When it comes to the Academy Awards, voters tend to think highbrow. They like to represent the best, most humane, classiest version of themselves.
But don’t forget the Steak Eaters.
The Academy is full of them. They’re red-blooded males (not just American) — often directors, writers, and craftspeople. They’re the guys who voted for Oscar-winners “Argo,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” “Avatar,” and yes, “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain.”
“They vote for big movies that make big money, good solid moviemaking with great actors and good storytelling,” one veteran Oscar campaigner told me. In recent years, this faction of the Academy voted for mainstream hits such as Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and A.G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant.”
This year, several movies could get a boost from the Steak Eater vote. Despite concerted efforts in recent years to invite more women and diverse Academy members, Oscar voters are still predominantly male. (The dominant actors’ branch comes closest to a 50/50 male/female split.) It’s about recognizing the nuts and bolts of crafting eye-popping cinematic spectacle.
Global Box Office: $152 million
Strengths: Paramount won the brainy sci-fi thriller in a Cannes 2014 bidding war, plunking down a record $20 million for North America and other territories — after Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps financed and packaged the $47-million film with Oscar-nominated Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”), Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner. The studio took the well-wrought movie to fall festivals and turned it into a box office hit. This movie about human/alien interaction was also about pan-global communication, and it hit the zeitgeist, proving that not talking down to the mass audience via formula studio conventions can yield box office rewards.
Adams ably carries the movie as Dr. Louise Banks, a brave top-of-her-field linguist whose empathetic and intuitive ability to parse the complex language of sophisticated alien visitors could save the human race from extinction. Along the way, she bonds with her fellow scientist, played by Renner, Adams’ co-star on “American Hustle,” who was willing to take a supporting role.
Weaknesses: The twisty hybrid sci-fi/mother-daughter drama leaves some audiences in tears and others completely confused. It’s not a space opera — our human heroes never leave the ground — nor is it a standard family drama. And Villeneuve hasn’t been able to do much glad-handing with Academy voters as he completes “Blade Runner 2049.”
Likely Nominations: It’s a competitive year for the Best Actress Oscar, but Adams has already earned Critics Choice, SAG and Globe nominations. Oscar voters will also appreciate the film’s craft: the editors guild nominated the film, which could also be recognized for production design and cinematography: Bradford Young would be the first African-American Oscar nominee in that category. The WGA nominated-script by Eric Heisserer infuses Ted Chiang’s 2002 non-linear, cerebral, and emotional short story “Story of Your Life” with a dramatic narrative.
Video Interview with Amy Adams:
Global Box Office: $134 million
Strengths: Lionsgate gave the $40-million World War II action drama a classy European launch at the Venice Film Festival, where good reviews started rolling out, followed by a robust November 4 commercial release.
Weaknesses: While the film played well for critics and audiences and it’s Gibson’s return to the director’s chair after “Apocalypto” 10 years ago, its Oscar chances are tainted by a gifted filmmaker with a sticky scandal. Gibson is seeking redemption for his sins, and only some were willing to give it. (He won over the THR directors’ roundtable.) The movie is also oddly structured, with a long lead-up to the young pacifist enlisting to go to the front lines for his country, not to fight as a soldier but to save lives as a medic. The second half is devoted to the brutal cliffside onslaught during the Battle of Okinawa where he proves his valor, saving more than 50 soldiers, hoisting them down that cliff, for which he wins the Medal of Honor. That sequence is also, in typical Gibson fashion, so bloody violent that some Oscar voters will not watch it. But the steak eaters will.
Likely Nominations: Garfield is a strong Best Actor contender, with nominations from Critics Choice, Golden Globes and SAG (only helped by another athletic and spiritual performance in “Silence”). But the film did not get land a SAG ensemble nod. It was Oscar shortlisted for makeup and hairstyling, and landed an editors guild nomination, but no WGA nod. That suggests strength among the crafts: As a well-mounted war film, it could get votes for cinematography, production design, score, sound mixing, and sound editing. With enough passionate supporters, the movie could land on the Producers Guild Top 10 and even a Best Picture slot. But while Gibson, who won two Oscars for “Braveheart” back in 1996, nabbed Critics Choice and Golden Globe nominations, that does not necessarily translate to the Directors Guild or the Academy directors branch. Many are not ready to welcome him back.
Video Interview: Mel Gibson and Andrew Garfield
Domestic Box Office: $27 million
Strengths: With Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank-robbing brothers and Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger on their tail, David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” (Lionsgate/CBS Films) debuted at Cannes to critics’ raves. CBS carefully nurtured the hybrid movie, which as it slowly rolled out, played well for both arthouse and mainstream crowds, from New York to Texas. Sure enough, the contemporary heist western passed “The Witch” to become the highest-grossing independent film of the year. “Hell or High Water” is the result of that increasingly rare invention: an original screenplay, written with depth by actor-writer Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), who’s writing about “the modern-day American frontier,” he told me, “about how much has changed in 100 years, and how much things haven’t. What are the consequences of decisions and actions that are a century old and today? I was exploring the death of a way of life, and the acute consequences of the mortgage crisis in East Texas.”
Weaknesses: Genre films have a tougher time with the Academy crowd. Breakthroughs like Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winner “Unforgiven” and the Coen brothers’ “True Grit,” also starring Jeff Bridges, are rare.
Likely Nominations: Bridges is scoring Supporting Actor nominations across the board and won the National Board of Review. Original Screenplay should go to WGA-nominated Taylor Sheridan. The idiosyncratic directors branch could decide that Scotsman David Mackenzie did a great job on this. But that’s a long shot. The editors guild gave “Hell or High Water” a drama nomination, which is an upbeat sign, and it landed one of 15 Art Directors Guild slots, in the contemporary category.
Video Interview: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster
Worldwide Box Office: $228 million
Strengths: Warner Bros. launched this true adventure at Telluride and it went on to be a hugely popular September hit. An accomplished Oscar perennial, octogenarian Clint Eastwood boasts 11 nominations and three wins as producer, director, or actor, plus an honorary Oscar. “Sully” is a taut, fact-based, well-orchestrated aerial thriller powered by impeccable performances from Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart (who also shines as a coach in fight picture “Bleed for This”). The movie is naturalistic without turning Hollywood glossy, and like Best-Picture-winner “Argo,” celebrates American heroes and ingenuity. Captain Sully saved 155 souls. That’s worth rooting for.
Weaknesses: The movie is deceptively straightforward. The script dips back and forth in time, and Eastwood doesn’t feel the need to heighten and embellish. Where others hammer the nail, he taps lightly. Sometimes restraint doesn’t earn awards.
Likely Nominations: And Hanks always makes it look so easy. While he landed a Critics Choice nomination, the Globes and SAG passed him by — and the Oscar acting branch didn’t reward his other Captain, “Phillips,” which was a much showier performance than the buttoned-down Sully. Having won twice (“Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump”), the acting branch may take Hanks for granted; he hasn’t earned an Oscar nomination since 2001, for “Castaway.” Maybe he’s due again. The movie may have opened too early; there isn’t much buzz. But never discount Eastwood and the steak eaters.