On Sally Field and that phantom 'Forrest Gump' nomination

Posted by · 6:42 pm · November 13th, 2012

In Contention readers are generally a hawk-eyed bunch, quick to leap in with corrections when Kris or I make an honest error or suffer an accidental brain-fade, particularly on matters of Oscar trivia — collectively, you can make for an intimidatingly officious subeditor. So it’s all the more surprising that, over the past week or so, I’ve been corrected by three separate readers on a point I had right in the first place: that with her allegedly fiery performance in “Lincoln,” Sally Field is seeking her first Oscar nomination in 28 years, and her third overall.

In each case, a reader either commented or tweeted to politely remind me that Field actually received her third Oscar nomination back in 1994, as a supporting actress in Best Picture shoo-in “Forrest Gump.” And in each case, as much as I appreciated the gesture, I had to reply that, not to put too fine a point on it, she wasn’t.

Yes, Sally Field’s Oscar record remains an unusual one. With two Best Actress wins from just two nominations — “Norma Rae” in 1979, for which she also won at Cannes and swept the critics’ prizes, and less popularly, “Places in the Heart” in 1984 — she has the exact same stats as a more recent Academy anomaly, Hilary Swank. (Moreover, both women’s wins came five years apart, with a distinct career slump in between.) On the one hand, Field boasts the enviable claim that she’s never lost an Oscar; on the other, she’s rather pointedly lost out on a nomination or two, and “Forrest Gump” is the most glaring of them.

I can hardly blame multiple readers for assuming that she was nominated in 1994 race; if her absence was a surprise then, it’s positively astonishing now. Not, I should add, because I think her performance as the feistily doting ma of America’s favorite idiot savant was worthy of such recognition — she’s as strenuously, artificially folksy as the whole ghastly film, which I suppose at least means she found the appropriate register.

But from an analyst’s perspective rather than a critic’s one, a nomination should have been an easy get. She gets to be righteously defiant! She gets a bottomless store of homespun aphorisms! She gets to age conspicuously but not too unattractively! She gets a moist-eyed deathbed scene! All in box office phenomenon the Academy loved so much they nominated it in 13 other categories! It should have been practically automatic. The result is a good example of what I like to call a phantom Oscar nomination: one that makes so much sense in theory that your memory can easy fool you into believing it happened.

Some might suggest that, in the years following her famous “You like me!” speech when accepting her second Best Actress statuette — a classic Oscar moment that remains either cute or cloying, according to taste — the Academy’s acting branch collectively decided, “Eh, not so much.” They’d also bypassed Field in 1989, when her tear-streaked work in “Steel Magnolias” earned her a Golden Globe nod, while the Academy chose to nominate only her onscreen daughter Julia Roberts, instead looking as far afield as Pauline Collins and Isabelle Adjani to fill out the Best Actress category.

In truth, Oscar voters probably liked Field no less in 1994 than they did in 1984. Rather, her campaign fell victim to a) a Best Supporting Actress race that was unusually splintered beyond one insurmountable frontrunner, and b) her own co-star, Robin Wright. If Field had the advantage of being the lovable Academy vet, Wright had the equally attractive ingenue narrative going for her, not to mention the more fine-tuned performance in the closest thing “Forrest Gump” has to a genuine character arc — which is to say, her Jenny resembles a woman of actual agency before the script sanctimoniously kills her off as a punishment for making risky, independent decisions. (Okay, I’ll save my laundry list of objections to “Forrest Gump” for another day.)

Both “Gump” women made a good case to the Academy, yet early warning bells rang in the Field camp when the Globes nominated only Wright. The Screen Actors’ Guild, in the inaugural year of their awards, found room for Wright and Field, though they weren’t yet the significant precursor they’ve since grown into — and were particularly parochial in their early years when it came to American contenders. (A month or so after the Oscars, meanwhile, BAFTA evened out the scales by nominating Field alone.) 

Beyond “Pulp Fiction” breakout Uma Thurman and “Bullets Over Broadway”‘s unbeatable Dianne Wiest, however, there were no consensus contenders: the Globes opted for Kirsten Dunst in “Interview With the Vampire” (good call) and Sophia Loren in “Pret-a-Porter” (er, not so much), while SAG favored Jamie Lee Curtis in “True Lies,” whom the Globes had honored as a lead. 

The general lack of evident commitment should have made it relatively easy for both Wright and Field to score with the Academy, which would have brought “Gump” — and here’s a sobering thought — a record-breaking haul of 15 nominations. Instead, whether their fanbases were split or simply not ardent enough in the first place, they cancelled each other out. Instead, the Academy surprised pretty much everyone with a trio of nominees who had scarcely shown up anywhere in the precursors.

Two of them, as if in reply to SAG’s list, were Brits: Cannes winner Helen Mirren notched up her first Oscar appearance for “The Madness of King George,” while veteran Rosemary Harris snuck in for the little-seen “Tom & Viv.” Rounding out the category was Jennifer Tilly, riding a bigger-than-expected wave of enthusiasm for “Bullets Over Broadway” — if only in that one category, Woody Allen’s period bauble handily trumped the Best Picture juggernaut. 

Most are expecting Field will belatedly pick up her first supporting nomination in January — but should she miss out for another baity role in a hefty Best Picture contender, it wouldn’t be the first time. Field’s missing nod for “Forrest Gump” is as clear a reminder as any that sometimes even the most cast-iron Oscar vehicles can get passed over in startlingly obvious places. Remember “The Return of the King” failing to score a Best Cinematography nod? (It would surely have won a record-breaking 12th Oscar had the lensers’ branch let it through.) Or when “Brokeback Mountain” was slapped with that tell-tale snub for Best Film Editing? Some phantom nominations have a more haunting effect than others.

What nominations do you always incorrectly remember? Share them in the comments.   

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