A Case for Upsets at the Oscars

There really is a lot to say about the value of a nomination at the Academy Awards. As trite as it sounds, it is an incredible honor just to be nominated. Chances are, only one nominee is walking away with the award--two if the votes line up perfectly. Still, in recent years, it's become more common for critics groups to seemingly predict the Oscar winners rather than champion lesser-seen performances that can use the exposure. Do the majority of film critics really think that one performance stands above all others in a given year? I doubt it.

As an example, compare the Academy Award nominees for Best Actress to what the LAMB site--a user-submitted collection of blogs about film--came up with as the top 5 performances of the year.

Oscars:

  • Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
  • Viola Davis, The Help
  • Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
  • Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

LAMBs (ranked):

  1. Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  2. Viola Davis, The Help
  3. Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
  4. Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
  5. Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy

The acting branch of the Academy Awards and a wide-ranging group of film enthusiasts only agreed on two choices: Mara and Davis. With LAMBs voting, all of the ballots were weighted. Your number one choice got ten points and your number five choice got six points. With the Oscars, the number one votes are the ones that matter most. In both cases, it comes down to favorites.

It's interesting to note that with the Oscar nominees, only two Best Actress candidates did not see their film go wide: Close and Streep. The rest either opened wide or expanded before the ballots were sent out. Visibility plays a big role in getting an Oscar nomination. If you make the film available to voters and keep the discussion going, you're more likely to be nominated than performers who were in lower-budgeted films with less of an ability to keep the film in the discussion.

One would hope that the voters had the opportunity to see all the films nominated in major categories before voting. I doubt that's the case. If you're a working film professional, you just might not have the time to get to them all. Same with members with families and other obligations that eat into time. At that point, it stops being about which performance is the best and turns into a contest of who wins over the most fans. Even critics don't see every film that comes about because every film doesn't open wide or offer critics screenings.

Would changing the word "Best" to "Outstanding" or another adjective change the way we view the awards process? To be nominated, you have to do something that stands out in a good way. People have to like your work. That does not mean it is objectively the best, but that's what the post-Oscar discussion always turns into. How did x beat y when y was clearly better? To who? You? Film is subjective and sometimes you need to see the common beliefs shaken up to understand the role of recognizing good work.

I, for one, am a big fan of the Oscar night upset. It can be quite exciting to see a performer, writer, director, or other film professional grab Oscar glory when they were counted out. The acting categories in particular always seem like a good place to hope for the upset, even if the critical consensus in recent years makes those surprises less likely to occur.

I'm going to stump for four acting nominees who will most likely not walk away with the Oscar on Sunday night. It's an honor to be nominated, for sure, but being able to say "Academy Award winner" on the DVD/Blu-ray cover can sway some people to see a great performance.

Best Actress: Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close in Albert NobbsThe big takeaway from going through reviews of Albert Nobbs is that people expected a very weighty drama. That's not what Albert Nobbs is. It's a fairy tale. A woman disguises herself as a man for her entire adult life hoping to make her dreams come true on her own terms. It's a step up from "The Little Mermaid"--a young woman is willing to sacrifice everything she knows and loves to have a chance at living out her dreams--or "The Red Shoes"--a woman spends her entire life working for God's forgiveness for a big sin she committed as a young girl. But by how much?

Glenn Close is not doing explosive acting that jumps off the screen. She is living the role of Albert. Until Janet McTeer shows up and pushes Albert out of his carefully constructed roleplay, Albert does not waver from the calm and conscientious role of a butler. Close gets one flashy scene--handled perfectly--before Albert starts to grow as a character.

The beauty of Close's work is how tightly she hold Albert in. Only when Albert is alone does Close allow him to even consider the possibility of a more adventurous life. The rest is a perfect portrait of a controlled person who begins to loosen up one pence at a time.

Will Win: Viola Davis, The Help

Best Actor: Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I don't always go for the quiet and controlled performances. Gary Oldman just managed to make subtle stand out as loud as explosions.

Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyOldman's Smiley is the fuse waiting to set off the bomb in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. His job is to keep his cool and force everyone else to give up information. Only once in the film does he lose it and that's when you realize how strong Oldman's performance is.

You have a man who is able to manipulate people with no more than a knowing stare and a pencil-thin almost-smile. Late at night, he finishes off a bottle of scotch and begins to relive the one failure he had in his lengthy career as a spy. It starts off as a quiet retelling to a young colleague until he's suddenly living that moment again. Even when he explains what happened and why, he's recreating his own inner monologue from when the mistake happened. By the time he realizes what he let the other man get away with, it's many years too late. He slips back into observance mode and doesn't ever play his hand again.

That scene-long slip into showing gives away all of Smiley's tells. You see the way his eyes open or close, his mouth moves, his breathing changes, his posture shifts, and all his other physical tells when he knows he's onto something. Suddenly, his quiet performance becomes a guessing game. Does the slight head tilt to the left mean he has an in? Or does it mean that he's second-guessing himself again? Wait. Why did he just leave the room when he seemed like he was onto something? Oldman's performance gives you one cipher halfway through the film that unlocks his entire performance. You miss that and you won't understand why some people really hope he upsets on Sunday night.

Will Win: Jean Dujardin, The Artist

George Clooney is close, but Dujardin has the Best Picture momentum going for him.

Best Supporting Actress: Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs

Janet McTeer in Albert NobbsAs much as I appreciate what Glenn Close did in Albert Nobbs, I firmly believe that Janet McTeer gives the best performance of any acting nominee in any category this year. This is not a slight against her fellow Supporting Actress nominees, either; it's a strong field this year.

It comes down to this. McTeer was tasked with doing everything Glenn Close does in Albert Nobbs, only amplified in every possible way. If Albert has to have a confrontation with another man, McTeer's Hubert has to almost get into a fight. If Albert is sad, Hubert has to weep. If Albert falls in love, Hubert has to be the most romantic man on the planet. That McTeer makes the exaggerated could-be foil of Albert so believable is a sign of a great performance.

Hubert is so convincing as a man that Albert doesn't even consider the possibility that he might also be a woman. If the reveal scene never happened--and it's early in the film, too--you wouldn't know Hubert wasn't a biological man unless you recognized Janet McTeer from another film. McTeer's is arguably the most wide-ranging performance of any nominee and she nails all the tonal shifts.

Will Win: Octavia Spencer, The Help

Best Supporting Actor: Nick Nolte, Warrior

Nick Nolte in WarriorNick Nolte plays a hard to like character in Warrior. He's an alcoholic. He abused his family so badly that his wife and one of his sons left him. Shortly after, his other son abandoned him.

When Warrior begins, Nolte's Paddy Conlon is an extremely conflicted man. He got sober and his family still won't talk to him. He tries to rebuild his relationship with his two sons as they train for a huge MMA tournament and they won't happen. Paddy is a broken shell of a man who wants nothing more than a little affirmation that maybe he didn't destroy everyone he loved.

Only Meryl Streep faces the same challenge as Nick Nolte in his Oscar-nominated performance: a big scene with horrid dialogue. Nolte's flashiest moment is the most absurd in the film. Yet, you can't take your eyes off of him. He sells an unending series of cliches in such a believable way that you almost think Warrior could overcome its soap opera style and become a believable drama in the end. It doesn't, but Nolte helps close out the final moments of the film on a high note.

Will Win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Do I honestly think any of the front runners will lose? Not really. The biggest chance for the acting upset is Best Actor because Jean Dujardin and George Clooney could split enough votes for a third nominee to take the win. Brad Pitt and Gary Oldman seem the most likely.

In the end, does the award itself mean so much to the film industry? Yes and no. It's a great marketing tool and a great honor. But will it change the opinions of people who saw and didn't care for a particular winner? No. Will it make people pulling for the other nominees feel better that their favorite lost? No. But it will play into the clout of the Academy Awards in pop culture. For all the jokes about the irrelevance of the ceremony, winning an Oscar still holds weight in the memory bank of pop culture knowledge.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Link Rally: 23 February 2012

Play It: Ace Pilot