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American Hustle (#110 of 34)

Jennifer Lawrence: On Female Spontaneous Combustion

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Jennifer Lawrence: On Female Spontaneous Combustion
Jennifer Lawrence: On Female Spontaneous Combustion

The image of women spontaneously combusting while doing housework was one of the most popular tropes of filmmaking more than a century ago. In a widely viewed early film from 1903, Mary Jane’s Mishap, a British housemaid accidentally immolates herself while attempting to light a hearth fire with paraffin and subsequently explodes out of the chimney. It was, of course, not uncommon for 19th-century women to catch fire in their own homes when their bulky hoop skirts would graze against an errant spark from the fireplace. Women spontaneously combusting in their own homes was a frequent hazard of the time that journalists then tastefully referred to as “crinoline conflagrations.”

Comical media images of women exploding provided outlets for spectators to laugh off the hazardous politics of everyday domesticity. While many aspects of the relationship between gender politics and media culture have changed since the early 1900s, we still harbor an unconscious tendency to laugh at otherwise horrific images of violence inflicted on women’s bodies. Fortunately, 21st-century domesticity isn’t quite so fraught with the perils of instantaneous conflagration. Yet, the image of women catching fire—quite simply as a metaphor for women’s ambitions to be visible at all—continues to spark our cultural imagination.

And perhaps no other movie star walks this fine line between media visibility and human calamity as deftly as Jennifer Lawrence. There’s something oddly literalistic about the actress’s star appeal. From her “electricity” with Bradley Cooper, to her near-fatal calamity with a 1970s microwave in American Hustle, to her iconic portrayal of “The Girl on Fire” in The Hunger Games trilogy, Lawrence draws on a long tradition of female combustion in cinema.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Picture

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Picture
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Picture

Like anyone who’s been covering what’s become, as the party line goes, “the closest Best Picture race in recent memory,” I’ve gone through many mental rewrites of this top-prize breakdown. The one I clung to the longest involved the word “bullshit.” It took shape, of course, after American Hustle, formerly known as American Bullshit, strutted through steam clouds of victory on nomination morning, collecting 10 nods before also claiming the SAG award for Best Ensemble (not to be confused with any costume-design kudos the film enjoyed throughout the season). Was this awfully great, unrepentantly tacky crime caper really the new frontrunner? If so, then the filmic narrative peddled by pop-culture journos since early 2013—that the year’s wealth of black-centric cinema was bound for unprecedented Oscar glory, capped off with a crown for 12 Years a Slave, the most confronting and “important” flick of the bunch—would have to be thrown out. What’s more, Steve McQueen’s insta-contender, a historical indictment many perceive as being as deep as young Patsey’s (Lupita Nyong’o) abyss of despair, would be overtaken by an epic of unadulterated shallowness. American Hustle’s win would insist, with all the fuck-it-all thump of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” that the notion of Oscar wins signifying some sort of sociopolitical responsibility is, indeed, bullshit.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Editing

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Editing
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Editing

In the absence of a de facto Best Picture frontrunner, the Oscar here usually goes to the slickest contender. This certainly explains the recent victories for The Bourne Ultimatum, The Social Network, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, three films whose respective visual canvases hinged heavily on their varying ranges of unorthodox editing techniques. Given this trend, the weak Best Picture favorite in this year’s race, 12 Years a Slave, will likely not garner any attention for Joe Walker’s understated work. Likewise, the acting showcase Dallas Buyers Club gains little from its nondescript editing and can also probably be ruled out. By contrast, the frenzied rhythms of American Hustle’s editing, though stylistically derivative of the Martin Scorsese films to which the crime caper owes a significant debt, fit the mold of previous winners rather comfortably. An even stronger contender, however, is Christopher Rouse’s masterfully compact cutting for Captain Phillips. Coupled with his previous Oscar win for Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum, Rouse’s recent ACE Eddie Award triumph for dramatic feature editing would seem to present a solid case for him coasting to a victory here, particularly given how much Captain Phillips derives its tension from his maximum-impact cutting. Standing in his way, however, is the technical titan Gravity. Editing may not be the film’s primary showcase, but its fluidly breathless compositional sense is as much a credit to Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger’s intuitive splicing techniques as any anything else. How far the film’s benchmark-defining pedigree will take it beyond the technical categories remains the million-dollar question, but it’s safe to say that the honors the Academy bestows on the film on Sunday will also encompass this one.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Costume Design

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Costume Design
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

It’s still no Drag Race, but the contest for costume design (i.e. the Oscar category most likely to send me headed to Wikipedia to even remember what won last year) just got a little bit more interesting over the weekend. And if the Costume Designers Guild’s award for Patricia Norris’s desiccated plantation line from the House of Mason-Dixon is to be taken seriously, then Amy Adams’s milky, sleek sternum is simply not as eye-catching an accessory as the funk of 40,000 lashes. (And I’m not talking the Maybelline kind here.) That Norris this weekend pranced past Michael Wilkinson’s chesty silhouettes in American Hustle wasn’t a major surprise, but that those drab rags left Catherine Martin’s flip-flap frippery from The Great Gatsby face down in the pool does arch one’s eyebrows. Or maybe that’s not such a surprise. The Costume Designers Guild have never much warmed up to Martin’s work; her Oscar-winning feathers and ruffles from Moulin Rouge weren’t even invited to the guild’s dance back in 2001. Perhaps they, like many of us hardened vets who experienced that Oscar season in real time online, were simply weary of the squealing zealousness of those “kicking up their heels” (and writing those same noxious words ad nauseam) over Baz Luhrman’s over-performance that year.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Director

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Director
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Director

It’s a good thing the Best Director category didn’t go the way of Best Picture to accommodate more nominees, because this year’s campaign has only ever been a three-man race even in its most competitive stages. The two non-contenders are Alexander Payne (Nebraska) and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street), who’ve each enjoyed a nearly spotless recent track record for landing in the category. Payne has received nods for his last three films, while five of Scorsese’s last six non-documentary films have earned the legendary director an aisle seat at the ceremony. But with only one win between the two filmmakers (Scorsese’s The Departed) in that stretch, their nominations likely speak more to the compulsory voting habits and pre-digested tastes of Academy voters than to the merits of either Nebraska or The Wolf of Wall Street. And though David O. Russell has been on a nomination hot streak of late, with American Hustle capping a trio of Best Director nominations over the last four years for the filmmaker, his chances, which seemed much higher back when his crime caper stormed onto the scene last December, have since fizzled along with the film.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Actress

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Actress
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Actress

If there’s anything with even the slightest ability to nudge Cate Blanchett’s path to Oscar victory off course, it’s the seemingly endless Farrowgate scandal, which has Woody Allen’s allegedly molested daughter calling out his muses by name, and guilting them in an attempt to harm the director by extension. As Mark Harris brilliantly observed in his Grantland essay “Oscar Season Turns Ugly,” this kind of linkage of Oscar results to actual sociopolitical issues is at once necessary and ludicrous—a tricky conundrum that can’t be assessed “without acknowledging that something horrible is being inappropriately trivialized and something trivial is being inappropriately transformed into a crisis of situational ethics.” I don’t think anyone ever felt that Blanchett, an unerringly shrewd celebrity, would have indulged the open invitation to address this scandal in her subsequent acceptance speeches. But few likely foresaw that, amid a pop-cultural atmosphere in which the topic simply cannot be ignored, the Aussie frontrunner would find a way to dodge it while taking an unimpeachable high road, dedicating her Best Actress BAFTA win Sunday night to the “late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.” In raising her Stoli martini with a twist of lemon to one of the Academy’s departed elite, odds are Blanchett closed whatever case Dylan Farrow had in terms of exacting revenge by setting a trip wire for Blue Jasmine’s leading lady.