By Daniel Kenealy
This years Academy Award nominations did not really throw up a huge number of surprises. Sure, many were stunned (some to the point of deep disappointment) at the exclusion of The Dark Knight. Count me as one of those disappointed. Now let’s make something clear. Talk of The Reader *stealing* a slot on this list is nonsense. We have no way of knowing how the films ranked. The Reader might have been the second of third most popular film across ballots. Equally, The Dark Knight may not be ‘sixth’ but perhaps ‘seventh’ or ‘eighth’. In short the notion of stolen slots assumes that those slots belonged to something (or someone) in the first place. They didn’t.
Why did The Dark Knight miss a Best Picture nomination? I tend to think that the Academy simply bottled it. The Dark Knight was, in my opinion, far superior on most measures to, for example, Frost/Nixon which I would not have been too surprised to find in an Emmy line-up for outstanding made for television movie. I do not think The Dark Knight was the best (or even one of the ten best) of the year. But, as I have said previously, I don‚Äôt expect the Academy to nominate the very best, I expect them to nominate the best films that fall within their ‚Äòzone of acceptability‚Äô. Wendy and Lucy obviously falls outside that zone but I felt that The Dark Knight, whilst skirting the edges as a comic book adaptation, would be just inside the zone. I was wrong.
AMPAS clearly respected the film enough to honour it with eight nominations but the snubs, especially for Nolan‚Äôs direction, are jarring. Taking a film designed to be pure entertainment targeted at the popcorn munchers and infusing it with the thematic depth of a Michael Mann movie is something the Academy should be in the business of respecting.
However, two surprises (I would call them that although I recognize that some may dispute the use of the phrase) were very welcome on Thursday morning and they were the nominations granted to Melissa Leo and Michael Shannon. I called the latter (after weeks of a settled line-up including Dev Patel) but not the former. Ms Leo has tripped me up twice this season. I failed to call her nomination from the Screen Actors Guild and I figured, incorrectly, that her base of support would be narrower amongst AMPAS members than SAG members. Of course, a part of me despises being wrong because I aim, as we all do, for perfect predictions. But I am more than happy to have be wrong on this occasion.
Frozen River is Ms Leo‚Äôs movie and she fully realizes her character of Ray Eddy. Ray can be racist, crude and reckless, yet without special pleading. The performance allows the audience to glare into the soul of Ray whilst shunning any easily applied sociological labels. Scenes that, in the hands of a less skilled performer, would drift toward melodrama are cemented into pure tragedy by Ms Leo. And the message that, even after a spate of bad decisions, people remain capable of good ones is powerfully delivered. In short, Leo‚Äôs performance is utterly mesmerizing as a woman whose desperation to do right by her kids spark a journey all the more astonishing for being so believable.
Ms Leo has been around for a while and this nomination is particularly welcome given her past performances that have often failed to find attention but have been breathtaking nonetheless. I would draw attention to two performances in particular. First her turn in 21 Grams which ‚Äì unfortunately drowned out by the acclaim for Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts ‚Äì was outstanding. She brought raw emotion to the role of Benicio‚Äôs wife, a woman desperately trying to hold her family together. Second her five-year role in Homicide: Life on the Street on NBC (1993-1997). Five years of Detective (later Sergeant) Kay Howard broke new ground in television drama. She was not the typical female cop. She refused to glam-up, confident in her own power and, as if it mattered, the attractiveness of her wild red hair and, more importantly, the force of her personality. She was a cop prepared to go toe-to-toe with the dominant characters played by Andre Braugher and Yaphet Kotto (as her lieutenant) and, more often than not, she came out on top as a character and as a performer. I think, at this point, readers get the point. I am thrilled for Ms Leo.
The film also collected a somewhat surprising nomination for filmmaker Courtney Hunt in the best original screenplay category. As a movie, Frozen River treads the well-worn path of a seemingly ‚Äòsimple plan‚Äô that goes wrong and events soon spiral out of Ray‚Äôs control. But the movie charts that middle path between predictable and contrived with genuine skill and that is, in large part, testament to Hunt‚Äôs writing. Unfortunately, neither Leo nor Hunt are likely winners in their respective categories but I applaud the Academy for nominating them both.
The second surprise was the best supporting actor nomination for Michael Shannon. I was thrilled that he was included over Dev Patel who, whilst effective in Slumdog Millionaire, did not offer anything groundbreaking. I remarked a week ago in a posting here at Awards Daily that Revolutionary Road was ‚Äòugly‚Äô. It was a pithy dismissal of the film in the context of a predictions article but it should not be left and Ryan Adams correctly drew attention to it in a comment on the article (‚ÄòRack ‚Äòem up, rack ‚Äòem up, rack ‚Äòem up).
Let me clarify. Revolutionary Road exerts a mesmerizing pull. It is a beautiful film (where was Roger Deakins‚Äô nomination?). As the movies charts the path of Leo and Kate (Frank and April) as they play out their life of vocal desperation during the course of a summer wherein they aim for happiness in various ways. They are neurotically self-absorbed and both represent very difficult characters to warm to. None of these represent faults of the movie. Indeed, one key line in the movie is: ‚ÄòPlenty of people are on to the emptiness. But it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.‚Äô Mendes is attempting to show guts by exposing the hopelessness and Revolutionary Road stands as one of the most artfully crafted and well acted American movies of 2008. But it was never going to win over Academy voters for the reasons fleshed out above. Is it right? No. Is is true? Yes. Awards season is often a tug-of-war between the idealists and the realists. The idealist screams that Revolutionary Road is a phenomenal offering and that voters just need to open their eyes and embrace a film that is difficult to access in an emotionally facile way. And the realist response: maybe they should, but they won‚Äôt so can we get on with the business of prognostication now. Oscar prediction is about ‚Äòwhat is‚Äô not ‚Äòwhat ought‚Äô.
It is fitting that Michael Shannon should score the only major nomination afforded to the film as his, in my humble opinion, is the best performance amongst the ensemble. Put simply Shannon alters the tone of Revolutionary Road whenever he is on screen and I suspect that is why he stood out for AMPAS voters. The film sparks emotionally when he is on the screen and that is what Oscar voters look for. Again, as with Leo and Hunt, Shannon stands no chance of collecting this Oscar that seems destined to go to the late Heath Ledger for his chilling imagining of The Joker. But, with these three nominations ‚Äì Leo, Hunt, and Shannon ‚Äì the Academy showed once again that they are a little more attuned to quality than we sometimes given them credit for.
Otherwise, as a Brit, it is hard not to feel somewhat proud of the showing made by Slumdog Millionaire ‚Äì a movie that stands as the favourite to collect best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay ‚Äì and the success of Kate Winslet but the Oscars are not the Olympics. It is so hard to establish the geographical ‚Äòorigin‚Äô of movies these days anyway and, so often, we tend to fall back on where the dough came from. Thus Slumdog is British because it was financed by Britain but it was filmed in India and tells a story made possible only by globalization, the very process of weakening borders. Measuring the nationality of art by finance is, in short, rather crude and I am, as ever, rooting for what I consider to be ‚Äòthe best‚Äô. And my choices would be:
Picture – Milk
Director ‚Äì Gus Van Sant (Milk)
Actress ‚Äì Melissa Leo (Frozen River)
Actor ‚Äì Sean Penn (Milk)
Supporting actress ‚Äì Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler)
Supporting actor ‚Äì Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Animated feature ‚Äì Wall-E
Foreign language film ‚Äì Waltz with Bashir
Original screenplay ‚Äì In Bruges (Martin McDonaugh)
Adapted Screenplay ‚Äì Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)
Cinematography ‚Äì The Dark Knight (Wally Pfister)
Film editing ‚Äì Slumdog Millionaire (Chris Dickens)
Costume design ‚Äì The Duchess (Michael O‚ÄôConnor)
Art direction ‚Äì The Duchess (Michael Carlin, Rebecca Alleway)
Makeup ‚Äì The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Music (Original score) ‚Äì Wall-E (Thomas Newman)
Music (Original song) ‚Äì The Wrestler (‚ÄòThe Wrestler‚Äô) Bruce Springsteen*
Sound editing ‚Äì Wall-E
Sound mixing ‚Äì Wall-E
Visual effects ‚Äì The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
After two years of cold-eyed nihilism (The Departed and No Country for Old Men) the Academy seems ready for a change of pace and tone. Slumdog Millionaire, a truly globalized blockbuster, seems the likely victor. And whilst it is not the best film of the year, not by a long way, I can understand why it looks set to prevail.
Finally, whilst I am writing let me share my SAG predictions. I do not expect any mega surprises from the guild. Heath Ledger seems certain to me in the supporting actor category and Sean Penn has been my prediction from the start for best actor. Should Rourke add the SAG to the Globe then he might assume the position of ‚Äòfavourite‚Äô going into the home-stretch. I do wonder to what extent Penn‚Äôs win just a few years back will impact his prospects this time around. It is well-known that he is far from the most popular guy about town and I am sure voters would love to see Rourke on stage, collecting an Oscar. But then again, Rourke is not the most popular guy either but they can forgive and forget. Perhaps Penn‚Äôs historical/political role will simply be more up AMPAS‚Äô ally. Only time will tell.
The ‚Äòfemale‚Äô categories as SAG labels them are more difficult to call because Ms Winslet is complicating things. I feel that her supporting performance in The Reader (supporting in SAG‚Äôs eyes at least) is where she will be honoured. She towers above Cruz, Davis, Adams and Henson in impact (especially re: Cruz, Adams and Henson) and screen-time (re: Davis). That frees them up to hand the acting goddess that is Meryl Streep a SAG for best actress. And that‚Äôs just what I think will happen. In the two cast performance categories I can see two ‚Äòbones‚Äô being thrown, one to The Dark Knight (for stunt performance) and one to Slumdog Millionaire (for cast performance).
Performance by a male actor in a leading role ‚Äì Sean Penn (Milk)
Performance by a male actor in a supporting role ‚Äì Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Performance by a female actress in a leading role ‚Äì Meryl Streep (Doubt)
Performance by a female actor in a supporting role ‚Äì Kate Winslet (The Reader)
Performance by the cast of a motion picture ‚Äì Slumdog Millionaire
Performance by the stunt cast of a motion picture ‚Äì The Dark Knight
* I still cannot believe that he was snubbed.