Friday, October 16, 2009

Oscar Update: The Lead Acting Races

Is it just me, or does the best actor category seem bereft of contenders this year? Compared to the best actress category (which we’ll get to later), where numerous women seem to locking down spots, the best actor race still seems to be completely up in the air. Only the star of the film with that name, George Clooney, seems to be assured a nomination right now. Many people are counting on two other former winners – Morgan Freeman in Invictus and Daniel Day Lewis in Nine – to take up two more spots, but what if both of those films disappoint? Who else is out there to take their spots? And even if they don’t, that still leaves two slots open.

I think that Colin Firth has to be an early favorite for his work in A Single Man, which won him the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and also played well in Toronto. In the post Brokeback Mountain/Milk era, playing a gay man is no longer a liability, and in fact, many people regard it as brave. He looks good to me right now.

Assuming that Freeman and Day-Lewis don’t disappoint, and Clooney and Firth get in, that still leaves one spot up for grabs, and I’m not sure who it will go to. The Road got dinged out of the gate a little bit, but it already seems to be bouncing back. Viggo Mortenson is great in a very difficult role in that film, and since he has a nomination under his belt already, perhaps he can sneak in. But the film is very, very dark, so the Academy may look elsewhere.

Jeremy Renner has had the benefit of being the only Oscar worthy performance in this category to be released for most of the year for his terrific work in The Hurt Locker. He is the type of actor who is ready for a big break, and a nomination would fit. But no one knows who he is, so that will hurt him. Plus, he is running a long distance race.

Matt Damon received some of the best reviews of his career for The Informant, and yet oddly the buzz on him seems to be dying a little. I think that he will have to wait for some people in front of him to stumble to move up. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he is also in Invictus this Christmas, which will remind people of just how good he was in this film.

Michael Stuhlbarg is at the center of one of the most loved films of the year with the Coens’ A Serious Man. But he is even less well known than Renner, so that will hurt him, as will the fact that it’s a comedy, as will the fact that the Coens are hit and miss with the Academy, and I don’t know which this one is going to be. He has too many factors working against him to make him seem likely.

Johnny Depp is an Oscar favorite, but I think perhaps his performance in Public Enemies will strike too many as not being quite strange enough for Depp. It is certainly one of his more normal roles in years, and the film is perceived as a disappointment financially. He is running a long distance race as well, so I don’t think I’d count on him.

There is Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes, a film that I normally wouldn’t be mentioning in relation to the Oscars, except for the fact that Downey did in fact get nominated for Tropic Thunder last year, so they obviously love him. I wouldn’t count on it though.

Two veterans that might get career achievement type nods are Christopher Plummer for The Last Station, where he plays Leo Tolstoy (but word is he may be pushed to the supporting category), and Hal Holbrook for That Evening Sun. Both have received some great reviews for their work so far – which still haven’t been widely seen – but both are very small films that will need good campaigns to compete, and at this point, I’m not sure they’ll get them.

There are a host of less likely contenders as well. Robert DeNiro may try to get back in the game for Everybody’s Fine, a remake of a finely received Italian film for 1990. Mark Wahlberg could move up if The Lovely Bones becomes a legitmate contender. Jake Gyllenhaal has a strong role in Jim Sheridan’s Brothers, which is so far keeping a low profile. Keeping an even lower profile is Ryan Gosling in All Good Things, also due in December (but since I’ve seen nothing on this film, I am doubtful). Tahar Rahim is the star of the much beloved A Prophet, which will need a good push if he wants to compete. And finally, Michael Sheen may finally stop being an also ran if The Damned United takes off.

So that’s 19 contenders, so maybe it’s not so bad after all. Still though, I have to wonder why so many of these films are content to keep a low profile at this point. There’s such a thing as sitting back too much.

But while the Best Actor race is still very much in up in the air, the best actress race seems to be locking down tighter and tighter with each passing week. Since the films debut at Sundance in January, people have been talking about newcomer Carey Mulligan’s performance in An Education, and she keeps getting stronger and stronger as a competitor, and a probable winner. She’s locked.

Meryl Streep is also looking good to yet again be nominated in this category, although there is some confusion over which movie it will be for. She got great reviews for Julie and Julia and I think she will get nominated for it (why, I’m not so sure), but this could just as easily be pushed to the supporting category to make way for her to be nominated for a lead Oscar for December’s It’s Complicated. I certainly would not be shocked if she pulled off a double nomination this year.

Another Sundance darling is Gabourey Sidibe for Precious, which is looking like a major player at this year’s Oscars, and so she should easily find her way to a nomination for the film – unless Mulligan is the only newcomer they are willing to embrace.

Saorise Ronan was nominated two years ago for her wonderful work in Atonement, and she is the star of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones this year. Lead or supporting is still up in the air at this point, and she would be far and away the youngest actor to ever land two nominations, but it could easily happen.

Two other lead or supporting fence sitters could find themselves in play. Marion Cotillard won a couple years ago for La Vie En Rose, and since she has the biggest of the female roles in Nine, they could easily push her for a lead nomination to clear up room in supporting for any number of other actresses from the film. There is talk that Vera Farmiga could be pushed to the lead category for Up in the Air, if for no other reason than to clear room for co-star Anna Kendrick in supporting so they don’t split the vote. It will be interesting to see how these ones play out.

Abbie Cornish has gotten some great reviews for Bright Star, so she could find herself in play this year – especially if a few of the women listed above move to supporting, but the film was a box office non starter, which could hurt her. Likewise, Michelle Monaghan has gotten amazing reviews for the small film Trucker, but so far she is still flying below the radar, but if some of the women above drop, then she is poised to pounce.

Penelope Cruz got a nomination for Almodovar’s Volver a few years back, and the two team up again for Broken Embraces. While the film has hardly gotten the reviews their last one did, they do love Cruz, so she could move up.

Hilary Swank and Amelia has already had a rough road – and it hasn’t even been released yet. The two time winner looked assured of a nomination earlier in the year, but in the last few weeks, the advance word on the film has not been kind. However, now with a new cut of the film set to hit theaters next week, there is renewed interest in her. Please shoot me if she wins again though.

Helen Mirren won a few years back for The Queen, and she has gotten great advance reviews for her role in The Last Station, which while a small film, could take off if marketed correctly.

In addition, there are three actresses overdue for some Oscar love in play this year. Charlotte Gainsbourg gives one of the most talked about performances of the year in Antichrist, but will voters actually sit through it? And if they do, will they actually vote for her? I doubt it. Robin Wright Penn is one of those actresses who has been poised to break onto the Oscar stage for years now, and although The Private Lives of Pippa Lee came and went quietly in Toronto, she could still pull off a nomination given the right circumstances. Audrey Tautou’s Coco Avant Chanel has been rather quiet so far, but sometimes that’s the right move.

A quartet of younger actresses are also being talked about – although very quietly right now. Natalie Portman has a plum role in Brothers, although the buzz is still a quiet for that one. Zooey Deschanel was the title character in this summer’s surprise hit 500 Days of Summer, but I doubt she’ll really receive a push. Kirsten Dunst co-stars with Ryan Gosling in All Good Things, but as I mentioned before, I am having my doubts if it will actually come out. Emily Blunt stars in The Young Victoria, which is not getting outstanding reviews, but people seem to love her, so perhaps she’s not dead yet.

Finally, there are two really under the radar competitors in Tilda Swinton for Julia and Shoreh Aghdashloo for The Stoning of Soraya M. Both films came and went rather quietly earlier this year, but both have some passionate supporters. That will need to grow if either hopes the break into the race.

So in total, just like the best actor race, the best actress one has 19 women in contention for the nomination – yet I think only about half that number have a legitimate chance. However, this race seems much more exciting than the other one, because there is still much more uncertainly about who is actually going to race where, not to mention that we have some legitimate frontrunners, something the actor race currently does not have. Something tells me that neither one of these categories is going to become much clearer until the precursor awards.

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