By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood February 23, 2010 at 3:01AM
At this stage of the Oscar race, Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) has taken the momentum away former front-runner George Clooney (Up in the Air) for Best Actor, but some in Hollywood sense growing support for newcomer Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker). Meanwhile, rookie Oscar nominee Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) and 16-time nominee, two-time winner Meryl Streep are in a tight race for Best Actress. In this dueling blog, Moviefone Oscarologist Jack Mathews and I consider the odds of a Renner upset and another Streep defeat. Best Actor first.
JM -- If you want a long shot, you'll get better odds with a lottery ticket than betting on Renner. The only way Bridges can lose this race is if he's pulled over for a DUI in Malibu and launches into an anti-Semitic rant. This guy is such a savvy and well-liked Hollywood veteran, and his performance so naturalistic and believable in Crazy Heart, that it's hard to imagine more than a handful of Hurt Locker fans and Clooney stalwarts putting any other name on the first line of their ballot.
AT -- I agree that Jeff Bridges will earn his career prize for playing singer/boozer Bad Blake. There are two ways to look at Renner's Oscar candidacy. One, a relative unknown nailed his role as a fearless bomb defuser, turning him into a relatable, admirable and very real hero. He was able to make you feel what this guy was going through. But is he a great actor discovered, who will continue to wow audiences over time, or a one-time merger of actor and role?
At an early-stage Oscar party for The Hurt Locker, Renner was psyching himself up for the long Oscar campaign; his task was to build awareness for his performances in a movie that not many people had seen. Renner could be riding the coattails of the Best Picture front-runner and may have to settle for a nomination. But who expected Adrien Brody to score a win for The Pianist back in 2003? That was a case of late-breaking momentum as Roman Polanski also won Best Director, albeit in absentia.
Often the film that Academy members watched most recently and responded to most strongly has the advantage: look at Halle Berry in Monster's Ball. It's possible that with the lowest box office (less than $13 million domestically) of the Best Picture nominees, The Hurt Locker is the film that many Academy members caught up with on DVD. Obviously, it's a must-see. And with a nomination in hand, Renner should be able to relax now. His performance should tell the tale, not crooning and piano playing for the ladies on The View. (He had no chance to practice, by the way.)
JM -- Renner has indeed given a break-out performance in The Hurt Locker and he's going to be a star for many years. But his arrival comes at a time when an established Hollywood veteran and four-time former Oscar nominee has given the performance of his career. Renner will have to watch from his seat inside the Kodak Theatre, like the other three Best Actor nominees, while Bridges accepts his long overdue award.
The Best Actress ballot hosts the only contest among the acting categories. The winner will be either Sandra Bullock or Meryl Streep and though the choice should be obvious (Streep disappears inside the person and personna of Julia Childs in Julie & Julia while Bullock does a competent star turn in the barely three-dimensional role of a surrogate mom in The Blind Side), it isn't. Bullock is a light comedienne in a dramatic role and Academy members have a history of honoring such transitions. And the humility and good humor shown in her acceptance speeches for the Golden Globe and SAG awards has no doubt endeared her to Oscar voters.
In Streep's favor, it has been 24 long years since she won her second Oscar. It must be nice to have the most nominations of any actor in Oscar's 82-year history, but c'mon, only two wins!! I can't think for Academy members, but to my mind, a nomination is enough to give Bullock street cred as a dramatic actress; now, let's see her follow it up. Streep deserves this year's award.
AT -- Best Actress is a competitive race. I agree that Streep should win. She brought such joy to Julia Child, which is as much a portrait of a loving marriage as a world-renowned chef. Unfortunately, Streep shares her screen-time with Amy Adams in a movie that has not been nominated for best picture, which statistically tips the advantage to Bullock, Gabourey Sidibe and Carey Mulligan. Also, since the first SAG Awards in '94, tweets Oscar-watcher Scott Feinberg, "only four women have won a Globe but not a SAG Award and still won the best actress Oscar." And as much as Streep has built her stardom in recent years--she's the biggest female star working in Hollywood today, along with Bullock--she's old news. It's hardly fair, but Streep and her year-in, year-out chameleon performances are taken for granted in Hollywood. Academy voters figure she'll be back.
Bullock is fresh and exciting. People are looking at her in a new way. She's revealed, in her many interviews, as a hard-working, serious actress (even if she's funny, comedy is hard) who has tried to make the most of what has been offered to her. In recent years, she's grown into a choosier star willing to take more chances outside the studio box. But while Streep is long overdue for another win, Bullock should take the prize, partly because this may be her only chance to win it.
JM -- True, Oscar voters may never get another chance to honor Bullock, but that's no reason to do it. Who gave the best performance here? Every once in a while, an actor gives a performance that even their fellow actors can't imagine being able to do. Daniel Day-Lewis did just that playing the severely disabled artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Anthony Hopkins did it as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. And Jamie Foxx did it as Ray Charles in Ray. Voters acknowledged those singular achievements with Oscars, and they should do it again here. Can you imagine another actress seeing that movie and thinking, "I could have done that"? Certainly, it's outside Bullock's range. On the flip side, no one could doubt that Streep could have played Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side as well or better than Bullock. I rest my case.
AT -- Right has nothing to do with it. The Oscars have always been about how Academy voters think and feel. In this particular situation, while you might assume that Streep's age would give her an advantage with Academy members, many of whom are older than she is --The Hollywood Reporter recently estimated the average Academy age at 57 based on a sampling of 500 members--I have talked to more than one voter who found Bullock a refreshing alternative to La Streep. I was surprised. Don't underestimate how popular Bullock is. If Streep wins the day, it's well-deserved. But she just may have to wait her turn. Again.