Off the Carpet: As the music stops, fringe hopefuls cross their fingers

Posted by · 10:33 am · January 16th, 2012

As of Friday, phase one of this year’s Oscar season has drawn to a close. Ballots were due by 5pm and it’s pencils down, the music has stopped, whatever metaphor you want to apply. And the period of December 27 – January 13 was crucial for films looking to grab a last-minute foothold and those hoping to maintain dominance alike.

During that frame, the image to the left of actress Anna Paquin was bravely showcased on the cover of LA Weekly, Los Angeles’s ubiquitous alt-weekly publication, to promote the outlet’s choice of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” for the year’s best film. Voters out and about on their daily routines surely walked past any number of magazine stands and newspaper racks displaying the issue.

Meanwhile, in a very last-minute bit of campaigning, Paquin and Lonergan were both made available for press opportunities, which we of course seized here at In Contention. But not every outlet has the luxury of scheduling pieces like that on the fly.

It would of course have been more ideal had these opportunities arisen even a week earlier, as the majority of voters tend to turn ballots in immediately, most pouring in around the first week of the year. But one never knows if that old assumption sees fluctuation from time to time.

Nevertheless, with guild nomination announcements coming down the pike over the last few weeks, it’s worth understanding that the voting frames are different. Those announcements are reflective more of where the race was a month ago, and the Academy’s later frame often gives its members a chance to venture into other nooks and crannies of the season, should they choose to be so adventurous. That’s how Tommy Lee Jones gets nominated for “In the Valley of Elah.” It’s how Maggie Gyllenhaal gets chalked up for “Crazy Heart.” And it’s how any number of fringe hopefuls could find themselves waking to an unexpected phone call on the morning of January 24.

Of course, that more often tends to happen when a wall of consensus builds (leaving a desire for freshness), rather than when sentiment seems to be spread amongst a number of contenders. And this year is more reflective of the latter, with films like “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” “The Tree of Life” and “Hugo” all staking their claim for “best of the year” along the precursor circuit.

A film like “Margaret” can speak to actors. Anna Paquin’s performance is one of the year’s best and the ensemble is impeccable. Co-stars Jeannie Berlin and J. Smith-Cameron are equally deserving, the former finding some love from the critics, as well as Paquin. It can also speak to writers, as it’s a thematically dense piece of work from a celebrated playwright.

But it has to be seen. And for Fox Searchlight’s part, amid a torrential advocacy dispute that saw many tossing nuance out the window and calling for the studio’s head over the film’s lack of exposure, screeners were sent not just to the writers branch, not just to the actors branch, but to all voting members of the Academy.

I did a little straw poll amongst some AMPAS members in my circle and, well, it wasn’t encouraging. One member from the directors branch said he hadn’t watched the film but wished he had. Another member from the same branch didn’t recall receiving the film. A member from the sound branch had not watched the film and wondered why he should. One member of the PR branch was planning on watching it over the weekend (after the deadline), another had not yet watched it but was looking forward to doing so and had heard “pleasantly surprising” things from members who had and a third had no plans to watch it and was barely through his stack of screeners when he submitted his ballot.

Nevertheless, fingers will remain crossed that, against all odds, the film managed to find an audience somewhere within the Academy.

The Best Actress field (which Paquin is hoping to push into) ended up in a state of gridlock toward the end of the year. The five actresses nominated by the Screen Actors Guild (Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton and Michelle Williams) are considered frontrunners for a nomination at this point, but the field is ripe for surprise. And there are options out there.

For instance, a number of members began to talk about Kirsten Dunst and her performance in “Melancholia” as the clock ticked down on phase one. Prominent wins from critics groups helped push the issue. Also coming on strong with a nicely timed Entertainment Weekly cover and amid clear appreciation from the guild circuit for her film was “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” star Rooney Mara. That film’s producer, Scott Rudin, suddenly popped up at the tail end of the phase with a strategically placed interview with trade outlet, clearly not taking the obvious industry goodwill for granted.

Which, on that point, it’s worth noting that no one knows a thing about how the new Best Picture rules will affect the ultimate nominations slate in the category. Yes, “Dragon Tattoo” appears to be strong, but how strong, really? Are there enough voters putting it at the top of their ballot to attain the necessary 5% to be eligible for the nod? Ditto Universal’s “Bridesmaids,” which has had a strong showing throughout the precursor circuit and could have revved the engine at just the right time to catapult into surprising Best Picture contention.

And what of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which Focus still has high hopes for despite the film not showing up in major guild announcements. Could the British voting block and love throughout the crafts help it to a nod? And could Gary Oldman have found a pocket of goodwill big enough to get him that first Oscar nomination? Quite possibly.

Meanwhile, how in danger is “War Horse,” really? There’s no question that snubs by significant guilds were damaging indicators, but then then it pops up with an ACE nod today. Could the Academy ultimately resurrect the hobbled steed? Absolutely.

In the lead actor category, watch out for Michael Shannon, who could land his second OMG surprise Oscar nomination for his outstanding performance in “Take Shelter.” Consistent critics showings have kept that screener near the top of most stacks and he’s an affable guy, has worked for years, people love him and people do talk about the work.

There are a lot of moving parts and the Academy always shakes it up a little bit. Where will the pieces fall next Tuesday? We’ll know soon enough.

Guy and I have run a comb through the Contenders section. The sidebar predictions reflect those changes.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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