Saving Mr. Banks
Saving Mr. Banks

When this year's Oscar nominations were announced, there were a few surprising omissions on the ballot, especially in the acting categories.

You would think, for instance, that the 6,000 or so voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wouldn't be able to resist an opportunity to finally give 77-year-old Robert Redford his due as a performer for his work in the one-man seafaring yarn All Is Lost. While Redford won Best Director for 1980's Ordinary People and earned an honorary trophy in 2002 for his involvement with the Sundance Film Festival, it would have been only Redford's second-ever acting nomination after a nod for his con man in 1974's The Sting.

But, for whatever reason -- some have blamed a lack of campaigning by the distributor and/or the star -- they did resist.

Then again, I always felt the turning point in the Academy's previous habit of handing out awards for purely sentimental reasons was when 72-year-old Lauren Bacall, a first-time nominee for 1996's The Mirror Has Two Faces, suffered a shocking loss in the supporting category to then-newcomer Juliette Binoche in The English Patient. But at least Bogie's baby got to compete. Meanwhile, the Sundance Kid was left totally adrift.

Then there is the shutout of Lee Daniel's The Butler, including the exclusion of the mighty Oprah in the supporting race. The reasoning there? The summertime hit peaked too soon. Or maybe it was a case of one too many ensemble pieces based on history after the similarly crowded American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

But what puzzled me most is the near-dearth of recognition for the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis (it got two tech nominations) and the snubbing of John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks in every category save for Thomas Newman's score.

It's not as if the voters haven't applauded these filmmakers before. The Coens have racked up four best-picture contenders over the years, winning for 2007's No Country for Old Men. Hancock was behind 2009's The Blind Side, the best-picture nominee that allowed Sandra Bullock to grab her first Oscar nomination and win.

Most perplexing was the absence of both films' leads, considering that they each offer a behind-the-scenes portal into the vagaries of show business.

Wouldn't Academy members relate to the struggle for recognition undergone by the sixties folk musician played by Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis? Could they not sympathize with Emma Thompson as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers as she tries to prevent her literary creation from being sugarcoated for the big screen in Saving Mr. Banks? (Yes, Tom Hanks got skipped over for his portrait of studio chief Walt Disney in Banks, but the bigger issue for him is why they ignored his masterful work as the lead in Captain Phillips. Blame that on an overabundance of worthy leading men at the top of their game.)

Churlish vagabond Davis and tightly wound control freak Travers appear to have little in common and might even harm each other if they ever found themselves alone in the same room. But they're not so different: both are uncompromising artists who face resistance both personally and professionally to their rigid, possibly unreasonable, principles. Told he is not front-man material, Davis refuses to contemporize his music or join a singing trio. Meanwhile, Travers initially forbids the artists at Disney from using the color red in the adaptation of her novel. 

Nor is Isaac's Davis or Thompson's Travers especially likable or sympathetic. In fact, they are downright horrible at times. When Travers inquires why Robert Sherman -- a World War II vet and the more outspoken member of the sibling songwriting team behind such Mary Poppins tunes as "Chim Chim Cher-ee" -- walks with a limp, brother Richard informs her, "He was shot."

In light of their rather testy dealings with one another as she makes one demand after another, Thompson as Travers remarks with a smug smile: "That's understandable."

Meanwhile, a drunken Davis cruelly heckles an inexperienced older woman from Arkansas as she performs at a club, shouting from the bar, "Where's your corncob pipe? Ya wearing gingham panties? Show us your panties!" He is later rewarded for his outburst with a punch in the face from her husband.

Rightly or wrongly, these two don't want to sell out, even if each is forced to do so to some extent in order to get by. Davis performs on a recording of a novelty ditty for quick cash and the financially strapped Travers eventually signs over the rights to her character to Disney, although with several stipulations -- some of which are ignored. While others might delight in such opportunities, they are more miserable than ever.

Perhaps Davis and Travers' actions made some Academy members feel a little uncomfortable as they searched their souls for what they or their colleagues did to achieve success. 

Of course, with the critics on his side (the film rates 94% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), handsome 33-year-old Isaac, who also skillfully performed his own songs in Inside Llewyn Davis, has quite a career ahead of him even without Oscar recognition. With some more seasoning and the right role, he could easily snag another chance at a trophy in the future.

More puzzling is why Thompson, a presumed shoo-in by many pundits, was rejected -- with Amy Adams in American Hustle taking what was deemed her rightful spot on the ballot. It isn't as if she hasn't pleased the voters previously, what with four acting nominations (she won for 1992's Howards End) and a screenplay Oscar for adapting 1995's Sense and Sensibility.

Given that the 54-year-old British actress hasn't had a part this substantial in ages, Saving Mr. Banks seemed a perfect opportunity to recognize Thompson again after an 18-year gap.

So what is the problem this time? Blame the role, not the performer.

A check of similar artist-type parts that have led to nominations since 2000 shows a distinct preference for those whose lives often take a tragic turn. And, as is often the case when Oscar is involved, dying or contracting a disease onscreen often seals the deal.

Checking through the female nominees of recent vintage, these performances fit the bill in both the lead and supporting lineups:

--Nicole Kidman as a cabaret singer and courtesan who succumbs to TB in 2001's Moulin Rouge!

--Judi Dench as writer Iris Murdoch, who suffers from Alzheimer's in 2001's Iris.

--Salma Hayek as artist Frida Kahlo, who endured lifelong severe health problems in 2002's Frida.

--Kidman as tormented author Virginia Woolf, who commits suicide in 2002's The Hours (winner).

--Marion Cotillard as the frail French songbird Edith Piaf in 2007's La Vie en Rose (winner).

--Jennifer Hudson as the difficult diva Effie White, who hits rock bottom before she rises again in 2006's Dreamgirls (winner).

--Cate Blanchett in male drag as a variation on a rather disturbed Bob Dylan, who is in the midst of transitioning to his rock period in 2007's I'm Not There.

 --Natalie Portman as a psychologically tormented ballerina in 2010's The Black Swan (winner).

--Michelle Williams as the fragile sex symbol Marilyn Monroe in 2011's My Week With Marilyn.

Not all actress nominees playing characters linked to the arts are self-destructive. Some are selfless caretakers of talented males who are bedeviled, such as Marcia Gay Harden as painter Lee Krasner in 2000's Pollock (winner), Reese Witherspoon as country legend June Carter Cash in 2005's Walk the Line (winner), and Berenice Bejo's silent movie star in 2011's The Artist.

Being good at being bad -- especially if sex is involved -- can work, too. That would describe Catherine Zeta-Jones (winner) and Renee Zellweger as murderous chorines in 2002's Chicago.

Nominated actors aren't immune to such tortured artist roles, either, including Ed Harris in Pollock, Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire and Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls, all from 2000; Jamie Foxx in 2004's Ray (winner); Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line; Peter O'Toole in 2006's Venus; Jeff Bridges in 2009's Crazy Heart (winner); Christopher Plummer in 2009's The Last Station; and Jean Dujardin in The Artist (winner).

The trouble is, Travers might come off as too cold, too complex and too unrepentant of a creature -- and, in real life, there were many more emotional layers to her unique adult personality than are revealed in the film, despite flashbacks to her unhappy childhood -- to appeal to a wide majority of voters.

While Saving Mr. Banks doesn't sugarcoat Thompson's version of the author, maybe a spoonful of more humanizing might have more easily lifted the actress to a nomination. Which is exactly how Julie Andrews won an Oscar for 1964's Mary Poppins.