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Academy Steak Eaters Call the Shots: Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’ Squeaks Into Oscar Derby

Academy Steak Eaters Call the Shots: Eastwood's 'American Sniper' Squeaks Into Oscar Derby

“They vote for big movies that make big money, good solid moviemaking with great actors and good storytelling,” one veteran Oscar campaigner told me. “‘True Grit’ is for them.” This faction of the Academy is also likely to vote for such mainstream 2014 hits as Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” 

Academy voters are predominantly male; the dominant actors’ branch comes closest to a 50/50 male/female split. For those who think that the Academy proved itself not sexist by voting for Kathryn Bigelow and war movie “The Hurt Locker,” not so fast. The Academy directors snubbed Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” although it landed a Best Picture nomination. On nominations morning this year, the very male and clubby Academy directors branch did not come through for member DuVernay. Instead they chose “Foxcatcher” helmer Bennett Miller. 

With a Best Actor nomination for Bradley Cooper (his third in a row), “American Sniper,” which had been written off by Oscar pundits on the basis of early mixed reviews, is gaining momentum, even though it was ignored by the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards. The Iraq War film was included on the American Film Institute and National Board of Review top ten lists, and Eastwood won NBR’s Best Director–but no Academy director’s slot. “Sniper” also landed nominations from the PGAArt Directors, WGA and  Editors guilds.

Eastwood is an accomplished Oscar perennial (ten nominations and three wins as producer, director or actor); “American Sniper”‘s war scenes are complex, tense and well-executed. Cooper expertly channels the late sharpshooter Chris Kyle, building 35 pounds of muscle in the process, and earned extra cred from his powerful performance on Broadway as John Merrick in “The Elephant Man.” (I saw the show and was impressed by his sweet, emotional portrayal.) Now he’s vying for Best Actor against Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”), Michael Keaton (“Birdman”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”) and Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”). Cooper has the momentum that comes from the movie that was seen most recently, with heat. 

The Academy in a weak year voted in eight Best Picture nominations, including late entrants “American Sniper” and “Selma.” Eastwood’s war movie is surging at the box office in limited release and will be huge when it goes wide January 16. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is a merely respectable 74% (in the range of “Crash,” which had 75%), lower than “Unbroken,” at 49%. “Selma” is at 100%, no matter what contrarian Armond White writes

What could “American Sniper” win? Cooper, Adapted Screenplay, Picture, Editing, Sound Mixing or Sound Editing? I say it comes away with zip. But never count out the steak eaters. 

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