Oscar trends continue to have shorter and shorter shelf lives as the award season calendar continues to pork up and as brand new guilds and critics’ groups continue to sell their virgin reputations out to further cement Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker’s impression of impenetrability. How else to explain the fact that Best Picture and Best Director have split as often than they’ve matched in the aughts? How else to explain the almost complete demise of period epics and their chokehold on the top award? How else to explain Rex Reed being right that the New York Film Critics Circle awarding United 93 their top prize counts for hi-jack shit when a) no one saw or wanted to see the film, and b) approximately 300 groups in the interim have given public hummers to the likes of Little Miss Sunshine, Little Children, and Little Babel? (On that note, how else to explain the injustice that the younger sister Fanning will have appeared in a Best Picture nominee before poor Dakota?)
We offer our Oscar nod predictions at this late date for two reasons. First, because nearly every last group will have had their say and we got through school by looking over our peer’s shoulders on test day. Second, and more importantly, we’d hate to think that our reiteration of the same old ragged, over-hyped contenders (instead of, you know, Sandra Huller) means we’ve given in to the pressure of Oscar season groupthink. After all, the ballots were due on Jan. 13. The damage—and there will be damage—has already been done.
PICTURE. How fitting is it that Jake Gyllenhaal kicked off his recent gig on SNL by performing Jennifer Hudson’s number from Dreamgirls? Like Brokeback Mountain last year, Bill Condon’s film was initially touted as an Oscar-night self-fulfilling prophecy. But whereas Brokeback was ridin’ high (but not dirty) on the horse right up until the moment Jack Nicholson recoiled at the contents of his envelope, Dreamgirls—with less than rapturous reviews, acceptable but hardly Chicago-level box office numbers, and no critics awards beyond Hudson—has been effectively upstaged far earlier in the game and thus we’re left with Gyllenhaal’s demand of “you’re going to love me” sounding like a requiem for a former contender. The nomination, on the other hand, is all but assured, as the various guilds have all taken their dutiful turns to play a round of Let’s Try and Guess the Best Picture Contenders. Producers Guild: Babel, The Departed, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen. Directors Guild: Babel, The Departed, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen. Screen Actor’s Guild ensemble: Babel, Bobby, The Departed, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine. (Well, apparently they alone couldn’t attempt to make a case for The Queen being anyone but Mirren’s show.) You can see why it’s easy to believe the American Society of Cinematographers were truly enthusiastic about the actual lensing (i.e. what they were rewarding) of Apocalypto, The Black Dahlia, Children of Men, The Good Shepherd, and The Illusionist and not just rewarding, say, Robert Richardson for the umpteenth time. (I mean, granted, direction isn’t just eye-popping action choreography, pretty pictures, important historical themes, and variations on auteur themes. But are we really supposed to believe the directors respect Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s completely facile presentation of a potentially interesting script more than the newest work of Alfonso Cuarón, Sofia Coppola, Clint Eastwood, and Pedro Almodóvar?) The carbon-copy guild slates do make the absence of Dreamgirls from the Writers Guild’s copious 10 nomination slots awfully telling. Nevertheless, Clint’s partisans are going to split, with half rewarding the collaboration with Paul Haggis and the other half choosing correctly. That leaves only United 93 as a potential spoiler, but it’s more likely that this year’s Best Picture slate will be the first possibly ever without a single Best Picture winner by the three major critics’ groups (in addition to the New York-feted United 93, L.A. went for Letters from Iwo Jima and the National Society for Pan’s Labyrinth).
ACTOR. Speaking of the short life of trends, if we were to make predictions about this year’s Best Actor line-up off of last year’s precedent, we would cite Jamie Foxx (Dreamgirls), Greg Kinnear (Little Miss Sunshine), and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed) before shamefully admitting that we couldn’t predict the last two nominees, what with the lack of leading male roles in either Babel or The Queen. So much for Best Picture line-ups that whip it out and slap it on the table over in the Best Actor category. This year’s Best Picture candidates belong to the ladies and their ensemble broods, which at the very least opens the Best Actor contest up to a few intriguing contenders. Leonardo DiCaprio, who admittedly has quite a pair, should show up…if only the Globes and Guilds could settle on which performance is more deserving. While Blood Diamond should satisfy the Constant Gardener-cum-Cold Mountain voting bloc who are constantly confusing bad accents with noble intentions, the “third time’s the charm” vibe behind the newest installment in the actor’s work with Martin Scorsese should end up trumping Edward Zwick (and helping Djimon Hounsou—just ask Tom Cruise, who watched Ken Watanabe sail to a Supporting Actor nod). As for the other four slots, there may be a notable paucity of pansies when compared to last year, but look closer and you’ll see a bunch of Best Actress roles here. Will Smith for crying like a little bitch. Ryan Gosling playing a socially-conscious ghetto teacher and surrogate parent figure whose drug habits have reduced him down to the bone. Peter O’Toole riding a stiffly British but limply sexless (barely sex-educational) Miramax charmer like both Gwenyth and Dench. And that Monster Whitaker, portraying the biggest bitch of them all. Is it any wonder the over-the-shoulder thong-wearing, nude-wrestling, Pamela Anderson-chasing walking penis with a nasty anti-Semitic streak might find a little difficulty joining this group of old men (i.e. feminists)?
ACTRESS. Fans of The Queen seem tickled by the fact that Helen Mirren has been made a Dame by the very woman she plays in the film. Probably the same people who appreciate the Stephen Frears film for essentially doing the same grudge work the British tabloids did after the death of Princess Diana, only in a more genteel fashion—opening a window to a world where earth-shattering revelations include: Queen Elizabeth II Walks Dogs, Queen Elizabeth II Drives a Jeep, and Queen Elizabeth II is Cuntier Than Dame Edna. We don’t object to the performance, which we think is pleasantly calibrated, though we are perplexed by how a 61-year-old woman guaranteed herself an Academy Award in a category that typically rewards women who’ve only just had their first menstrual cycle. Speaking of periods, Penélope Cruz’s twisted menstrual joke from Volver is the sweetest thing about the Pedro Almodóvar film, for which the actress looks to earn her first Academy Award nomination now that the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild have given Oscar voters the permission to move forward. Ditto Meryl Streep for The Devil Wears Prada and Judi Dench, who will earn her 82nd nomination in three years for playing a condescending lesbian in the histrionic and laughably retrograde Notes on a Scandal. We can dream that Sandra Huller and Laura Dern have a chance here, but Oscar voters don’t go to the movies, and we know for sure that IFC First Take and David Lynch couldn’t afford to push their prized cows—at least not figuratively in Lynch’s case. Pity, because a little elbow grease might have been enough to knock Kate Winslet out of the competition. But the Academy seems determined to mold the actress into the next Meryl Streep, so there’s probably no way for any other actress—or non-actress like Beyoncé Knowles—to interrupt her flow.
SUPPORTING ACTOR. Unless Oscar voters decide that the SAG was right for calling Leonardo DiCaprio supporting in The Departed, it’s safe to say this year’s line up will be an anomaly in an era of Tim Robbins, Thomas Hayden Church, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Clive Owen. This year’s contenders for Best Supporting Actor are all shockingly supporting. Alan Arkin, Eddie Murphy, and Jack Nicholson each shoplift a few scenes, but don’t make off with the whole store. Brad Pitt is top-billed, but it’s still an ensemble picture. Only Djimon Honsou’s leading performance in Blood Diamond should allow Oscar’s affinity for placing lead performances in the supporting categories to continue.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS. The utter predictability of some of this year’s Oscar races doesn’t make writing this prediction article much fun. Infinitely more entertaining is picking on EW’s Dave Karger, who appears to have finally caught up with Dreamgirls after presumptuously singing its praises months ago. We thought we were hard on Karger before, but we continue to be flabbergasted by his peculiar idea of objective reportage, which includes openly singing the praises of Eddie Murphy (“volcanic”), Stanley Tucci (“empathetic and snippy”), Jennifer Hudson (“divalicious”), Adrianna Barraza (“moving”), Rinko Kikuchi (“devastating”), and Emily Blunt (“subtle”—you’ve got to be fucking kidding me) but diverting whatever criticisms he may have for a film to others for fear of raging against the machine that feeds him promotional goodies. (On Babel: “[The film] seems to have as many detractors as it does ardent supporters, but its fan club may be enough to push it in.”) We won’t be able to sleep tonight not knowing if Karger is part of the Babel support group or not, but we can take some reassurance that his floppy use of the adjective guarantees that Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum are not going anywhere anytime soon. Karger becomes useful to us because his superficial, almost disturbing misreading of certain films and performances (he considers Cate Blanchett’s character from Notes on a Scandal to be “morally challenged,” when, in truth, her only challenge is the guilt forcibly thrust upon her by Judi Dench’s psychotic lesbian) is an excellent barometer for determining the direction most Academy members, the majority of which are also suckers to hype, are turning. Waiting in the wings, looking to join Hudson, Kikuchi, Blanchett, and Barraza in this category, are Catherine O’Hara, Emma Thompson, Shareeka Epps, and Abigail Breslin. It’s inconceivable that Breslin received a SAG nomination over O’Hara, but if Karger’s description of O’Hara’s great performance in For Your Consideration in any indication, some members of the Academy aren’t going to be insulted by the way the film calls out the soul-suck of the Oscar process because they’ll be missing the point of the film altogether. Karger describes O’Hara’s performance as “fun,” ignoring its great tragedy. But he is right to call it “ironic,” except the only potential irony here is that O’Hara is about to share the same exact disappointment of Marilyn Hack when nominations are announced.
Should Be Nominated: Catherine O’Hara (For Your Consideration), Fiona Shaw (The Black Dahlia), Jessica Lange (Don’t Come Knocking), Simone Signoret (Army of Shadows), and Luminița Gheorghiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu)
DIRECTOR. It used to be that we could count on the director’s branch of the Academy to bring coke to the party—at least a wild-child guest from the far-flung reaches of our film culture no one ever saw coming. Now they can’t even be trusted to nominate Woody-fucking-Allen for another one of his career comebacks. After Michel Gondry, David Cronenberg, and Gus Van Sant were passed up in the past few years, we have very little faith that Alfonso Cuarón, Pedro Almodóvar, Guillermo del Toro, or Peter Greengrass’s names will be called this year. Robert Altman died recently, but the success of Crash confirmed that Oscar voters never leave their living rooms for fear that Chinamen will set their cars on fire, meaning we’re not even sure voters got the news of this great director’s death while trying to base their nominations entirely on the information scrawled on the back of the two dozen for-your-consideration screeners they received this Oscar season. Consider Stephen Frears a lock, because in the spirit of Capote and Sideways, his perfectly mediocre The Queen possesses that special gift of offending no one. Strange that Bill Condon, whose Dreamgirls should be offending everyone, isn’t even a lock in spite of his film’s frontrunner status, but after Baz Luhrmann was snubbed by the Academy and Rob Marshall’s Chicago walked off with an Oscar without him, the Academy seems to be of the opinion that musicals direct themselves. Condon’s spot here wasn’t guaranteed as of last week, but now it’s almost assured given the DGA’s support. Two legitimate auteurs, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, were shoe-ins as of last week, but when the DGA passed over Eastwood in favor of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Scorsese has now almost been assured a victory on Oscar night. Still, we think Eastwood has the muscle to enter the race based on clout alone, especially since the very well-received Letters from Iwo Jima is still in the process of catching everyone’s attention. Another film trying to play catch-up is Children of Men. Though its Oscar campaign was seriously botched by Universal Pictures, the film is now touching the hearts and minds of critics and audiences alike. Outside of the cinematography category, this may be Children of Men’s best chance at a nomination, but the Academy seems likely turn to another more predictable Mexican filmmaker, Alejandro González-Iñáritu, given that the fake seriousness of Amores Perros 3: World Police has been sautéing on people’s minds since October. Per usual, the Oscars will remind us on nomination morning that studios must put out as early as possible or fail to get invited to the party.
Should Be Nominated: Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (L’Enfant), Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven), David Lynch (Inland Empire), and Jean-Pierre Melville (Army of Shadows)
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.