Last weekend, moviegoers finally got to see this Oscar season's first Best Picture nominee, and it's a gratifyingly weird one: Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's technologically wondrous, narratively just-good-enough-but-holy-crap-look-at-it trip into the terrifyingly vast reaches of outer space and the terrifyingly finite oxygen-starved interior of Sandra Bullock's helmet. When I write "first Best Picture nominee," I am not discounting The Butler, Fruitvale Station, Blue Jasmine, or Before Midnight. Those are hopefuls; one or more of them could elbow into the race depending on how all the putative sure things that haven't opened yet pan out. Gravity is not a "hopeful": It's in, because while huge grosses, rapturous reviews, two well-liked movie stars, a respected director from another country, nerdgasms all over Twitter,1 and bar-raising visuals are not, in themselves, guaranteed roads to an Oscar nomination, the combination of them certainly is.
If only the rest of the season could be as full of surprises as this unlikely choice, launched almost exactly a year after 2012's Best Picture winner, Argo, would suggest. Much is already being made of the difficulty of a sci-fi film (although Gravity is really more sci-fi-adjacent) overcoming what's presumed to be old-guard Academy snobbery when it comes to Best Picture nominations. 2001: A Space Odyssey did not get nominated in 1968, a year when it deserved to win over any of the five actual nominees;2 Close Encounters of the Third Kind was omitted (albeit in favor of Star Wars) in 1977, and Aliens missed the cut in 1986.
But times, tastes, and flavors of snobbery have changed. These days, in terms of Academy haughtiness, comedy is the new sci-fi, and so Gravity has no major hurdles to clear in terms of genre with a membership that has recently given Best Picture nominations to Avatar, Inception, and District 9. Besides, voters like, when possible, to nominate a blockbuster as a reminder that popular, critical, and industry taste can intersect elegantly at least once a year. There hasn't been one of those movies in 2013 until Gravity, and it's no knock on the rest of the potential field to suggest there's unlikely to be another.
But in other ways, Gravity is a break from some deeply entrenched Academy traditions. Its running time of 85 minutes, not including closing credits, would make it the shortest movie nominated for the top prize in 61 years — since High Noon. (Last year's nine nominees averaged 135 minutes.) And there's this: The actors branch of the Academy is large, and the cast of Gravity is small. How small? Well, no live-action film with this tiny a roster of onscreen performances (total: two) has ever received a Best Picture nomination.
It won't matter. Gravity, like all effective Best Picture candidates, will get its nomination by pulling together diverse Academy factions. Like all real contenders, it's a fusion candidate, the ideal nominee for what might now be called the Life of Pi coalition. It will attract L.A. types who like their spectacle flavored with a kind of benevolent nondenominational mysticism; craft-category voters who will likely power the film to nominations for sound mixing, sound editing, visual effects, editing, and cinematography; meat-and-potatoes folks who believe that the Academy should reward massive mainstream entertainment and not just whatever grim little tumbleweed happened to roll out of Sundance; techno-progressives who want to support a movie that does something new (or at least new enough); and directors who will respect the integrity and persistence of Cuarón's vision. A nominee for writing Y Tu Mamá También and for writing and editing Children of Men, he should finally find himself in the Best Director race for this one. (Although the directors branch is funny. You never know. Ask Ben Affleck. Go ahead, ask him. He'll be all cool and philosophical and self-deprecating about it, but you know at home Jennifer Garner is still saying stuff like, "When are you going to call the plasterer about that hole you kicked in the wall?")
And Gravity will pull in actors, too, because it doesn't matter how wee your cast is as long as it includes George Clooney — who boasts two wins and eight nominations in six categories in eight years and is so much at the center of current Oscar consciousness that he is basically just a coat of gold plate away from becoming a statuette — and Sandra Bullock. When Bullock won the Best Actress Oscar four years ago for The Blind Side (her first nomination), she started her acceptance speech by asking the audience, "Did I really earn this, or did I just wear y'all down?" What was touching about that moment was that it wasn't a needy love-me applause grab; it sounded like the question had actually tugged at her. Unless she is photographed making out with Ted Cruz, she will likely coast to a second nomination for her showcasey, largely solo starring role in Gravity. It's a part she has the good taste and shrewd instinct to underplay even when all she gets to use is her face; whatever is going on in the mind of the stranded astronaut she portrays, it doesn't appear to be "This is a tour de force for me! What shall I wear on the red carpet?"
Bullock is certain to be joined in the Best Actress competition, and deservedly so, by Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine; according to the wisdom of the Oscar prognosticators whose collective instincts are being collated on the website GoldDerby, the field is likely to be filled out with two performances in yet-to-open movies that much of the press has already seen — Meryl Streep in August: Osage County and Judi Dench in Philomena — and one that nobody has seen, Emma Thompson, who plays Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks. If these predictions prove out, this will be the first Best Actress contest in Academy history in which all five nominees already have Academy Awards. In fact, collectively, these five women have eight Oscars and 32 nominations.3
This is certainly, as the above stat indicates, a talent-rich lineup. But, the individual merits of each performance notwithstanding, it's also pretty terrible news. A tournament of champions is also a field of the usual suspects, and one persistent pleasure of the Oscar race has always been its inclusion of some unusual suspects. An acting contest in which everyone already has an Oscar was unprecedented until last year, when it happened in the Best Supporting Actor category; now, suddenly, it threatens to become an unwelcome trend. I don't know what's most dispiriting, the strong suggestion the Best Actress field lacks a deep bench, the comparative paucity of opportunities for actresses that a non-deep bench implies, or the assumption that Academy voters are disinclined to look beyond people they already know can give a nice speech.
In a truly exciting field of actors, merit trumps pedigree. The Best Actor competition this year, for example, is likely to include some combination of first-timers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael B. Jordan, Matthew McConaughey), past winners (Tom Hanks, Forest Whitaker), and septuagenarian vets who haven't been nominated in decades (Robert Redford, Bruce Dern). You may not like the look of the final five, whatever it ends up being, but at least it has the feeling of an actual contest in which nobody gets a first-round bye. By contrast, Best Actress is beginning to look like a women's tennis draw from the '70s in which everything proceeds with mathematical predictability according to advance seeding.
In part that's because Blanchett, Bullock, Dench, Streep, and Thompson will all be the beneficiaries of well-financed campaigns by companies that know how to play this game. In part it's because Hollywood remains staggeringly uninterested in putting women who are not Melissa McCarthy or Angelina Jolie at the center of films. Even Bullock recently said she came to Gravity having "always longed to do emotionally and physically what my male counterparts always do in movies." Aside from that, she got the part after Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Blake Lively, and Marion Cotillard were all either considered or rumored for the role; at 49, her triumph over Hollywood ageism may be even more impressive than the shattering of gender norms. So all credit where it's due, but still, in a healthier and fairer creative environment, I would now be sharing with you the names of five or six well-known actresses who gave excellent leading performances in major Hollywood movies this year but are unlikely to make the cut; those performances don't exist, because those movies don't exist.
Academy voters can enliven the Best Actress race this year, but it will take more effort and attention, and more of a push from the press, than the campaign-driven aura of inevitability around this category may permit. Are voters going to be willing to look at Adèle Exarchopoulos in the three-hour sexually explicit French film Blue Is the Warmest Color, or at Bérénice Bejo, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes in May for A Separation director Asghar Farhadi's The Past? Will anti-television (and anti-comedy) arrogance keep them from appreciating what Julia Louis-Dreyfus does in Enough Said? And is there any way to get the word out about Short Term 12, in which the 24-year-old American actress Brie Larson gives the kind of performance that should turn her into a star? Larson's movie, a sensitively made, splendidly acted drama about a teen foster care facility that opened in late August and has determinedly trudged its way to a gross of just less than $1 million, is being released by a small company called Cinedigm, which notes on its website that it focuses on "narrowcasting" in response to the "massive marketing … waste" of the "broken 'traditional' studio model." That sounds good, but massive marketing is, when it comes to the Oscars, what's likely to plow right over any candidate without massive marketing. Which would be a shame. The Best Actress field will look a lot more impressive if, after all the months of for-your-consideration ads that are about to arrive, we can believe that their performances were, at the very least, seriously considered. Exarchopoulos, Bejo, Louis-Dreyfus, and Larson may not be nominated, but, to paraphrase Hannibal Lecter, the world — and the world of the Oscars — is a more interesting place with them in it.