Oscar nominations – Not a year for subtle performances

The internet has been abuzz about the high profile snubs in the acting categories of this year’s Academy Award nominations. What a cruel, unforgiving world the entertainment industry is! The use of the word ‘snub’ itself indicates some sort of malicious intent with undertones of politics and favoritism. Well, all of that is most likely true. The voting dynamics of the Oscars are no different from that of any vote-based competition (including national elections) – those who spend the most money or effort in marketing themselves are the ones who are most likely to be top of mind or to win. For every high profile film which garners nominations for acting or directing or script-writing, there are twice or thrice as many films which featured equally praise-worthy performances, but just weren’t marketed sufficiently among the Academy’s voting fraternity. Already Robert Redford has spoken about how his highly praised, but little-seen film All is Lost hardly received any sort of marketing and distribution support from its distributor. On the other hand, when completely unknown films have won in the past, observers and pundits have complained that the winners aren’t representative of ‘real world audiences’.

All things considered, I felt that this year’s nominations for Best Actor generally favored brash, over-the-top performances above subtle ones. Hence, the nods for Christian Bale (American Hustle) and Leo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) over more nuanced performances by Robert Redford (All is Lost) or Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) or Forrest Whitaker (The Butler) or even Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhall (both in Prisoners). I haven’t watched American Hustle yet; Mr. Bale is a fine actor and in all likelihood he has turned in yet another superlative performance, but he probably also benefited from the overall marketing behind the film among Academy voters. Mr. DiCaprio surely has received this nomination as a compensation for being ‘snubbed’ in the past, as much as for the quality of his acting in The Wolf of Wall Street. On the other hand, Robert Redford had to carry an entire film with no other actors, with practically no dialogue and with a fair bit of physical effort (for a 77 year old), which he does with amazing grace. I always knew that Tom Hanks would find it tough to win this year with so many other outstanding performances, but I certainly expected him to get nominated. Captain Phillips played out like a documentary – therefore giving Hanks little opportunity for over-the-top histrionics as in the case of Hustle or Wolf – and he did so by completely immersing himself in the character. As I had mentioned in an earlier post, just the 5 minute medical room scene at the end should have been good enough to get him a nomination. Nevertheless, I was genuinely happy to see Mr. Hanks well and truly back in the game with 2 solid roles this year in Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks – both commercial and critical successes. For the past few years, he has either focused on TV and film production duties or appeared in overtly commercial fare like The Da Vinci Code or in duds like Charlie Wilson’s War and Larry Crowne (which he directed himself) or in well-made movies that could not find an audience (Cloud Atlas and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). Just goes to show that even an actor as talented and with as good taste as Tom Hanks can’t always get it right.

I do think that Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey fully deserve their nominations. Both of them delivered compelling and moving performances (in 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club respectively) which effectively carried their films. I first noticed Ejiofor playing a drag queen in a British comedy-drama called Kinky Boots (which went on to become a Tony Award winning musical on Broadway). Since then, he has been a very reliable supporting actor in various mainstream Hollywood films. It will be interesting to see where he takes his career from here onwards. Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey has moved in the opposite direction, leaving behind those crass romantic comedies for meatier roles in indie films in the past couple of years. In Dallas Buyers Club, he effortlessly inhabits the character of Ron Woodroof in a true story about a man who set up an illegal ‘medical club’ in the ‘80s to provide HIV patients with non-FDA approved drugs imported from other countries. The sort of weight loss that he went through to play this role qualifies as surefire ‘Oscar bait’ (Quite likely that Christian Bale’s nomination also was partly on account of his transformation into the overweight balding con artist Irving Rosenfeld). I think the winner in this category will be either Ejiofor or McConaughey.

On the women’s side, there are fewer surprises. Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock have long been favored to win for their extraordinary performances in Blue Jasmine and Gravity respectively. I myself am struggling to choose between the two. Dame Judi Dench’s nomination comes on the back of an intense marketing campaign by Harvey Weinstein for Philomena in the past few weeks. Can’t say till I’ve seen the movie if it’s a deserving nomination or just because of the marketing. Meryl Streep’s presence in the nominee list (for August: Osage County) was a foregone conclusion I suppose, as she has been nominated for almost every film she has acted in for the past few years…and deservedly so, I feel. She is a great example of someone who is both talented and a consummate professional. The only weak candidate is Amy Adams; many observers feel that slot should have been given to Emma Thompson for her entertaining performance as author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks.

Similarly, there has been a lot of talk about Oprah Winfrey not receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actress in The Butler. I certainly think it was a Oscar-worthy performance. Here again, it is tough to say whose slot she should have taken. Lupita Nyong’o is perhaps the frontrunner in this category for her heartbreaking performance in 12 Years a Slave. Sally Hawkins was good in Blue Jasmine, but not Oscar winning material. I can’t comment on the other nominees as I haven’t watched August: Osage County (Julia Roberts) or Nebraska (June Squibb –who is that?) or American Hustle (Hollywood’s critical and commercial darling – Jennifer Lawrence…and she’s just 23 years old, my God!).

For Best Actor in a Supporting Role, I think Jared Leto stands a very good chance for Dallas Buyers Club (another case of an incredible physical transformation). Michael Fassbender gets his first Oscar nomination for playing the crazy plantation owner Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave…it was just 4 years ago that he came to prominence with his short but impactful role as Lt. Archie Hicoks in Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds. He is now one of the most sought after actors in Hollywood – equally at ease playing comic book villains, androids, 19th century plantation owners or corrupt lawyers.

All told, this has been one of the strongest acting fields in recent years and it promises to be an interesting few weeks of speculation and debate leading up to the Oscar night on March 2nd.

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