When scrutinizing this race, pundits rarely discuss precedent. If they did, Amy Ryan’s chances probably wouldn’t be so overdetermined, because if there’s anything more eternal than Oscar’s penchant for snubbing a critic’s darling, it is its tendency to give the cold shoulder to loathsome, almost irredeemable female roles (like Something Ronan’s sniveling brat from Atonement, who is redeemed by film’s end, but by two other actresses!). Not that most of the ladies in this category have been short-listed for playing saints, but the squawking Ryan’s potty mouth reigns supreme in Gone Baby Gone: The calculated one-liners meant to elicit audience sympathy for Boston’s lower class (“I don’t got no daycare”—essentially a variation of Amy “I got one leg” Poehler’s Amber from SNL) are trumped by nasties like “Why don’t you suck a nigger’s dick, Bea,” “It smells like cock,” “Nigger please, I hid it,” “Fucks yous both,” and my personal favorite, “Who’s the faggot now, haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.” A potential win in this category with precedent is Cate Blanchett’s “Bob Dylan” from Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, but that precedent is Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn from Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, and though pundits are right to wonder if the Academy will want to give this fussy actress a second Oscar so soon after her last one, Blanchett may lose for representing a film that comes on intellectually strong and is possibly more obnoxious than American Gangster. Which brings us to Ruby Dee, whose two or three scenes in Ridley Scott’s big and impossibly dumb drugland drama are triumphs of resilient, saving-face movie acting. Every single one of us should be praising the complexity with which Dee fights against and humanizes Scott’s movin’-on-up reductivism (that slapping scene, a scorching evocation of a mother marking her territory and asserting her right to be heard, is of a volatile emotional tenor only Tilda Swinton comes close to achieving), but the almost racist rumblings echoing from certain circles suggest that Dee’s miniscule screen time is not just a point of contention but a point of active resentment (must be all those size queens rallying behind Blanchett), and may work against her and the traction she picked up since her SAG victory. (Sympathy may be on her side because of her civil rights work and long acting career, but she wouldn’t be the only legend—paging Lauren Bacall and Gloria Stuart!—anointed by SAG but passed over by Oscar.) Does Swinton have this one almost by default? The British actress and queer icon represents the most liked film in this race, and though she plays a sketchily, almost offensively drawn archetype in Michael Clayton, Swinton brings her customary nuance to a muted, almost abstract role, humanizing her corporate baddie in such a way that voters may see more than just a villain, but a woman bumping her head against the glass ceiling—something, no doubt, Hollywood actresses can commiserate with. Forget that this would be Oscar’s way of rewarding Michael Clayton and think of a Swinton victory as Oscar’s way of honoring an actress who is finally getting the attention Blanchett has been bogarting from her for way too long.
Will Win: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Should Win: Ruby Dee, American Gangster
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.