The Broadcast Critics for the most part did what we expect of them: spewed back the Internet consensus on Oscar favorites. But they threw one curve: passing over Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead actor category. The actor, who so many in the blogosphere have for months been proclaiming the prohibitive favorite, had also, a few days prior, failed to take a Golden Globe that seemed within his grasp.
This was surprising not only for Ejiofor’s loss (my analysis of this year’s best actor race has always included him as a factor, but he now seems a deep long-shot), but also for the fact that the same actor, Matthew McConnaughey, triumphed in his place both times. I’d mentioned here several weeks ago that I thought McConnaughey, as a popular star in a well-liked film, was the top pick to win at SAG, but I firmly believed that would be his first victory of the televised season. If, as I expect, he wins tonight, considering how unexpectedly well his film did with AMPAS, many will justifiably see him as the clear favorite for the Oscar. (He can’t win BAFTA, of course – Ejiofor may win there, in a too-little-too-late scenario, or DiCaprio – but that will be seen as fluke-by-omission, much as Melissa Leo was in 2010) What seemed a wide-open category two days ago could suddenly close off.
Yet, I wonder. McConnaughey does have a good narrative – popular film on a dependable liberal topic; journeyman actor reinvents himself with offbeat choices, finally scores a significant role. But his background is highly suspect: all those years of cruddy romantic comedies in which he barely seemed to be making an effort (but loaded up his bank account). Oscar voters haven’t been anxious, in general, to quick-reward glamour boys who suddenly turn up in serious films. Women win that way all the time (Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon), but Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt have seemed solid candidates early in seasons then faded; and George Clooney, while he managed a supporting win (in a year when he was also competing under director), fell short in what at one point seemed a winnable best actor race. I can’t help but see McConnaughey as in that viewed-skeptically category, so even the TV trifecta wouldn’t persuade me he was unbeatable at the Oscars.
Who can get in his way? Well, first off, Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a bit of a surprise factor in the race. When Wolf of Wall Street opened to some vicious audience reactions (a SAG member I know wrote on Facebook that she felt she needed a shower after seeing it) and that horrific Cinemascore, I figured everything to do with the film was off the awards board. But, surprise: the film’s gross has held up extremely well, DiCaprio has won awards alongside McConnaughey (albeit in the viewed-as-lesser comedy category), and the film scored an impressive five top Oscar nominations. DiCaprio – whose role is probably more dominant in his film than any other contender this year -- isn’t competing tonight at SAG (an early SAG deadline casualty?), but he could possibly top Ejiofor at BAFTA, which would make him a threat to be the first non-SAG-nominee to win a lead Oscar. Especially if all candidates save Bale remain in the running: a passionately supported choice could win with somewhere from 20-30% of the vote, even if a lot of others hated his film and work.
The other possibility is that DiCaprio and McConnaughey could draw from the same pool – youngish (by lead actor standards) stars in their prime (a group minor-candidate Bale would belong to as well) – leaving Bruce Dern (who doesn’t have Redford siphoning off veteran votes) to win by plurality. I see people on other sites saying Dern needs to win SAG tonight to have a chance. Certainly his odds would be substantially upped with a win tonight, but, in truth, I don’t see a populist group like SAG as Dern’s home court. Many of those voting – especially the younger batch – will be barely familiar with Dern’s work from his heyday. AMPAS, on the other hand, will be top-heavy with voters not only familiar with Dern’s output but likely to know him personally. Add to that the fact that Nebraska scored unexpectedly well on Thursday (it’s about even with Dallas Buyers on that score – ahead if you think director matters more, behind if you think editing’s more important), and I see Dern as a major factor.
I also see him as, oddly, analogous to Adrien Brody/the whole Pianist crew. Remember, The Pianist did absolutely nothing in the precursor stage; you’d have been viewed as crazy if you predicted it to win even one of those top awards, let alone all three. It took a special sauce – AMPAS’ deep affinity for Holocaust films – to give the film what it got. I say Dern’s 50-year career is the special sauce that could cause him to rise unexpectedly, even after a silent season through the standard precursors.
Do others see it the same, or is it going to be “all right all right all right” for the rest of the run?