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  • Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

    Jared Leto, left, and Matthew McConaughey star in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Both actors are nominated for Oscars.

  • Jessica Miglio / Sony Pictures Classics

    Alec Baldwin is Hal and Cate Blanchett is Jasmine in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.”

  • Francois Duhamel

    The cast of “12 Years a Slave” includes, from left, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor. All three are up for Academy Awards next Sunday.

  • Evan Agostini / Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

    Director Alfonso Cuaron at the premiere of "Gravity" in New York.

  • Sony Pictures Classics / Sony Pictures Classics

    Cate Blanchett is Jasmine in “Blue Jasmine.”

  • Francois Duhamel

    Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, left) and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) attempt to scam an undercover agent in “American Hustle.”

Oscar predictions: McConaughey, Blanchett and ‘12 Years’ will have their day

Published: Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Monday, Mar. 3, 2014 - 6:19 am

Acting Oscar nominations often favor the very young and senior citizens. For obvious reasons.

Youth represents the fresh and unexpected; everyone likes a discovery. Older age, conversely, lends itself to touching stories and performances.

It’s why 9-year-old Quvanzhane Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva (“Amour”) occupied the same best-actress field last year. They both lost, yet youth still was served by 22-year-old winner Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”).

Nominees at the 86th Academy Awards, airing at 4 p.m. March 2 on ABC, include two septuagenarians (Judi Dench from “Philomena” and Bruce Dern from “Nebraska”), an octogenarian (June Squibb, “Nebraska”) and Meryl Streep (“August: Osage County”), who is 64, or in high middle age on the current boomer scale.

But the young end does not go very young, stopping at Lawrence, nominated this year for “American Hustle.” Instead, there’s heavy action in the 35-44 demographic, especially at Jack Benny’s ideal age of 39.

Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper from “Hustle” and Leonardo DiCaprio from “The Wolf of Wall Street” are 39. Christian Bale from “Hustle” just turned 40. Sally Hawkins from “Blue Jasmine” is 37, and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender from “12 Years a Slave” a year younger.

At the high end of the demographic – and important end, since they likely will win – are 42-year-old Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and 44-year-olds Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas”) and Cate Blanchett (“Jasmine”).

These actors sit in that sweet spot for any industry: Years of experience have honed their skill sets, yet they still have decades of productivity ahead (though McConaughey and especially Bale should lay off the extreme body makeovers).

Among them, they count 24 Oscar nominations, two wins (supporting Oscars for Blanchett for “The Aviator” and Bale in “The Fighter”) and box-office successes that have not hampered their artistic impulses.

Their histories are impressive, their futures highly promising. Especially those of four-time acting nominee DiCaprio and five-timer Adams. Though they appear to be out of the running this year, they clearly count many supporters in the Academy and probably will win someday.

More immediately, here are my predictions of who will win a week from today. Each category includes a probable victor – based on pre-Oscar critics’ and Hollywood guild awards, Internet prognostications and instinct – along with who I think deserves to win. What’s great this year is how often the “will wins” and the “should wins” line up.

The March 2 A&E section will include a complete Oscar ballot with my picks and room for yours in every Oscar category down to sound mixing.

ACTOR

Christian Bale, “American Hustle”

Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”

Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”

Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”

Will win: McConaughey. Compare McConaughey’s work from 2000-09 with his performances during the past five years. The difference could not be more stark.

In movies such as “Sahara,” “Failure to Launch” and “Fool’s Gold,” McConaughey fell into “all-right all-right all-right” self-parody.

In 2011, he dusted off his early indie cred from films like “Dazed and Confused” in the terrific star vehicle “The Lincoln Lawyer.” He has rolled out fine performances ever since, in the indie or indie-leaning movies “Killer Joe,” “Bernie,” “The Paperboy,” “Magic Mike” and “Mud.”

Sure, he tends to stick to variations of Southern Gothic. But they beat variations of Southern California doofus.

As Ron Woodroof, the hard-partying, 1980s AIDS patient and black-market drug seller (based on a real guy) in “Dallas Buyers Club,” McConaughey offers a portrait of excess, denial, desperation and gradually dawning humanity.

But he’s better in “Mud” and best yet on HBO’s current “True Detective” as a brilliant, haunted Louisiana state police detective.

His Oscar will be cumulative, his reward for pulling off the greatest comeback since John Travolta’s in the 1990s.

Should win: Ejiofor

Ejiofor’s performance is as powerful as McConaughey’s but more nuanced. It comes down to how they play outrage.

In “Dallas,” Ron recognizes FDA feet-dragging on experimental HIV and AIDS drugs and reacts strongly. He makes scenes. Though he is dying and also the subject of prejudice because of his AIDS diagnosis, Ron still has the luxury of being able to speak out.

Ejiofor’s character, also a real-life figure, lacks that luxury. Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped into slavery in 1841, is apoplectic about his plight at film’s start but soon learns that protest brings only more and greater degradation. Therefore he must suppress his anger.

But if you look closely, you can see that the outrage Ejiofor visibly wrestled down early in the film persists. It does not raise hell like Ron’s outrage. It simmers. It, along with memories of a better life, keep Solomon hopeful he can regain his freedom, though little of what he sees in his dozen years in bondage indicates such a possibility.

Plus, the British Ejiofor, wonderful in English (“Dirty Pretty Things,” “Kinky Boots”) and American (“Talk to Me”) movies, never needed to come back from anything.

ACTRESS

Amy Adams, “American Hustle”

Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”

Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”

Judi Dench, “Philomena”

Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”

Will win: Blanchett. This category was decided when “Jasmine” was released in August. Blanchett has moved through the pre-Oscar awards with an ease rivaled historically only by Helen Mirren and “The Queen” (2006).

As Jasmine, a socialite whose cushy life is disrupted by her Bernie Madoff-esque husband’s imprisonment, Blanchett invites the viewer into her character’s troubled interior without trying to make it a comfortable place to stay.

Blanchett reveals that interior not through Jasmine’s interactions with other characters (Jasmine continues to put on airs despite her downfall), but through her own unflinchingly honest relationship to Woody Allen’s camera. Blanchett’s faraway eyes tell us Jasmine is coming unraveled even before her character’s designer clothes fall victim to over-wear.

Should win: Blanchett

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”

Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”

Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”

Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

Will win: Leto. As transgender AIDS patient Rayon, Leto combines a gentle spirit and physical fragility with displays of inner strength.

Laid-back and observant, Leto’s Rayon makes a lovely foil/friend for McConaughey’s manic, reactionary Ron. But Leto gives the character enough steel for Rayon to be just as believable when putting the hammer down with Ron regarding their drug business and Ron’s bigotry.

Should win: Fassbender. It’s no fault of Leto’s, but Rayon – a composite character in a reality-based film – sometimes comes across as too angelic to be true.

Fassbender’s sadistic plantation owner in “12 Years,” by contrast, is based on a real devil and reveals an attendant depth. Fassbender shows how the planter, Edwin Epps, worries for his own soul as he systematically destroys the spirit of field hand Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), whom Epps praises by day and rapes at night.

Fassbender does not shy away from portraying Epps as a monster. But he makes him a three-dimensional monster, highlighting the man’s inner torment – suggesting guilt and twisted affection within his cruelty – along with his vicious behavior.

As played by Fassbender, Epps embodies the pervasive sickness of an economic system that traded in human beings.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”

Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”

Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”

Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”

June Squibb, “Nebraska”

Will win: Nyong’o. Yale School of Drama alumna Nyong’o, 30, made the most stunning film debut of the year as Patsey, a beautiful young woman whose remarkable physical and spiritual resilience is threatened by a sadistic plantation owner (Fassbender).

Though Nyong’o has faced stiff competition from Lawrence’s wild performance as an unhappy housewife in “Hustle” (Lawrence won the BAFTA award and Golden Globe), Nyong’o won the Screen Actors Guild Award. This bodes well because actors make up the Academy’s biggest voting bloc.

Much has been made of the physical rigors of Nyong’o’s role, which entailed scenes of great brutality. But smaller moments are just as affecting.

Like one in which Patsey emulates the pinky-up drinking style of the former slave turned plantation mistress (Alfre Woodard) with whom Patsey sits down to tea. Nyong’o shows Patsey’s quiet fascination as this woman offers frank assessments of men like Epps.

And Nyong’o devastates in a scene with Ejiofor in which Patsey expresses abject despair.

More even than Ejiofor’s Solomon, Nyongo’s Patsey represents the hopelessness of a system in which the “owned” could do everything right yet still be wronged at will.

Should win: Nyong’o

DIRECTING

Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”

Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”

Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”

David O. Russell, “American Hustle”

Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Will win: Cuarón. The special-effects people helped out, but the vision behind the remarkable cinematic achievement “Gravity” was Cuarón’s.

Cuarón’s long, continuous shots established a visual flow that allowed the audience to swing into open space with stranded astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

“Gravity” succeeds so mightily at creating its world that you accept that world without thinking about what’s behind the curtain. But what’s behind it are famous actors in harnesses and thousands of details that needed to be ironed out in translating Cuarn’s (and his co-writer son Jonas’) zero-gravity vision to the screen.

A director’s job is creative but also highly technical. There was no greater technical achievement in 2013 than “Gravity.”

Should win: Cuarón

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

“American Hustle,” Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell

“Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen

“Dallas Buyers Club,” Craig Borten & Melissa Wallack

“Her,” Spike Jonze

“Nebraska,” Bob Nelson

Will win: “Hustle.” “Her” has its supporters, but that film had one great idea – a near future of people so isolated by technology that a man romances a computer operating system – and several boring scenes.

“Hustle” lacks great ideas but includes many fun ones. There are short cons, a long con and at least some basis in American political history: The movie’s sometimes-ridiculous scenes of corruption come directly from the sometimes-ridiculous 1970s Abscam FBI operation that involved a fake Arab sheikh and netted several lawmakers.

The film zings with energy generated by its performances, Russell’s direction and a script filled with well-drawn characters and funny lines.

Should win: “Hustle”

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

“Before Midnight, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

“Captain Phillips,” Billy Ray

“Philomena,” Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope

“12 Years a Slave,” John Ridley

“The Wolf of Wall Street,” Terence Winter

Will win: “12 Years.” Ridley kept the formal speech from Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir about his time in slavery but none of its politeness. Ridley distilled Northup’s dozen years in bondage – and the slavery system itself – down to its inhuman essence, but without simplifying matters.

Should win: “12 Years”

PICTURE

“American Hustle”

“Captain Phillips”

“Dallas Buyers Club”

“Gravity”

“Her”

“Nebraska”

“Philomena”

“12 Years a Slave”

“The Wolf of Wall Street”

Will win: “12 Years.” When you consider its hauntingly beautiful visual composition (director Steve McQueen has an art-world background), superb performances and inherently compelling true story, “12 Years” ranks alongside “Gravity” and “Hustle” among the year’s best films.

But it surpasses them in impact. It provokes more thought and more emotion as it sheds light on an aspect of American history many people prefer not to consider.

The only way “12 Years” will not win is if Academy voters find it too difficult. It could happen: Last year, Oscar voters chose the tense but humor-inflected “Argo” over the more topical and dead serious “Zero Dark Thirty.” In 2006, the Academy picked the life-in-Los Angeles ensemble “Crash” – a film that had some sociocultural resonance at the time but is hard to remember now – over “Brokeback Mountain,” a film for the ages.

Should win: “12 Years.” It too is one for the ages.


Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

Read more articles by Carla Meyer



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