We turn now to the big-ticket categories (yes, damn it, writing counts!). There are no awards (or even nominations) for Gravity in these four contests; this is where the other Best Picture contenders will try to stake their claims.
Best Original Screenplay
Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club
Spike Jonze, Her
Bob Nelson, Nebraska
The split in this category — three of the contenders were written or cowritten by their directors, two were not — brings up an interesting point of Oscar-campaign etiquette: Directors who don’t write their movies can be big boosters of their screenplay nominees … or not. The writers of Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club both had compelling making-of stories to tell: Nelson started work on his script more than 10 years ago, Borten more than 20. But Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée, who isn’t nominated, wasn’t much of a presence on the campaign circuit. And although Nebraska’s Alexander Payne has many virtues, talking up his writers isn’t one of them; his take on the Nebraska script is that he liked it because it was short, and then he rewrote it. That’s how you create an also-ran.
Of the three remaining nominees, more than enough has been said on the subject of Woody Allen — why, I bet he might not even bother to show up this year! This is a very tight contest between American Hustle, which has great overall Academy support, and Her, which has come on strong with wins in this category from the Golden Globes and the Writers Guild of America. Neither of those prizes is an Oscar bellwether (there’s arguably no such thing in this field), but respect for the singularity and originality of Jonze’s vision is real, and this is probably the only place it stands a chance of being rewarded. However, few writer-directors work the awards circuit with as much vigor as Russell, who now has five nominations in four years. About 20 percent of Academy voters are actors, and for a writer-director whose movies yield one showcase opportunity after another, that could be enough to make the difference.
Winner: American Hustle
Dark Horse: Her
Best Adapted Screenplay
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
Billy Ray, Captain Phillips
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street
Almost since the beginning of awards season, it has been widely assumed that 12 Years a Slave would take this prize. But assumption does not always equal enthusiasm: The frequency with which you hear “I have problems with the script, but I think it’s going to win” suggests that at least some voters are looking for an alternative to what feels like a narrative of inevitability. Is that alternative Philomena, a movie that’s gotten considerable attention since the nominations were announced and the choice of which would allow voters to forgo 12 Years but still demonstrate that the Academy has a social conscience? Is it the well-liked Captain Phillips, which took this award at the WGA (where, it should be noted, 12 Years was ineligible)? Or might it be Before Midnight, which, with its feasts of argumentative dialogue, feels in some ways like the most natural choice for a writing award?
Probably none of the above (and not The Wolf of Wall Street, either — support for that movie is all about Marty/Leo love). The 12 Years screenplay may be a weak front-runner, but the only way to take down a weak front-runner is for support to coalesce around a single viable alternative, not around three.
Winner: 12 Years a Slave
Dark Horse: Philomena
Best 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
When Wesley Morris reviewed American Hustle here a couple of months ago, he praised Cooper’s “entirely physical … strutting, speed-talking, stuttering, shifting” performance as even better than the one that won the actor an Oscar nomination last year for Silver Linings Playbook, then predicted that “Cooper will never receive his due as a comic actor.” I’m with Wesley, on both the strengths of Cooper’s work in Hustle — which would get my vote — and the suspicion it will go underrecognized. Likewise, Hill’s raunchy, wholly convincing freak show of a turn in The Wolf of Wall Street is fully deserving of inclusion here but hard to see winning over the Academy’s elders. Fassbender announced early on that he found Oscar campaigning a “grind” and was opting out, which was probably wise. To honor a movie about slavery by giving the most prominent white actor in the cast an Oscar just one year after doing the same thing with Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained might lead some people to wonder if the Academy has a little bit of a problem on this subject.
Leto strode through the prelims picking up award after award and, despite some umbrage over his Golden Globes speech, has not done any serious damage to himself, which is how front-runners stay in the front. Rayon is, in some ways, a flat role that relies too heavily on externals and pathos, but within it, Leto underplays effectively and makes smart, small choices, whether taking a moment to play with Jennifer Garner’s hair or slumping in a suit when he visits his father in a way that conveys that men’s clothes are the only drag he’s ever hated wearing. If there’s a potential spoiler here, it’s Abdi, whose out-of-nowhere narrative offers a strong counterpoint to Leto’s back-from-nowhere narrative. A Best Supporting Actor win for Abdi would follow squarely in the Haing S. Ngor/Harold Russell tradition. It would also be a very big surprise.
Winner: Jared Leto
Dark Horse: Barkhad Abdi
Best 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
If Lawrence had not won Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook, we would almost certainly be looking at a coronation. She is, as I’ve written here before, the biggest new American female movie star to emerge since one of her competitors, Julia Roberts (who made her Oscar debut in this category 24 years ago). Her other movie, that little franchise sidelight for which she isn’t nominated, became the 10th highest-grossing film in U.S. history this weekend. She’s dynamite on talk shows. She’s beloved on the circuit. And she has yet to turn 24. What do you get the girl who has everything? Maybe not a second Academy Award in two years. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it begins to look like carelessness. Especially when the just-as-delightful Squibb is, at 84, awaiting her first.
In search of a different Oscar narrative, we turn to Nyong’o. When 12 Years a Slave racked up huge grosses last fall in a tiny handful of theaters, box-office pundits looking for comparisons forecast that, by the end of its run, it could have earned as much domestically as Lincoln ($182 million) or as little as Precious ($48 million). Nineteen weeks later, 12 Years a Slave stands at $49 million — a testament to just how hard it is to turn audiences out for a searingly painful R-rated drama with a primarily black cast. And it’s quite possible that its Oscar haul will consist of the same two awards Precious won: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. Nyong’o — beautiful, born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, trained at Yale Drama School — represents one of the things the Oscars are supposed to be about: the notion that pure merit can take you from virtual unknown to Academy Award winner within a year. I’m not crazy about Academy Awards being given for onscreen suffering, but confusing the trials of a character with the skill of an actor is a tradition almost as old as the Oscars — and when the actor involved is this manifestly talented, why fight it?
Winner: Lupita Nyong’o
Dark Horses: Jennifer Lawrence and June Squibb
Tomorrow: Blanchett crosses her fingers. McConaughey thumps his chest. Streep yawns and thinks, Whatever. Best Actor and Actress!