Oscar Index: Draggin' Tattoo? Don't Bet on It

The first Oscar Index entry of 2012 finds Movieline's Institute for the Advanced Study of Kudos Forensics a little hungover from the holidays and lot bored from the protracted inertia of awards season. Not even this week's Producers Guild Award nominations could do much to shake up a contest that appears to be both wide open and solidifying into place at the same time. Let's investigate...

The Leading 10:
1. The Artist
2. War Horse
3. The Help
4. The Descendants
5. Hugo
6. Midnight in Paris
7. Moneyball
8. The Tree of Life
9. Bridesmaids
10. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Outsiders: The Ides of March; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Drive

The awards cognoscenti weighed in where they could after Tuesday's PGA nomination announcement, but on the whole it came down to a few routine observations:

· Even the "surprises" (e.g. The Ides of March, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) aren't really surprises.

· Bridesmaids reflects less an Oscar boost than the Guild's customary tendency to recognize one or two critically approved blockbusters (including The Help -- sorry, Harry Potter).

· The Tree of Life isn't dead yet, but it will need some TLC to live to see the Oscar race.

That's the way the pieces always tend to fit within the PGA nomination puzzle. Zeroing in a little
more on the eternal box-office conundrum, however, may reveal truths more pertinent to 2012: "If Oscar buzz only drives a limited section of the general public to the multiplex of what use is it, ultimately?" asks Sasha Stone, pointing to the widening gap between popular entertainment and that preferred by the Academy "old guard." That gap that may be best exemplified this year not by the modest-grossing Tree of Life or Ides of March, but rather by Hugo -- a hugely expensive, vastly acclaimed film that nevertheless has earned back less than a third of its budget worldwide since opening a month and a half ago. (Those numbers will no doubt improve, however; Hugo has yet to open in two-thirds of its global markets.) Even a great filmmaker like Martin Scorsese adapting a beloved book in 3-D is still "cinema" -- without superheroes or aliens or vampires or robots (automatons don't count, sorry), Hugo evinces the kind of rarefied product for whom critics and awards voters might symbolize limitations rather than support. Unless the Oscar "hate kids," as one wag suggested, in which case who knows?

Anyway! How does this affect conversations inside the Academy? Oscar oracle Mark Harris has as good a read as anyone:

The Oscars are not a barometer of popular taste (nor should they be), but that’s not to say that popular taste has nothing to do with the balloting. Academy voters want their own convictions ratified by something external, and if it’s not blockbuster grosses (and this year, it certainly won’t be), then it has to be great reviews, or a slew of ads informing them that some company is willing to spend a pile of money to encourage their vote in a particular direction, or — the hardest thing to quantify — a shared intensity of feeling among some of their peers. A conversation between two voters that begins “You know what I really thought was the best performance of the year even though nobody’s talking about it?” and ends “You did? So did I!” is a conversation that is going to lead to two first-place votes for some lucky actor.

Or some lucky film. Many would say Bridesmaids, which would defy the reality that everybody is at least talking about Bridesmaids. I still lean toward Dragon Tattoo, whose backers are steadily working to counter perceptions that it's underperforming. (And at $60 million domestic in less than two weeks, they shouldn't have to work very hard.) We shall see.

The Leading 5:
1. Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
2. Steven Spielberg, War Horse
3. Alexander Payne, The Descendants
4. Martin Scorsese, Hugo
5. Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Outsiders: Bennett Miller, Moneyball; Tate Taylor, The Help; David Fincher, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; Stephen Daldry, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

At some random point in the season, Photoshop gives me cause to smile as I lay out each week's charts. This year it was the miraculous prompt:

Ha! Oh, all right. [Click]

Meanwhile, Tate Taylor finally cracked the top seven thanks to continued guild love for The Help, support from pundits like Stone and Scott Feinberg, and the inability thus far of either Fincher or Miller to establish any of the word-of-mouth mobility cited in the Picture category. And for what it's worth, Hazanavicius signed this week with CAA, which also represents Spielberg. That should make for a few friendly cafeteria wagers come Oscar week. Well, not "friendly" ("I'll see your spit-roasted toddler, motherfucker, and raise you a dozen chocolate-covered embryos..."), but you know what I mean.

The Leading 5:
1. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
2. Viola Davis, The Help
3. Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn
4. Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
5. Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Outsiders: Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs; Charlize Theron, Young Adult; Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Thanks to a bulwark of bad reviews, Hurricane Meryl barreled into art houses with winds at speeds slightly less than last week's Category 5 gale. But then she picked up again, with the Berlin Film Festival announcing it would deliver her its Golden Bear Lifetime Achievement Award and critic Thelma Adams urging the film's ideological detractors to look past Margaret Thatcher's work and respect performance and character -- much the way Streep did:

We meet this once-powerful character at a point of intense yet mundane vulnerability, and we empathize. The scene succeeds because Streep, too, seeks anonymity within the role. She disappears, humanizing the public figure in these private moments. [...] Resistance to The Iron Lady as a whole, rather than simply a single Streep performance, reflects unspoken but existing conflicts. Liberal viewers are not supposed to like this woman, but if we get wrapped up in the story as we should, then we do. If we deny her humanity, what does that say about our own politics?

The only other actress around whom we're seeing such conversations stir is Mara, who is a definitive fifth in the race as Close and Theron fade away and Mara holds down magazine covers and captivates critics. And yet she's barely there in the eyes of some insiders, meaning less opportunity to peak early. This is the year's ingenue spot once thought meant for Elizabeth Olsen or Felicity Jones -- so what if Mara wasn't a Sundance it-girl or doesn't have a specialty juggernaut like Fox Searchlight or The Weinstein Company behind her? She has Sony. She has Scott Freaking Rudin and David Fincher. She has the 2011-12 awards season's most awesome animated GIF. She has a date in a couple weeks with the Golden Globes. She is an overnight franchise cornerstone. And as far as I'm concerned, she's going to be an Oscar nominee.

The Leading 5:
1. Jean Dujardin, The Artist
2. Brad Pitt, Moneyball
3. George Clooney, The Descendants
4. Michael Fassbender, Shame
5. Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Outsiders: Demián Bichir, A Better Life; Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar; Ryan Gosling, The Ides of March; Michael Shannon, Take Shelter; Woody Harrelson, Rampart; Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus

Meanwhile in Best Actor, is anyone working harder on the campaign trail than Demián Bichir? The only real rival at the moment would appear to be Oldman, who has the advantage of both familiarity and a well-performing film still in theaters. In any case, wherever you care to slot them should be above the utterly invisible and generally forgotten DiCaprio, who -- let's face it -- made a shite film and is entitled to nothing in one of the year's most fiercely competitive categories. Much as Mark Harris's hypothetical Academy-voter conversation (“You know what I really thought was the best performance of the year even though nobody’s talking about it?”) could favor Bichir, the inverse -- "God, is anybody seriously voting for Leo? For that? -- will likely erode DiCaprio's chances for good.

The Leading 5:
1. Octavia Spencer, The Help
2. Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
3. Jessica Chastain, The Help
4. Shailene Woodley,
The Descendants
5. Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids

Outsiders: Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs; Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus; Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life; Sandra Bullock, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter

McTeer and McCarthy will fight it out to the bitter end ("[McCarthy] has to overcome an Oscar-unfriendly genre in order to reach the final five; a vote for her is not just a vote for a terrific performance, but a vote to make a point," Harris also observes), while Tree of Life distributor Fox Searchlight and Help studio DreamWorks scuffle over who gets to lay claim to Chastain nomination. But who cares? If you haven't yet written Octavia Spencer's name in pen at or near the top of your Oscar-night pool, then you're either procrastinating or not paying attention.

The Leading 5:
1. Christopher Plummer, Beginners
2. Albert Brooks, Drive
3. Jonah Hill, Moneyball
4. Nick Nolte, Warrior
5. Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn

Outsiders: Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Armie Hammer, J. Edgar; Ben Kingsley, Hugo; Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris; Patton Oswalt, Young Adult; Kevin Spacey, Margin Call

I probably should have been kinder to Ben Kingsley, particularly in light of the stillbirth that was von Sydow's turn in The Daldry and the perceptive Hollywood Elsewhere commenter who noted that "If Hugo is really going to be a BP nominated film, and [Hill, von Sydow or Hammer] gets passed over, I have to believe that Kingsley gets in to the field." That's pretty much fair, and it puts Kingsley ahead of Serkis in any event. Still: Plummer won months ago. Enough's enough. Someone buy me a drink.

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  • Mark says:

    I see that the odds-maker (easy-odds.com) have Streep as a HUGE favorite to win Best Actress with even odds across the board. I would put my money on Streep since odds-makers are pretty reliable sources and rarely lose money.

  • AS says:

    A couple of things:

    1. I think you're underestimating The Ides of March. I think it's got a way better chance at locking in a Best Picture nom than Bridesmaids. The Academy loves them some Clooney!

    2. Glad to see all things Dragon Tattoo move up.

    3. I think its safe to say that The Daldry is officially dead in the water. It hasn't received strong reviews, early box office hasn't been staggering and it's received no major award noms.

    4. I think many people are getting a little too comfortable typing in Jonah Hill's name in that no. 3 spot. I'd say he's still very much an outsider. I'd say Spacey, Viggo and Phil Hoffman (who no one seems to be talking about)have a better shot than Hill.

    5. Chastain has still got a better shot than MaCarthy

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      1. I'm not underestimating anything, just reflecting back the conversation about the movie as accurately as possible. Personally, I wholeheartedly agree with you. The rest of the awards commentariat is a little less sanguine.

      2. Me too!

      3. Yeah, it's toast. Delete the layer "Daldry"!

      4. Hill is in. It's done. Too many precursors have acknowledged him for him to fall out now. As for that fifth spot (I think Branagh's a lock at this point, too), if Hugo gets a Picture nomination, it would be very unusual to see it shut out of the acting categories. More than anything, that's Kingsley's advantage over Viggo and Spacey. I wouldn't necessarily count either of those latter guys out, but they need a late, aggressive push to get them on the bubble.

      5. No argument here!

  • Charles says:

    That Oscar-hates-kids guy isn't too far off the mark. And I think that sentiment extends far beyond the Oscars.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      Well, I dunno. Ultimately, the Academy is too smug and image-conscious an organization to admit anything called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 into its hallowed Oscar fold. They don't hate kids as much as they hate deflecting attention away from "serious" fare called The Artist or The King's Speech or Lawrence of Arabia or whatever. I'm not saying it's right, but that's just the way it is -- and it's partly why the voters can live with recognizing Hugo for things like Picture, Director, and four or five craft categories. Scorsese and co. didn't change the title from The Invention of Hugo Cabret for nothing!

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  • Gray says:

    Why does Dragon Tattoo garner so much more respect than Harry Potter DH2? Critically and financially speaking, Harry Potter reigns supreme over Dragon Tattoo. It's surprising that Dragon Tattoo has been in the conversation as a potential Oscar spoiler yet HP has been a long-shot from day one. The best actress line up looks cray cray! Who would have though Swinton would secure a spot for herself given how polarizing her film is but good for her! I still have my bets on Theron before Close and ultimately getting nominated. I think she has enough support within the Academy and even people who dislike YA, respect her performance. Weren't you the one who said she should get in rather than Close on Feinberg and Friends?

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      "Why does Dragon Tattoo garner so much more respect than Harry Potter DH2?"

      Because one is perceived by the Academy as serious filmmaking for adults and the other is perceived as an adaptation of a book for kids. I'm not agreeing with it or saying it's right, but that's the Oscars. I don't make the rules or traditions.

      "I think she has enough support within the Academy and even people who dislike YA, respect her performance. Weren't you the one who said she should get in rather than Close on Feinberg and Friends?"

      Yup, that was me, but that was my personal opinion, not an objective estimation of what's really happening in the race -- which is now that Rooney Mara has more momentum and buzz than Close and Theron combined. But I wouldn't mind one bit seeing Theron come back, believe me.

      • Charles says:

        As far as the Potter-vs-Dragon thing, it's not just the Academy that feels that way. Despite all the glowing reviews, I've yet to see DH2 on any critic's top 10 list, while Dragon Tattoo appears on a large number of them.

  • Charles says:

    I forgot to mention that this weekend I'll be catching two equines: War Horse and the barely-discussed dark horse that will sweep the Oscars (best picture, actor, you name it) -- namely Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

  • Morgan says:

    DiCaprio has still been nominated by SAG, Golden Globes and BFCA...all you can ask for. Whereas Oldman has no precursor love and Bachir has SAG.

    Personally, I'd love Bachir to happen but I think Fassbender and Dujardin is enough foreign for the oscars in their best actor race.

    The battle for the gong is between Pitt, Clooney and Dujardin anyway - so it doesn't matter much.

    The DGA nominations are going to shake things up - War Horse and Moneyball would have no SAG or DGA if they don't get a nomination.

    If The Help or Midnight in Paris get the nod they will have almost every precursor award they could get. Hugo will just be lacking SAG, but it looks strong too.

    If there were only 5 nominees they would be: The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo, The Help and Midnight in Paris.

    A weak year if I ever saw one. Those five have major precursor love.

    After that Moneyball, War Horse, The Ides of March and Bridesmaids all have enough precursor love that they respectively need to put them in the second tier and then The Tree of Life and Drive look like they will be the critics darlings floating dead in the water. Unfortunate. No excuse not to nominate those two films, but in 20 years ago Oscar will be poorer for it. Those two films don't need Oscar, Oscar needs them.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      I don't think the precursors mean that much for a guy like DiCaprio; these are all organizations that basically threw him a bone because they wanted him at their parties. The Oscars aren't necessarily so different, but the Academy has its pride, and fewer and fewer insiders you talk to can or even want to make a valid, qualitative case for DiCaprio to get in over Oldman or Bichir -- if only because nobody really likes J. Edgar. But then again, he's Leo. Who knows?