The Oscar Race Begins Today!

Today the National Board of Review will fire the starting gun of the most high profile, and longest, derby in popular culture – the Hollywood awards season. Originally founded to protect morals from the hazards of the cinema it has evolved to become the oldest award-conferring body of film historians and archivists rather than reviewers, though it can be vague about its membership. The NBR and the principal reviewers groups, the New York Film Critics Circle, the
Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics , don’t dictate the Oscar race but they can, and often do, shape the pool of contenders. Winning an award from the NY or LA critics helps with credibility but a televised Golden Globe win can refuel a bandwagon. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Globes are obviously more studio friendly than the critics so despite the industry’s misgivings they have cuddled up to group once dismissed as “100 stringers subsisting on hors d’oeuvres”. At the time of year everyone in Hollywood is munching on canapés. Anyone wanting to win an Oscar has to campaign as shamelessly as any politician. The trade papers and websites will be drowning in For Your Consideration ads reading In All Categories or a specific like Best Actor. To win you have to be visible. And needy. That means attending screenings, already in full swing, with industry Q&A sessions afterwards. Some are mounted by the studios for guest other are arranged by, say Variety or TheWrap (where I blog). It’s a perfectly manicured and orchestrated festival of grovelling where the suppliants have to convince voters how grateful they’ll be on the podium at the Kodak theatre. If babies are brought to screenings they will be kissed. DVD screeners are sent the homes of every Academy member and many to the guilds (writers, directors etc) since each branch of the academy selects the nominees in it own speciality with everyone picking the best film nominees. Once the nominees are selected everyone votes in every category. So if an actor secures a nomination he has to woo all the other trades too. If the costume designers think you’re a nightmare on set a few vital votes may disappear.

The NBR announcement will determine who will gain atrrction. Little over a week later, on the 12th, the LA critics will convene to make their annual pronouncement; the following day the New Yorkers will declare. The NY group has been conferring prizes since 1935, the LA group only since 1975. Citizen Kane was selected as the best film of 1941 by both NBR and the New Yorkers when the Oscar, infamously, was awarded to How Green Was My Valley.

The NBR can be slightly schizophrenic. Some years its choices are lame and in other years it recognises little films and scantily-seen performances. Its selection of Gods and Monsters as the best film of 1998 torpedoed the Saving Private Ryan juggernaut, allowing Shakespeare in Love to snatch the Oscar from Spielberg. A few years go the Diane Keaton’s good but largely unheralded work in Something’s Gotta Give it was the NBR who set Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball on the Oscar trail rather than the critics, who ignored her. But the NBR has been kind to British talent over they years and there is a very good chance they will launch the three month march to Oscar glory for this year’s biggest British hope, Colin Firth as the stuttering George VI in The King’s Speech. Actually the film itself is expected to secure a best picture nomination but could very well take the top Oscar prize. He also has acclaim and a nomination under his belt from last year for A Single Man and wider recognition from Bridget Jones’s Diary, a commercial success. The Oscar is Firth’s to lose, that is the generally Industry feeling at the moment.

Firth has an edge over, alphabetically, Jeff Bridges in the remake of True Grit (he won last year and is filling John Wayne’s shoes under the direction of the Coens so his chances are should get a nomination), Robert Duvall in Get Low (hasn’t won since 1983, an immensely respected actor but not necessarily one who can count on sentimentality to get him to the winning post), Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (possibly too young to win but virtually assured a nomination), James Franco, just announced as co-host of the Oscars, in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, the film about the hiker who amputated his own arm (possibly too gory for older voters though Franco still has a very good chance of being nominated but with his dabbling in ‘literary’ fiction and Gucci ads his career does look very overmanaged public persona without little success). The other younger actor looking for a berth is Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine. Gosling is widely regarded as one of the more serious younger actors and genuinely doesn’t seem to court fame or publicity, as yet anyway. Blue Valentine, though, has been slapped with a NC-17 rating, box-office death in the America. Two other actors are in the leading pack: Mark Wahlberg for The Fighter and Paul Giamatti for Barney’s Version. The latter, I think has the best chance. He was nominated for Sideways but ignored for American Splendor [sic] and his TV work in John Adams won awards too, so plenty of industry respect there. Ben Affleck has had the surprise hit of the year with The Town. The depth of Affleck’s talent may be debated but he conducts himself with dignity, doubtless having learned a lesson in the Benifer years, and seems to be maturing into a modest filmmaker who has seen the perils of hysterical fame. The Town will probably claim a slot in the best picture list but Affleck could be individually cited if not in acting then adapted screenplay, but not in directing. But best actor race could be swayed by Michael Douglas’ health. Wall Street 2 was a disappointment, commercially and artistically, but his work in Solitary Man could stir the sympathy vote since the business would like the opportunity to acknowledge him. After Douglas there’s Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole, Paul Rudd in How Do You Know, and Kevin Spacey in Casino Jack.

Most years the actress categories are paltry. This year it is the hottest race of the season. Both the best and supporting fields have battalions of contenders, and it could get very complicated.

There are a few front-runners but complications arise because three of them could be demoted to supporting actress, namely Annette Bening and Julianne Moore from The Kids Are All Right and Lesley Manville from Another Year. The other favourites are Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole. Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone I don’t think can be nominated in a ayer like this, and the critics have become wary of unfamiliar talents wooing them with what turns out to be their default performance. Her best hope is the lesser newcomer citations awarded by the NBR and LA critics.

Bening has been the favourite for a few months but some see her work as a performance with some stunning scenes but ultimately secondary to Julianne Moore. I find Moore’s performances rather clinical and contrived and I doubt there enough love or respect for her to win in tough year. In past years the NBR has given a joint award to Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro in Awakenings and Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise, so it is not inconceivable that Bening and Moore will share the prize on Thursday. What complicates these matters is that the studios or distributors usually agree with the performer what category to bid for. Sony may run a campaign for Benning as principal in Mother & Child. A few years ago Kate Winslet was being pushed for best in Revolutionary Road in best and supporting in The Reader. Road was ignored and Reader nabbed her the best actress gong. The 1200 actors in the branch decide who is best and who is supporting. Manville is a tricky case. If she is nominated in best is she is unlikely to win but if supporting is crowded by Bening and Moore, she could be shut out there too. Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech has a very, very strong chance in this category, particularly after the financial success of Alice in Wonderland, an excuse for an award in this town. If she were competing against Manville the British vote would be split. Two other Americans are the supporting contenders: Melissa Leo in The Fighter and Dianne Weist, who has won twice, in Rabbit Hole. Leo is immensely respected, with a best nomination for Frozen River a couple years ago bur her work in Fighter is gaudy and is more likely to win at the Golden Globes, without critical support her Oscar chances could slip in a packed year.

The rest of the best actress field is astonishingly rich. A nomination for Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine could amends for ignoring Wendy & Lucy, in which she was sensational. Of the remaining Americans Reese Witherspoon in How Do You Know (uncertain prospects for this James Brooks film), Halle Berry in Frankie & Alice (producing her pet project – will appeal to the actors branch), Diane Lane in Secretariat, (a dark horse in a equine movie), Gwyneth Paltrow in Country Strong (first big performance in some years), Hilary Swank in Conviction (slight chance).

With Firth, Bonham Carter and Manville so strong there won’t be room for many more brits. Helen Mirren’s gender reversal Prospero in The Tempest isn’t exactly creating buzz. Made In Dagenham has been well received and widely reviewed but unlikely that Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson will make the nominations. Rachel Weisz was singled out for praise in Agora but she needs wins from the critics to be considered. The Ghost Writer and Never Let Me Go have been major flops so British hopes there are over. Same for Fair Game, the film of the outing of CIA Valerie Plame with Naomi Watts.

The foreign language prospects won’t fare well in such a competitive year. Isabelle Huppert has received raves for White Material but has just opened in LA and NY. Tilda Swinton’s work in I am Love is Russian-accented Italian; Noomi Rapace in Stig Larson’s trilogy would normally be a major threat but I think the business will be disinclined to acknowledge work being remade in English. The Korean actress Kim Hye-ja received amazing notices for her work in Mother but that was released back in March. She will need critical momentum but could surprise as a compromise winner in the critic ballots in an amazing year.

The main award dates, of very many.
Los Angeles Film Critics Association 12/12
New York Film Critics Circle 13/12
Golden Globe nominations 14/12
Screen Actors Guild nominations 16/12
Oscar nominations 25/1
SAG Awards 30/1
Independent Spirit Awards 26/2
Oscars 27/2

Main National Board of Review Predictions:

Best film: The King’s Speech or The Social Network
Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Actress: Annette Bening & Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right or Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech or Jim Broadbent, Another Year
Best Supporting Actress: Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech or Lesley Manville, Another Year

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