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The Big O: The Truth Behind Emma Thompson and Oscar Isaac’s Oscar Snubs? Lack of Tragedy

The Big O: The Truth Behind Emma Thompson and Oscar Isaac's Oscar Snubs? Lack of Tragedy

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
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.

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.

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.)

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

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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

Kidman as a cabaret singer and courtesan who succumbs to TB in 2001’s Moulin

Dench as writer Iris Murdoch, who suffers from Alzheimer’s in 2001’s

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

as tormented author Virginia Woolf, who commits suicide in 2002’s The Hours

Cotillard as the frail French songbird Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose

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.

Portman as a psychologically tormented ballerina in 2010’s The Black Swan

Williams as the fragile sex symbol Marilyn Monroe in 2011’s My Week With

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.

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.

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
(winner); Christopher Plummer in 2009’s The Last Station; and Jean
Dujardin in The Artist (winner).

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.

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

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