Exclusive :: Weinstein Assesses the Oscars

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday January 11, 2013

And the winner is ... The awards season is upon us. Beginning with film critics' circles in the major cities, makers of this year's motion pictures line up like perky college students in sexless bathing suits in hopes judges will note their efforts with a shiny statue. Having finally gotten the chance to handle a real, live Oscar a year ago when I was in the late Celeste Holm's apartment, I can testify that they're also heavy, like picking up a dumbbell.

The next flurry of awards occurs when fellow craftspersons line up to reward each other: directors to directors, writers to writers, etc. Then there's the oddest moment of all, when the 80 busboys, parking valet attendants, house cleaners and short-order cooks who call themselves the Hollywood Foreign Press Association give out the Golden Globes.

If the Globes, taking place this Sunday, have taken on meaning in recent years, it's more because of their setting -- dinner tables with an open bar -- and the chance for otherwise overlooked "starlets" (does anyone still use that term?) to do a bona fide red carpet. They're also more democratic, with categories that reach out to TV and any other sector of the entertainment industry willing to help pay the expenses of this bogus group.

The Big Kahuna, of course, is the Academy Awards; or, as the acerbic theater critic Addison deWitt referred to them in "All About Eve," "those awards presented annually by that film society." They take place on February 24, but the nominations were announced today.

For those on the other side of the lens, winning an Oscar represents not only peer recognition, but also a big leg up in contract negotiations or greenlighting the next project. Some of the categories are narrow enough to allow for multiple wins, such as costume designer Edith Head, who won eight of the statues. For actors, the award gives them a place at the coveted A Listers’ table, otherwise known as the front banquette at the Ivy.

What makes the acting Oscars especially interesting is not only the star wattage, but also what has come to be known as the Oscar Curse; that is, that after achieving the pinnacle of recognition, there’s nowhere for one’s career to go but down. Examples of this are too numerous to mention (John Voigt, Roberto Benigni and Louise Fletcher for starters). The most famous example is Luise Rainer, whose first-ever back-to-back best acting Oscars in the 1930s sent her into a career death spiral.

That said, the Academy Awards presentation, or as it’s more commonly called, the gay Super Bowl, is watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world. Everyone speculates on who will be nominated, who will win and why, including, inevitably, the British bookmakers.

The 2013 nominations came this Thursday in a snarky, loose presentation hosted by Seth MacFarlane (this year’s designated host) and actress Emma Stone. The closing date for the nominations was last Friday (much earlier than usual). This didn’t give the voters much time to sift through the mountain of screeners coming by courier.

I spent New Year’s Eve a year ago at a voter’s apartment, where I watched "The Iron Lady," which had just been released in theaters. On top of the TV was a raft of unopened screeners. Given that many members barely have time to read their own kids’ report cards, this means that more voters than ever will be voting based on how they figure everyone else is voting, rather than on the merits.

Here are my thoughts on who will take home the gold phallus.

Best Picture

Nominations: "Amour," "Argo," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Django Unchained," "Les Miserables," "Life of Pi," "’Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Zero Dark Thirty."

This year is remarkable in that there is no clear no front-runner, no big, expensive, money-making epic like "Titanic," "Gone With the Wind," "Ben Hur" or "Lawrence of Arabia." Instead, the category is crowded with some very good films.

In this very competitive year, the nominations (determined by an arcane accounting process) numbered nine. The number can be as few as five and as much as ten. That there were nine shows a very competitive race.

When "Argo" was released, I thought it had a lock. It’s a true story inventively retold, and it makes Hollywood insiders look like the good guys for a change.

Then "Lincoln" came along. This is the quintessential Best Film winner (and it leads with the number of nominations with 12). Spielberg’s biopic is big; its creative team screams Quality and Sincerity; it’s about a war; and it deals with a topic that screams "I care," the abolition of America’s slaves. Other than war epics, the only other surefire genre is big, expensive musicals based on successful stage versions, and few have come to the screen with the pedigree of "Les Mis."

Before it was released, "Les Mis" looked like a sure bet. But critical reception has been so-so, with some reviewers downright vituperative; and a general agreement seems to be settling in that, although this is far from a disaster on the scale of "Lost Horizon" or "Hello Dolly", it’s not a "Gigi" or "The Sound of Music," or even an "Oliver!" - which I hated, but at least it gave (with the Artful Dodger) young Daniel Huttlestone a template for playing the street urchin Gavorche.

Then "Zero Dark Thirty" came along. Critically, this late entry blew every other film out of the water. Yes, critics are nearly unanimous in their hosannas. But let’s face it: A movie that opens with U.S. operatives torturing their way to the knowledge that leads to the murder of the man responsible for 9/11 and his family members is a real bummer.

While it’s true that the voters like quality despite downbeat subject matter ("The French Connection," "Schindler’s List," "The Departed," "No Country for Old Men"), director Katherine Bigelow already won a Best Picture Oscar for her other depressing film about America’s Mideast quagmire, "The Hurt Locker."

That leaves "Silver Linings Playbook," the kind of film that resonates with Oscar voters. It’s quirky, intelligent yet entertaining, and it’s from the Weinsteins, who are the best (or at least most aggressive) Oscar marketers in town. Hollywood liked its mix of contemporary angst and screwball comedy: it gave it nominations in every major category, a rarity. OK, so a few sourpusses (like me!) find this kind of self-consciously offbeatness to be tame. I blame Sundance, where self-satisfied hipsters love to believe that small is beautiful.

As for "Django Unchained": Please. It’s true the Academy gave the award in 1969 to "Midnight Cowboy," about a male prostitute and a mentally troubled homeless man on the mean streets of Times Square. This was the first (and only) time an X-rated film won. (While rated R, "Django Unchained" is about as close to a "X"-rated major movie as Hollywood has seen in quite some time.) Hollywood likes its slavery pictures either epic, pretty and cleaned up ("Gone With the Wind"); or epic, stately and politically correct ("Lincoln").

My prediction: "Lincoln"

Best Director

Nominees: Michael Haneke, "Amour"; Benh Zeitlin, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; Ang Lee, "Life of Pi"; Steven Spielberg, "Lincoln"; David O. Russell, "Silver Linings Playbook."

This award has traditionally been linked to Best Picture. Makes sense: Nobody’s more responsible for a film’s outcome than the director. But more recently, it’s been a consolation prize for not winning Best Picture, the Academy’s equivalent of Miss Congeniality.

The most notorious example of this has to be "Brokeback Mountain," which scandalously lost out to the execrable "Crash," while Ang Lee (the director of "Brokeback") won for direction. Academy voters often vote this award as more as a Lifetime Achievement Award for the director than their films. I’d say every winner from 2000 through 2007 falls into this category (Steven Soderbergh, Ron Howard, Roman Polanski, Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Ang Lee, Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers).

Since the nominees, however, are usually paired with Best Picture, it was unusual to see some major omissions. Three in particular: Ben Affleck ("Argo"), Katherine Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty") and Tom Hooper "Les Miserables") were passed over, despite their films being nominated. Of those nominated, two are previous winners - Steven Spielberg ("Lincoln") and Lee ("Brokeback Mountain"). David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook") was nominated once before ("The Fighter"), while other the other two are first-time nominees: Michael Haneke ("Amour") and Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts of the Southern Wild").

It’s true that John Ford and Joe Mankiewicz won back-to-back directing Oscars. But they were John Ford and Joe Mankiewicz. More significantly, Charley Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles never won an Oscar.

David Owen Russell is a possible dark horse, for "Silver Linings Playbook." But his oeuvre ("Spank the Monkey," "Three Kings," "The Fighter") is hardly mainstream film fare. And the scrappy New York-based director is anything but a Hollywood glad-hander.

Since the 1980s, Academy voters have smiled on actors who have taken up directing to good effect; e.g., Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson. Few actors in recent years have played the Hollywood game better than the boys from Cambridge, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. They burst on the scene by writing "Good Will Hunting," a film in which they co-starred that happened to win them a joint writing Oscar (for Original Screenplay).

They’ve both gone on to stellar careers that balance big-budget studio blockbusters with excellent indies. No other snub in the nominations has received so much attention already as Affleck for Best Director. Oh well. He’s already directed two other acclaimed indie films ("Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town"), overcome the perception from his JLo "Gigli" years that he’s a flakey lightweight, a pretty-boy one-hit wonder, and showed that a smart espionage movie can make money. Next year, Ben!

The dark horse all along was Quentin Tarantino, for "Django Unchained." Tarantino’s in-your-face, four-letter-word style only alienates the senior citizens who still dominate voting. And that’s just his off-screen persona! For the film establishment, Tarantino is the fart that involuntarily escapes during a dinner party: You may have to smell it, but you don’t have to acknowledge it. I guess he’ll just have to be content with making boatloads of money and pissing off Spike Lee.

That leaves Michael Haneke. The nominations show that this is the dark horse to watch out for come Awards night. Since a 9-year-old actress winning is nigh-impossible, and Best Picture is equally foggy, the voters will anoint Haneke and propel to the A List -- of small-budget art house sleepers, anyway.

My prediction: Michael Haneke

Best Actor

Nominees: Bradley Cooper, "Silver Linings Playbook"; Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"; Hugh Jackman, "Les Miserables"; Joaquin Phoenix, "The Master"; Denzel Washington, "Flight."

I can at least confidently predict who won’t win. Daniel Day-Lewis has already won taken two of these, and if Meryl Streep had to wait three decades between just two awards, the Academy voters will be damned if an actor who has only done six movies since 1997 will be thrust into the stratospheric atmosphere of Kate Hepburn, Jack Nicholson and Walter Brennan.

So who does that leave? This is probably the most wide open of the major categories. I’m pretty confident Bradley Cooper will at least get a nomination. Hollywood loves it when an actor goes from second-rate money makers (come on: "The Hangover Part II"?) to classy material, especially if he has to overcome the burden of matinee-idol good looks. Maybe it’s a case of "Hey, if he can climb out of the muck, so can I!"

That said, it’s probably not his time yet. But it is for Hugh Jackman. One of the most popular stars in Hollywood, this guy can jump from Broadway musical to action-adventure blockbuster to Broadway one-man show. If he’s ever going to win an Oscar, "Les Mis" fits the bill perfectly.

It’s a grueling role in a looong movie, in which he sings live, beautifully, in a range from below Middle C ("Prologue") to way above Middle C ("Bring Him Home"). He somehow manages to look distressingly gaunt in the early scenes, robust in the middle and deathly toward the end. He’s also hugely popular in the film community; he’s known as a truly nice guy; he’s an idol to The Gays; and he’s a solid family man.

That he’s New York-based won’t hurt him with Angelenos, who associate Gotham actors with "class." The only thing standing in his way is his sheer, utter gorgeousness (People named "Sexiest Man Alive," and for once, they were right). But he’s more than paid his dues, including the most unloved task in Hollywood, hosting the Academy Awards.

Overlooked is a personal choice: Robert Pattinson. No, not for the "Twilight" series, but for "Cosmopolis." Dismissed as glorified mannequin, Pattinson took on a no-budget film adaptation of an impossible-to-adapt book from an impenetrable author adapted by an avant-garde director. As a Wall Street Master of the Universe who never leaves his chauffeured limousine, Pattinson carries the movie the way Michael Jordan carried the Chicago Bulls.

Still, it’s not surprising the voters overlooked Pattinson. He’ll just have to keep taking chances while he rakes it in with mega-grossers. (See DiCaprio, below.)

My prediction: Hugh Jackman

Best Actress

Nominees: Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"; Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"; Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"; Quvenzhane Wallis, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; Naomi Watts, "The Impossible."

It’s a dreary truism that Hollywood is unkind to actresses. Quick, name the female leads in "Les Mis," "Django Unchained," "The Hobbit" or "Argo." I can’t either.

That said, there were a handful of notable films with a woman heading the cast. In "Zero Dark Thirty," Jessica Chastain gets to play a true-life action figure patriot heroine, who has to face down not only implacable terrorists but, worse, her macho superiors in Washington.

As the hardest working film actress last year, with starring roles in seven movies and a nomination for one of them ("The Help"), Chastain has already skyrocketed to A List status. (Interestingly, the role was originally offered to another breakout star, Rooney Mara.)

This is Jennifer Lawrence’s second Best Actress nomination. Certainly, the very different characters she played in the mountain meth allegory "Winter’s Bone" and the slutty urban basket case in "Silver Linings Playbook" show her range. But, as good as she is in the latter, she was overshadowed by Cooper, who was not only in every scene, but nearly every frame.

There was some talk of their being a European invasion in this category with talk of British actresses Maggie Smith ("Quartet"), Keira Knightley ("Anna Karenina"), Rachel Weitz ("The Deep Blue Sea"), Helen Mirren ("Hitchcock") and French actresses Marion Cotillard ("Rust and Bone") and Emmanuelle Riva ("Amour") getting nods. Only one of them did, despite Weisz winning the coveted New York Film Critics Circle award and both Mirren and Cotillard getting noms for British Academy Awards (released yesterday).

In 1961, when Sophia Loren won a Best Actress Oscar for "Two Women," it was a sign that Hollywood had outgrown its parochial boundaries and recognized the validity of non English-speaking film communities. In more recent years, it’s become almost de rigeur to give one of the acting awards to a foreign-language (or at least heavily accented) actor. Last year French actor Jean Dujardin won Best Actor, while Cotillard won in 2007 for playing Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose."

This leaves Emmanuelle Riva, the star of "Amour" as the only actress from this group to be nominated. The film won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, which the film world probably values higher than an Oscar, albeit privately. Austria’s entry for Best Foreign Language film is in French, a remarkable display of the cross-border cooperation that may be the only way European films can compete with the American juggernaut.

The film is a chamber piece about how an elderly couple deals with end-of-life decisions. Aside from the obvious subject appeal to the Academy’s demographic base, this is a hard look at one of the hottest buttons of hot-button subjects. Think "On Golden Pond," devoid of cheap sentiment and cardboard characters.

This is just the kind of oddball (except by me!) award that the Academy loves to bestow from time to time; e.g., Roberto Begnini, Adrien Brody, Cotillard, Charlize Theron, Benicio del Toro. And since Riva starred in one of the landmark films of the French New Wave, "Hiroshima Mon Amour," she’s perhaps the last working link to an era when films were the subject of serious scholarly debate and not just a vehicle to sell heinously overpriced vats of popcorn.

My prediction: Emmanuelle Riva

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees: Alan Arkin, "Argo"; Robert De Niro, "Silver Linings Playbook"; Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Master"; Tommy Lee Jones, "Lincoln"; Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained."

This is the major category where the Academy can assuage its having otherwise snubbed "Django Unchained." It’s also a chance to acknowledge one of the most popular and hardest-working actors out there, one whose leveraged his stardom toward some very fine independent projects.

As a slave owner who makes Simon Legree look like St. Francis of Assisi, Leonardo DiCaprio chews up the scenery with as much chilling effect as his costar, Christoph Waltz, did as a particularly nasty Nazi in Tarantino’s "Inglourious Basterds," for which he won the Best Supporting Actor, That DiCaprio has been nominated three times already; that he’s starred in some of the biggest films of recent years ("Titanic," "Inception"); that he’s versatile (from a closeted, jowly J. Edgar Hoover to a drug-addicted high school athlete in "The Basketball Diaries); that he’s one of the very few above-the-marquee names who can guarantee a good opening - all would have made him a lock in my book. The Academy voters obviously felt otherwise. It’s not that Waltz isn’t a great actor. But he’s in danger of become this generation’s Walter Brennan -- the over-awarded supporting actor.

The only person I can think of who can possibly compete is Philip Seymour Hoffman, for "The Master," Wes Anderson’s latest masterwork. Yes, he won for "Capote"; but Toby Jones’ much better, belated performance as the troubled writer in "Infamous" gave the Academy buyer’s remorse.

The one I can say with certainty I did not want to be nominated is Alan Arkin. This once-great actor has, in my opinion, descended into self-parody. I figured his supporting Oscar for "Little Mary Sunshine" was another of those Lifetime Achievement awards they give to ancient actors on the assumption that this may be the last chance. Can I really be the only person who found his "Argo" Beverly Hills businessman who seems to have just stepped out of the old Lower East Side downright offensive?

Although he won’t win, the actor I would like to have seen nominated, for "Argo" or "Flight," is John Goodman. Goodman will probably never carry a movie. He’s reliable, and whenever he’s on screen, he brings his own personality to the role. He’s the quintessential supporting actor, the contemporary equivalent of great character actors like Thelma Ritter or (more appropriately, girth-wise) Sidney Greenstreet. Unfortunately, he also makes it look so easy that it’s easy to overlook his very substantial talent.

That leaves Tommy Lee Jones. This journeyman veteran actor has received four acting nominations and won one. But it was for 1993’s "The Fugitive," and although a huge moneymaker and something of a critical success, it was still an action movie based on a TV show.
With "Lincoln," Jones not only gets to play a prominent part in the prestige picture of the year, he also walks away with his scenes as a gruff, no-bullshit radical abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Since "Lincoln" looks set to be the night’s biggest winner, one acting award would almost appear de rigueur.
Jones has a reputation as a political maverick. He gave the nominating speech for Al Gore at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. Then, in 2008, the Texas-based actor signed a deal with a major energy company to promote fracking, which is about as popular in Hollywood as a box of sugared donuts.
I doubt if this politically incorrect stance will hurt him with voters, however. As they have shown several times -- most notably with Clint Eastwood (but also Mel Gibson, Roman Polanski Vanessa Redgrave) - voters not only will overlook an actor who goes against the status quo in a solid blue industry. In a perverse way it may work as a plus, to disprove notions that ideology affects status.
My prediction: Tommy Lee Jones

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees: Amy Adams, "The Master"; Sally Field, "Lincoln"; Anne Hathaway, "Les Miserables"; Helen Hunt, "The Sessions"; Jacki Weaver, "Silver Linings Playbook."

It’s interesting that of all the major categories, this award has had the most locks in recent years, most notably Mo’Nique ("Precious") and Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls").

Like JHud, Anne Hathaway was given her diva moment in "Les Mis" with the showstopper, "I Dreamed a Dream," and like "And I’m Telling You...." JHud’s award-stealing turn from "Dreamgirls," movie audiences are cheering after the last note.

Academy voters have been known for quirky choices (most notably, Beatrice Straight, who had less than six minutes of screen time in "Network"). And this is the only nomination for "The Master," which many considered the best film of the year. Amy Adams is a great actress, and this is her fourth award.

Forget Jackie Weaver and Helen Hunt. As good as both of them were (and the Academy gets major totes for recognizing "The Sessions," a truly quirky film), they’re mere placeholders this year. Because this is Hathaway’s moment. She’s paid her dues; she’s way past proving she’s just another underfed clothes horse; and she can sing as well as act.

She’s also one of the most genuinely sincere young actors in Hollywood who can manage to balance the ridiculousness of Ryan Seacrest asking "Who designed that?" with more than face time to important charities, including the Human Rights Campaign. In fact, she’s the most dedicated activist to LGBT causes in Hollywood - and that includes out-gay actors. If she doesn’t win, I’ll not only be surprised, I’ll be sad.

My prediction: Anne Hathaway

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).