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The Actors – Mostly Locked Redux

The four acting categories feel locked for various reasons. If a weakness is to be found it’s not with the contenders themselves, but with bored Oscar pundits who have nothing to do for the next few weeks except look for holes where there aren’t any. Even still, for all of that, I have seen upsets. When Adrien Brody won, or Halle Berry AND Denzel Washington, or Marion Cotillard – it was the “lock” that was misleading.¬† That makes us wonder, are all four really locked locked? Or do we fool ourselves into thinking they are based on the awards that have gone down thus far? I have watched Oscar through both kinds of seasons – the ones where there are upsets, and the ones where the acting categories were matched 4/4 every time. So what kind of year will this be?

There are two forces at work, as I keep repeating. The first is that there are now ten best picture nominees and not five. The second is that they stretched out the date more. Whether or not either of these have an impact will be answered in about one month from now. What I do know is that when I looked back at the ten year span when Oscar did have ten Best Picture contenders, the Best Actor winner was from one of the ten films. Not a single actor was in the film that won, but they all had their film nominated. That is a pattern that may or may hold this year.

But let’s take a look at the acting categories and see if we can figure out where we are.

Best Actor — Jeff Bridges is the Frontrunner
Crazy Heart was a film that had a hard time finding a distributor out of Toronto. It was seen by a few bloggers and critics who promptly announced that Best Actor was Jeff Bridges’ to lose.¬† It was loudly declared from all corners of the web that at last Jeff Bridges had given his finest work to date. Bridges is an actor who has been kicking around Hollywood for decades. The son of Lloyd Bridges and the brother of Beau Bridges, Jeff Bridges was always sort of a dreamboat matinee idol before he started proving himself a serious actor. Once he did make the crossover, it felt like the Academy rarely took notice. It was like he was suffering from the same things actors like Warren Beatty and Robert Redford suffered from: they were too good looking to win. Bridges just kept on keeping on, turning in one reliable performance after another. He became a cult icon with The Big Lebowski (still my own personal favorite performance of his), but he was brilliant in The Contender, Fearless, Starman, The Fisher King, the Fabulous Baker Boys, to name a few. He’s also been in many, many turkeys. Some of the worst films ever made have starred Jeff Bridges. It is crazy that this is only his second lead actor Oscar – all of the other nominations, a total of five, have been supporting. Two leads, three supporting.

In Crazy Heart, Bridges gives yet another subtle performance, but the difference with this character is that Bridges almost completely disappears. He has a different voice, a different walk – he even sings. There is a hardness to him that we’ve never seen. And he breaks down more intensely than he ever has. So far, so good, right? The only tiny problem seems to be that his film is not nominated for Best Picture. Given everything else, that probably seems like nothing. But I’ll tell you this. If there was an Adrien Brody lurking in the wood pile, stealing Jeff Bridges’ thunder would not be hard. It isn’t that Bridges isn’t great, it’s just that he’s a subtle actor – he’s not a scenery chewer. And, as we’ve seen year after year after year, the scenery chewers prevail.

Jeremy Renner –I have three favorite male performances this year – Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Renner and Colin Firth. Only two of those managed to get nominations. Renner is so good in The Hurt Locker he is impossible to ignore. Every time he’s on screen he is like a magnetic presence. His performance is a lot more difficult than it looks. All three of the men in the film have to expend a good deal of energy keeping up a facade of toughness. We have the chance to see just how good they are when the facade is removed, usually when they are all alone. Renner has so many great scenes but the one that stands out to me is the sequence where he has to remove the body bomb of a kid he thinks he knows. There are so many things going on at once, and all of it happening between us, the viewers, and Renner’s character; he can’t ever let anyone else know what is going on with him. He can’t really win, probably, unless there is so much good will directed at the film that it sweeps – in which case, like Silence of the Lambs or other films that took hold completely, The Hurt Locker will win Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Editing, Score. I believe strongly that Renner is the only one who could upset Bridges.

George Clooney has given his best performance to date with his Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air. It is moving, charming, sad — and Clooney is more emotionally exposed than he ever has been before. If Up in the Air were currently the Best Picture frontrunner, this would be Clooney’s to take, as it felt like it was earlier in the year. Clooney’s biggest problem is that he’s already won an Oscar. When you’re up against someone who has never won one, like Bridges, that fact comes into play. Not only has Clooney won already, but it seems like Clooney is the new Jack. He’s always there now. He doesn’t have to do much at all to get a film he’s involved in, if it’s serious enough, into the Oscar race. It doesn’t feel like he has enough votes – and he would have won the Globe if he was going to win anywhere, and since he didn’t that immediately changed our perceptions of how the Best Actor race was going to go down – thus bringing true the blogger’s prophecy that “Jeff Bridges will win an Oscar for Crazy Heart.”

Colin Firth, A Single Man — it’s heartbreaking to see such a great performance not get its proper due. Firth easily gives his own best performance to date — complex, conflicted – so many things going on at once with him. The film is all about the grief he is experiencing that he must do completely on his own, living at a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable to mourn one’s lover. I was so moved by his performance I had to immediately watch the film over again to see just how intricately it was done. It is a day-in-the-life but it is also a decision about his own mortality. Firth is always good, and seems to fly under the radar. The great thing about A Single Man is that he’s finally been given the opportunity to show what he really is capable of as an actor. It is remarkable.

Morgan Freeman is lovely in Invictus, and is really one of the main reasons, along with Matt Damon, that the film is as good at it is. It doesn’t have the right kind of buzz right now and a lot of that, I think, has to do with The Blind Side also being a sports movie and kind of stealing its place in the race. Also, I feel like much of what drove Invictus was the desire for good will between conflicting political parties, and/or black versus white – and our country is not in the right place to sell that message – our President is under siege from both sides. Half of a year ago, Invictus would have been an easier sell. Mostly, though, there was a feeling of “MEH” when it came down to the wire. I feel like the movie is a lot better than the Oscar race has deemed it to be. That is not surprising; it happens every year.

Best Actress – Sandra Bullock for the win.
Bullock was so well liked in The Blind Side that she managed to get that film a Best Pic nomination.¬† In short, nothing and no one can derail her. She has all of the momentum, she’s the $200 million woman and she is well liked by everyone across the board – actors she’s worked with, crew she’s worked with, fans, etc. Bullock will win for many reasons, the least of which is her performance in the film.

Bullock burst onto the scene kind of a Julie Lite. She was considered someone whose career was going to follow in Roberts’ footsteps. But at some point, Julia stopped doing the big blockbusters and Sandra kept on doing them, fitting in an art movie every once in a while. But Bullock is usually more in her element with comedy than she is with drama. She usually plays a version of herself. In Crash she didn’t. She played a horrible bitch and the critics took notice. It hasn’t been until The Blind Side, though, that she went full Erin Brockovich. The hair, the clothes, the accent, the no-nonsense straight-talking tough babe. It worked for Julia and it will probably work for Sandra, given that the Blind Side managed to slide into the top ten on Bullock’s performance, and on sentiment alone. According to the NY Times, the Blind Side team specifically avoided what they called the “tastemakers” and tried to go straight to the people and to the Academy voters (who really are people too, don’t forget). That means, they didn’t need anyone’s approval and the reviews weren’t going to matter a lick. People liked the film and that would be that. It was a true story, one that appeared on ABC news and in newspapers everywhere. The Blind Side is still so popular, in fact, that it’s edging up to $300 million. There are things about it not to like, of course, particularly for those who have discerning tastes. But even those with discerning tastes have been known to say that they fell for the movie.

Maybe The Blind Side can’t win (no director, screenwriter, editing nod) for Picture but it can and probably will win for Actress.

The other thing about Bullock, as we’ve said many times before, is that she has worked with almost the entire SAG membership at one point another, which means she’s probably worked with many of those in the Academy as well. People like her. She is hard-working and unpretentious. She gives to charity. She lives out in Austin with her motorcycle husband. Her mother died recently. No one had ever said a bad word about the girl. This win isn’t going to be about “Sandra Bullock is such a good actress.” It’s going to be about how much they like her the actress, and how much admiration they have for the real-life character.

Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia — Streep started out way ahead of the game. Like Sissy Spacek and Julie Christie (both also previous Oscar winners who lost to first-timers), Streep has won many of the critics’ awards. She and Sandra have both won the Globes and tied the Critics Choice. But when it came time for the SAG Sandra won there. Meryl Streep had won the previous year and no actor has ever managed to win the SAG twice in a row (in the leading categories). It was a no-brainer that Bullock would win the SAG. But winning that gave Bullock the momentum.

Streep’s Julia is a revelation. It is so good, in fact, that it is almost worth sitting through that movie again. But there is one glaring problem. Amy Adams is so unbearable as Julie that the only possible way to get through the film at all is to skip forwards to the Julia parts. Honestly, if it had just been a movie about Julia Child, Streep would probably be more in line to actually win. As it is, she is in the movie only half, at best. Nicole Kidman won for The Hours for a smaller part, but Kidman had never won before and she really really REALLY wanted that Oscar. Streep doesn’t seem to care if she wins another one. She already holds the record for the most nominations and seems to be enjoying her very successful career on its own.

Oscar wins are often about one-offs. Actors get in there, win their Oscar, and are never heard from again. Those who are reliable enough that they continually get nominated again and again don’t seem to have the same urgency to pull off multiple wins these days. In the past, that wasn’t the case. There is no doubt in my mind that Meryl Streep gave the best female performance this year as Julia Child. But that isn’t really saying much because Streep almost always gives the best performance of any actress any year she’s in the race: she is a master of the craft. A genius like no other. What she doesn’t have this year, nor any year in recent memory, is momentum.

Gabby Sidibe – Precious. If we’re talking upsets, though, there is one actress who can possibly upset the Sandra Bullock train and it’s not Meryl Streep – it’s Gabby Sidibe. She is much more like the type of actress who can come from nowhere and win.¬† The studio has done everything right with Gabby. She has been on all of the talk shows, speaking from the hear when she’s had the opportunity, and basically acting like a seasoned pro through the whole thing. She has been everywhere.

Despite the many decades it took for a black (or half-black) Best Actress to win, no other actress of color has won in the leading category. Halle Berry probably thought she was making history, and she was in a way. But since then? White, white, white, white, white. What’s interesting about Bullock versus Sidibe is that both films sort of deal with race. They both deal with forgotten and/or abused black kids in the ghetto. Two different stories, two different approaches. Two very different actresses. If there is any sort of resentment at all for the way “whitey” came to the rescue, it could be played out with a Gabby win. Also, Gabby’s film has more nominations than the Blind Side. Do we really think that Precious is going to walk away with only one Oscar for Mo’Nique and not win anywhere else?

Carey Mulligan – An Education. There is a slight chance that Carey Mulligan could pull off an upset. She is a darling girl in the film, the “it” girl, really. At some point, though, Sony pulled back the campaign for her, which I personally felt was the right move. Mulligan seemed too sensitive and “real” for the punishing awards season ahead of her. She seems genuinely frightened by all of the flashbulbs and the dumb questions being thrown at her. She is a class act, this girl. And bravo to her for maintaining her dignity throughout. She started out the year as the frontrunner. But the Oscar race is dirty business. All of that said, there could be a shocker when that envelope is read and it’s Carey Mulligan whose name is called. Sorry to be crass here, folks, but someone has got to say it so it might as well be me. Forgive me, Ms. Mulligan and all involved in your life and career, but the simple fact of the matter is that Mulligan is the one fine piece of tail Academy members are most going to want to fuck. It’s crude and horrible, but it is a reality that actresses are often offered up at the Oscars as the freshest cut of meat. These men like them young and hot. They just do. And none of these five actresses have the hot factor except Mulligan.

Think about it – it’s thousand of voters, most of whom are straight, white men. It isn’t a leap to think they would vote for the one they’d most like to bone. It isn’t always the case, of course, but just saying. In case it happens, you heard it here first.

Helen Mirren – The Last Station. No shot.¬† She’s already won, the film has not so great reviews — the truth is, as much as I love the woman, another actress should have had this spot, like Abbie Cornish, for instance, or Tilda Swinton.

Supporting actor and ActressMo’Nique and Christoph Waltz feel completely locked to me. Both star in popular best pictures with multiple nominations, including editing. Mo’Nique has no competition. People keep saying Maggie Gyllenhaal but I’d have to disagree with that, based on the lack of overall nominations for Crazy Heart, and the lightness of her performance. Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga are going to cancel themselves out, which is what can often happen if there are two nominees from the same film in the supporting category — not always — but sometimes. Penelope Cruz just won, so she it out of the picture. ¬† Mo’Nique has sealed the deal of her continual wins her magnificent acceptance speeches. She is the kind of person voters want to see take the stage. Supporting actress tends to go to a performance that is practically a lead.¬† Sometimes, this category can offer the biggest shockers of the night. Usually, though, when there is an upset in this category it is because the actress represents the film (Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton) or when their performance was really a lead, and therefore way too stunning to ignore (Marcia Gay Harden). Mo’Nique’s is the most talked about performance of the year, so she comes into the race with the heft of having won so many critics awards, and the Globe and the Critics Choice, and the SAG — but she also comes into the race the most deserving. That is an undeniable combination.

The silly piffle that hit some of the websites about Mo’Nique snubbing the press, and most notoriously, the New York Film Critics who were kind enough to award her, seems to have had zero impact on her wins so far. She has been nothing but gracious at the podium and has been sincere and humble in her speeches.

Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds – when I think about why I loved Inglourious Basterds, one of the true masterpieces of 2009, and the most unique of all of the Best Picture nominees, it is to do with Tarantino’s voracious directing, and Christoph Waltz’ performance. Waltz is mesmerizing as Hans Landa. He describes who and what he is in the opening scene. He is able to hunt the Jews because he can think like a Jew. He plays with his victims, using his Nazi uniform to completely obliterate their nerve. He knows that, just by wearing that uniform, anyone standing near him might as well be standing next to a hand grenade. So he’s nice and he’s gracious to his host, with the business of the milk and the pipe – but then he threatens the farmer before ordering the killing of all of the Jews hiding under the house. This same kind of charm is used every time he has someone in his grip.¬† The only problem with Waltz is that he’s not known by the majority of Hollywood insiders. We know that they like to reward their own much of the time and aren’t friendly to outsiders. But Inglourious Basterds’ 8 nominations ensure a Waltz victory more than anything else; they loved that movie across the board.

Stanley Tucci – in The Lovely Bones – Stanley Tucci benefits from having two performances this year that were both magnificent. As Julia Child’s husband in Julie & Julia, and as the freaky serial killer in The Lovely Bones. Tucci is unrecognizable and horrid in The Lovely Bones and if the Academy had loved that movie even just a little bit, Tucci would be the frontrunner here. When good guys go bad it usually ends up with an Oscar win, and if he did manage to upset Waltz, it would be a well deserved win. Tucci is another one who is almost in the overdue category.

Woody Harrelson in The Messenger – Woody is another who could potentially upset the apple cart. There are two reasons for this – the first is that he really has more of a lead performance than a supporting one (actually, one could say the same thing about Waltz and Tucci). The other is that Harrelson is incredibly well liked by the industry at large. He has a lot of friends. The Messenger is one of those films that keeps surprising. A lot of people loved it and I would bet that it almost made Best Picture.¬†¬† Matt Damon is great in Invictus and there was a time when it seemed like this was going to be Damon’s year, what with The Informant! and Invictus. If Invictus had a Best Pic nod, Damon would be more of a threat.

Christopher Plummer in The Last Station could potentially turn up as the surprise winner on his veteran status alone. So many great performances, such a distinguished career. But, think about this way. They didn’t give their award to Peter O’Toole, Lauren Bacall and Hal Holbrook when they came down the pike – what makes anyone so sure they would do the same for Plummer? One never knows, of course.