By Jonny McFarlane
As Seth McFarlane and Emma Stone announced this year’s Academy Awards nominations, Ben Affleck, no doubt somewhere palatial and high in the Hollywood hills, was entitled to shudder. His film Argo had been widely considered Best Picture favourite, before he was stunningly denied a Best Director nomination, to audible gasps from Hollywood’s bigwigs. As the realisation dawned that only one movie in eighty-five years has won the top prize without a directing nomination, it became clear that all bets were off.
The Oscars race has been uninspired and rather predictable in recent years, with Best Picture winners
like The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire and The Artist early and clear frontrunners. This led to many prognosticators writing off the contest as boring and uneventful. However, this year has shattered that notion. With at least four films contending for the top prize, the renewed competition has award watchers on the edge of their seats, awaiting February 24th with baited breath.
A quick recap of Oscar history tells us that, 68% of the time, the film with the most nominations will win the coveted Best Picture statuette. With twelve nominations Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is, on the face of it, everything a favourite should be. Serious, historical and filled ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼with great performances, it’s a mature and sensitive film from a renowned master of cinema. The film exudes class, with a dense, verbose and brilliant script by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner. Not everyone agrees though, and therein lays the rub. A small but vocal minority find it talky and dry; something of a dusty history lesson that’s missing a little joie de vivre.
Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a visually arresting and moving adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling book. Despite eleven nominations, it’s been largely ignored as a serious Best Picture contender, because it’s a technologically advanced, predominantly CGI film, unreliant on actors. The Academy’s largest and most influential branch is made up of thespians that tend to take a dim view of such motion
pictures in the top category. As we all know, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas!
Silver Linings Playbook, a romantic comedy from the producer they call “the Oscar Whisperer”, Harvey
Weinstein, checks in with eight nominations. The Weinstein Company have won the last two Best Picture races, and have their sights firmly targeted on a third, with this actor-orientated, comedic look at
a dysfunctional Philadelphia family. With four acting nominations, the first film to achieve this feat since Reds over thirty years ago, it seems to have strong support from within the actors’ branch.
The remaining films nominated (namely Les Miserables, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained) all have their qualities, but there is little evidence that they have the support to produce a late rally for the big one.
Finally Affleck’s aforementioned critical darling Argo, which has taken home the Golden Globe, stands as the most direct threat to Lincoln. Technically superb and rivetingly entertaining, it tells of the rescue of American diplomats from Iran in the 1970’s. History rethought as a palm-sweating, white-knuckle thriller, it’s a film with many fans and, crucially, few enemies. They say the Best Picture is often won by the consensus vote. Argo should be that film, but the key question remains unanswered: why didn’t they nominate Ben? Does that indicate weaker support than anticipated or is it some kind of freak anomaly?
In the Best Director category, Affleck wasn’t the only shock omission. Kathryn Bigelow was heavily tipped to be the first female director in history to receive a second directing nomination for her work on Zero Dark Thirty. Controversy over the film’s unflinching portrayal of torture at CIA black spots seems to have upset the Academy’s liberal sensibilities. Amongst the nominees, only Ang Lee and David O’Russell are serious contenders to challenge the work of Spielberg on Lincoln, who looks a near certainty to pick up his third Best Director prize. This would be a justified reward for a film that showcases little of his usual directorial flair and instead allows the myriad great actors and wonderful screenplay to take centre stage.
Best Actor has highlighted several very good performances, but sadly they have the ill fortune of being up against Daniel Day Lewis, in superlative form, as Abraham Lincoln. Less of an acting role, more of a disappearing act, he is simply flawless throughout. An unstoppable awards behemoth, it is a cast iron certainty that history will be made, and he will become the first man ever to win three Best Actor Oscars. Normally Hugh Jackman would have been a very strong contender with his terrific interpretation of Jean Valjean in Les Mis; he lost forty pounds for the film’s opening prison scenes and showed wonderful acting and singing ability, but against Day Lewis it’s all for nothing, such is the unstoppable nature of this Lincoln juggernaut.
Best Actress is a completely different beast. A bitterly close race between two of Hollywood’s hottest young actresses, Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain, is anticipated. The category also claims the curious distinction of having its oldest ever nominee, Emmanuelle Riva who will be eighty-six on Oscar night, and its youngest, nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis. Riva is a good outside bet, with Hollywood never slow to reward stars of yesteryear, but the expectation is of a fight that goes right to the wire, with Chastain to sneak the award by a wafer.
The Best Supporting Actor category is wide open and all five nominees are previous winners of the statuette. Tommy Lee Jones is gaining a lot of buzz about his performance as abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens – a sure-fire crowd pleaser of a role, but nothing we haven’t seen from him before. My pick? Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook. His first nomination since 1992, his performance is touching and classy, and a win would be a fitting way to cap an amazing career.
And for Best Supporting Actress? Anne Hathaway might as well be given the award right now for her performance as Fantine in Les Mis. She is a mortal lock for her three- minute, single take, master class ofI Dreamed a Dream. Reclaiming the song from Susan Boyle ignominy, she delivers a performance for the ages, which will go down as a classic of the musical genre. No one else comes close.
Taken from the February issue of Scotcampus, out now. Find out if Jonny’s predictions were right on February 24th as the Oscars are streamed live on E! (Sky Channel 151)