Oscar Chat: Can Cate Blanchett and Chiwetel Ejiofor Be Beat?

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Richard: Welcome back to Oscar Chat, Joe! As we received some news yesterday about the acting races, let's focus on those today. It's a crowded field this year, with respectable mega-star turns and a couple of big breakouts. But hasn't at least one category felt inevitable since this summer? Meaning, can anyone beat Cate Blanchett's bruising, beautiful, utterly spellbinding turn in Blue Jasmine? Her swiftly deteriorating socialite is not just the most finely realized character of the year, it may be Blanchett's new Great Performance. (On screen, at least. People are still whispering in awe about her Blanche DuBois, done with the Sydney Rep four years ago. Fitting, then, that Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen's riff on Tennessee Williams's seminal woman-unraveling play.) Praise for Blanchett's work in the otherwise pretty good, not great film has been near-universal, and, frankly, I just don't see anyone else being able to top it — in esteem or awards recognition. And I think that's just right. Best Actress is the award that Blanchett deserves, none of this Best Supporting silliness for a twenty-minute Katharine Hepburn impression. (Albeit a very good one.)

Though, there is the problem of that summertime release date. Blue Jasmine came out all the way back in July, six months before Oscar nominations. Of course, early releases have fared well at the Oscars before — Crash, the movie that single-handedly solved racism, won the Best Picture Oscar despite coming out in March of that year — but I think a re-release, even a small one, might be needed to truly ensure Blanchett's win. It needs to be fresh in voters' minds. If people forget about Jasmine, the door could be left open to Sandra Bullock, whom everyone loves and who does technically proficient work in Gravity. Hers is mostly a physical performance, but when you figure that, more than most actors, she really had to make all this stuff up from whole cloth, what she conjures up in the film is pretty impressive. There is also some recent rumbling for Judi Dench in Philomena and of course, coming out of Toronto, for Meryl Streep in the flashy role of August: Osage County's hectoring, pill-popping matriarch from hell. On the indie fringes, there's newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos, who apparently endured quite a lot during filming for French coming-of-age epic Blue Is the Warmest Color. These women are all strong competition, yes, but doesn't Blanchett still feel like the winner here?

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Joe: I put good money on Blanchett’s Oscar futures back in the summer (not really), so if she does falter, it looks like I’ll be back to running short cons among the moneyed elite outside the Lincoln Plaza theaters here in New York (again, not really, but what a life!). I still find it very hard to believe that Blanchett will get upended this year. She’s got too much going for her. For one thing, almost everybody else who might be a competitor has already won an Oscar: Bullock, Streep, Dench, Emma Thompson for Saving Mr. Banks. You mention Ms. Exarchopoulos, who gives a dynamite performance to be sure, but I have a hard time imagining the dusty old Oscar demographic will go for all that business. That sexy business. The point is, if the entire Best Actress field gets filled out by former winners, there’s no real foothold for any of the other women to start building a narrative. It’s not like actresses can’t win two trophies in rapid succession – just ask Sally Field, Jodie Foster, and Hilary Swank – but it seems to me like it would be very easy for the enthusiasm for Gravity to coalesce around the direction and spectacle of it, rather than Bullock, for whom a follow-up nomination to her not-entirely-beloved win for The Blind Side should be enough. And they’re just not going to give Streep #4 unless the competition is seriously anemic, which is decidedly not the case this year.

Judi Dench? That’s more interesting. Like Blanchett, Dench is a lead actress whose only Oscar came in a supporting category (for her lightning-quick cameo in Shakespeare in Love), so they’re in the same boat. I can’t imagine Dench will draw the same Blanchett-style raves for her performance in Philomena, which is being received as a crowd-pleaser, but a decidedly sentimental one. Dench even had to go and debunk the rumors of her retiring due to her impending blindness. Meanwhile, Thompson’s lone acting win came more than 20 years ago, for Howards End. She’s one of the more flat-out likeable actresses in the business, and I could see a campaign to give her an award as a kind of enticement for Hollywood to keep the good roles coming for an underutilized treasure. But would such a campaign work against Blanchett, herself an incredibly likeable performer?

One dark horse nobody seems to be mentioning – because nobody has seen her film yet – is Amy Adams, who is being campaigned as a lead in David O. Russell’s American Hustle. Adams is already a four-time nominee (all in Supporting, however), and is thus the one actress who could make some hay with an “Isn’t she due?” campaign. But while Adams has done some of her best work for Russell in the past (I adore her performance in The Fighter and wish she’d have bested her co-star Melissa Leo to the trophy that year), doesn’t it look like she’s destined to be swallowed up by an American Hustle cast that already includes Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper as its ostensible leads? The biggest thing women like Blanchett and Bullock have going for them is that their films are all about them.

Richard: Joe, I agree with you that Dench poses a big threat to Blanchett, though I'm not sure the Academy voters think exactly the same as we awards nerds do. In that sense, maybe Thompson, with this big gulf between awards season attention, is the better bet. "Welcome back, Emma Thompson!" That kind of a thing. Though, I keep forgetting that her movie is coming out. Not a good sign? Same for American Hustle, whose screening-free status (as far as I'm aware, anyway) makes me suspicious about that movie's quality.

On the boys' side, things are a bit more nebulous, but my pick for a favorite right now is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He's the rock-solid center of 12 Years a Slave and, as the Academy Awards are often doled out as career-markers, is ready for some big, mainstream, leading man accolades after years of doing strong but under-heralded work in supporting roles. I think the combination of the film's potency and the story of Ejiofor's career trajectory dovetail into a perfectly synergistic awards package. That may be slightly cynical, but these are the Oscars we're talking about.

Ejiofor probably faces more competition than Blanchett does. You mentioned Robert Redford last week, Joe, and you were right to. His near-wordless performance in All Is Lost is a physical marvel, Redford graciously allowing us to see his age while also standing in hale, manly defiance of it. The performance is "brave" in the way the Academy likes actors to be brave — and given that Redford has never won an Oscar for acting (he's always been charming, but never all that good, if we're honest), and that he's 77 years old, this could be the Academy's big chance. I think he and Ejiofor are our two front-runners at the moment, but elsewhere there are of course Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips and Matthew McConaughey doing more "brave" work in the refreshingly sober and understated Dallas Buyers Club. (He also gets physical transformation points! Can't discount those.) Further to the edges are Joaquin Phoenix in Her and Bruce Dern in Nebraska. I know I'm forgetting people here. But who?

Joe: I’m still the fool who thinks that Harvey Weinstein will wake up one morning and realize the potential goldmine he has in Michael B. Jordan’s performance in Fruitvale Station. Few Oscar campaigners are better than Harvey at turning indie recognition into big-time awards success. And you said yourself, with regard to Ejiofor, that the voters often fancy themselves career-makers, so I have to figure voters would be more excited to mint a new star like Jordan rather than muster the necessary enthusiasm to get Forest Whitaker’s low-key performance in The Butler -- Weinstein's other Best Actor hopeful -- across the finish line.

And of course, there’s still the matter of Leonardo DiCaprio, who is either -- depending on who you talk to -- monstrously overrated, monstrously underrated, at the height of his career, or threatening to stagnate into irrelevance. Whether The Wolf of Wall St. makes a strong enough statement to demand recognition for Leo remains to be seen, but it might have to be an overwhelming mandate to surpass Ejiofor and Redford and McConaughey and Hanks.

A Bruce Dern nomination could do some interesting things to the Redford narrative, seeing as Dern is a contemporary of his (hello, Great Gatsby reminiscences) and was always more respected for his acting. Honestly, the fact that I could make a solid case for why easily seven men could not only be nominated but WIN Best Actor this year has me very excited. And will almost certainly leave me a little crestfallen if and when precursor season zeroes in on only one of them.

Richard: There's also Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom to consider. Wouldn't it be something to see three black actors nominated in the top category? That, I believe, would make them a majority!

Joe: Lord knows the bloc of voters who totally watched The Wire on DVD that one weekend will be a formidable one.

Predicted Nominees (based on an advanced form of mathematics perfected by as-yet-uncovered Incan sect):

Best Actor:  Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave); Robert Redford (All Is Lost); Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club); Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips); Bruce Dern (Nebraska).

Also maybe: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall St.); Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station); Forest Whitaker (The Butler); Joaquin Phoenix (Her); Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine); Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena); Meryl Streep (August: Osage County); Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks).

Also maybe: Amy Adams (American Hustle); Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color)


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