’s depiction of life in Texas in the 50s.
No 9/11 movie has connected with mass audiences, and sadly the masterful Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is no exception. Dealing more with the aftermath of that day’s events than the day itself, it traces the story of a young boy, Oskar Schell, who sets out to solve the last mystery his beloved, lost father left him. I was blown away by this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed novel. It has no chance of winning, but it deserves to be seen. If you’re one of the large majority who hasn’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and go.
Despite being marketing nightmares (a movie about baseball stats? a children’s movie by Martin Scorsese?), both Hugo and Moneyball have done relatively well at the box office. The deeply romantic and visually stunning Hugo is more of a classic film; the young orphan with a mysterious puzzle to solve lives hidden in a train station in glorious Paris finds a secret he doesn’t expect, and in the end changes more lives than his own. It also took home the most nominations, at 11; many years, the movie with the most nominations takes home the biggest prize. This year, however, it could lose them all. Moneyball tells the modern story of a man remaking baseball as we knew it in the last century, but grounded that man’s experiences as a former ballplayer; he was a boy who had been promised stardom, learning how not to make false promises to others. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the baseball manager in question is played by Brad Pitt, one of the biggest stars on the planet.
Another moderate hit helmed by another huge star is The Descendants, an enormously moving story about a neglectful husband and father coming to realize what family means in the wake of his wife suffering a fatal accident. It was this year’s Best Drama at the Golden Globes. It’s funny and heartbreaking and a real winner.
Well, in every sense other than the presumed Oscar winner, that is.
There is one genuine hit in this year’s Oscar line up – and there’s been a great deal of discussion in the media and Oscar watching community about the fact that in 9 movies, there was only one. That movie was The Help, based on the beloved bestseller about young white women and the black maids who raised them and are raising their children. It took home the SAG ensemble prize, which often goes to the Oscar winner. And you may have noticed it has three acting nominations, more than any other film and a very impressive achievement by its self. Unfortunately it was snubbed in both director and screenplay; the last time a movie won Best Picture without being nominated in either of those categories was apparently 1932.
Which bring us to the presumed champion, Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Bafta, Producer’s Guild, Independent Spirit and Palme D’or winner The Artist. With Harvey Weinstein behind it, who can doubt? The charming tale of a silent film star who falls from popularity in the advent of the talkies brings us back to Hollywood’s heyday. It’s a huge gamble – being almost completely silent – but for fans of cinema, it’s a real treat. Unfortunately it hasn’t connected with audiences on the level that it’s charmed the critics and the Hollywood community – but that doesn’t seem likely to matter tonight. People may grumble; some of them already are. It’s far and away the expected winner.
Best Original Screenplay seems likely to go to Midnight in Paris, though it’s possible that The Artist could sneak in as it did at the BAFTAs. Adapted screenplay could go to the sentimental choice, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, as it did at the BAFTAs: the movie is dedicated to the cowriter, Bridget O’Connor, who died unexpectedly just before filming, and was thanked lovingly in her husband’s acceptance speech. That movie, however, hasn’t gotten much traction on this side of the pond. More likely the award will go to the marvelous tragi-comedy The Descendants (my preference) or even Moneyball,,the unlikely book to film conversation about baseball statistics and staffing, written by the crack Oscar-winning team of Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin. Rango seems the default winner of the strange animated feature film category; to think that last year, so many brilliant films (Despicable Me, Megamind, Tangled) had to be overlooked because there were only 3 nomination slots, but this year (because unlike 2010, this year there were more than 15 full length animated features eligible for the award) there are 5 mediocre nominees… Well, it’s upsetting.
Speaking of upsetting, I’m thoroughly annoyed with the Academy first for nominating only two songs in this year’s Best Song category (one of which, “Real in Rio,” was so forgettable – or at least so poorly named – that I watched the music-heavy movie and had no idea which one it was), and second for their decision not to perform the songs at all. Really? There’s not enough time in that bloated show to squeeze in Jason Segal and Bret McKenzie performing “Man or Muppet”? Come! That would have been a treat. And while I will be quite pleased if Ludovic Bource takes home the Oscar for Best Score (which I expect; his work for The Artist was bouncy and charming and memorable), I’m still sore that the unsettling marvel from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo escaped nomination. That, too, is criminal.
Now, normally you’ll hear a lot from me about the glitz and glamor of the show, about the spectacle of it all. This year I want – I need – to say something a little different.
Oscar, at its best, ought to say something. It ought to be more than pretty people thanking powerful people, and everyone congratulating each other on their fabulous clothes and towering piles of money. The films that moved me this year do say something, and they share this central core; family. Loss of family, loss of parents, all bound up in the struggle to make our lives meaningful. Just look at the orphaned sons in Hugo and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, both on desperate quests to solve puzzles set by their beloved fathers. See Skeeter looking for her surrogate mother Constantine, and Abilene (her own heart grieving and broken) mothering that neglected toddler. Watch the Conlon brothers tear each other to pieces. Watch Marilyn Monroe undone both by her desperate desire for professional approval and her secret longing for a child. Watch the King family come to terms both with the matriarch’s impending death and her infidelity. Look at the Woody Allen stand in, Gil, as he feels trapped because he’s chosen to join a family whose values he doesn’t share; Albert wonders if he might live a finer life with a wife to help him run a little shop. Tree of Life gives us a strange and misty poem to childhood, to the way life looms larger and more mysterious when we’re young, and how strange it feels viewed through the lens of later loss.
This year, at the center, isn’t mere romance, or adventure, or mystery, or all the other glamorous things that we enjoy at the movies, but that most prosaic story of all. Where Lisbeth Salander comes from means everything to who she is and what she does. Making the overpowering joy of intimate family connection matter in his son’s life drives Carlos Galindo – and the movie A Better Life. Even Billy Beane needs to make a difference in the world, with his life, for his young daughter. Every year, I send up a vain plea to the winners: when you have that minute on stage, and a captive audience of millions on stage, say something meaningful. And that’s what’s behind every successful film in the end, isn’t it? If it means something to the people who have made it, and they can deliver that truth on the screen, then it will mean something to us.
Maybe our first relationships, our families, are at the heart of every year’s films. This feels fully and explicitly and unusually true this year, however. Perhaps it’s the lens of my own life that makes me feel this right now – maybe I am looking for something, seeing more than is there, because there is recent loss in and around my life. But to me, today, what this year’s crop of films implies is that there’s more than one way to be an Artist, and that the Art we live each day can have resonance as beautiful and lasting as anything we’ll see tonight.