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The Big O: The Oscar Season Kicks Off

Features
by Susan Wloszczyna
September 4, 2013 2:47 PM
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Welcome to the inaugural edition of The Big O, Women & Hollywood's new Oscar column. Not that there is any lack of web outlets that engage in prognostication and updates on the status of films considered in the running for honors.

But this is an attempt to view what unfolds during the awards season from a more thoughtful female perspective.

For anyone who hasn't noticed, the Oscar race is definitely on, as studios wave their potential contenders at summer's-end film festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto like so many checkered flags.

Lists of best-picture possibilities are up and about on online sites such as Gold Derby, Movie City News and Awards Daily, ranging from the 3-D outer-space thriller Gravity starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney -  which earned a booster-rocket of raves in Venice last week -- to August: Osage County, a dark comedy about a family funeral with a cast to die for (among the players, Meryl Streep, Sam Shepard, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin and Chris Cooper), which is gracing Toronto with its world premiere.

Aside the fact that the majority of short-listed titles including The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years a Slave (which also wowed Venice), American Hustle and Captain Phillips are reality-based - no surprise, considering Lincoln and Argo came on strong in last year's contest while six out of the last 10 best actor winners starred in biopics - it also is worth noting the total lack of female directing talent considered in serious contention.

Is this a shock? Not in the least. Not when Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman to ever win a directing Oscar, was snubbed during the nomination phase a year ago  despite critical acclaim, solid box office, and the masterful storytelling on display in last year's gripping Zero Dark Thirty.  

But possible sexism is not the only problem. While there have been well-received female-led documentaries such as Blackfish this year, 2013 has yet to produce a truly awards-worthy feature by a woman.  As I prepare for my 14th trek to the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts its 11-day run on Thursday, the only festival entry among the nearly 300 features that is helmed by a non-male that I consider a must-see is Enough Said by the well-regarded Nicole Holofcener (Friends With Money, Please Give).

However, the main appeal lies in the fact that her film is one of the last to showcase the late, great James Gandolfini  -- with the added bonus of seeing mobster supreme Tony Soprano switch gears as a cuddly lug in a romantic comedy.  

One could take solace in that, given what appears to be a renaissance in films showcasing African-American performers and themes of late, there could potentially be three black directors up for Academy Award consideration: Ryan Coogler for Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels for The Butler and Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave. All diversity, after all, is good diversity.

But where is the beating female heart of the awards season right now? In the acting categories, where it usually is, save for perhaps the screenplay and costume nominees. In a summer swamped by male-dominated blockbusters, at least three actresses gave Oscar caliber performances in more serious-minded fare: Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station and Oprah Winfrey in The Butler. And do not discount indie darling Brie Larson in the just-opened Short Term 12, who could be the next Jennifer Lawrence if the old one ever shows signs of running out of steam.

Among the movies yet to come, those who dream of witnessing some of the most illustrious actresses of our time, all of whom already have at least one Academy Award at home, engage in a bloody thesp-palooza, prepare for your wish to come true.

Besides Blanchett, the frontrunners in the lead category are Bullock in Gravity, Kate Winslet in Labor Day, Judi Dench in Philomena, Nicole  Kidman in Grace of Monaco and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks.  Another possibility, depending on whether or not Streep is designated as a supporting player, is a faceoff between her and her Osage County co-star Julia Roberts.

Of course, the academy loves their youthful Rooney Mara-Quvenzhane Wallis upstarts as well, so keep an eye out for Adele Exarchopoulos from the sexy Cannes sensation Blue is the Warmest Color and Sophie Nelisse in the Holocaust drama The Book Thief

Speaking of Lawrence, last year's best actress could be competing in the supporting category thanks to her showy role in American Hustle. Those who might make the cut include four black actresses. Besides that other big O - Oprah - as well as Spencer, there is Naomie Harris in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave.  And if Streep is upgraded to lead, there are other Osage County residents who could easily take her place, including Margo Martindale and Juliette Lewis.

Of course, seeing is believing. By the time the final credits roll in Toronto and the critics have their say, the Oscar picture should clearer – or, at least, somewhat less muddy.

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