As usual, this morning’s Golden Globe nominations did more to confirm the Oscar race storyline than to shake it up. After the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s 5 a.m. PST announcement, the contest that the awards world had long seen coming was set in stone, revolving around three somewhat problematic front-runners — Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, and Lincoln — with a pack of plausible second-tier contenders nipping at their heels in Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, and now, thanks to the Globes’ one bit of alchemy, Django Unchained.
The awards season is a long process of watching a snake devour its own tail. After the hobnobbing amongst industry players at Oscar-season screenings and receptions, a consensus begins to form around who is in the race and who is out. The class of writers who spend their years working as award pundits post the rumors of consensus on their sites. For the various groups who stage awards shows — from the Globes to the SAG Awards to the entirely self-created Hollywood Film Awards — maintaining their relevance as “predictors” of the Oscars is all important. And so the electorates of this group seem to read the predictions and duly confirm them in their nominations. Before this morning’s announcements, the two major prediction charts showed the three-way cluster at the top, with the pack just behind. And lo and behold, that is what the Globes gave them.
The one true stand-out from the conventional wisdom, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, has largely been ignored elsewhere in the campaign but took the spot of Globes’ token oddball. The benefit of being a small 85 member association is that the group can coalesce around off-the-map choices. Each year they seem to give a little boost to some film that has slipped below the radar. This year, Salmon took that prize, getting one of the Best Comedy/Musical slots. The berth in that lesser ranks, however, while a nice piece of attention for the film is unlikely to propel it from Oscar oblivion into the thick of an already crowded field.
Already this is the wildest Oscar race of modern times. By this point in past years, a single film is generally the clear favorite, with maybe a semi-plausible contender still in the hunt. But if a wide-open field is the state of things, the Globes, as is their custom, confirmed that and left all the major contenders still standing, albeit some a little taller than others.
Let’s review, then, the state of the race and where things stand in the post–Globe nominations world.
The Heavyweight: “Zero Dark Thirty”
Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful real-life thriller about the hunt for bin Laden has been blowing away early-screening audiences, likely catapulting itself into lead position. Questions remain, though, whether the material is too edgy for Oscar. The Academy, dating back to its first ceremony in 1927, has exactly zero history of bestowing its top prize on films that deal with difficult hot-button contemporary issues. Like the host of a large family dinner, Oscar tries with its big trophy to steer the conversation away from any topic that might offend grandma. Statements such as “war is bad” or “be good to the weak” are about as far out on a limb as Oscar likes to go. Despite the Iraqi setting of Bigelow’s previous film The Hurt Locker, “war is bad” was as controversy-stoking as that drama got, and few eyebrows were raised in any quarter when it took home the award for Best Picture.
Zero Dark Thirty, however, with its graphic depiction of the torture of a prisoner of war and seemingly ambiguous, if not sympathetic, feelings about the practice, dances right onto a third rail of polite dinner-table topics. Whether Oscar is willing to go there and say that this film is so powerful and so true to an important story that it must win remains to be seen. But at the very least, the issue holds the film back from an easy sweep of the field.
The Stalwart: “Lincoln”
Steven Spielberg’s “serious” films have been perennial contenders since Jaws’ nomination in 1975. Yet despite always being in the hunt, only one of his films has actually taken home the Best Picture gold: Schindler’s List, whose 1993 win is now 20 years past. One of Oscar’s favorite hobbies is rewarding its loyal custodians for a lifetime of services rendered (see Martin Scorsese’s win for The Departed). The Academy is not likely to get a better chance to give another to Spielberg than this. Lincoln is not only well-regarded and fronted by an as near-certain winning performance from Daniel Day Lewis, but it’s also a box-office success, having grossed just shy of $100 million to date — very solid numbers for an adult drama.
Still, standing against the ultra-contemporary Zero Dark, the period drama can’t help but look a bit stodgy. The costume picture was once Oscar’s favorite genre, but these days the Academy is more concerned with being hip and edgy (by its standards), and nothing makes you look like more of a fuddy-duddy than a civics lesson in old-timey dress.
The Fallback: “Les Miserables”
The quirk of the Globes nominations is that they divide films into two categories: drama and music/comedy. Thus Les Miserables received its Best Picture nomination this morning, but in the lesser pack, and it won’t get to go head-to-head against Lincoln, Zero Dark, et al, until Oscar night. Some hint at where the Globes’ feelings in that contest stand, however, came in their Best Director picks, which shove the entrants from both categories together. LM’s director, Tom Hopper, was conspicuously absent from the list.
On one level, the film has everything going for it: Based on the most beloved musical of the past 30 years, its cast includes multiple Oscar winners (Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe) and a past Oscar host. It is a grand, massive sweeping story with rapturous, bringing-tears-to-even-the-most-stonelike-eyes moments. The spectacle of the actors singing their own songs makes it just unique enough to give it some claim to contemporariness.
And yet the reviews have been highly mixed, and Oscar may suffer from a bit of buyer’s remorse about Hopper’s last winner — The King’s Speech — which is routinely cited as a reversion back to stodginess for the Academy.
The Field: “Argo,” “Django,” “Silver Linings Playbook”
Right behind the favorites sit a pack of contenders, any one of which, if the winds blow in the right direction for the next two months, has an outside chance of staging an upset. That so many should have any hope at all at this point is nearly unprecedented in recent Oscardom, but it is a testament to the fact that 2012 produced a bounty crop of better than average, middle-of-the-road adult dramas. Unique of this year, there are no Death Star candidates: no giant films sweeping the field by sheer weight while a sizable minority jeers them from the sidelines. The films in the race are almost all — with the possible exception of Les Mis — well liked. It is a gentleman’s Oscar race this year. Or it could be!
Argo started out of the gate as the early favorite and has been well received by all. But a feeling has crept in that it “peaked too soon”; with the movie having opened way back in October, Academy voters had already digested it and were ready to move on when fresh faces came to the field. The phenomenon of “peaking” demonstrates just what a clubby, consensus-chasing, manipulatable group this is. After all, Oscar is choosing the best film of the year, not the best film of the last three weeks of the year. Nonetheless, the one thing Oscar will not tolerate is a loser, and if it feels like the momentum is sliding away from a film, Academy voters were not cut out to be the brave souls standing in the tank’s path.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained received the biggest boost of any film this morning. After being ignored yesterday by the SAG Awards, it garnered nods for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and two acting prizes. Many will see the dark hand of the film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein, working the HFPA electorate. One can debate forever whether the Globes is a true indicator of the Oscars or not, but a positive storyline doesn’t do any harm in the battle for consensus, and Django got one today.
Coming out of the festivals, Silver Linings Playbook, featuring standout performances by Robert DeNiro and Jennifer Lawrence, was seen as the rare comedy with Oscar potential. (Comedy is the Academy’s least favorite genre: Only three have even been nominated in the past 10 years. Zero have won.) But the movie has failed to become the phenom many expected, taking in only $14 million to date. The Globes showed a slight hint of distaste, giving the film most of its expected nominations but passing over titan Robert DeNiro in the Best Supporting Actor category. Also a Weinstein film, Silver Linings can’t be completely counted out, but it clearly needs some new story or burst of excitement at this point to keep it from falling out of the pack entirely.