Despite the lack of surprises among the actual winners (see mostly accurate predictions here, here, and even here), the general consensus seems to be that Sunday’s 81st Academy Awards were one of the most entertaining Oscar ceremonies in years. Much of the credit goes to producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark, whose had cryptically promised big changes to the telecast in the press leading up to the show.
Oscar nominations have been out for two weeks now, and there’s only so much speculating one can do before the big show on February 22nd. So after writing the obligatory “The Academy Got It Wrong” column (or it’s more world-weary cousin, “The Academy Always Gets It Wrong, So This Year Shouldn’t Come As A Surprise To Anyone”), one of the only things left to talk about are the Oscar “Snubs.” This is an interesting distinction, because the snubbees most written about aren’t usually those that did the best work, but rather those that offered the same old, middlebrow Oscar bait and somehow failed to get recognized for it. The result is an odd phenomenon where the writer expresses regret that one solid performance in an unloved, mediocre film took the place of another solid performance in an unloved, mediocre film . Oh, the outrage!
I’m not calling out every snubbee as undeserving. In fact, before I go any further, let’s get this out of the way. Sally Hawkins , you’re excused – though honestly, for a movie as un-Hollywood as HappyGoLucky, she was fortunate just to be in the conversation. Bruce Springsteen, you too were legitimately snubbed – much as the aging-rocker-wins-Oscar thing is played out (Bruce has even done it already for Philadelphia), it’s a solid song and I really don’t understand why it didn’t make the cut. And finally, those of you in the Wall-E and/or Dark Knight for Best Picture camps, I’ll concede that you’re entitled to your anger – mainly because that’s a whole other argument I don’t want to get into.
What really seems ridiculous to me is the likes of, say, Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cate Blanchett, to name a few, eliciting pity for not being nominated for work that would’ve been seen as Exhibit A in Oscar-Getting-It-Wrong had they actually earned the expected nod. The only reason Eastwood’s omission came as such a shock is because he always gets nominated – he’s already won four (four!) other Oscars, all for better movies. DiCaprio’s never won (though he too seems to be always get nominated), but seriously, it’s an OK performance in an OK movie, Revolutionary Road, that didn’t really belong in the conversation in the first place. And Blanchett in Benjamin Button? Here’s a frightening thought: if she had garnered the expected nod for Best Actress, that would’ve brought the movie’s total to 14 nominations, tying for MOST OF ALL TIME with All About Eve and Titanic. Ugh. Ladies and Gentlemen, the three Greatest Movies of All Time, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: All About Eve, Titanic, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Weird.
OK, enough hatin’. The original goal of this post was to call out some work that I thought was actually really great, and despite earning widespread acclaim in films that had support in other categories, never really entered the conversation of possible nominees and thus doesn’t really qualify as a snub. Behold the Unsnubbed of 2008.
Bill Irwin, Best Supporting Actor, Rachel Getting Married
Sure, nominee Anne Hathaway and legitimately snubbed Rosemarie DeWitt were great, but for me, Irwin was the standout. He’s the perfect embodiment of the movie’s unique blend of warm-hearted sentimentality and indie miserabilism (that was intended as a compliment, by the way). His sweet and sensitive Paul seems like the kind of dude you would totally want as your dad, until you realize that the same permissiveness and “everything’s OK here” understanding that made daughter Rachel (DeWitt) grow up to be such a sweetheart, have helped turn Hathaway’s Kym into a self-absorbed monster. Not a lot of actors could’ve pulled off that odd balancing act between World’s Greatest Dad and enabler, yet, with the exception of a nomination for Best Supporting Actor from the Chicago Film Critics’ Association, Irwin went completely unrecognized by critics’ groups and other award-givers.
Robert Downey Jr, Best Actor, Iron Man
I’m not the biggest fan of blockbuster acting being held up as greatness, but in a universe where Johnny Depp gets recognized for that way-too-long pirate movie, Robert Downey Jr. deserves a shot for his turn as Tony Stark in Iron Man. Honestly, with the possible exception of Heath Ledger, can you think of any other performance this year that was as universally beloved by both critics and mainstream audiences? For most of the 93% of critics and $318 million worth of moviegoers who touted the film, Downey’s performance was the number 1 reason why this movie worked so well. I know he was nominated for Tropic Thunder because it’s kind of been his year, but isn’t Iron Man the reason that it’s his year?
Darren Aronofsky, Best Director, The Wrestler
The fact that Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei are both Oscar-nominated for a movie about professional wrestling should give you some indication that Aronofsky is up to something unique here. Yes, I give Rob Siegel’s script a share of the love (as well as a lot of the blame for the movie’s faults), but credit Aronofsky for turning a subtly ironic sports tragedy into an intimate, bare-bones acting exercise. He makes the heavy aspects of the film work without ever sacrificing the comedic moments and gives the behind-the-scenes wrestling stuff a totally authentic feel. All this from a guy who, after Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, nobody would’ve pegged as an actor’s director.
OK, so it’s a short list, but I have no interest in digging up sketchy examples just to fill out a top ten list. Feel free to post your own examples in the comments section below. Keep in mind I’m trying to stick to the criteria of work that, had the film’s marketers seen its potential or the critics’ awards broke differently, might have had an actual shot. So great stuff like Arnaud Desplechin’s direction in A Christmas Tale or Anamaria Marinca’s performance in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days doesn’t really count, because, you know, the Academy always gets it wrong.