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).
Make no mistake: Awards season is a cutthroat time, when even the most normally civilized and magnanimous of Hollywood's citizens transform into rapacious hyenas fighting for the best position from which to gnaw on Oscar's gilded carcass. Do you remember how charming those adorable French people from the silent movie seemed at the Golden Globes, even inviting their canine costar onstage to share in the glory reflected from a second-tier statuette?
Oscar predictors like to complain that the ludicrous number of movie awards handed out in December and January make the Academy Awards themselves too predictable, but let’s give credit where it’s due: This year, critics helped to create a remarkably diverse field of candidates—eleven different actors have won prizes so far. So there’s really no excuse for Oscar voters to resort to autopilot nominations. But when have Oscar voters ever needed an excuse?
Just before today’s 5:30 a.m. press event announcing the Golden Globe nominations, a Hollywood Foreign Press Association arranger wearily droned into the microphone, “We’re three minutes away. Can we get talent back in the room, please?” Dude, it’s the Globes: Talent was never in the room. And talent, taste, even the movies themselves seemed to have little to do with the relentless blare of nomination announcements — the Broadcast Film Critics Association Critic’s Choice nominations on Tuesday, the Screen Actors Guild nominations on Wednesday, the Globes this morning — that made every day feel like Christmas. That is, if what was under the tree included several empty boxes and a couple of immaculately wrapped turds.
There are many ways of looking at a Best Actor Oscar race. You can ask yourself who gave the year’s strongest performances. You can think about who’s overdue, who’s surprising, who works the circuit effectively, who exceeds expectations, who elevates his movie the most by his presence in it. But ultimately, the question that decides the nominations is always this one: Who do actors want to vote for?
This year, that may be tough to answer, since Best Actor is shaping up to be an extremely unusual race. In Column A, we have three Goliaths: George Clooney for The Descendants, Leonardo DiCaprio for J. Edgar, and Brad Pitt for Moneyball. And in Column B, we have a whole bunch of Davids. The problem for the Davids is that they’re not Goliaths. The problem for the Goliaths is that voting for Davids is usually a lot more fun.