Untangling the Oscar Race

The Academy's top two prizes are up for grabs after an entertaining and engaging year of film

12 Years a Slave (left); Gravity
12 Years a Slave (left); Gravity

While I am not known for my Oscar handicapping capabilities, let me go out on a limb here and state that this year’s telecast will offer few if any real surprises in the four performance categories. I firmly stand behind the following predictions: Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club; Best Actress: Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine; Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club; and Best Actress: Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave. 

I would like to apologize to all of the Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) fans out there dying for their man to finally hear his name called and forever be affixed with the moniker “Academy Award winner,” but that’s probably not in the cards this year. Who would have guessed, three years ago, that we would be getting ready to hear McConaughey join that most exclusive club? Blanchett gets the nod again, sure to spark conversations about whether or not she is the great actress of her generation. Another apology is in order, this time to Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) because, once again, you weren’t the captain you thought you were. It takes a lot to be the Man, sometimes being bold enough to wear the right dress, pumps and mascara. And Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), well, we’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places soon enough. 

So, if there’s little to debate along those lines, where will the real drama unfold during the typically over-long celebration of the year in film? How about the very end, where we have what looks like a solid one-two setup featuring Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave going head-to-head for both the best directing honors and the grand prize: Best Picture. Of course, such matchups are never quite as much fun unless there’s a potential spoiler waiting in the wings, and this year we have a real contender lurking in David O. Russell’s American Hustle.

Russell has been a much-acknowledged bridesmaid his last couple of times up to the altar. The man alone has earned nominations for directing for his last three films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now Hustle), snagged a solo adapted screenplay nod for Playbook and currently shares an original screenplay nomination with Eric Warren Singer for Hustle. 

But we can’t stop there because these films have also garnered a truckload of performance nominations and wins. Melissa Leo and Christian Bale took the gold for their supporting roles in The Fighter. Amy Adams lost out in the supporting actress race to her co-star, Leo. Next time out, Playbook swept the performance nominations with Bradley Cooper for lead actor, Lawrence for lead actress, Robert De Niro for supporting actor and Jacki Weaver for supporting actress, although only Lawrence walked away with an award. With a similar nominations haul for Hustle — Bale for lead actor, Adams for lead actress, Cooper for supporting actor and Lawrence for supporting actress — the conventional wisdom is that maybe the Academy will feel that this is Russell’s time. He’s proven himself to be a master at the helm with a perceptive sense for coaxing the best out of his actors.

Personally, I’m resistant to that line, despite the fact that Hustle has carved out a nice niche through the awards season thus far. The film won Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) at the Golden Globes, and its ladies — Adams and Lawrence — took home the performance prizes as well. Lawrence collected the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress, while Russell and Singer grabbed the Best Original Screenplay, and the cast won the Actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. I still see a glitzy second runner-up.

Gravity’s resume includes Cuarón’s BAFTA win for direction, along with cinematography, sound and special visual effects, and a host of critic’s group honors. 12 Years claimed Best Motion Picture (Drama) at the Golden Globes, Best Film at BAFTA (where Ejiofor was recognized as Best Leading Actor) and Lupita Nyong’o won for supporting actress at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

My initial encounter with both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave came at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I found myself enthralled by each. Cuarón’s film was a technical marvel, a beautifully immersive experience that served as a prime example for what our technological tools could render when in the hands of a visionary in touch with the essential humanity of narrative. Cuarón and his lead actress, Sandra Bullock, have discussed the project in detail since its release and commented, quite honestly, about its innate pleasures being more, let’s say, visceral, but that in no way diminishes the exacting achievement.

12 Years, on the other hand, as a historic piece — especially one devoted to America’s most peculiar institution — has a definitive grandeur and epic scope (even in its most narrowly composed moments, such as when Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup first awakens to his solitary condition, chained in a slave pen) that epitomizes what we imagine an Oscar-winning film should look and feel like. I recall, after watching the film and attending the festival press conference with director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley among the panelists, wondering how coverage would define the moment of a possible McQueen win for directing. He would be the first black director to be so honored, a real game and paradigm changer, too, since most of us, in particular people of color, always assumed that distinction would fall to an African-American, but his moment would belong, no more or less, to us all. 

And yet, now it seems like there’s a very real likelihood that this dream will be deferred once again. While the inevitability of a split — Cuarón for directing and 12 Years as Best Picture — alters that narrative I envisioned, it should not be seen as an error on the part of the Academy. Even the dark horse of Russell and his Hustle sneaking in by a nose between these two speaks to a year in which the best films entertained and engaged us, putting everything the art form has at its disposal on the line. 

Ellen DeGeneres hosts the 86th ACADEMY AWARDS 7 p.m. March 2 on ABC.
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