In the first edition of this series, writers Peter Knegt and Matthew Hammett Knott face off about various awards-season related topics…
Knegt: So I guess since is the first Oscar bitchfest — at least the first we’re publicly displaying — we should introduce the concept of what actually it is we’re attempting here.
Knott: It’s pretty much there in the title — as most of us who follow the Oscars know, the awards aren’t exactly a reliable barometer of quality. Taking them too seriously only leads to disappointment. And while ignoring them is obviously an alternative, and no doubt a healthy one, for those of us who can’t resist keeping watch on the race, the most satisfying approach seems to be a healthy dose of bitchiness. We’re sitting on the outside while some of the most privileged and beautiful people on the planet congratulate themselves on their often mediocre cinematic achievements. Bitching is to be expected!
Knegt: Alright, so then let’s just go ahead and bitch that healthy dose. It seems like we might as well start with ‘Saving Mr. Banks,’ which I haven’t seen but you just did (and wrote about it here) and I have to say I was surprised there wasn’t more bitching in your reaction.
Knott: Well it’s a charming film! And it’s a big studio film about a melancholy middle aged woman in a position of power and conflict — if only there were more studio films like that. Plus Emma Thompson really seizes the opportunity with both hands — I know that Meryl Streep was said to be courted for the role, but I’m kind of glad it went to Thompson, because she is fully capable of carrying a film as she does here. I am, however, quite prepared to bitch, but I reserve my disdain for Disney and their choice of John Lee Hancock as director in particular. Together, they have created as insipid a film as they could have with this material. And it doesn’t quite live up to the description I gave it, in that it is not really interested in exploring P.L. Travers and her mindset. The fact that Mary Poppins is a serious book inspired by her relationship with her father is interesting, but it could have been told so much more subtly and succinctly. The film doesn’t touch upon her bisexuality at all, for example. As HitFix’s Guy Lodge put it, he’s just portrayed as a lonely spinster with daddy issues.
Knegt: I mean, I’d honestly have been pretty (pleasantly) surprised if she had been portrayed as much more than that, in large part because of the director and studio this is coming from. I’m curious enough though — based on the positive portion of your opinion, at least — to still mildly be looking forward to seeing it. If only to watch Thompson finally have something significant to work with after like two decades of basically just playing Professor Sybill Trelawney or Nanny McPhee over and over again. And I also am curious about the resurgence of another actor who hasn’t done anything that interesting since the 1990s, Tom Hanks. Who I was sure I’d never be able to watch on screen again after “Larry Crowne.” But then came “Captain Phillips,” which I thought he was seriously great in. So now I’m eager to see how he does playing Mr. Disney in this — especially since you said in your piece you thought he could even win Oscar #3 for it.
Knott: Yes, and I didn’t find many people to agree with me after the screening, but I can really see a narrative emerging in which he wins. It’s partly because of how weak the field is. Not performance-wise necessarily, just in terms of an actor who demands to be rewarded in this category. Michael Fassbender is obviously impressive in “12 Years a Slave”, but it just doesn’t feel like a performance that the academy will leap to acclaim. That’s because a) he’s a bit of a Hollywood outsider, b) we’ve seen victories for villainous roles recently for Javier Bardem and Christoph Waltz, which shouldn’t make a difference, but might and c) there are several other opportunities for them to honor the actors from “12 Years”, notably Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita N’Yongo. And if Hanks has a banner year with two nominations, which looks very likely, “Saving Mr Banks” will become the obvious place to reward him. I can’t see him winning Best Actor over Ejiofor. But given how beloved he is in Hollywood, I don’t think the Academy would balk at giving him a third Oscar. He’s no Hilary Swank!
Knegt: I totally think they would give him a third. Especially if it’s in supporting and given the fact that he hasn’t won in so long. I mean, they liked him enough to give him two best actor trophies in a row 20 years ago, why not a third now? But I’m still inclined to most easily envision Fassbender winning at this point, though granted I haven’t seen “Mr. Banks.” I just wonder if Fassbender actually has the better shot over Ejiofer (who could lose to Dern, McConaughey or Redford — that category is stacked) and N’Yongo (who could lose to Oprah.. And I for one can’t wait for the Oprah vs. Lupita narrative). It’s also been a few years since the hat trick of villains winning in this category (Bardem, Waltz and Ledger), so maybe that won’t be such an issue. Oh, and can we please never mention Hilary Swank again within the bitchfest? Every time I even think of her my inner awards bitch explodes with the wrath of ten Annette Benings.
Knott: You won’t hear her name again, unless you want to talk about how “Amelia” was clearly conceived as an awards vehicle. I might have watched it if it had starred Annette Bening. As for Fassbender, clearly he’s going to win lots of critics awards and the work is deserving, so it just depends how the race progresses. His lack of nomination for “Shame” is a question mark – it could mean that voters feel he’s owed, but I don’t think so. I also feel like there could be some queasiness about the very idea of “rewarding” that performance. It’s a villain role, yes, but in a deeply serious film – not one that we can love to hate. I don’t think anyone wants to see him take home gold ahead of Chiwetel or Lupita. And if “12 Years” dominates the race as a whole, perhaps there will be a thirst for some Hanks cosiness. Then again, maybe that will feel frivolous by comparison. We’ll see.
Knegt: Now I’m trying to think of examples where villains akin to Fassbender’s character won but am coming up short. And I keep coming back to when Ralph Fiennes lost for “Schinder’s List” to Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive” which is perhaps an example of exactly what you’re talking about. But yeah, we’ll see. That category is still by far the least developed. It’s totally possible some third major contender will emerge from “American Hustle” or “The Wolf of Wall Street” (or god help me, Jared Leto ends up being seriously discussed a winner possibility for his razor thin — and I don’t mean physical weight — performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” which could happen). But I’m going to switch gears because I’m even more curious of your thoughts on the only “12 Years”-free acting category that’s up for discussion, best actress. That category is probably the most developed (and thankfully has no signs of including the actress whose name I dare not type.) It seems like it will definitely include Emma Thompson now that “Banks” has screened, though we’re probably heading for a two-way race for the actual win: Bullock vs. Blanchett. I had for a while assumed there was no way Cate could lose, but now there’s a lot of talk that Sandra could go 2 for 2 given “Gravity” has made a bajillion dollars and was largely carried on Bullock’s shoulders. Which does seem like a bit much for an actress giving her very first Oscar worthy performance…
Knott: Cate’s won it. I really think it’s close to a lock. It’s true what you say about “Gravity” making a lot of money on the back of Bullock’s star quality, but I feel like that was part of the narrative for “The Blind Side”, so it’s not so compelling second time around. And even though I loved Meryl’s performance in “Julie and Julia”, I think voters felt they could pass on it because they knew there’d be a meatier Meryl performance to reward soon enough (and they were right – not that I think her Margaret Thatcher is any match for her Julia Child). It’s not the same with Cate. She’s one of the best actresses of her generation and her performance in “The Aviator” was no demonstration of her talents. Now she’s come along and been given the role of her career by Woody Allen, who is famous for creating great roles for women (and guiding them to Oscars), and she’s absolutely nailed it. And it’s not just the critics who think so. You can *see* the acting, in every scene – in the best possible way. I’m the biggest Sandra Bullock fan in the world, including her performance in “Gravity” – but the Oscar goes to Cate.
Knegt: That could be a bit idealistic? I mean, I agree with you about Cate’s performance. It’s mind-blowing and this should be her’s to lose. And maybe it is. But I just wonder given how much everyone seems to rightfully adore Sandra Bullock and her humility and grace coupled with the film’s insane success might be just this perfect storm. Or maybe I’m just trying to believe a false horserace narrative to keep me entertained for the next four and a half months left of bitching. Though I have no doubts that even if suggesting Sandra could win ends up being a false-starter, “Gravity” itself could definitely win best picture at this point, even if “12 Years” is (for now) still the frontrunner.
Knott: You’re right, it could win – and that does make me think that the one chance for Sandra winning the Oscar is if the campaign succeeds in focusing on her technical achievement. By all accounts, what she had to do in order to perform at all was extremely draining and challenging technically, and she still managed an effortless star performance. That narrative could impressive voters, and make it feel like she’s achieved something new. As for Best Picture, I’m actually one of “12 Years a Slave”‘s few doubters — I’ve never been able to fully get on board with Steve McQueen — but having just experienced its reception at the London Film Festival I find it hard to envisage it not winning Best Picture. It’s an undeniably important film, and the Oscars love to feel important. In this case, they’d have good reason. Of course, they could also make history by making McQueen the first black filmmaker to win Best Director, but I’m actually inclined to wonder whether there could be a picture / director split, with Alfonso Cuaron winning the latter. That way, they could reward Cuaron for his big audacious success, without ranking “Gravity” above “Slave”. It feels like he’s a very likeable character, hard-working and able to make lots of money with original, artistically valid content. Plus, as we both know, he should have won every award going for the threesome scene in “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”
Knegt: I can do nothing but agree with you re: “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” so let’s just leave it at that.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire’s Senior Writer and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
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