THE LONG SHOT: When you wish upon a star

Posted by · 8:10 pm · October 6th, 2010

“Mila Kunis is so winning Best Supporting Actress this year,” remarked an independent filmmaker to me over drinks today, referring, of course, to the 27 year-old’s sly breakout turn in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” This was no idle fan statement. The man knew his Oscar onions – his theory was built upon established Academy affection for hot ingénues in sashaying support roles, as well as the current absence of any obvious frontrunners in the category.

Still, even as he explained this, my eyebrows must have shot up somewhere past my hairline. As the writer who caught hell from many readers for daring not to predict Natalie Portman among my Best Actress nominees last month, the prospect of Kunis even getting nominated for subtly smoking work in an outré arthouse thriller hadn’t crossed my mind. I told him as much while emphasizing, as an admirer of the performance, how much I’d like to be wrong.

“That’s what everyone says to me,” he replied. “‘Oh, she’s a revelation, I’d love to see her nominated, but she won’t be.’ Whenever I start hearing that kind of talk about a person or a film, that’s when I go to the bookies and put money on them. If everyone’s seeing the same thing in them, who’s to say the voters aren’t?”

Although I still don’t quite buy his case for Mila Kunis, the man makes a fair point. We all love to be cynical in our Oscar projections, regularly labeling certain leftfield contenders as “too good to win” while assuming voters will see what we don’t in sentimental favorites or bland prestige mediocrities. This kind of heartless approach often pays off: you’d have struggled to find an awards-watcher earlier this year who put Sandra Bullock in his “should win” column, but we all predicted her victory anyway. Meanwhile, all the critical hosannas in the world couldn’t get “Julia” star Tilda Swinton in the running beside her, and we never expected otherwise.

But every now and again, it pays to have a little faith. Nearly a decade ago, I remember every critic, columnist and talking head interviewed on the 2000 Oscar race saying that, yes, Marcia Gay Harden deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar hands down for that barely-seen Jackson Pollock biopic, but she didn’t have a prayer against starrier competition. Same story with Brenda Fricker in 1989, Adrien Brody in 2002 or even 1981’s surprise Best Picture winner “Chariots of Fire,” all contenders with deep, even vocal, pockets of support who nonetheless never lost their dark-horse status. Upset wins like theirs suggest wishful thinking can prove contagious within the Academy.

It’s a caveat worth keeping in mind as one faces a season’s worth of guessing and second-guessing: while the best Oscar forecasters (my esteemed editor among them) keep subjective preferences out of the game, one shouldn’t always distrust one’s personal response to a contender, least of all when you hear it echoed in other quarters. Given his broad performance and lowbrow vehicle, only a few saw Robert Downey Jr. as a nomination threat for “Tropic Thunder” early in the 2008 season, but as everyone gradually realized how much everyone else enjoyed him, the possibility turned concrete. It works negatively, too: many were surprised when “Invictus” failed to make the Best Picture cut this year, but considering the film’s dearth of enthusiastic fans, they shouldn’t have been.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to note the different points at which the growing club of journalists and bloggers who make a sport of monitoring awards season draw the line between objective handicapping and more critic-minded nudging. Last week, Rope of Silicon’s Brad Brevet stirred the pot by writing that those pundits wishing to see the Academy make more forward-thinking choices “need [to] start pushing films and decisions that truly change the landscape.” (His suggestions? “Black Swan” and “Inception.”) His statement provoked a range of responses from his online peers: some sympathetic, but many countering that he was overestimating the influence, and misidentifying the purpose, of sites like this one.

I can see both sides of the argument: it’s naïve to think that Academy members can be told what to like by bloggers any more than they can by publicists, but it’s hard to deny that the media (particularly new media) plays an important role in keeping potentially below-the-radar contenders like, say, a little film called “The Hurt Locker” in the awards conversation. (There’s also the concern that year-round prognostication makes self-fulfilling prophecies of ultimately undeserving nominees, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Predictions are a game, and like any game, you want to win – though that doesn’t prevent me or Kris departing occasionally from the horse-race to celebrate films or individuals we feel deserve notice, whether we believe they have a shot or not. You’d have to be a pretty infrequent reader of my work not to know that I’m pretty crazy about Sylvain Chomet’s animated contender “The Illusionist,” but the number of posts I dedicate to the film has little to do with the hope that some suggestible Academy member may be reading – and far more with the goal of motivating any potential moviegoers to see it, for their own benefit as much as the film’s.

Similarly, any good Oscar campaign should be more about sharing the work than goading people to vote for it; such is the wisdom behind a studio like Sony Pictures Classics sending out screeners of their littlest hopefuls far, wide and early. Just as my Mila Kunis-backing tipster reminded me this afternoon, the sweetest surprise nominations – or even victories – are often the ones voters feel they had to wish for.  

→ 23 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Long Shot

23 responses so far

  • 1 10-06-2010 at 8:19 pm

    Jason said...

    Everyone, I have a new drinking game. Take a drink every time Guy uses the word outré.

  • 2 10-06-2010 at 8:32 pm

    MattyD. said...

    Great post Guy, really astute observations about the race. I think it’s these points which frustrate all of us the most when Oscar-watching, and it’s even more frustrating thinking how little pull just little followers like us have in actually getting more deserving fare to the ceremony.

    But it makes it all that sweeter when a performance/film/technical achievement you’ve been rooting for nabs that nomination or win. I still remember when Marion Cotillard won for “La Vie en Rose”. All my friends were CONVINCED it would be Julie Christie just because the academy loves that meaty romantic fare, but I knew that Cotillard’s whirlwind performance just could NOT be ignored. And when she started picking up all the precursors I knew it was destined. That was a beautiful moment.

  • 3 10-06-2010 at 9:09 pm

    Casper said...

    Cool post. I’d take Jason up on his game but I’m already wasted from my own game of knocking one back every time an Oscar blogger writes something interesting and the first commenter either makes a stupid crack or is like “Yeah OK but who’s gonna win?”

    I’m guessing the Winters Bone crowd is as good a contender as any for the kind of “Who’d have thought they’d actually respond to quality?” voting you’re talking about. I didn’t totally get that movie but it probably deserves more noms than it’s gonna get. Unless the whole gist of this article proves me wrong, come winter.

  • 4 10-06-2010 at 9:53 pm

    Aaron said...

    I think sometimes we forget that the Academy is composed with the likes of Scorsese, Almodovar, Tilda Swinton, Robert DeNiro, etc., etc…true artists who undoubtedly really do respond to films outside of the normative, Hollywood drivel…as psychotic film lovers, I think at times we underestimate that, yes, many people in Hollywood actually DO care about artists outside of the studio system, and want to see those performers awarded accordingly…

    …yes, you will at times see the “gimme” nominations like Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but then oftentimes it balances out when she’s nominated for her eccentric, androgynous turn in the avante garde I’m Not There…

    …so, in conclusion, I hope Mila Kunis is accordingly recognized for her work, regardless if the performance and/or film is not deemed “Oscary” by certain film bloggers/journalists. If someone gives great work, they shouldn’t be demoted because it doesn’t fit into a preconceived, narrow criteria.

  • 5 10-06-2010 at 9:53 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Advantage Casper.

  • 6 10-06-2010 at 10:15 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Mila Kunis certainly could be a contender look no further than Marisa Tomei. She too was a television actress and a hot brunette ingénue.

  • 7 10-06-2010 at 10:32 pm

    slayton said...

    Clearly it is a different scene now – with the internet and the abundance of precursors it is a lot harder to get nominated without prior awards support (although Gyllenhaal managed it last year, go figure). However Tomei in ’92 is a good example of a dark horse whose uphill battle was in getting nominated, not necessarily in winning. I’ll be very pleased if Kunis gets some precursors or even manages to get nominated without them – Supporting Actress seems completely up in the air this year!

  • 8 10-07-2010 at 1:10 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Jason: Ha, we all have our crutches. You won’t get drunk enough on just “outré,” though, so I suggest adding “striking,” “leftfield” and “indeed” to the scoreboard.

    MattyD: My non-Oscar-watching brother told me Marion Cotillard would win back in June 2007 — “Nobody can be that good and lose, even if it is in French,” were his words. I shrugged the idea off at the time. Silly me.

    Aaron: Indeed (drink!), it pays to remember who many of these individuals are, but even lesser lights can often surprise you with their taste and awareness. I’m thinking, for example, of someone like Zoe Saldana, who caught me off-guard when she picked Tang Wei as her performance of the decade for a recent NYT poll.

  • 9 10-07-2010 at 3:53 am

    Graysmith said...

    Whether or not Kunis could win, just a nomination for her would probably be just as big and meaningful for her career as a win would be. A win would just be icing on the cake.

    I think the supporting races are the most interesting at the moment, just because there’s no frontrunners, no obvious winners. Kind of feels like anything can happen, nominations-wise and otherwise-wise. Hope it can stay that way for awhile.

  • 10 10-07-2010 at 5:39 am

    JJ1 said...

    While I enjoy Kunis and have heard ‘good ‘ things about her in Black Swan, I don’t think I’d read one fantastic thing about her in the reviews. Kinda surprised by this buzz right now. Dec. 1st can’t come sooner.

  • 11 10-07-2010 at 6:38 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    It’s not really “buzz,” just one guy’s take that I’m using as an example. She’s terrific in the film, though — I believe I said as much in my review.

  • 12 10-07-2010 at 7:38 am

    JJ1 said...

    OK, Guy. Thanks for clarification.

    And no, that’s not sarcasm (I hate when communication is misread online, you know).

  • 13 10-07-2010 at 8:17 am

    kevin said...

    I truly hope Armie Hammer ( The Social Network) surprises us with an Oscar nomination. Hammer pulled off the nuance of the twins , gave the most commanding and enjoyable performance(s) in that film. Justin Timberlake is talented , but he doesn’t deserve a nomination for this performance. You could tell he felt out of place and trying to catch up with the great acting turns of Andrew Garfield, Jesse Eisenberg, and Hammer.

  • 14 10-07-2010 at 8:37 am

    Tye-Grr said...

    I think the most surprising performance for me so far this year is Marion Cotillard in ‘Inception’. It’s a small but pivotal role, and Nolan trusted that Cotillard could nail it. She did. In my opinion, it’s totally Oscar worthy.

    Eisenberg, Garfield, Hammer and Timberlake were all fantastic in ‘The Social Network’. I think Eisenberg was flat-out sensational, my favorite lead performance of the year so far. Garfield was my second favorite performance in the film, and my current favorite supporting male perf. Hammer and Timberlake were both great, but very different types of performances. Hammer’s was the more difficult one, but Timberlake was a scene-stealer.

    Also, while I’m at it, Jeremy Renner deserves a real shot at Supporting Actor for his excellent work in ‘The Town’. Talk about scene-stealer… The most fascinating aspect of ‘The Town’, a very good film, was Renner’s unpredictable, explosive performance.

  • 15 10-07-2010 at 9:54 am

    sosgemini said...

    Gotta agree with Tye-Grr! There are days my mind will wonder and an image of her haunted character pops in. Now *that’s* a memorable performance.

  • 16 10-07-2010 at 1:27 pm

    Dustin said...

    I too predicted Marcia Gay Harden to win the Oscar that year. I remember I was the only one in my office pool that correctly predicted her. Many thought it would be Kate Hudson. Perhaps this will turn out to be a similiar scenario this year. The supporting actress category is usually all about honoring accomplished character actresses who have broken through in a serious dramatic role. Already in your predictions you have Helena Bonham Carter, Melissa Leo, and Miranda Richardson. Im beyond excited about the prospects of Mila Kunis getting nominated but could she really beat any of these three seriously accomplished and overlooked actresses? The performance would have to be quite sensational I do have to say.

  • 17 10-07-2010 at 2:37 pm

    Angry Shark said...

    God, I hope Winter’s Bone somehow miraculously makes it into the race. I’m not asking for pundits to totally sacrifice objectivity, but to, occasionally, go to bat for a film they know is in danger of falling out of the conversation. I’m not sure that In Contention does that enough. I mean, Jeffrey Wells is crazy, but you have to admire his firebrand advocacy for the films he loves. Whereas, what real glory is there in accurately predicting the Oscar nominations?

  • 18 10-07-2010 at 2:58 pm

    MattyD. said...

    Tye-Gurr: I 100% endorse your campaign for Marion Cotillard for a Best Supp. Actress nomination for ‘Inception’. I also found her work in that film Oscar-worthy. It’s a frightening, hypnotic performance.

  • 19 10-07-2010 at 3:46 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “…but could she really beat any of these three seriously accomplished and overlooked actresses?”

    Marisa Tomei beat Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave aaaaaand… Miranda Richardson.

  • 20 10-08-2010 at 12:45 am

    Glenn said...

    “It’s a small but pivotal role”

    Cotillard’s role was SMALL?

  • 21 10-08-2010 at 9:48 am

    Julian Stark said...

    I’m thinking that Mila Kunis will get in for Supporting Actress simply because the category seems to have a breakthrough nominee each year.

    Her cause for the win would best be supported by the fact that seven of the past ten winners in the category were first-time nominees. Regardless, I’ll think she’ll get as far as the nomination.