There is something remarkably innocent and pure about the Academy Awards which draws people back in front of their TV screens year after year — in spite of the inevitable bloated telecast, bad jokes and ridiculous production numbers. At its core, however convoluted the whole procedure might be, the Oscars is about rewarding excellence, and more specifically being rewarded for excellence by a jury of your peers.
While not an official part of the Church’s liturgical calendar, awards season (along with its athletic counterpart the Super Bowl) provides remarkable comfort in the ever-so-ordinary time of Ordinary Time — post-Christmas and pre-Lent. It’s culmination, the Academy Awards, is the one time of year when cinema becomes sport and passions abound as to who and what is most worthy of Western culture’s most high-profile (if not most prestigious) prize.
An Oscar is not necessarily the most accurate barometer of cinematic greatness (see previous Best Picture winners Shakespeare In Love and The Greatest Show on Earth for evidence), and it can seem as though political machinations and publicity campaigns play just as important a role in deciding who goes home with the golden statue as does quality. And of course the financial and professional benefits that come with taking home Oscar are ample, and a jaded soul might argue that the bottom line is the bottom line.
Still, in this young art form, the Oscars represents history and tradition.
Below is a brief rundown of the major categories and players at this years Academy Awards and the candidates most likely to walk away with their own little slice of immortality.
A month ago, The Social Network seemed like as sure a thing as you can get, but the winds of awards season can be fickle, especially when a film is released as early as Network was (October 1) and it’s up against one like The King’s Speech, which has so many qualities that Oscar seems to love; that is, it’s British, historical, and has an esteemed cast — which includes multiple nominee and odds-on Best Actor favorite Colin Firth, and previous Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush. In that case, you’ve got yourself a dogfight.
Speech has garnered plenty of momentum heading into Oscar night, sweeping the BAFTAs (the British Oscars) as well as the Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild and Producers Guild awards. It is a masterwork in its own right, a beautiful telling of a remarkably unremarkable story that is truly a celebration of deft craftsmanshfip on every level, from the performances of Firth, Rush and Helena Bonham Carter to the visually delicate cinematography of Danny Cohen.
Network is just as startling a work as Speech but for entirely different reasons. All broad strokes and large themes, Network in many ways tells the story of Speech in reverse; it’s the Citizen Kane for the millennial generation. The story of a misguided quest to be in relationship through the acquisition of power and prestige packs a knock-out punch that has made it a critical darling, but I suspect that the historically conservative Oscar voters will wind up going with momentum and the more traditional Speech at the end of the night.
Do not be surprised if whichever of these two films does not take home the Best Picture prize picks up the Best Director award as a consolation. Both films are that good and of such disparate styles and appeals that either victory will seem correct and paradoxically either defeat an injustice.
This seems to be as clear-cut as any category. Firth gives a career performance in a career full of such performances. Jesse Eisenberg, with his essaying of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, moved out of the realm of awkward teen actor and into the world of promising young adult actor with aplomb, but while his performance steers the ship of Network, it is fundamentally not an actor’s movie, particularly in the way that The King’s Speech is. So, while Eisenberg got the job done well, it is not the kind of performance from which Oscars are made.
Back-to-back wins are the exception and not the rule when it comes to Oscar and when they do occur they are usually helped along by a sweep of a particular film in all categories (see Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump), so unless True Grit pulls off the upset of the century, the possibility of Jeff Bridges repeating are nil. Javier Bardem is also a previous winner, which along with the fact that his film is a foreign language film and little seen by American audiences does not bode well for his chances. James Franco’s nomination for his harrowing performance in 127 Hours is his award.
There seemed to be a duel heating up between Annette Bening (The Kids are Alright) and Natalie Portman (Black Swan) early on, but Portman seems to have pulled away of late, taking the BAFTA and SAG awards to go along with her Golden Globe.
The Portman-Bening rivalry brings up an area of tension that has always existed with regards to the acting Oscars. There have been occasions when the Academy has rewarded a career over a performance. Bening, a multiple Oscar nominee with a stellar body of work behind her, is a far superior actress to Portman, however, her performance in Kids was just alright, as they say, while Portman’s turn in Swan was the performance of a lifetime. Portman is not an actress of particular range and has spent the better part of her career confusing sullen low energy for depth in her performances; however Swan is the quintessential example of actor and role fusing to astounding effect. Bening may have the better career, but come Oscar night, Portman will have the statue.
Christian Bale and Melissa Leo both have the momentum coming in to the night; however, Oscar likes an upset and those upsets usually occur in the land of the supporting role (think Juliette Binoche over Lauren Bacall.) If there is an upset expect it to occur in one of these two categories. If The King’s Speech sweeps, look for Rush and especially Bonham Carter to upset, otherwise look for True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld to surprise — as a child actress she has both precedent (Tatum O’Neal and Anna Pacquin) and performance (really should be in the lead actress category) on her side. Expect the more high profile Bale to take home an award before the lesser-known Leo does.
The 83rd Acadamy Awards Show will air on Sunday, February 27 at 8 p.m. on ABC.