Talkin' Oscars: Best Actor, Best Actress Races


Welcome to Talkin’ Oscars, the second part in an open-ended three-part series in which our two writers discuss the recently announced nominations for the 86th Academy Awards. We continue our discussion with a look at the Best Actor and Best Actress races. Read our thoughts from Tuesday on the Best Picture race. Andrew Johnson: Now that we've both aligned ourselves with #TeamNotAmericanHustle, let's delve in to some of the other major awards. Since you brought up Philomena, the Best Actress race seems like a good place to start.

Judi Dench, the star of that film, is one of the five nominees along with Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Amy Adams (American Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County). That's some acting royalty right there. With the exception of Adams, all of them have already won an Oscar (or three in the case of Streep). This is such a heavy-hitting collection of talent, that if someone was asked to simply come up with a list of the five best actresses working right now, you could see them picking these five women.

Doesn't that seem a little odd? Usually, an upstart or two comes out of nowhere to earn a nomination (see Quvenzhane Wallis and Emmanuelle Riva last year).

Bullock-Gravity-250Even odder is that this apparently isn't a close race. Blanchett has emerged as the runaway favorite for her turn as the unhinged title character of Woody Allen's latest. Despite the impressive CVs of her competitors, Blanchett apparently (clear eyes, full hearts!) can't lose.

It's easy to understand why she's the favorite if you've seen Blue Jasmine. She IS that film -- her performance creating the unsettling, unsatisfying mood of the whole picture. I won't be upset if she wins at all, but I must confess to being a little bit puzzled by the inevitability of her victory. I thought Sandy Bullock was terrific in Gravity. Like Blanchett, she IS that film, only in a more literal sense because other than about 15 minutes of George Clooney, it's just her, a green screen and the best special effects money can buy. Her portrayal of Dr. Ryan Stone had a more subtle brilliance than Blanchett's. All the same, it's one I'd be revisiting if I had a vote. I'm not certain I wouldn't cast my hypothetical ballot for Blanchett, I'm just saying I'm not certain either way.

So, what am I missing about Blanchett's performance that makes her such a huge favorite?

Steve Cimino: In any other year, I wouldn't mind if Amy Adams or Sandy Bullock won. I'm not sure what we're supposed to take away from Adams' character arc at the end of American Hustle, but I do know she was acting her ass off trying to figure it out. And Bullock is a one-woman show in Gravity; nobody swings 'round a satellite quite like her. Think about all the horrible performances we've seen in effects-heavy blockbusters; it's not easy to fake being very scared about floating wildly in space.

But it's Blanchett's world and we're all living in it. I put Blue Jasmine in my top 10 and I'm not a big Woody Allen fan; I did it because of her. Her desperation is captivating; watching her try to claw back into proper civilization, knowing all the while that one false move will send her back down the well, was such a treat. I guess she was the Woody-esque protagonist, but there was nothing sympathetic or likable in her character; any interest in her well-being came from the film being told through her point of view, and maybe also the selfish desire that this woman doesn't completely collapse before our eyes. I think throwing yourself into that kind of role and not looking back is, well, maybe daring isn't the right word, but most actresses would look for something redeeming to hold onto. Not Cate.

That said, if enough articles come out saying "it's not over yet," it may not be over. A few people could be swayed to revisit Adams or Bullock (and, as you hinted, Streep might get a handful of votes because she's Streep). But at the end of the day, Academy voters are hopeless sheep; it's always wise to bet on them voting for the front-runner. I think Blanchett deserves it, and I think she'll win easy.

Ejiofor-12Years-250AJ: I have so many questions about this feedback loop you're describing. Something becomes a favorite because people say it's the favorite, and then, in a moment of staggering confirmation bias, the voters get in line basically because someone told them to?

I have so many questions, but we have a limited amount of time, so, with that in mind, let's move on, quick as we can, to the Best Actor race.

This is also a star-studded lot, but it blends in a few of those kinda-sorta-out-of-nowhere performances to round out the field. Matthew McCounaghey (Dallas Buyers Club) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), on the strength of wins at the Golden Globes, would seem to be the favorites, but unlike the Best Actress race, this feels a lot more wide open. It's certainly easy to make cases for the other three nominees, Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Christian Bale (American Hustle) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave).

Pressed to pick a personal favorite from among this quintet, I'm pretty certain I'd go with DiCaprio. His turn as Jordan Belfort was one of the best of his now-esteemed career, and there's an It-is-time-Simba halo around him at this point.

But, in this category more than any other, the story here is really about who isn't nominated as much as the fellers who are. Two major stars were snubbed in Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) and Robert Redford (All is Lost). So, too, were two of the very best performances in my book, Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis and Joaquin Phoenix in Her. (I think the Isaac snub actually upsets me more than ILD for Best Picture, though with a smaller field it is also more more understandable.)

I'm not going to sit here and advocate for an expansion of the category because I think having so many worthy candidates is mostly a one-off fluke. But I am going to stew about the snubs. That's especially so because I don't think gaining or losing a lot of weight should get you a knee-jerk nomination and because Dern's performance wasn't even the best (or second-best) in his own movie.

Your turn to chime in with some soothing words, compadre.

SC: This is certainly one of the finest Best Actor races I've ever encountered; I'm planning to put together a thousand words on it at some point before the Academy Awards, but I'll do my best to condense those down to a manageable amount for our little exchange.

Hanks-Philips-250I think the Academy (gasp) did well here. In my heart I knew that Oscar Isaac wasn't going to make it; the deck was just too stacked against him (guy no one's heard of, movie with no real momentum). The real surprise was Phoenix losing his spot to McConaughey, but that was probably inevitable after the Golden Globes. Shame he got the nod for DBC and not Mud (or Killer Joe) but I'm glad to see him rewarded for all the fine work he's done the last few years.

DiCaprio and Bale were mortal locks, and I couldn't imagine anyone with a brain overlooking Ejiofor's excellence. Redford did seem like a guarantee back in the season of speculation, but nobody saw All is Lost (and with this kind of ballot you know everyone was voting for one old dude only).

If I had a say (and I know I'm dealing with the world's biggest Nebraska fan here, so apologies in advance) I'd give Dern's spot to Tom Hanks. The last 10 minutes of Captain Phillips was basically an Oscar audition tape; it's also one of the most moving things I've ever seen on the big screen. After a decade of trying to play out of type, he finally hit the nail on the head. I wish he'd been rewarded for it, but it's tough to feel bad for a guy who's won two Oscars already.

My pick is Leo; he was beyond charismatic in The Wolf of Wall Street and it's about time he won. In fact, in my mind this is as much of a lock as Best Actress. There's no Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln or Forest Whitaker in Last King of Scotland in his way, no one who dazzled everyone to the point of distraction. I suppose there's a scenario where American Hustle runs the table (ugh) and Bale pulls of a shocker, but I don't see it. Maybe because I don't want to see it. Either way, I'm sticking with DiCaprio.

And one day I'll sit you down and explain the feedback loop. Favorites don't materialize out of thin air, and people don't vote for something because it's the best. It's a vicious cycle. Human beings are the worst.

Return on Thursday for Part 3 of the series, a look at pretty much everything else. In the meantime, don't forget to check out our analysis of the Best Picture race.