By Laura Leon, Ann Morrow and Shawn Stone
There are two suspenseful narratives leading up to this Sunday’s 85th Annual Academy Awards telecast. First, who will win the most awards in this wide-open field? When the nominations were announced on Jan. 10, it looked like Steven Spielberg’s epic Lincoln would steamroll the competition with its 12 nominations; when Lincoln proved a flop at other awards shows (with the notable exception of star Daniel Day-Lewis), an opening for films as diverse as Argo, Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook was created.
Second, whom will host Seth MacFarlane offend most? The man behind TV’s Family Guy and the smash film comedy Ted can be downright corrosive—and isn’t shy about taking shots at anyone and everyone. (Harvey Weinstein, look out.) Still, for the home viewer, offensiveness beats boredom. And this year’s Oscars seem likely to be anything but boring.
The nine nominees for Best Picture are Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty.
Given its award-season momentum, it’s likely that Ben Affleck’s politically astute Iranian hostage drama Argo will win. A smart, if modest, thriller, Argo neatly balances historical fact with Hollywood hokum. The “hokum,” by the way, is not in the scenes set in Tinseltown—which are tart and thoroughly plausible—but rather in the ginned-up suspense of the escape that climaxes the picture. Five of the other nominees are worthy of the big prize: the search for Osama drama (complete with attending moral quandaries) Zero Dark Thirty; the beautifully realized 3D epic Life of Pi; the moving political-historical drama Lincoln; the life and death struggles of the scorned and dispossessed in Beasts of the Southern Wild; and Amour, a stark examination of devotion in the face of death.
In fact, the only title that flat-out doesn’t deserve a nomination is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
The powers-that-be at the various Hollywood studios should be pleased. Five of the nine nominated films have grossed more than $100 million domestically, and another is likely to pass that mark by Oscar night. Even without an arguably deserved nomination for Skyfall (aka the “most successful James Bond film ever”), this is the most populist set of nominees in years.
Interestingly, there’s a good chance that Best Picture will be the only award Argo wins. While not unprecedented (MGM’s Grand Hotel pulled it off in 1932), this would be very odd indeed.
With Argo director Ben Affleck shut out of the category, it’s anybody’s guess who will win this one. Will it be Steven Spielberg, for his admirably restrained, classically oriented direction of Lincoln? Or, will it be Ang Lee for the continual sense of wonder and discovery that infuses special effects-laden, 3D fantasia Life of Pi? Those two are the most likely candidates, but David O. Russell—whose direction really is Oscar-worthy—has the full force of the Weinstein Oscar Machine™ behind him for Silver Linings Playbook, and Michael Haneke’s gracious acceptance speech at the Golden Globes may have won points for the austere Austrian auteur and his film, Amour. With Kathryn Bigelow shut out for her masterful work in Zero Dark Thirty, it would be nice to see an upset win for Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Benh Zeitlin. Creating enchanting magical realism with untrained actors in an inhospitable location couldn’t have been easy.
For once, the Academy has nominated—across the board—performers deserving of consideration, whatever their chances for taking home the prize. The women (and little girl) contending for the Best Actress statuette delivered powerful, haunting performances. It’s unlikely that Naomi Watts will win for her chilling (no pun intended) turn as a desperate mother fighting with her son to survive following a tsunami, as the movie opened late and the competition is just too strong. Quvenzhané Wallis astonished audiences as the taciturn survivor of a strange post-apocalyptic Katrina situation in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but let’s face it, she’s just a kid, presumably with a big future ahead of her. Then again, the Academy has been known to surprise us (Anna Paquin anyone?), but it’d be more likely that Wallis would have scored had she been more of a supporting character, not the engine that drives the film. There is major dark horse possibility in Emmanuelle Riva for Amour, and, as always with Oscar, the fact that she’s old is a plus, but the real horse race is between Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty (and who was in just about everything but Wreck-It Ralph last year), and Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. Chastain is in a movie that delves into the politically incorrect and has proven controversial; Lawrence has been winning big this awards season, and played a role that involved much more depth and growth. My money is on Lawrence, but wouldn’t it be neat to have a tie, like the time Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Streisand shared the gold?
It would be the upset of upsets if Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t win for his beard-perfect portrayal of our 16th President of the United States in Lincoln. Still, it’s not totally inconceivable. Hugh Jackman finally got to bring his Broadway singing chops to the big screen in Les Miserables, and appropriately dazzled audiences and critics; Denzel Washington gave his best performance in years as the deeply damaged hero pilot of Robert Zemeckis’ Flight; and Joaquin Phoenix made an acclaimed return to acting (after squandering a few years as a professional weirdo) in The Master. And in addition to being very good in Silver Linings Playbook—if his performance hadn’t worked, the film would have fallen apart—Bradley Cooper has the aforementioned Weinstein Oscar Machine™ behind him. Still, it’s Day-Lewis’ to lose.
Best Supporting Actress
In my Oscar chart, I put Jacki Weaver in the “overrated” category, and I feel really bad about that. I thought she was perfect as the Philly born-and-bred mother to Bradley Cooper’s manic depressive son and the perfect foil to OCD hubby Robert De Niro in the excellent Silver Linings Playbook. That said, however, she didn’t have much to do, and I think her nomination is more a function of the wave of success being ridden by the film than anything else. Amy Adams’ chances drifted away with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it momentum of The Master. Helen Hunt is one of those Oscar faves, a former winner staging a bit of a comeback, and she’s doing an accent to boot in The Sessions. The real race will be between Sally Field, who infused much-needed vinegar, sass and a mother’s love into the brooding, talky Lincoln, and Anne Hathaway, whose luminous take on life forsaken and hope shattered was a tour de force. Plus, she had to sing her lines. Given the popularity of Les Miserables, it’s pretty certain that it will be Hathaway’s name that will be announced.
Best Supporting Actor
Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the greatest actors alive—and has a slew of accolades to prove it, including this year’s Oscar nomination for Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic charlatan in The Master. As riveting as he is repugnant, Dodd, “the master” of a quasi-scientific therapy movement based on Dianetics, resides so deeply in deceit and ego that he believes his own baloney. This is not an easy thing to convey to audiences, though Hoffman makes it appear as effortless as breathing—as he does with all of Dodd’s venialities in this extremely difficult role of making a monster of manipulation sympathetic in his sway over his followers. Not the least of Hoffman’s challenges was to hold the screen with Joaquin Phoenix as Dodd’s bizarre acolyte (for which Phoenix is justly nominated in the Best Actor category) in a feature-length duel of ferocious originality.
A pudgy strawberry blond in an industry that favors tall, dark and handsome—hence all those best supporting actor awards and only one win in a lead role (for Capote)—Hoffman has been consistent in his prodigious versatility and intuitive technique for almost 30 years. Even in a movie as ruthlessly, and unpleasantly, ambitious as The Master, he is a joy to watch.
The other nominees are Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook, Alan Arkin for Argo, Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained and Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln.
The single most astounding visual sequence this year would have to be the imagining of Shanghai as a neon fairyland rising like a mirage in Skyfall. Unless, that is, it’s the vicious kickboxing bout between James Bond (Daniel Craig) and an assassin in the same movie, filmed entirely and thrillingly in silhouette. British cinematographer Roger Deakins has few peers—though fellow nominee Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln) is one of them—and Skyfall has no rivals in this category for inventive composition and impeccable technique. Yet as dazzling as Deakins’ work is here, it serves the story as rigorously as Bond serves his country, while the same cannot be said for the grandstanding imagery of another nominee, Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina). As for talented Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi has so much CGI that it shouldn’t even be in the running. (The final nominee is Robert Richardson for Django Unchained.)
Even so, Deakins, a landslide winner with the American Society of Cinematographers—four awards in two years, not including the top honor he just received for Skyfall—has never won an Academy Award, despite nine previous nominations, including such modern classics of cinematography as Fargo and Kundun. Though Lincoln may win because its subject is weightier than Skyfall’s spy caper, this just might be the year where genius trumps genre.
Best Writing—Original Screenplay
This category might yield a surprise. Most of the nominees, including John Gatins for Flight and Mark Boal for Zero Dark Thirty, are worthy. It would be nice if the otherwise ignored Moonrise Kingdom were cited for the screenplay by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, but this isn’t likely to happen with no award season “buzz.” Michael Haneke might win for Amour. Interestingly, a foreign-language screenplay is no bar to Oscar gold—note Pedro Almodovar’s 2007 win for Talk to Her. (And any time a group of Hollywood scribes honor a script as minimalist as this one, it’s worth applauding.) Still, the smart money is on the most dismaying nominee: Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay for Django Unchained. It would be perfectly in character for the Motion Picture Academy to honor someone for their worst work.
Best Writing—Adapted Screenplay
Tony Kushner should win this award in a walk for Lincoln. Kushner great achievement was in making the philosophical and political debates about making slavery illegal both vivid and crystal clear. However, despite making the hard work of legislating vital and engaging, Kushner may not win, thanks in part to the it’s-not-historically-letter-perfect backlash. (Thanks for nothing, Maureen Dowd.) It’s just as likely that the Academy will reward Chris Terrio for Argo or David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook. Less likely to challenge Kushner are David Magee for Life of Pi (owing to the clumsiness of Pi’s framing device) or Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Best Animated Feature
For the first time, well, ever, the nominees in the Best Animated Feature category are all really deserving. No title has been added merely to fill out the field. While I think that Pixar’s Brave, with its neo-feminist heroine and lush production, will take home the gold, each of the other four contenders is equally worthy of a win. Frankenweenie and ParaNorman both plumb the fertile narrative turf of square-peg kids whose seeming weirdness opens lots of room to talk about bullying, individualism, mob mentality, and hope—all without coming across like an overbearing After School Special. The Pirates! Band of Misfits is from the folks who brought us the Wallace & Gromit series, and is equally delightful, if less widely seen. And Wreck-it-Ralph, which is probably Brave’s strongest competition in terms of how the voters tend to make their picks, is archly subversive in its use of old-school video arcade memories to spin a tale about how much interaction and communication have changed.
Best “F” Bomb Drop
Of course this isn’t an official category. But if it were, there are some terrific contenders. Alan Arkin’s catchphrase in Argo: “Argo fuck yourself!” Political fixer James Spader’s nonplussed reaction to meeting the President in Lincoln: “I’ll be fucked.” Best of all, Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty, taking credit for her obssessive work at a briefing for the agency poobahs on Osama bin Laden’s hideout. When the CIA director asks who she is, Chastain replies, “I’m the motherfucker that found this place, sir.”
The 85th Annual Academy Awards will be broadcast Sunday (Feb. 24) at 7 PM on News10 ABC (WTEN-TV).