Wednesday, February 24, 2010
This year's Best Actress Oscar line-up has taken a rather unpredictable course compared to the other acting categories. Mo'Nique all but secured her statuette when Precious (then called Push) debuted in Sundance. Christoph Waltz was a front-runner after his win at Cannes and went on to seal the deal when Basterds premiered for American audiences. Jeff Bridges (and Crazy Heart) emerged late in the game, but the overdue and beloved performer had no trouble taking hold of a fairly open category once he did.
But those leading ladies. Those pesky, tricky leading ladies...
Early pundit lists included performances that didn't quite live up to expectations (Saoirse Ronan in The Lovely Bones, Natalie Portman in Brothers), worthy turns that didn't quite catch on with voters (Abbie Cornish in Bright Star, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist), roles from films that didn't quite make it to theaters this year (Emily Watson in Within the Whirlwind, Halle Berry in Frankie and Alice), and performances that literally crashed and burned (Hilary Swank in Amelia).
What was clear from the start was that Meryl Streep would certainly snag her sixteenth Academy nod for Julie & Julia (though there was some initial debate over which category she would land in-- but not from this forecaster!), and that Sundance darling Carey Mulligan of An Education was also a lock for a nomination, if not for the win. Eventual nominee Precious herself Gabourey Sidibe was definitely a part of the conversation, but she wasn't considered a serious contender until Precious proved its power over critics and audiences alike.
And so, for roughly the first half of 2009, the race to nomination day was 40% sewn up, and by the year's halfway mark, it seemed like a two-horse race to the podium-- with momentum shifting back and forth between Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan. When Gabby entered the race as a sure thing a bit later on, the Meryl v. Mulligan contest continued, with Mulligan grasping, perhaps, the upper-hand as the pre-cursor season was approaching. The two remaining spots had a laundry list of potential nominees to fill them, but none of the remaining performances had the mettle to shake up the race in any substantial way. What's more, there were no additional performances on the horizon that could sneak into the category at the last moment to steal the thunder that was all but set to be divvied up between Mulligan and Streep.
Or so we thought. In mid-September, Warner Bros. screened its holiday football family flick The Blind Side to test audiences, and the reaction was overwhelmingly overwhelmingly-positive. As a major Hollywood production and distribution studio, the WB surely has Oscar hopes and Oscar hopefuls every year, but in a twist of nearly incomprehensible irony, their most potent awards performer would be its sole fourth-quarter major release that didn't have its sight set on Oscar at all. Surely, WB brass had much larger expectations for the Clint Eastwood-driven Invictus (who didn't?), Spike Jonze's brave interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are (ditto), and Guy Ritchie's gritty spin on Sherlock Holmes.
So who saw Sandra Bullock coming? Not that you probably need any more reminding at this point, but I dedicated an entire post to the topic back on October 24th, mostly because I was stunned to discover that no one else was even discussing her potential. But I remind you of my prophetic dumb luck once again not to toot my own horn; rather, I do so only to give another early call I'm about to make a little extra weight. For the record, I hear that Pete Hammond was the first big name to peg Sandy Bullock as a future Oscar contender-- in early November after he attended a screening.
In any case, most realized that Sandra was the real deal by late November, filling yet another spot of the Academy's "Big 5," with one place left for a coaster nominee or seat-filler (sorry, Helen Mirren!). Meanwhile, enthusiasm for Carey Mulligan was beginning to fade, and Bullock would easily take her place as the consensus dramatic pick of the year-- and then some. Somehow, somehow, sneaky Sandy sped ahead in the Oscar race to take down even Meryl Streep as the category front-runner, tying the perennial Academy bridesmaid at the Critics' Choice Awards and besting her at the SAGs.
Sandra blazed with such a fierce and unlikely fire this awards season that she burned up most of the fuel behind Carey Mulligan and a good bit from Meryl Streep to boot. When the Oscar nominations were announced a few weeks ago, Bullock almost had her name carved on the statuette, with only Meryl Streep left posing any sort of threat. But Meryl's candle had been burning for almost a year, and her long-anticipated performance had been sitting on DVD shelves for months. Sandra's buzz felt new and was only growing, and she was proving all the more popular and lovable.
Only one thing could put the brakes on her ascent to the Oscar podium at this point. And guess what? That one thing-- it happened.
Backlash. It's a word that makes its way into the Oscar conversation every year, if not solely to create a little tension and excitement when there is none. This year, the phenomenon was most often described in regards to the racially high-minded Precious, even when the supposed "backlash" was nowhere to be found outside of columns by the dubiously credentialed New York Press critic and New York Film Critics Circle president Armond White.
Still, Sandra Bullock was curiously at once too strong to be stopped and quite ripe for backlash. As a performer whose contributions to film have been repeatedly questioned in a role that was deemed good-but-not-great by most in the critical community, Bullock's success along the awards circuit has not gone without its hefty share of groans and detractors. It has been evident that these celebrations were conceived through star power and sheer charisma much more than acting prowess. But even if the star power and charisma combo is enough to knock your socks off (indeed, it is-- and then some) most would agree that the Oscars should be saved for the "best" and not the "brightest."
So where exactly is this backlash I was referring to? It's small-- almost imperceptible if you aren't looking closely enough-- and its occurrence in any substantial quantity could only come about through one imaginable way. And again, it did, but not, as you might be thinking, in the Lead Actress category. It was the newly expanded Best Picture line-up that saw enthusiasm for Sandra Bullock sharply and suddenly peak and then begin to fall.
The Academy sent Oscar enthusiasts and film distributors into a tailspin last June when they announced they would double the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. Immediately, speculation arose over the motives for the change, with many accusing the Academy of pandering to populist appeal over legitimate filmmaking achievements. The decision drew responses from both detractors and supporters, not to mention a whole lot of speculative statements from the press. Few news articles ran without some sensational aside that The Hangover or Harry Potter was suddenly thrust into the middle of the Best Picture race. Maybe they weren't so far gone with the former suggestion, but we'll never know.
What we did know, and what we know now, was that something unexpected and/or of questionable filmmaking value-- in terms of Oscar, at least-- was going to make the cut. Not that this wasn't a familiar occurrence with just five Best Picture nominees, but with five additional slots and roughly the same amount of artist input from the filmmaking world, the math was telling. And while the ultimate Best Picture lineup would represent a strong cross-section of movie-making in 2009, there was without a doubt a black sheep in the bunch.
Indeed, Bullock's staggering popularity vaulted her own film into a Best Picture race it wouldn't have come close to being apart of under any other circumstances. This is when the backlash began. We were reluctant to consider her a serious contender. We were underwhelmed by her contributions in The Blind Side. We were charmed by her story, her modesty, her self-deprecating humor, and her graciousness. We shrugged and even applauded as she rose to the podium at the Critics' Choice awards, the Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild awards. We were ready and willing to see her go all the way on Oscar night.
Then The Blind Side scored that Best Picture nomination, an honor that most agree should be reserved for the highest achievements in filmmaking. When the film's name was read on nomination day, a slow hiss spread across the filmmaking world as the air rushed out of the tires on the Sandra Bullock Oscar machine. What many had considered ridiculous from the start had now become indisputably ridiculous to most in the film enthusiast community. The Aww, isn't this fun? sentiments surrounding Bullock's Oscar-bound ascent quickly became All right, that's enough.
Of course, I'm simply guessing here-- checking the pulse and the tone of the race as I see it. But if events played out as I believe they did and if there was enough time between the announcement of the nominations and the mailing of the final ballots, Sandra Bullock may not rise to Oscar glory just yet.
So who will take home the Best Actress statuette? Will the votes go back to Carey Mulligan, shafted in favor of Bullock through most of the season? Nope. Mulligan has been almost invisible during the season despite appearing at nearly every event. So will Meryl Streep finally get that third Oscar win? I don't think so. Enthusiasm for Ms. Streep peaked long ago, and both the performance and the film are generally considered modest achievements in the scope of her career. That leaves two names, and no, I don't think the Oscar will be handed to the space-filler (even if we do love you so, Dame Helen Mirren, Queen of the Universe!).
For all the aforementioned reasons, I believe that Gabourey Sidibe will receive the Best Actress Oscar for her leading performance in Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire.
Gabby has played the Oscar campaign game to perfection, appearing both likable and wholly different from her character on every media platform imaginable. She has consistently been friendly, perky, gracious, and well-spoken, surely embodying the graceful and exuberant type that Oscar tends to reward. Her performance received nearly universal acclaim from critics, audiences, and, perhaps most importantly, her peers-- including repeated statements of admiration from Sandra Bullock herself. No, Gabby could not have received a more crucial endorsement this year.
What's more, the refusal of her costar Mo'Nique (who keeps looking more and more like a genius) to play the self-promotion game allowed most of the day-to-day attention for Precious to go to Sidibe. Had Mo'Nique hit the Oscar campaign circuit, the resulting buzz would have certainly drowned out any notice of Sidibe and her contributions to the film.
Sure, Gabby is far from the picture of the ideal Oscar leading lady, but Precious itself is far from the ideal Oscar contender. Sidibe's physicality was absolutely crucial to the narrative success of the film, and so it should not count against her as it might in most other scenarios. I'll admit that had she lost the weight after filming Precious, or, in some other universe, gained the weight specifically for the film or simply wore padding and makeup to create a heavyset appearance, she would have had the Oscar in the bag long ago.
But Gabby doesn't need that extra gimmick right now. She turned in an extraordinary performance, hit the pavement hard during awards season, and then waited for her competitors to crumble under the constantly shifting currents of the Oscar race, always sporting a big smile on her face. Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan peaked high and early while Sidibe quietly gained support. Sandra Bullock knocked Carey Mulligan out of the race before stealing Streep's thunder on her rise to the podium. Sidibe, meanwhile, continued to play a strong hand and most importantly, her momentum did not peak. Then The Blind Side scored that unexpected Best Picture nod, and Sandra Bullock surely saw the backs of her supporters as they began to turn away. When Helen Mirren is scratched as a space-filler (I feel the need to apologize to the Dame one last time), the last actress standing is none other than Gabourey Sidibe.
It's an upset in the making, and I'm calling it right here, right now. I'm not promising that she will be my final prediction (the winds of change still have some time to alter the course of things), but I see it now as an extremely likely outcome.
One that I, for the record, will vigorously support.