Oscar Glory

02.28.14

The Best Actor and Actress Oscars: Will Woodygate Sink Cate Blanchett? Has DiCaprio’s Time Come?

Ahead of Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony, our critics Marlow Stern and Kevin Fallon debate who will—and should—win the Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress.

In two days, the 86th Annual Academy Awards, an opulent orgy of A-list Hollywood stars, moguls, and self-congratulation, will be viewed by millions of cineastes and stargazers (not a billion, as the Academy often claims). There will, inevitably, be terrible upsets and “WTF?” moments that will inspire the nation to clutch its collective pearls.

There may also be wonderful, shining moments. Who can forget Tom Hanks’s wonderful speech thanking AIDS sufferers everywhere (“the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels…”) after winning the Best Actor Oscar for playing one in Philadelphia, or Sally Field tearfully yelling, “You like me, right now, you like me!” after winning her second Best Actress Oscar for Places in the Heart.

The Best Actress and Best Actor categories this year featured some heavy competition, including a Notes on a Scandal showdown between Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Dame Judi Dench (Philomena) in the former category, and an American Psycho one in the latter, with The Wolf of Wall Street’s Leonardo DiCaprio (originally cast as Bateman) matching up against Christian Bale for American Hustle.

But who will—and should—emerge victorious?

Marlow: Let’s get things started with Best Actress, which was considered an outright lock up until February. Cate Blanchett was supposed to be one of the safest bets at this year’s Oscars for her turn as an ex-Wall Street wife and woman-in-the-midst-of-a-nervous breakdown in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. Even though it’s a very similar performance to her riveting turn as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, which came to Brooklyn’s BAM just over four years ago, Blanchett is at her manic, unhinged best as God’s Lonely Woman—a figure chewed up and spit out by high society; an unfortunate byproduct of greed. “Anxiety, nightmares, and a nervous breakdown—there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming,” says Jasmine.

And then Woodygate happened.

Lest we rehash the whole saga, on Feb. 1, Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen’s adopted daughter with ex-partner Mia Farrow, penned a poignant open letter on Nicolas Kristof’s New York Times blog accusing Allen of a string of abuses, starting with an incident of sexual abuse when she was 7. She even indicted Blanchett, writing, “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?” Allen responded with a defense, and so on and so forth. Dragging Blanchett into the fray seemed uncalled for, but this level of negative PR in the heat of the Oscar race is pretty unprecedented, to say the least.

Kevin: You’re right. Until a month ago, there were three things that were certain in life: death, taxes, and Cate Blanchett’s Oscar win. It’s a Molotov cocktail of a performance—alarming, explosive, and destructive—and the Farrow clan seems hell bent on putting out the fire. OK, it’s extremely unlikely that Mia Farrow, Dylan Farrow, Ronan Farrow, and Ronan Farrow’s luscious, MSNBC-hosting pout set out to royally screw over Cate Blanchett when they reopened Woodygate. But on the off chance that Blanchett doesn’t win on Sunday night, every pundit will tell you that it was because Oscar voters felt icky voting for any aspect of a film that Allen was involved in.

If that’s the case, Amy Adams, after an astonishing five nominations in eight years and a decade as Hollywood’s most unexpectedly versatile in-demand actress, will reap the benefits, taking home the award for her work in American Hustle. For all the talk of Jennifer Lawrence’s drunken fireworks and Christian Bale’s once-again impressive transformation, it’s Adams who pulls off the trickiest acting feat in the film: juggling different identities and motivations while being the glue that holds the movie, at one point quite literally doing the Hustle.

But c’mon. There’s no way they don’t give it to Blanchett, right? Right. TELL ME I’M RIGHT. 

Marlow: Agree that Adams is electrifying in Hustle, and her performance is actually more layered than Blanchett’s, playing an ex-Midwestern stripper posing as a city girl posing as a high society British socialite posing as an FBI agent seductress. Adams has been arguably the most reliable A-list actress in Hollywood after bursting onto the scene with her Oscar nominated turn as a cheery-yet-despondent Southern housewife in Junebug, and the five Oscar nominations in eight years is beyond impressive. I think Blanchett will still win because—I hope—the Academy doesn’t connect her to any of this outside stuff that really has nothing to do with her at all. But if she doesn’t, like you said, everyone and their mother will be pointing to Woodygate as the reason. If she doesn’t, Adams is in. Sadly, my favorite female performance of the year, Adele Exarchopoulos’s feral, uninhibited, and soul-baring turn as an awkward teen navigating the rough waters of first love in Blue is the Warmest Color, wasn’t nominated. For shame. Of the nominees, though, I’d personally give it to Sandra Bullock for Gravity. It’s the best acting she’s ever done, and she pulled off the feat whilst strapped into a chair with strings attached to her inside a little lightbox all by her lonesome. Who would you give it to, if you could?

Kevin: Is it not obvious? Blanchett! It might be the boring choice, but if Blue Jasmine was all one long take of Blanchett’s hand trembling while holding a martini glass, I still would’ve voted for her. Every single small detail of her performance was masterful. She terrified me as much as I felt for her. So many feelings. I do wish that Brie Larson had been nominated for Short Term 12, which she was heartbreaking in, and no actress was as stirring in a scene that required her to bark like a dog (and somehow not play it for comedy) as Bullock was this year in Gravity. But still, the t-shirt I had custom made to wear Sunday night does not say TEAM BLANCHETT for nothing.

But what about the men? Are we all really ready to say the words “Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey?”

Marlow: Brie Larson was brilliant in Short Term 12 and agree she deserved some nom love. And I need to see this custom TEAM BLANCHETT shirt you’ve made. It should be noted that this was the strongest the Best Actor category has been in years (Tom Hanks’s convulsing during the last five minutes of Captain Phillips, Robert Redford for All is Lost, and Joaquin Phoenix for Her weren’t even nominated), but I think McConaughey has this one in the bag. His Dallas Buyers Club performance as Ron Woodroof, a Texan misogynist/homophobe/asshole who, after being diagnosed with HIV, becomes an unlikely AIDS crusader and anti-viral smuggler, is the stuff Oscars were (historically) made for. For the role, he lost 47 pounds, going from 182 to 135, and he’s crafted an uncompromising portrait of a renegade hero. Plus, nobody has as much momentum as McConaughey. In addition to his myriad impressive turns in 2012—a sadistic hitman in Killer Joe, an aging stripper in Magic Mike, a closeted kinky journalist in The Paperboy, and a straitlaced sheriff in Bernie—he was outstanding last year in Mud as a mysterious, Magwitch-like man on the run, and has benefitted enormously from HBO’s True Detective. For seven weeks leading up to the Oscars, audiences have lapped up his gripping turn as Rust Cohle, a philosophical detective with a penchant for elliptical monologues. The show was supposed to run in April but HBO pushed it back, and McConaughey will reap the benefits. No actor has ever had the stars align like this. All right, all right, all right…

Kevin: It’s true McConaughey is having a bit of a moment, isn’t he? I’m very much on board for his Oscar win, but actually was more impressed by his Magic Mike performance last year and wish that was the role that got him his first nod instead of this one. It’s not just because of the abs and the g-string and the assless chaps and what have you, but because it was such a transfixing and weird performance—and one that I thought was far more “bold” for an A-lister to take on. (Struggle as it was to get Dallas Buyers Club made, the film has “Oscar bait” written all over it.) But, yeah, he’s won every single precursor award leading up to Sunday night (except for the BAFTA, which actually didn’t nominate Buyers Club for any major award), fending off threats from Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) along the way. Now, there’s still a chance that 12 Years will have guilted Academy members into voting for it…I mean that 12 Years will be more popular with the Academy than any of us thought and Ejiofor will eke out a surprise win, or that DiCaprio’s “give this guy an Oscar already” campaign will wear voters down. The whole category is a farce, in my opinion, because Joaquin Phoenix’s work in Her, at once precise and operatic and universal but so very odd, wasn’t nominated. But in any case, it’s McConaughey all the way, right?

Marlow: It’s gonna be McConaughey. Like you said, he’s won almost all the awards leading up to the big dance, has had the True Detective bump—which is the best Oscar race PR anyone could possibly have—and is just a really likeable guy. Everyone wants to kick it with Wooderson.

I ranked Joaquin Phoenix’s work as Theodore Twombley, a lonely romantic who falls for his sentient operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in Her, as the best male performance of the year. I stand by it. Phoenix is a revelation in the role, reaching heretofore unforeseen levels of emotional vulnerability. He laughs, he gently sobs himself to sleep, he plays the ukulele, he dances like Michael Jackson, he has the most awkward phone sex imaginable—and he pulled it all off on his own, with (the fired) Samantha Morton whispering sweet nothings in his ear. Phoenix is the most exciting actor around right now and he’s created an unforgettable portrait of contemporary urban ennui. Perhaps he’ll get his awards due for his turn as a gonzo, drugged-out gumshoe in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, out later this year.

It’s getting to be more than a bit absurd how the Academy has treated DiCaprio, who has campaigned like crazy this Oscar season for his turn as scumbag stockbroker Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. He’ll win a few of these in due time, but alas, he won’t be the king of the world this year.