Ben Affleck on the set of ‘Argo’/Image © 2012 Warner Bros
Around this time each Oscar season, two or three films break out from the rest of the pack, amplifying the cymbal crash of hype signifying their Big Important Movie status. After last week’s back-to-back announcements of the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, that consensus formed around “Lincoln,” “Argo,” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” which emerged as the pacesetters in this year’s Oscar race.
It’s also become a time-honored tradition for Oscarologists to dismiss these warm-up acts as silly and unscientific in their methodology for determining the dominant genes in Hollywood’s DNA. Of course, even the Academy has yet to produce a Nobel Prize-winning equation that offers any objective answers to the absurdly subjective question of who acted, wrote, directed, or sound-designed better than anyone else this year.
The truth is, the Globes and SAG nominations have always functioned as a fairly reliable, if inexact, inventory of the active ingredients in any Oscar broadcast. This has everything to do with the fact that both organizations’ announcements fall within the peak Academy voting window, maximizing their influence with the scientific tool Hollywood understands best: the power of suggestion. So in the spirit of examining all available evidence, here are a few of the more salient findings worth noting from last week’s nominations.
1. The Best Picture race is shaping up to become a mosh pit-style throw-down between the muscular bruisers and scrappy iconoclasts.
On one side of the throng, you have the polished perfection of studio-anointed contenders like “Lincoln,” “Argo,” and “Life of Pi.” On the other, there’s the following band of subversive anarchists: “Django Unchained,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Silver Linings Playbook.” Congregating somewhere off to the side are the people-pleasing pacifists: “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Les Miserables.” That leaves two open slots for wild cards like “Moonrise Kingdom,” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
2. The acting trophies will likely go to an actor who commands a movie star paycheck and a foreign-born actress.
Denzel Washington (“Flight”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”), Hugh Jackman (“Les Miserables”) lead the field of contenders for Best Actor. John Hawkes (“The Sessions”) will likely join them as will Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook”). There is less play in the Best Actress race, headed up by Helen Mirren (“Hitchcock”), Marion Cotillard (“Rust and Bone”), Naomi Watts (“The Impossible”), and Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”). Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) and Rachel Weiss (“Deep Blue Sea”) lead a stiff competition for the fifth nod. But in any Oscar race, it’s never wise to rule out Meryl Streep (“Hope Springs”).
3. The Academy has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to Oscar infidels.
It’s no coincidence that “The Master,” one of the best-reviewed films of the year, was not given due recognition for its superlative acting and craftsmanship after Joaquin Phoenix kicked off the film’s campaign by calling “bullshit” on the whole glitzy enterprise. Consequently, “The Master” didn’t receive any best picture love from either org, and SAG denied Phoenix and Amy Adams their widely predicted respective Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress noms.
4. Hollywood punishes transgression and romantic risk-taking with the severity of Nineteenth-Century St. Petersburg’s high society.
Director Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” was custom designed to appeal to the Academy’s tastes for epic storytelling and lush production values. And yet, even though reviewers were politely respectful of Wright’s audacious choice to frame his adaptation of Tolstoy’s masterpiece as a play within a film, Anna has been largely shunned by every major awards outfit. This is a major rebuke to a film with solid performances, pedigreed filmmakers, and beloved source material. The takeaway here comes straight from the book itself: Sometimes life’s biggest risks produce disastrous results.