The lead acting categories for the 88th Academy Awards are a study in opposites. Not only does the general makeup of each category seem completely divergent, but the weight of the categories seems to have been flipped from last year…or any other year in recent memory.
We’re used to wading through a dense, unending list of Best Actor hopefuls, the category ever-flooded with brilliant performances from big-name actors, the final grouping of five nominees difficult to nail down because there are just so many damn possibilities. Best Actress, on the other hand, seems like a foregone conclusion from the day Oscar Season begins. Julianne Moore was last year’s juggernaut. Before that it was Cate Blanchett and before that it was Jennifer Lawrence. The last Best Actress “upset” came in 2012, when the “spoiler” was one Meryl Streep…so come on. And even in that case, the category wasn’t particularly deep, essentially a two-woman race between Meryl and the expected winner, Viola Davis. So it’s not as if category overload resulted in such attrition that it supplanted a frontrunner.
This year, however, we are approaching category overload. One could create at least two disparate-but-plausible nominee listings for Best Actress and no one would bat an eye. In many recent years, it was a struggle to scrounge together a list of five (which, by the way, is more of a black eye on the industry than the Academy). I’m still not ready to proclaim 2015 as Hollywood’s Year of the Woman, since let’s face it, in a Best Picture category likely to yield 8-9 nominees, only 2-3 of those nominees will be woman-centered – Room, Brooklyn, and Inside Out. The tally grows to four if Carol sneaks in, but then we have to consider the fact that Room is really more of a shared lead that actually skews towards the boy. So where would that leave us…3 ½? Weird if that’s the magic number that proves Hollywood sexism is dead.
Nevertheless, the year has delivered more central, powerful roles for women than any year in recent memory. The result is a slew of performances that could contend for an Oscar nomination, which makes this Best Actress category interesting for the first time in…I frankly can’t even recall.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the winning potential isn’t weighted heavily in the favor of the mighty few. It seems to me that Brie Larson’s performance in Room looks very similar to a seasonal juggernaut, and I wouldn’t venture to suggest that any other potential nominee – no matter how strong the performance surely is – could easily supplant her at this point. Cate Blanchett in Carol seems like the strongest opposition, though she very recently won…and she’s also older than Larson, which opens a whole other can of worms. In essence, it’s typical in Oscar history that if a young ingénue faces off against a more mature, seasoned actress, the ingénue wins out. It’s not science, but there is clear empirical evidence (just ask Annette Bening, who’s been on the wrong side of this divide three times).
If Larson and Blanchett are the top two, it’s easy to suggest that Saiorse Ronan in Brooklyn would round out the top three. Ronan would qualify as an “ingénue” too, and she’s even younger than Larson…and she already has a previous nomination in her back pocket. But I feel like, if it comes down to a battle between the young actresses, the dramatic weight of Room will tip the scales in Larson’s favor.
The aforementioned “J-Law” is lurking here, too, though even if a nomination seems likely (and maybe it isn’t…we will have to see the movie first), it seems that much of the critical masses have – unjustly – cooled to the notion of Jennifer Lawrence in a David O. Russell film. To some, it comes across as “shtick” now, even though it seems clear to others (read: ME) that the degree of difficulty for Lawrence is raised with each subsequent role she takes on. But she’s a huge star and a former winner who is now a consistent Oscar player, so she looms large over this race until the film drops.
It’s here where the contender onslaught begins…curiously, precisely where the Best Actor onslaught usually begins. The race for the fifth spot is as contentious as it’s ever been in the Best Actress field. There’s a quadruple play of respected older actresses vying for at least one slot – Lily Tomlin in Grandma seemed like a sure bet earlier in the year, but then we saw Blythe Danner in I’ll See You in My Dreams, and Maggie Smith’s The Lady in the Van debuted on the festival circuit. And now we are on the precipice of the release of 45 Years, which boasts what might be the strongest contender among them in Charlotte Rampling. And with that, you almost have enough to fill the category all over again.
But what about Carey Mulligan in Suffragette? Despite the film’s cool reception, her performance is lauded as a high point. Or even Bel Powley in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which seems like an Indie Spirits play more than anything, but the Academy can go out on a limb every now and again. Orrrrrr – and here’s the big quandary – what if a couple performances heretofore deemed “Supporting,” namely Rooney Mara in Carol and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl, are voted into Best Actress? All of the sudden, the category reaches peak hysteria.
No such hysteria exists on the Best Actor side, I’m sorry to say. Though frankly, we’re used to Best Actor hysteria, so it’s nice to see the gender roles swapped this time around. There are plenty of contenders, I suppose, particularly if one reaches to find them. But they’re all relatively minor key, in movies that don’t really live up to the esteem of the typical Academy taste. Michael Fassbender felt like a winner from the moment the first Steve Jobs trailer dropped, but that was before two stories broke. The first was the sounding of the box-office death knell for Steve Jobs, and the second was the tale of Leonardo DiCaprio sleeping in an animal carcass and eating raw bison liver for The Revenant. If anyone could be labeled an Oscar shoo-in sight-unseen, it would be the guy who sleeps in animal carcasses and eats raw bison liver. Now, as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film begins to circulate for the Academy and select guilds, the campaign will ramp up and the coronation may well begin. What began as a cold, tortuous shoot might end as a warm industry embrace for DiCaprio.
Eddie Redmayne is another likely nominee, but two wins in a row seems like a stretch, and The Danish Girl is not a remarkably celebrated film (but then, neither was The Theory of Everything). Back in September, it seemed safe to position Johnny Depp in this category for his work in Black Mass, but then the film fizzled and the performance has faded from view. The Martian is one of the most popular crowd-pleasers of the year, so it could be viewed as a one-man show for Matt Damon, which would likely result in a nomination. But the film is lightweight, and even as Damon carries it, it’s not such a challenging role that it feels even remotely threatening for the win. It feels like both he and Depp are vulnerable going forward…but who can claim those slots?
There are plenty of big names, but are the performances big enough? Tom Hanks is a former Oscar Golden Boy, but the Bridge of Spies conversation always shifts to Mark Rylance. Bryan Cranston is a hot commodity, but Trumbo feels a little flighty as a legit contender. Will Smith is trying to break back into the Oscar game with Concussion, but the movie is not playing well so far. Michael Caine is front and center in Youth, but will enough people see it? Geza Rohrig carries Son of Saul, but will it be too tough of a sit for Academy members? There are a handful of big names in The Big Short, but are they lead or supporting…and will they all drown each other out?
In a category that seems short on dynamos, and in a year that has seen a paucity of great roles for African-Americans, Michael B. Jordan’s work in Creed may be the performance that rises above. Not a contender for the win (which is unfair in itself), but as the film is released and reaction reaches a fever pitch, it seems increasingly likely that Jordan’s name is announced on Oscar Nomination Morning.
So…two disparate categories where the weight and balance seems to have shifted from the norm. Is this the start of a new trend? I’m not particularly expectant of that – the industry still seems too regressive for such an evolution. I am hopeful, however, that the glimmers of light we’ve glimpsed this year begin to slowly increase in the coming years.
But there I go getting ahead of myself. We still have this year to grouse about. And for once, much of that grousing will center on the many brilliant actresses in contention.