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Oscar Predictions, Part 4: The Acting Categories

Breaking down three total blowouts and one race that is almost impossible to call.

When the dust clears from this year’s Academy Awards race, we’ll have a lot to talk about — mainly, why it was so dusty in the first place. The likely winners in three of the four acting categories have been entrenched for so long that Sunday seems likely to feel more like a coronation than a contest. I’m not demanding suspense — there’ll be plenty when Cate Blanchett takes the stage to announce the Best Actor winner — but shouldn’t there have been at least an argument or two?

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

It’s a measure of how thoroughly Patricia Arquette has dominated this field — her IMDb awards page lists 27 different prizes for her Boyhood performance — that the cases against her potential competitors spring to mind more easily than the cases for them. Meryl Streep? She’s got three, will probably get more, doesn’t need this one. Keira Knightley? Good work in a rote role. Laura Dern? The part’s too small. Emma Stone? Too soon — sure, she could conceivably coattail on a Birdman landslide, but this feels like her welcome-to-the-upper-ranks nomination, not her win. The main factor working against Arquette’s rivals, though, is Arquette’s performance; she invests so deeply in her character — her concern, her volatility, her bad choices, her good ones — that by the end of Boyhood you realize you’ve seen a movie as much about her as about her son.

This is Arquette’s first nomination. She ages from 34 to 45 onscreen, living out the years of waning hope for many actresses in real time. While filming Boyhood over that stretch, she had a moderate successful TV series that your mom watched (Medium), a recurring gig on Boardwalk Empire, and a handful of mostly forgettable movies. The week after the Oscars, her new TV series, CSI: Cyber (sigh) premieres. This is actually a compelling, relatable awards narrative for Oscar voters. Most people who try to act in TV and movies are not professionally successful. And most successful actors, including those in the Academy, aren’t Meryl Streep or Angelina Jolie or Julia Roberts: They’re Patricia Arquette, putting together a career piece by piece, performance by performance, always serving their material, often exceeding it, and hoping for that one role that fits them like a couture gown and makes the world understand what they can really do, given the chance. This is hers.

Winner: Patricia Arquette

Dark Horse: Emma Stone

Mark-Ruffalo-FoxcatcherScott Garfield/Fair Hill

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

I’m tempted to call J.K. Simmons the male Patricia Arquette, but I’m afraid he’d throw a chair at my head. Still: 148 credits! The guy works so hard that on his IMDb page, there are now 24 entries — movies, TV series, guest shots, video game voices — just since Whiplash. (Television viewers, by the way, were on to him way before moviemakers were; nobody who watched Oz can be surprised that he had this performance in him.)

A lot is made every year of the vagaries of the Academy Awards calendar — the last-minute footrace in November and December as every movie with Oscar aspirations struggles to shove itself through the turnstile so it’ll be fresh in voters’ minds. So it’s refreshing to see that, sometimes, fortune favors the early arrival. Critics got their first look at Simmons’s Whiplash performance — which in truth resides right on the line between supporting and co-lead — over a year ago, at the Sundance Film Festival, and the Oscar talk started there. (Which is hideous, but whaddayagonnado?) In a way, his performance became the bar and every one of the competing performances became something that was being judged by whether it could reach the bar. That Simmons is still standing, despite very strong work elsewhere in this category, is a testament to his performance, which is, I think, great not just for its drill-sergeant ferocity but for many other qualities — his terrifying ability to keep you in the dark about when the switch is going to flip from affability to rage, and (mild spoilers) the worth-watching-twice scenes in the classroom and the jazz club when his character is actually “acting.” Also, I’m not entirely sure how this will play out on Sunday, but Oscar voters really like Whiplash — it’s up for five Oscars, and it’s a serious contender for four of them. And a sure bet for one.

Winner: J.K. Simmons

Dark Horses: Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton

still-alice-hpSony Pictures Classics

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild 

I’ve already griped at length about the thinness of both this year’s Best Actress field and the discussion around it. No point in belaboring it. Five-time nominee Julianne Moore is going to win this Oscar because she is very, very good in Still Alice, a small movie that has so far made a surprisingly robust $5 million, with a good deal more to come, purely on the strength of You gotta see her. If there’s a threat, it’s probably Cotillard, simply because her nomination was the biggest surprise of the bunch, which meant that a lot of voters probably made sure they stuck Two Days, One Night in the DVD player and gave her human-scale, unshowoffy work as a woman in dire economic circumstances a close and appreciative look.

Another time, we can talk about how symptomatic of larger cultural/Hollywood ills it is that the Best Actress conversation is almost completely segregated from any discussion about the movies that are really in the thick of the Oscar race. Collectively, the five films in this category have 10 nominations; the five films represented in Best Actor have 33. We’ll save that and hope for better things next year. This year, Julianne Moore should have an Oscar. And soon, she will.

Winner: Julianne Moore

Dark Horse: Marion Cotillard

birdman-hpFox Searchlight

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything 

At last, a real race! You know, one of those contests in which a lot of good people didn’t even make the top five (Ralph Fiennes, Jake Gyllenhaal, and David Oyelowo, this parenthetical’s for you!) and more than one person could possibly win and I can get through this whole analysis without ever having to use words like “obviously.” On Sunday night, it might even be worth sticking around until hour three (or four) for this category.

I mean this as no insult to Steve Carell, but let’s start at the bottom with him (that’s what she said!). His spooky, ballsy, wildly inventive and committed performance is my favorite of this bunch, but it’s divisive, and unlike the other contenders in this field, Foxcatcher didn’t have the breadth of support to get a Best Picture nomination, so he’s probably out. Also out, I think, is Benedict Cumberbatch, and that’s a little more surprising; when The Imitation Game was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, he was discussed as a possible winner. Then two things happened: One is that his typically precise and intelligent performance seemed to lose a side bout (Best Actor In A British Prestige Drama That Really Would’ve Been Just Fine On TV) to Eddie Redmayne’s more visible metamorphosis in The Theory of Everything. The second is that the Weinstein Company’s hyper-aggressive, utterly bizarre “Honor The Man. Honor The Film” push actually undercut the case for his performance: We’ll know on Sunday if the Imitation Game campaign worked, but its focus on noisy attempts to get posthumous justice for Alan Turing and endorsements of his importance from the likes of the head of PayPal and the Human Rights Campaign made the movie itself sound like a PSA and sold its talented star short. Because, contrary to what you might guess from the ads, Alan Turing is not a nominee.

Best Actor is currently perceived as a two-man contest between Redmayne and Keaton, with Bradley Cooper charging very hard from behind. Redmayne and Keaton are both first-time nominees. Redmayne, who is 33, would be the eighth youngest of the 87 winners of this prize; remarkably, Keaton, at 63, would be the second oldest after On Golden Pond’s Henry Fonda (although Art Carney, John Wayne, Paul Newman, and George Arliss certainly seemed older). Cooper (who’s 40) is in many ways less of an outlier — this award has gone to men coping with the trauma of wartime experience many times (Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Jon Voight); the first Best Actor Oscar ever given, to Emil Jannings for The Last Command, was a movie about PTSD before it even had a name.

People who want to dismiss Keaton say that in Birdman, he’s just playing himself (he isn’t). People who want to dismiss Redmayne say his performance relies entirely on showy externals (it doesn’t). Not many people want to dismiss Cooper, an Academy favorite who has amassed four nominations (including one for producing American Sniper) in the last three years — but what I’m hearing a lot in my conversations with voters is “He makes the movie better” or “He gives Chris Kyle a depth that isn’t always in the script,” which suggests a degree of resistance to the film itself among enough voters that he probably finishes an honorable third. (As for the argument that Cooper could benefit from a split vote: Vote-splitting can only happen when the exact same voting subgroup divides between two similar candidates, allowing a third to emerge. In this case, all three guys have distinct constituencies, so whoever wins takes it fair and square.)

I’m stalling, because the truth is, I’ve gotten this far in the writing of this column without being able to talk myself into an answer. The Screen Actors Guild, which has matched the eventual Best Actor Oscar winner for 10 years in a row, gave it to Redmayne, which feels awfully persuasive, except that only about two of those 10 races were even considered close. (And before that 10-for-10 streak, during a run of tight contests, SAG missed four years in a row.) Also on Redmayne’s side: Voters do tend to favor physically transformative work. In Keaton’s favor, there’s great overall Academy support for the nine-time nominee Birdman, as well as recent precedent (Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart) for a win that represents appreciation for a performance that feels like a summary of all that’s good about an actor. It feels silly to feign expertise in predicting a race that could well be settled, say, 33 percent to 31 percent, but …

Winner: Eddie Redmayne

Close Second: Michael Keaton

Dark Horse: Bradley Cooper

Tomorrow! A serious dearth of sure things and a healthy dose of hand-wringing as I take on the final four contests: Original and Adapted Screenplay, Director, and Picture.