Oscar Nominations: Slave Tussles With Hustle

We track the honored and the ignored, the snubs and flubs, in all the top categories

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Francois Duhamel / Fox Searchlight

The three big favorites dominated the Oscar pack, as American Hustle and Gravity each received 10 Academy Award nominations and 12 Years a Slave nine. They should be the prime contenders on Oscar night, Mar. 2. Gravity could take the most statuettes because of its presumed monopoly of the technical categories. For that same reason — that it’s just a sci-fi movie (just a visionary, enthralling sci-fi movie) — Alfonso Cuarón’s space epic might not be taken seriously by the Academy elders. That would leave David O. Russell’s romantic dramedy to fight it out against Steve McQueen’s savage indictment of slavery.

Here are thoughts about the nominees in the six major categories. Who was pleased by Oscar, and who got fleeced? What were the big snubs and flubs? We’ve got ’em all.

 Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips. Bradley Cooper, American Hustle. Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave. Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street. Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club.

Leto took four years off from movies to pursue his parallel career as vocalist and songwriter for his band 30 Seconds to Mars. On Oscar night, the other four nominees will be singing backup, from the audience, as Leto mounts the stage to say thanks. The shortest definition of the character he plays in Dallas Buyers Club — a transsexual afflicted with AIDS — might be enough to secure him a win. But Leto makes Rayon a heroic sweetie, and a fittingly mismatched partner to Matthew McConaughey as the macho cowboy with HIV.

No question Leto will win, but Cooper was also terrific as the pinwheeling FBI agent in David O. Russell’s American Hustle, which matched the director’s Silver Linings Playbook last year by scoring nominations in all four acting categories. Fassbender, after four busy years in showy roles, gets his first Academy attention as the vicious slaveowner. Hill, previously nominated for Moneyball, secures a place for playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s nerdish, coke-demon partner. And in his first role as a professional actor, Abdi gets a nice door prize. Is Tom Hanks envious?

Snubs: James Franco’s performance as the drug-dealing Alien in Spring Breakers was psychedelic enough to turn many heads; four critics’ groups gave him a win in this category, yet the Academy wasn’t buying. Daniel Brühl, as Formula 1 racer Niki Lauda in Rush, finished back in the pack. The late James Gandolfini was also ignored for his sweet turn in the indie rom-com Enough Said.

Nominees: Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine.
 Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle. Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave. Julia Roberts, August: Osage County. June Squibb, Nebraska.

At the Golden Globes, Nyong’o told Jimmy Kimmel, she achieved her one goal: to meet Leonardo DiCaprio. What she didn’t get was a Globe for Best Supporting Actress in 12 Years a Slave. Poignant and powerful in her first screen role, as the “favorite” slave and whipping girl of planation owner Michael Fassbender, Nyong’o is the main rival to can-do-no-wrong Lawrence. The 23-year-old star could take her second Oscar, after winning Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook. Having just become, with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the first woman since Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music to be top-billed in the highest-grossing film of the year, Lawrence may be the one Hollywood star who cannot be denied.

That’s too bad for Roberts, who does such potent work as Meryl Streep’s feistiest daughter in August: Osage County. Hawkins, a Golden Globe and BAFTA nominee (but overlooked by the Screen Actors Guild), scored for her role as Cate Blanchett’s sensible sister — Stella DuBois to Blanchett’s Blanche — in Blue Jasmine. The real prize for Squibb, 84, whose previous glimpse of fame was as one of the strippers in the 1959 Broadway production of Gypsy, is that she gets to wear a nice dress and sit on the aisle Mar. 2.

Snubs: Where’s Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for The Help, who played the mother in Fruitvale Station? Don’t the Academy members look at indie films, no matter haw popular or laureled? Critics’ groups applauded Scarlett Johansson as the voice Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with in her; but though the film was nominated for Picture, Screenplay and Song, Phoenix and Johansson got shut out. Oprah Winfrey, touted by the SAG for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, didn’t make the shortlist but needs no consolation. After all, She’s Oprah.

Nominees: Christian Bale, American Hustle. Bruce Dern, Nebraska. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street. Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club.

Bale — a super-serioso actor who gives a wonderfully light, densely textured performance in American Hustle — is the surprise that completes the movie’s sweep of the four acting categories. Dern’s nomination is a miniature Life Achievement Award for a half-century of movie survival. Those two will be sitting while one of the three other gents wins. Of these, DiCaprio, Hollywood’s last vestige of a dreamy movie star, is the longest shot. First nominated 20 years ago as a teenager for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and twice before as Best Actor (The Aviator, Blood Diamond), he could be championed or demoted for being the energetic center of a controversial film.

That leaves Ejiofor and McConaughey, each playing a character who takes a real or metaphorical whipping and manages to triumph. If we think McConaughey has a strong shot, it’s because his Ron Woodroof actively fights the plague of AIDS (while Ejiofor’s Solomon Northrup endures in a more passive sanctity), and because McConaughey has charmed the pants off Hollywood for a couple decades and finally earned the industry’s respect as well as its heart.

Snubs: Tom Hanks — nearly 20 years since he scored consecutive Best Actor wins in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, and 13 years since his last acting nomination, for Cast Away — was thought a sure thing as the besieged Captain Phillips. He was shut out, as was the film’s director, Paul Greengrass. In the subsidiary race of 77-year-old actors giving career-defining performances, Dern got the love, Robert Redford didn’t. Investing his righteousness and glamour in the role of the lone yachtsman in the survival drama All Is Lost, he deserved to be recognized.

Forrest Whitaker, who played the title character in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, joined Oprah Winfrey and Octavia Spencer in the Salon des Refusés. The only performers of African ancestry nominated this year were Abdi and the two from 12 Years a Slave. And The Butler, a critical and popular hit, earned zero Oscar nominations.

 Amy Adams, American Hustle. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine. Sandra Bullock, Gravity. Judi Dench, Philomena. Meryl Streep, August: Osage County.

From this distinguished list of previous nominees or winners, who is the actress with the most Oscar nominations in past decade? Meryl Streep — and Amy Adams. Each have four, though Adams’ previous three (Junebug, Doubt, The Master) were in the Supporting category. Dench chalked up her seventh nomination, including one win in Supporting for Shakespeare in Love. The only other time Bullock was nominated,  for The Blind Side, she won (over Streep). And all this is just Oscarmetric chitchat, since Blanchett is bound to conquer for her role as the one-percenter, displaced and impoverished but still haughty, in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. You could secure a mortgage on that bet.

Snubs: As P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson had the chance to return to the Oscar lists for the first time since 1996, when she was nominated for Sense and Sensibility (and won for writing the screenplay). But the Academy said no, as it did to six-time nominee (and one-time winner) Kate Winslett in Labor Day.

Adèle Exarchopoulos did it all, including a few things you wouldn’t see in a Hollywood film, as the passionate teen in the three-hour French erotic drama Blue Is the Warmest Color, which last year’s Cannes jury (headed by Steven Spielberg) awarded its top prize. Perhaps Exarchopoulos was too intense or weepy for the Academy. Also getting stiffed: acclaimed indie actresses Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Brie Larson (Short Term 12), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said) and Julie Delpy (Before Midnight), though Delpy shared an Adapted Screenplay nomination for the film.

 Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity. Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave. Alexander Payne, Nebraska. David O. Russell, American Hustle. Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street.

Thanks for coming, Mssrs. Scorsese (his seventh nomination as director), Russell (his third) and Payne (his second). You earned your places on the shortlist by, respectively, whipping up a three-hour coke and greed frenzy, creating a free environment for an actors’ field day, and… whatever Payne did for a movie whose artistry and appeal continue to elude this viewer. The race should be close between the Anglo-African McQueen and the Mexico-born Cuarón. McQueen would be the first black to win Best Director — an honor the liberal Academy members must take seriously, as they did four years ago when they chose Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) as the first woman winner.

They also must consider a fundamental question: What does a director do? If it is manage a large group of actors and sustain social fury over a two-hour span, then McQueen is their choice. If it is to used all the elements of visual effects and virtual imagery to obliterate the familiar boundaries of what can be seen in a movies, Cuarón is the man. Last year, Academy members gave the award to Ang Lee for Life of Pi, another advanced adventure in storytelling. Will they vote two years in a row for the future of movies?

Snubs. The Best Picture category had nine nominees this year, so the directors of at least four of those films were bound to be disappointed. The “losers”: Paul Greengrass, who amped up the tension of an international hostage situation in Captain Phillips; Jean-Marc Vallée, the French-Canadian director of Dallas Buyers Club; Stephen Frears, the Englishman who saw Philomena nominated for Picture, Actress and Adapted Screenplay but got squeezed in the numbers game; and Spike Jonze, who missed out here for her but still copped nominations for Original Screenplay and Song Lyricist!

Nominees: American Hustle. Captain Phillips. Dallas Buyers Club. Gravity. her. Nebraska. Philomena. 12 Years a Slave. The Wolf of Wall Street.

Usually, the five films that get Director nominations are deemed the leading contenders. (Last year, when Argo won Best Picture despite Ben Affleck’s being unnominated for Director, was a fluke) So let’s excuse Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, her and Philomena, and see what the top five have to offer. American Hustle: a grand game of scam-artist charades with the year’s deftest, most attractive cast. Gravity: a spectacular vision of survival in outer space. The Wolf of Wall Street: a pummeling panorama of wretched excess in the financial community. 12 Years a Slave: a vast fresco of sadism and heroism in the American South, an ante-bellum anti-Gone With the Wind. And Nebraska: Sorry, I still don’t get Nebraska. but many customers love what they see as the movie’s affection for craggy, cranky rural folks.

From these five, we sigh at the unlikelihood of victory for Gravity and winnow to two: Slave and Hustle — ordeal vs. fun, pain vs. escape, social uplift vs. down-and-dirty entertainment. Based on the FBI’s Abscam sting in 1978 (just a year or two before the CIA’s Argo adventure), Hustle isn’t exactly a comedy, but it’s comic in spirit, and drama usually wins at the Oscars. On Mar. 2 we’ll learn how seriously the Academy takes itself and its role as arbiters of the best in movies. The view from here: Slave is good, Hustle is better, Gravity is best.

Snubs: The nine nominees include eight of the 10 finalists chosen by the Producers Guild of America. The Academy members added Philomena (good for them!) and dumped Blue Jasmine and Saving Mr. Banks. Not that he cares, but Woody Allen had to settle for an Original Screenplay nomination and finalist spots for his two leading ladies.

Mr. Banks, which fictionalizes the combative relationship of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers over the rights to her Mary Poppins books, had a long shot of being the third consecutive inside-moviemaking movie to win Best Picture (after The Artist and Argo). But the sentimental bio-pic must have grated the voters; it filled no spots for Picture, Director, Screenplay or its esteemed stars, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. The reception was just as chilly for Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis: the abrasive dramedy was also rejected for Picture, Director, Actor (Oscar Isaac) and Screenplay.