The Case Against...

January 30, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

I find myself trapped between the belief that all film critics should write something about Oscar nominations and the assertion that all articles about Oscar nominations are inherently dull. I have read probably a dozen Oscar related columns during the past week and each of them has said the same thing. What a surprise that Dreamgirls and Jack Nicholson weren't nominated! How nice that Little Miss Sunshine was recognized! How could Penelope Cruz be nominated even though Volver didn't make the Foreign Film cut? And so on... So I'm going to try to do something at least a little different by playing Devil's Advocate. I therefore present the cases against the frontrunners.

The Case Against Forest Whitaker: It has been universally accepted that Whitaker will take home the statue. After all, he has won just about every major award out there. I'm not going to write bad things about the actor - his performance as Amin is chilling. However, this is a supporting performance, not a lead one, so he has been nominated in the wrong category. Then there's the O'Toole factor. The man is a legend but this is his eighth nomination and he hasn't won. That's right - Lawrence of Arabia has never taken home an acting Oscar. (He was awarded one of those honorary figurines a few years ago.) Given O'Toole's poor health, this is likely to be his last chance. ("Once more into the breach...") If O'Toole was a well-liked, fun guy, there would be no question he'd win over Whitaker, but people who know him say he can be cantankerous and pompous and he's far from a Hollywood insider. The quality of his performance in Venus (which is very good) is irrelevant - it's the excuse to get him on the ballot. Now the question becomes how many people want to go with "popular" choice Whitaker and how many want to honor O'Toole and his legacy. Most people will probably still vote for the guy who's closer to home.

The Case Against Helen Mirren: There isn't one. She will win in a cakewalk. Frankly, none of the other nominees are in the same league for their 2006 work. (Career-wise, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench arguably trump her.) Had Maggie Gyllenhaal made the cut, I could have argued her case, but she's not one of the nominees. Penelope Cruz, in a good but not especially memorable performance, took what might have been her spot. I love Kate Winslet, but there's no way she's going to topple The Queen.

The Case Against Eddie Murphy: Murphy's Dreamgirls performance ranks among the best acting he has done in his career, but is that alone a reason for him to win an Oscar? And didn't anyone else feel it steered a little too close to his James Brown Saturday Night Live parodies? Murphy is the front-runner because he's well liked but, performance-wise, he's no better than third on the list. Djimon Honsou was riveting in Blood Diamond - a force of nature that makes Murphy's performance look like a summertime drizzle. And Jackie Earle Haley disappeared into his character - something Murphy never came close to doing. Watching Honsou and Haley, one was seeing their characters. Watching Murphy, one was seeing Murphy play a character. But he'll win anyway. Neither Honsou nor Haley will generate significant support because the Oscars are a popularity contest and no one is more popular than Murphy.

The Case Against Jennifer Hudson: The first time I saw Dreamgirls, Hudson floored me. The second time I saw it, her singing wowed me, but not her acting. As an actress, she's okay - not great but certainly competent. As a singer, she's stunning. The question becomes whether an actress should win an award for a performance that's half great/half okay. Perhaps a little more consistency should be required. Hudson is a popular choice because of her rags-to-riches story. On the other hand, if Babel gathers enough steam and becomes this year's Little Indie That Could, Rinko Kikuchi should get some support. Her performance is more daring, more consistent, and more emotionally wrenching than Hudson's. The major impediments to her winning: she's subtitled and the Babel vote could be split between her and Adriana Barraza. There's also the possibility that the Academy will be won over by the smile and charm of Abagail Breslin. Probably not, though. Figure Hudson to be the only American Idol contestant who will win an Oscar.

The Case Against Martin Scorsese: Common wisdom dictates that Scorsese will eventually be honored by the Academy, even if it's via the Peter O'Toole route. He's the Michelle Kwan of the cinema – perennially honored but victimized by bad luck and worse timing at the Big Show. He should win this year. Sentiment is on his side. No one wants to see another forced smile on his face hiding dashed dreams. But still... Hollywood likes movies that are about something, and The Departed isn't a morality tale. It's a brilliantly realized gangster melodrama, but there's no moral. Babel, on the other hand, makes a point and if there's a pro-Babel surge in the next couple of weeks, it's not unreasonable to suppose that Alejandro González Iñárritu could eke out a surprise win. My money's on Scorsese, though.

The Case Against Babel: In the Best Picture category, it's not hard to present a case against any of the titles because there's no front-runner. This contest is neck and neck between Babel and The Departed with Little Miss Sunshine lurking in the shadows as a dark horse. Babel, although in the lead at the moment, is vulnerable for the same reason The Departed is: the lack of a groundswell of support. This has led some prognosticators to look to Little Miss Sunshine. My view is that the film is out of its league. Ditto for Letters from Iwo Jima and The Queen. Pundits don't give those films much of a chance and I agree. Babel meets the "serious, issue related" Oscar criterion but it is hamstrung because of all the subtitles. Everyone knows Oscar voters can't read. The Departed could pull it out with a late innings push, but this one is still too close to call. Ask me again on February 26.