If I were feeling less generous and more cynical on this holiest of all Oscar-calendar mornings, I might say that to decipher this year’s Academy Awards contest, we need only look for inspiration to the GOP presidential race. The Artist is Mitt Romney — desperate to please, doesn’t stand for anything in particular, not especially popular with the general public, will eventually keep most of its money offshore, and, though dinged up and trash-talked, will probably cross the finish line first by default. The Descendants is Newt Gingrich (emotionally unsteady, hard on wives, doing better than expected, but probably can’t go all the way). Hugo is Rick Santorum (a little slow, doesn’t really like anything that changed in the culture in the last 80 years). And The Tree of Life is Jon Huntsman (believes in evolution, probably a little too classy for this field).
But let’s not ugly things up! It’s a day for celebration — or, depending on who you are, for nursing a bottomless sense of injustice and injury. On Friday I wrote that I was hoping to be able to begin this column with the words “Who would have guessed ...?” Well, I got my wish. This morning’s nominations were a jolting combo of “Yes!,” “Huh,” and “What the hell ...?” So let’s break them down that way:
- Looks like you’ll all have to listen to me go on about how great The Tree of Life is for another month; despite a complete lack of support from the guilds, Terrence Malick’s movie managed to pick up — as I predicted — nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, as well as, more expectedly, for Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. As I’ve been saying all along, passion counts. And any nominee that puts a dent in the whole mathematical “no film ignored by the following six guilds has ever been nominated” thinking is even more reason to celebrate.
- Moneyball lives! All but counted out of the Best Picture race by most folks — I had it ninth, but with no expectation that there would actually be nine nominees — Bennett Miller’s movie scored a surprisingly robust six nominations, tying with War Horse (another movie that was clearly counted out too soon) as the third most nominated movie of the year (Hugo led with 11, The Artist followed with 10).
- A round of applause, please, for comic actors: Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, and Melissa McCarthy are now first-time Oscar nominees — along with Gary Oldman (after 25 years in movies), Jessica Chastain (after 25 movies in a year), and Rooney Mara (after 25 piercings).
- The average age of the five nominees for Best Director — Michel Hazanavicius, Alexander Payne, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Terrence Malick — is 61, an all-time high. That’s one record the Academy probably didn’t want to set, and indicates that despite the surprisingly diverse slate of Best Picture nominees, this may go down in the books as a year in which voters turned to the past, both in terms of movies and the people who made them.
- Anyone who thought The Help might turn into the film that could stop The Artist can put that notion away; the movie managed just four nominations, three of them in the actors’ branch.
- A vigorous, months-long campaign was not enough to get voters to nominate Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar for a single thing, confirming my suspicion that with Brad Pitt and George Clooney in the Best Actor race, Leonardo DiCaprio was one A-lister too many this year.
What the Hell?!
- The two biggest omissions from the acting categories today were Drive’s Albert Brooks (foreseen by nobody) and Shame’s Michael Fassbender (foreseen by nobody but yours truly, and I’m kind of shocked that I was right). Oscarologists will be talking about these for quite a while, and the easy go-to conclusion is that the movies were too raw and nasty for the actors’ branch. For Fassbender, there’s some evidence that Oscar voters like it when women put their bodies on the line but not men (Movie City News’ David Poland joked months ago that penis envy might doom him); for Brooks ... beats me. Maybe the campaign was too vigorous. Maybe the movie was too dark. Or maybe we all should have listened to the Screen Actors Guild, which anticipated both of these slights.
- The omission of The Adventures of Tintin from Best Animated Feature is also a stunner and one that does not reflect well on a group of voters who are coming to rival musicians as the most reactionary branch of the Academy. Really, you hate motion-capture that much? This one feels like a snub. (Silver lining: Two barely seen and deserving contenders, A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita, will now get more exposure. Still, Rango now owns this category.)
- There’s not a person in the biz — including, I suspect, its own filmmakers — who saw the Best Picture nomination for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close coming. Academy support for the film may not have been deep — the only other nomination it picked up was for Max von Sydow — but, like The Tree of Life, this was apparently a passion pick for enough voters to make an impact. And, although Stephen Daldry didn’t score a directing nomination, having three of his first four features nominated for Best Picture (The Hours, The Reader, and now this one) and going three-for-four in Best Director (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader) is a pretty amazing achievement.
Records and Stats
Let’s tip our hat to a few of them: Meryl Streep picked up her 17th nomination today, a record for any performer. John Williams is up for Best Original Score for both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse — those nominations, his 46th and 47th, extend his run as the most-nominated living person in any category. With nominations for both acting (The Descendants) and screenwriting (a surprise nod for The Ides of March), George Clooney has been nominated for seven Oscars in seven years. With his 22nd and 23rd nominations (for writing and directing Midnight in Paris, his first Best Picture nominee in 25 years), Woody Allen breaks out of a tie with Billy Wilder as Oscar’s most nominated writer-director. (Besides Williams, Allen, and Clooney, other double honorees today include Michel Hazanavicius, for writing and directing, Martin Scorsese, for directing and producing, and Brad Pitt, for acting and producing.) Alexander Payne was a triple honoree today, for writing, directing, and producing. Best Supporting Actor nominee Kenneth Branagh now has five nominations in five different categories (he's previously been up for Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Live-Action Short). Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, recognized for Bridesmaids, become the first female team in the Best Original Screenplay category since Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen wrote Silkwood 28 years ago. And the nominations for the silent (give or take a word) work of von Sydow and The Artist’s Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo mark the first time that three silent performances have been recognized since either the first or second Oscars.
And Finally, a Report Card
So how’d I do with all those predictions last week? I got a very respectable 37 out of 44 right. Yeah, I said there’d be only six or seven Best Picture nominees, but my top eight guesses were all nominated. I had The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which picked up five nominations) for the ninth slot, which went to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I went 4-for-5 in each of the acting categories, picking Albert Brooks (OK, come on, no nomination is insane!), The Descendants’s Shailene Woodley, DiCaprio, and We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Tilda Swinton, and guessing incorrectly that von Sydow, Oldman, and the Albert Nobbs duo of Glenn Close and Janet McTeer would just miss. I went 5-for-5 on Best Director, and on the screenplays, I thought The Help and Win Win would grab the slots that went to The Ides of March and A Separation.
My best calls: Predicting the omission of Michael Fassbender and the inclusion of Demián Bichir, guessing that the very deserving Margin Call would grab a screenwriting nomination, and sticking with The Tree of Life. My worst call: Saying Albert Brooks was a lock. But at least I’m not his publicist.
In the coming days and weeks I’ll go deeper on these very interesting races and on how (if at all) the nominations have shaken up the contest. But for now, congratulations to all the nominees, and condolences to Brooks, Kirsten Dunst, Michael Shannon, the entire team behind Margaret (we tried), Patton Oswalt, Tilda Swinton, and Michael Fassbender, who all surely know that, after all, this is only a game.