For a minute, it looked as if the race might be over. David O. Russell's "American Hustle" (and the way that that phrase rhymes alone makes us glad it's a Best Picture nominee) had the momentum going into the Oscar nominations last week, and had even more after it: ten nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and four acting nods, one in each category, only the second movie to achieve that feat in the last thirty years (Russell's previous film, "Silver Linings Playbook," being the other).
The front-runner threatened to become the sure thing after Saturday night, when "American Hustle" won the award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture from the Screen Actors' Guild (usually simplified to the SAG ensemble award), the guild's equivalent to Best Picture. Actors historically make up the largest proportion of Academy members, and so SAG honors are always keenly watched as a precursor, and while some of its rivals were never going to figure in here, the film's victory over "12 Years A Slave" seemed to point to an Academy win in six weeks or so. And if the Producers Guild of America went with "American Hustle" as well (as many thought they would), it would have suggested that Russell's film was all but assured of victory.
Except the PGA weren't willing to go with the flow. The awards are particularly notable because they use the same preferential balloting that the Best Picture Oscar vote does, and the film that won their top prize has also taken the Oscar six out of the last six years. There's unlikely to be an exact match up this time though because remarkably, for the first time in the organization's history, there was a tie, with "Gravity" and "12 Years A Slave" sharing the Best Picture award. And so the race remains wide open.
Excitingly, this makes 2014 the first three-way race for Best Picture in quite some time, and it seems likely that the uncertainty will continue for a while yet. Neither "Gravity" nor "12 Years A Slave" have WGA nominations (the latter out of ineligibility), so even if "American Hustle" wins there—though with "Her" in the race, it isn't a foregone conclusion—it won't necessarily mean the Oscar. The Directors' Guild awards could be more telling, but at this point Alfonso Cuaron, Steve McQueen or David O. Russell are likely to win, and whoever the winner turns out to be it's still feasible that there could be a different Best Picture winner, or even a Picture/Director split.
Each have their advantages. "American Hustle" is the most purely enjoyable (which worked out nicely for "The Artist" and "Argo"), and there's now a sense that David O. Russell is due a victory after a wealth of nominations for "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook." "12 Years A Slave" is the most meaningful, may be the vote that makes the voter feel good, and has the potential to lead to a historic night. "Gravity" is the blockbuster smash with a ton of artistry behind it, and points to the future of cinema. And for all the tea-leaf reading that'll go on in the next few weeks, the winner is likely to come right down to the wire.
The actor race may be firming up though as the Screen Actors Guild went the way that many similar precursors have gone: Matthew McConaughey for Best Actor, Cate Blanchett for Best Actress, Jared Leto for Best Supporting Actor, and Lupita Nyong'o for Best Supporting Actress. The SAG have only gone 4/4 a handful of times in their history, but three of those times were in the last decade (2004, 2009 and 2010). That said, they also only went 2/4 in 2007 and 2008, and generally differ from the Academy in at least one of the four major awards. All that said, a quick rundown, post-SAG, of each acting category below.
Frontrunner: Matthew McConaughey. Surfing a career u-turn that should be remembered as one of the great Hollywood comebacks, McConaughey was nearly nominated for "Magic Mike" last year, and has the kind of baity role here (AIDS, weight loss, a bit of a scoundrel) that would make it a threat even without the McConaissance narrative. The SAG love comes on the back of a win from the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice, and his raved-about performance in "True Detective," and great cameo in "The Wolf Of Wall Street" help keep him front-and-center in voters eyes too.
Potential Weakness: There may be a sense that he hasn't quite earned it yet: this is his first nomination, and though his career revival has been something remarkable, he's not quite felt to be due. If he had been nominated last year, his chances would definitely be stronger.
Biggest Threat: Chiwetel Ejiofor. Acting's best kept secret is a secret no longer, and the force of his performance (which is truly extraordinary), is undeniable. Look for him to become more of a presence on the circuit in the weeks to come (the viral clip of his CNN newscaster-sister getting teary when learning of his nomination definitely helps), and if 'Slave' turns into a sweep, Ejiofor could well follow.
Dark Horse: Bruce Dern. No one has worked the party circuit harder this year, and there's a lot of love for the film within the Academy. He's the veteran of the five nominees, and would certainly be a popular winner. But then again, is his victory just in getting the nomination?
Frontrunner: Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine." She's won almost every prize going, and has been in the frontrunner position since the movie opened in the summer. Blanchett has near-legendary status, but has never won Best Actress (her sole Oscar was for "The Aviator" nine years ago), so she doesn't have the "Oh, her again" factor of someone like Meryl Streep.
Potential Weakness: Being the frontrunner for so long isn't necessarily the easiest position to be in, as some start wishing for an upset to make it more interesting. Blanchett losing would be one of the biggest shocks we could remember, but it's not entirely unfeasible.
Biggest Threat: Her nomination wasn't entirely assured, but Amy Adams is probably hottest on Blanchett's heels -- this is her fifth nomination, and she's never won, so she's overdue in a way that the rest of the competition really aren't. The Academy clearly love "American Hustle" deeply, and Adams' performance is both the emotional center of the movie, and also showy in a way that voters often respond to (beloved actress goes sexy, plus a British accent that comes and goes).
Dark Horse: Sandra Bullock. Her last Oscar win may not have been so long ago, but the physical achievement of "Gravity" alone makes it a remarkable performance, let alone the way that she carries the whole thing on her shoulders. And clearly, the PGA award suggests that the film has wide-ranging support. If the movie looks like it's sweeping the board on the night (it's likely to be the biggest winner in terms of quantity of awards, but keep an eye on things like music and score), maybe Bullock can pull an upset.
Best Supporting Actor:
Frontrunner: Jared Leto. Tell us a year ago that the actor/emo-rocker would be winning an Oscar and we'd have chuckled long and hard before quietly making a phone call to have you committed, but Leto's been the one to watch in this category since TIFF, and he's won almost as many precursor awards as Blanchett has. Maybe more importantly, his competition isn't that strong, and no one else has really emerged from the pack as a real threat.
Potential Weakness: As anyone who saw his self-directed 30 Seconds To Mars documentary "Artifact" knows, Leto can come across, sometimes unfairly, as a bit of an egoist. That side of him came out with a much-criticized Golden Globes speech, and though some suggested it wasn't a problem, some hasty course-correction from Leto's subsequent speeches and the like, showed that the film's campaign certainly thought it could be. If any potential nominee is likely to do or say something that could tank his chances, it's Leto.
Biggest Threat: Hard to call, but we'd be tempted by Bradley Cooper. His second nomination in two years shows that he's more than just a flash in the pan, and his perm-haired, fiery-tempered FBI agent is one of the highlights of "American Hustle." As with Adams, if the Academy are really behind the film, Cooper could surprise here.
Dark Horse: Some might say that it's Michael Fassbender, but his villain in "12 Years A Slave" is so terrible that it's hard to see him getting the votes needed to upset Leto—colorful, characterful bad guys like Heath Ledger, Javier Bardem and Christoph Waltz win, banality-of-evil ones like Ralph Fiennes in "Schindler's List" or Stanley Tucci in "The Lovely Bones" are runners-up. So we'd go for Barkhad Abdi here—he has the fairy tale narrative, and he's charmed on the circuit. Still probably unlikely, though.
Best Supporting Actress
Frontrunner: By a hair, it's probably Lupita Nyong'o. Supporting actress favors relative newcomers, or at least newcomers to the Academy's eyes, in a way that other categories don't necessarily (see: Jennifer Hudson, Mo'nique, Octavia Spencer), and her plucked-from-drama-school narrative is also a plus. It should also go without saying that it's the most impressive and emotional performance of the bunch. Nyong'o's also been a delight on the awards circuit, with perfectly-pitched speeches (which could actually be a boost to the film as well as to her), and killer fashion that threatens to make her a household name even among those who haven't seen the movie.
Potential Weakness: She hasn't dominated the precursor awards in the way that some of the other frontrunners have, and voters may feel that, given that this is her first screen role, there'll be other opportunities for her to win down the line. Then again, that problem is shared by her main competition...
Biggest Threat: Jennifer Lawrence, in "American Hustle," who beat Nyong'o to various precursor awards, including the Golden Globes. Already Hollywood's darling, she continues to charm pretty much everywhere she goes, and her, and her science oven, are typically delightful in the movie. Plus this category has a tendency to lean towards fun/quirky/crazy (Dianne Wiest, Mira Sorvino, Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellwegger, Penelope Cruz, Melissa Leo, Octavia Spencer), more than it does punishing darkness. But that said, given that she has three nominations and one win, and she's only 23, our guess is that voters will think it's someone else's turn this time around.
Dark Horse: June Squibb from "Nebraska." Everyone loves a sweary granny, and in lieu of giving an award to Betty White, Squibb's especially refined take on the archetype is the next best thing. Again, voters love the film, and again, Squibb's the kind of undersung working actor that other actors like to vote for. Still, it's hard to see her beating Nyong'o or even Lawrence .
Thoughts? Let us know in the comments section below.