The Oscar Warrior – Part 1

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With the start of the new year, it’s time to start looking at the movie awards season, most notably the awards presented every year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to the most deserving films and filmmakers. This year, the Oscars will be given out earlier than ever, as nominations are due later in January and the awards shindig proper will be taking place on February 27 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

As always, the buzz from the movies that came out in the last year have allowed for a lot of sure things, and so far, most of the critics’ circles in bigger cities have spoken about what and who they think deserves recognition, and the Hollywood Foreign Press has already announced their nominations for Golden Globes, which will be given out on January 16th. Those awards rarely mean anything because the Oscars aren’t picked by the critics nor regular moviegoers, but are awarded by actors, producers, directors and others directly involved in the making of movies.

Even before the Golden Globes, many of the guilds, such as the Directors, Producers and Screen Actors Guilds will present their own picks in the Oscar categories, and like Hollywood itself, there’s a lot of politics involved, especially in the acting categories. Some of the time, it all comes down to the studios and what movies they’re backing by sending out screeners and buying ads to support them. This year, Miramax has two strong contenders in The Aviator and Finding Neverland, Fox Searchlight has Sideways and Kinsey, Warner Brothers has Million Dollar Baby, and Sony has Closer and Spanglish. All three studios have the clout to push them to the important people who do the nominating.

What follows is how I think those voters will go on their picks. The analysis is followed by my projected nominations with what I consider the frontrunner/favorite in red. I’ve also included my own personal picks of those I feel deserving who won’t get a nomination for one reason or another.

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

In the first of four categories nominated by the Academy’s acting branch, there are some unknown variables on how they separate supporting roles from lead ones. This year, there aren’t nearly as many solid choices in this category as one might expect.

The only sure thing is that Thomas Haden Church, the former Wings star, stole the show as Paul Giamatti’s hedonistic best friend Jack in Alexander Payne’s Sideways. After winning many nods from critics, Church is the clear frontrunner in this category, because he gives a performance rarely expected from a former character actor.

Beyond that, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby features a great performance from three-times nominated Morgan Freeman as a former boxer working as a custodian at Eastwood’s gym, while Jamie Foxx is another strong contender for his dramatic role opposite Tom Cruise in Michael Mann’s Collateral. Although Foxx is already a sure nomination in the lead category for Ray, the push DreamWorks is giving Collateral could help him pull double duties. Mike Nichols’ Closer, based on the hit London stage play features four terrific performances, but the most memorable comes from Owen, giving what many consider his best performance since Croupier as Julia Roberts’ boorish husband. Though panned by critics, Closer is the type of movie that actors just love.

All four actors have received Golden Globe nominations, but their fifth choice, David Carradine, the title character in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, may be overlooked by the Academy, as it’s not nearly as strong a role as the others.

On other hand, Peter Sarsgaard has taken on MANY impressive roles in recent years, and after being overlooked for last year’s Shattered Glass, he will likely get a nod for his daring portrayal of Alfred Kinsey’s assistant Chris Martin in the biopic Kinsey. This year, he also gave a great performance in Zach Braff’s Garden State, which should help his stature among his acting peers.

Another possible is M.A.S.H. star Alan Alda, who returned to the big screen as a corrupt senator in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, and though he may get the “glad to have a veteran back” nod, there were many just as strong other male performances in that movie. (Alda seems to be in the same place Albert Finney was for Big Fish last year; he didn’t get a nomination.) Even longer shots include Joseph Fiennes for William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Topher Grace for P.S. and/or In Good Company, both of which could be considered lead roles.

My Personal Pick: Freddie Highmore for Finding Neverland. Although one has to wonder if the Academy has gotten sick of kids getting nominated after Haley Joel Osment and Anna Paquin, the 12-year-old Highmore stole almost every scene from Johnny Depp and deserves to get recognized for his amazing ability to make audiences cry.

The Nominations: Thomas Haden Church, Morgan Freeman, Clive Owen, Jamie Foxx and Peter Sarsgaard (alternate: Alan Alda)

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Like the supporting actor category, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as many solid choices in this category as previous years. Likewise, there are already a number of sure things, many of which have already received Golden Globe nominations.

Few people will deny that Alexander Payne’s Sideways is all the better for a film-stealing monologue by actress Virginia Madsen, who returned to the screen in her strongest role after flying under the radar for many years. It’s the type of strong comeback for a bit actress that Academy members love and are quick to reward, which could give her a slight edge.

Laura Linney and Cate Blanchett are both strong actresses who have played many memorable roles in recent years, and both of them have been recognized in the past, Linney for You Can Count on Me and Blanchett for Elizabeth. Linney was unrecognized for her chilling performance in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River last year, and both actresses have had banner years, culminating in strong supporting roles in prominent biopics. Although Linney also gave a strong performance in the weaker P.S., she’ll more likely get recognized for playing Liam Neeson’s ultra-supportive wife in Kinsey, while Blanchett will likely knock the voters’ socks off with her portrayal of the much-loved actress Katherine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. If Madsen doesn’t win, it will be between these two.

The youngest actress in the running is 23-year-old Natalie Portman, best known as Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequels, who showed off her acting range this year, first in Zach Braff’s Garden State, and then in Mike Nichols’ film Closer, in which she held her own against stronger actors like Julia Roberts and Jude Law.

The final Golden Globe nominee, Meryl Streep, has already received so many Oscars and nominations that the Academy may want to give someone else a chance, especially since Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate was not that strong a film. Of course, Miramax will try to get Kate Winslet a nomination for Finding Neverland, although most will feel she’s more deserving for her lead role in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It wouldn’t be the first time an actor gets nominated for both supporting and lead roles in one year-Julianne Moore comes to mind-and Winslet could join Foxx this year in that category, but it’s doubtful.

On the other hand, Sophie Okonedo, who played Don Cheadle’s wife in Hotel Rwanda, held her own in the movie that could help her get the “Shohreh Aghdashwho?” nomination this year. An even longer shot is Minnie Driver, who had a fun role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, but did anyone even realize it was her?

My Personal Pick: Kerry Washington for Ray. When you talk about up and coming actresses, you can’t neglect how well Washington held up against Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles in the biopic. The eloquent actress has a lot of drive and with the right roles, she will be getting hers soon enough. (Apparently, Universal feel that Ray‘s Sharon Warren, whose only role to date was playing Ray Charles’ mother was more deserving of attention.)

The Nominations: Virginia Madsen, Laura Linney, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Sophie Okonedo (Alternate: Kate Winslet)

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

This is the most convoluted category this year, because there’ve been so many great performance by actors, some who have been nominated before and others getting their first crack in this category. The Golden Globes split up the candidates into two categories, so it was able to honor twice as many of these great performances. It’s odd that most of the year’s most memorable performances are of actors playing real people.

The only sure thing is that Jamie Foxx is already a guaranteed nomination, because he’s likely to win the Golden Globe for a musical or comedy. He is also the likely odds-on favorite to win in this category, considering how many people have hailed his amazing performance as Ray Charles in Ray as a career high. Whether or not the Academy voters find him deserving for essentially miming to Charles’ music will determine whether he is able to beat out the better-established actors up for this Oscar.

Another African-American actor long deserving of recognition and finally landing a role that will get it for him is Don Cheadle, as the unlikely hero Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda. Although Cheadle is under the radar with most moviegoers, his many supporting roles have given him a strong following and his first turn as a true leading man is as good as past Oscar winners.

Then you have the two pretty boys, Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio, both playing real life people, Depp as J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland and Leo as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Both actors have reps in Hollywood, but Depp’s desertion to France may not help him among voters, especially after getting his “career nomination” last year for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Ironically, both movies are from Miramax, and the studio may have to choose which one to push to voters, especially if they both get nominated. Leo’s Howard Hughes is a stronger performance, and his stronger relationship with Miramax head Harvey Weinstein gives him the distinct advantage, but if both get in, that will only leave one slot open in the category.

Of the remaining possibilities, the only actor playing a fictitious character was Paul Giamatti as Miles in Alexander Payne’s Sideways. After being unrecognized last year for his role as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, the Academy should finally give him his due.

Then again, the Academy can’t overlook performances by two previous nominees playing real-life people. First, there’s Spanish actor Javier Bardem as the quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro in Alejandro Amenabar’s The Sea Inside, Spain’s entry in the foreign language category, and Liam Neeson starred in the title role of Bill Condon’s biopic Kinsey. Neeson has a bit more weight in the Hollywood acting community, but Bardem makes a tougher performance more memorable. (Kinsey is certainly getting a stronger push from Fox Searchlight than Fine Line is giving The Sea Inside outside the foreign language category, though.) Clint Eastwood could be a longshot for Million Dollar Baby, although he’s more likely to get recognized for his direction.

My Personal Pick: Sean Penn for The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Penn gives a better performance than he did in either Mystic River or 21 Grams, but it’s likely to get overlooked due to its low key release by independent distributor ThinkFilm. They will have to take a cue from Newmarket Films who sent screeners of Monster and Whale Rider last year to Academy members if Penn is to get his fifth nomination. Anyway, he won last year.

The Nominations: Jamie Foxx, Don Cheadle, Leonardo DiCaprio, Javier Bardem and Paul Giamatti (alternates: Johnny Depp and Liam Neeson)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

This popular category is not nearly as crowded as in years past. Unlike last year where it was always about Charlize Theron in Monster, this has no less than three standout female performances getting attention.

The first truly amazing performance of the year was in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, as British character actress Imelda Staunton showed terrific range as the titular housewife who performed secret abortions in the ’50s. For most of the year, she was considered the clear Oscar favorite, until people started seeing Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. Its star Hilary Swank surprised many in 1999 by winning an Oscar for her lead role in Boys Don’t Cry, and everyone who has seen Eastwood’s drama is just as blown away by the lengths to which she goes as boxer Maggie.

The only possible competition comes from the more experienced Annette Bening for her performance as an over-the-hill actress in Being Julia. Bening was the popular favorite to win the Oscar in 1999 for American Beauty, but she was defeated by Swank’s surprise win, so many are already looking at this year’s Oscar race as a rematch between the two. Though Bening has more friends and pull in Hollywood than the other two actresses, Being Julia hasn’t gotten much recognition beyond her performance, so the race for the win is really between Swank and Staunton. (I personally felt that Michael Gambon should get a supporting actor nod for Being Julia, but that won’t happen.)

Beyond those three sure things, we only have a few other possibilities out of the Golden Globe nominations. Kate Winslet has been nominated three times for an Oscar, but in Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she plays a very different character than her norm, something that usually gets noticed by Academy voters. Some may feel that Scarlett Johansson deserves a nod after being overlooked for both Lost in Translation and The Girl with a Pearl Earring last year, but A Love Song for Bobby Long is so bland compared to those other movies that it will hurt her chances. The same can be said for Nicole Kidman, who gives a strong performance in Birth, a movie that was a complete turn-off otherwise.

Although she didn’t get a Golden Globe nomination, one of the year’s strongest performances came from first-time actress Catalina Sandina Moreno, star of Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace. There is a good chance that she can pull a surprise nomination like Keisha Castle-Hughes, the young star of Whale Rider, did last year, but again, it will depend on Fine Line putting a bit of extra time and money to make sure voters see the movie, which is already available on DVD.

My Personal Pick: Emmy Rossum for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. Not a popular choice among fans of the original musical and she couldn’t win against the three sure things, but the way this 17-year-old carried the movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical with her presence was impressive. Here’s hoping she’ll get another chance some day.

The Nominations: Hilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Annette Bening, Kate Winslet and Catalina Sandina Moreno. (Alternate: Scarlett Johansson)

In Part 2, we look at the candidates for directing, writing, foreign film, documentary, animation and most importantly, the best picture category.