The past eleven days since the Oscar nominees were announced have been their own turbulent roller-coaster due to the onslaught of guild awards that have come in their wake. If we were all scrambling to figure out the new shape of the season on Oscar morning, the next two weeks sought to give it a more definitive one. At the same time last year, it felt like the whole season was still up in the air, with us waiting on confirmation for which dog we should put our money behind – I use the greyhound racing metaphor because of Daniel Day-Lewis’ stretched, lanky figure – and all the guilds made it abundantly clear it was a year for Argo, not Lincoln. Surely we could expect the same this year?
Not so, and I got that impression even before the nominations were announced. The guilds simply did not align cleanly enough with the season’s frontrunners. The PGA and DGA awards had all three frontrunners – 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and Gravity – present, but the SAG ensemble prize left Gravity out, as did the WGA, for which 12 Years a Slave was not eligible. This was not a surprise. Giving an ensemble nod to Gravity, which for all intents and purposes was a single-actor showcase, would’ve been laughable. As for the WGA, I don’t think the film’s issue was the divisive corniness of the dialogue rather than the sparseness of it. With a film about a woman largely alone in space, so much emphasis is on the visuals, not the spoken word, and those words count for a lot in the screenplay races.
Thus the SAG and WGA (which has not yet announced its winners) weren’t going to be as significant factors, though the latter could still be revealing in giving either American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave a boost. American Hustle took the ensemble prize, but let’s not necessarily assume that puts it automatically in the actors’ favors. Note that, of the four performers nominated by the Academy, only Jennifer Lawrence was nominated by SAG. Consider it a consequence of the guild not having time to dwell deeper on those performances, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the actors wanted to recognize all the great work from American Hustle, not just one actor’s work.
So Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years a Slave, but does that give her the advantage over Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscar? Ostensibly yes, but with actors nominated in each category, can American Hustle really not win even one? If so it would be the first since Sunset Boulevard, which is admittedly not bad company to be in. I don’t see Christian Bale taking on the heavyweights in the Actor race, nor would anybody fathom Cate Blanchett losing Best Actress at this rate. That leaves one of the supporting races to slip, and I’d say Leto has been a stronger force this season than Nyong’o, so it may just be hers to lose.
The other SAG winners, meanwhile, are more self-assured, but the only one we can really call a revelation is Matthew McConaughey. Not that it’s all that surprising, since he’s been gaining momentum all season, but the wind really is blowing in his direction, particularly given his polar-opposite presence on HBO Sundays with True Detective. His career resurgence has been gratifying for us who’ve been watching it attentively, but for mainstream audiences it’s becoming simply undeniable. The direction of the season is in his favor more than it is for Chiwetel Ejiofor. In fact, if I can see anybody slipping him up, it’s Leonardo DiCaprio, whose lack of a SAG nomination may only mean that not enough members saw it in time. Both DiCaprio and McConaughey give loud and clear bravura performances, and that’s often what the Academy responds to.
Following that, the PGA was to be the signifier of the Oscar’s likeliest champion. Whichever corner it fell in, that’s where the award would all too likely fall. The fact that it ended up a tie – which on the preferential ballot system is supposed to be frankly impossible – really blew the race wide open again. The winners, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, officially put some distance between them and American Hustle, a film which has been playing splendidly well with audiences, but which has been pretty divisive with some critics. It’d be well in keeping with Argo and The Artist in terms of fun crowd-pleasing fare (beginning with the letter “A”), but after three years in a row of rather pleasant films (The King’s Speech included), I get the impression the Academy is looking to honor something more serious. It’s also worth noting that those prior three winners had a clearer real-world sense of importance than American Hustle.
So then it would seem that the next certifiable sign would be the DGA winner, which many predicted would be Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity, but if it went any other way, it would’ve sent a clear message about where the momentum was shifting. Since its Cuaron, many either think the season is now headed in Gravity‘s favor or that Cuaron will win Director while either 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle takes Best Picture. In the history of the Oscars, however, a split has rarely been predictable. Last year it was, but only because Affleck missed a nomination by what were all deeming a fluke now. Can it really be so cut-and-dry between the two, or will admiration of the director translate towards more passion for the film.
So it would seem favor is drifting vaguely towards Gravity, but it could still go either way. We’ll delve in deeper when we start predicting the individual categories. We all know what we’d like to win, some of which are less likely than others (Her, Nebraska or Wolf of Wall Street wins would be real shockers), but I’ve learned not to get emotionally attached to the Oscars. That said, if Gravity actually wins it, here’s an artist’s rendering of my reaction: