As Oscar watchers count down the minutes to the 86th edition of the Academy Awards this Sunday, those of us who care about promoting women in the film industry have several reasons to count our blessings.
However, let’s get the one big bummer out of the way. Females behind the camera are exceedingly under-represented this year, and not just in the directing category, where the next Kathryn Bigelow has yet to emerge since the historic win for 2009’s The Hurt Locker.
Somehow, two of the most-discussed documentaries of 2013 that just happened to be made by women — Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish, about the dangers of holding killer whales in captivity, and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, in which the actress explores revelations about her own past — were overlooked by voters. And, sadly, Haifaa al-Mansour’s groundbreaking Wadjda, the stirring account of a young girl’s fight for the right to ride a bike and the first feature-length film ever shot by a Saudi woman, was left out of the foreign film category.
But at least Ellen DeGeneres is back again as the evening’s host, marking only the sixth time that a woman was the solo emcee of the show (Whoopi Goldberg got four shots). And it was a welcome change of pace to see Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, performing nomination-day duties on TV last month with some beefcake — provided by Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth — filling in for the usual cheesecake.
That there are three movies whose storylines focus primarily on women that are competing for two of the more-coveted prizes, with Gravity and Philomena among the nine titles vying for Best Picture and Frozen as the expected animated-feature champ, is also something to rejoice about.
After ruminating on the Oscars from a female perspective for the past six months, there is one final detail to attend to as The Big O winds down: sharing my picks for what will win in the top six categories and what I believe should win.
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska
Will win: While Chiwetel Ejiofor’s soulful stoicism guided us through the horrors of pre-Civil War plantation servitude in 12 Years a Slave, Kenya-born Nyong’o was the fact-based drama’s scene-stealing revelation as slave Patsey. The Academy loves to reward newcomers when they shock and surprise with the richness of their talent, and few actresses last year were pushed to such emotional and physical extremes as Nyong’o. Even at her lowest moments, her Patsey rose above the abuse heaped upon her, as well as the constant erosion of her self-worth. American Hustle‘s Lawrence, her closest rival, might be Hollywood’s current darling. And her vengeful Long Island housewife was a snappy disco-era throwback to screwball heroines of yore. But even last year’s lead-actress winner for Silver Linings Playbook can’t top the sight of a star like Nyong’o being born — both on screen and as a stunning vision at every red-carpet event.
Should win: There is the thrill of discovering young unknowns. Then there is the joy of watching veteran performers finally snagging the one perfect part that encapsulates why they have worked in the business for so long. That would Squibb, a real trouper at age 84, whose Kate is the foul-mouthed voice of Midwestern reason as the long-suffering wife of booze-guzzling Bruce Dern in Nebraska. I would give her the Oscar just for the cemetery scene where she lifts her skirt while standing before the tombstone of a would-be beau and scoffs, “See what you could’ve had, Keith, if you hadn’t talked about wheat all the time.”
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Will win: Leto’s rise from TV heartthrob on My So-Called Life to meaningful art-house presence in challenging dramas like Requiem for a Dream is an intriguing one. He had turned his back on the movie business to concentrate on fronting his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars, for the past several years. But he couldn’t say no to playing Rayon, an HIV-positive transgender drug addict in Dallas Buyers Club. And the Academy voters, who previously rewarded Hilary Swank for her moving portrait of a transsexual passing as a male in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, are suckers for tragic roles that rely on physical transformations. In Leto’s case, that involves everything from severe weight loss and plucked eyebrows to high heels and a fluffy brunette wig.
Should win: I, too, am a sucker for gender-switch performances — Jack Lemmon merrily shaking his maracas in Some Like It Hot gets me every time. But Leto offered more than a drag act. By pouring his heart into Rayon (especially when he must confront his scowling father in male garb), he offered welcome relief from the macho posturing of co-star Matthew McConaughey’s hardened cowboy. Fassbender and Abdi might have re-invented the concept of villainy, but Leto made me laugh, cry and care. That is why he should win.
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Will win: Blanchett. After blowing away audiences and critics with her unstable Manhattan socialite, whose once-privileged life goes into freefall, her triumph seemed all but certain. But her path to the Dolby Theatre stage hit an unfortunate snag after two-decades-old sex-abuse allegations against Blue Jasmine director Woody Allen resurfaced in the media. Yet the six-time nominee and supporting winner for 2004’s The Aviator has managed to exhibit grace under pressure while expressing her concern for those directly involved in the scandal. Since then, her front-runner status has seemingly righted itself and the great Cate appears to be invincible once more.
Should win: While some have derided Blanchett’s substance-abusing variation on A Streetcar Named Desire‘s Blanche Dubois as over-acting, I would describe it as abundant acting. Allen has made a habit out of doing right by his female characters — whether Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway or Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona — but it is Blanchett who single-handedly squeezed any Woody-esque artifice out of Blue Jasmine and turned it into a living, breathing and painful portrait of a modern woman in the midst of a mental collapse. To me, it was the defining female performance of last year. And Blanchett deserves to be celebrated as one of our premier leading ladies.
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Will win: With three previous tries at an Academy Award — as well as suffering a major slight after he wasn’t even nominated for 1997’s Titanic — DiCaprio is a long-standing member of the overdue club. Some believe his tour-de-farce performance in The Wolf of Wall Street will finally bring him Oscar glory. That might have been true if not for being upstaged by the phenomenon known as a “McConaissance.” There is no denying that Matthew McConaughey puts himself through the ringer in Dallas Buyers Club as a hedonistic good ol’ boy turned AIDS activist. But it will likely be his recent turn-around from a second-rate rom-com king to a serious actor to be reckoned with in such films as Magic Mike and Mud (along with his much-praised HBO series True Detective) that will help secure his trophy.
Should win: As much as I applaud McConaughey’s second act, I can’t stop thinking about Dern in Nebraska. Showmanship is a fine quality, but this longtime sidekick to the likes of Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson gives a master class in the art of delivering a quiet yet moving and often wryly amusing performance as an alcoholic geezer who insists he has won a sweepstakes prize. After more than 50 years of too often being typecast as losers and psychos, the 77-year-old Dern has gotten the lead he richly deserves, a role that fits him like an well-worn flannel work shirt.
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
Will win: Cuaron did a lot of things right with Gravity: He fought to have Sandra Bullock play a lead that might have easily gone to a man, he handled all manner of difficult technical issues to capture the sense of floating in space, and he made 3-D feel relevant and not just a tacked-on excuse to charge an extra ticket fee. He also struck it rich at the box office with a domestic gross of $264 million. While it would be terrific if McQueen became the first black filmmaker to win in this category, and even though Russell is on a hot streak after The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, all earlier awards indicators point to Cuaron as the one.
Should win: What can I say? Payne is my favorite contemporary director and is just about the finest chronicler of human foibles that we have. Does he mock us? Sure. But he also loves his characters. And his instinct to shoot Nebraska as a black-and-white valentine to America’s heartland is to be encouraged — along with his slow-burn approach to storytelling.
12 Years a Slave
Dallas Buyers Club
The Wolf of Wall Street
Will win: With a three-way race to the finish, this is the category that prognosticators most fear this season. Gravity would seem to be the right choice, given that its director is a favorite. But 12 Years a Slave feels like the more substantial and meaningful achievement as an emblem of our times. Meanwhile, American Hustle has proven irresistible to actors — who make up the largest voting branch of the academy — as supported by their nominating a cast member in each of the four acting categories. Will this be a repeat of the 2005 contest, when Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain, probably the most revered film of that year? I say no and choose 12 Years a Slave for the win.
Should win: I choose with my heart more than my head. And if you haven’t figured it out by now, I am a Nebraska supporter. But I would feel equally pleased if my second choice, Philomena, managed to pull a huge upset.