Each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestows acting nominations on a select 20 performances (and usually 20 individuals, though double nominations in one year in both lead and supporting aren't unheard of) that make up the "class" of that year. Last year's class was filled with mostly older, veteran actors (Meryl Streep, Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, and Viola Davis immediately spring to mind), and the class before that was all over the place (as young as Saoirse Ronan and as old as Ruby Dee; as foreign as Marion Cotillard and as homegrown as Tommy Lee Jones).
This year's class is surprisingly diverse, from former winners (Penelope Cruz, Helen Mirren) to young ingenues (Anna Kendrick, Carey Mulligan) to longtime favorites of the Academy (Streep, Jeff Bridges) to theater vets breaking through (Jeremy Renner) to long-respected actors finally nabbing a nomination (Christopher Plummer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Firth). On the other hand, it has a tendency to skew towards 'boring,' with nominees who can do their performances in their sleep (Morgan Freeman, George Clooney, Matt Damon) to actors who served as nothing more than distractions in their films (Stanley Tucci, Vera Farmiga). 12 of the 20 are first-time nominees, including Kendrick, Renner, Mulligan, Tucci, and Farmiga, as well as Plummer, Gyllenhaal, Firth. The other four first-time nominees are surefire winners Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique in the supporting categories, Hollywood favorite Sandra Bullock, and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe. (The last nominee is Woody Harrelson, who I couldn't seem to find a box for him to fit into.)
Still, with the precursors all having had their say (overwhelmingly for Waltz and Mo'Nique, the majority for Bridges, and splitting between Bullock, Streep, and, to a certain extent, Mulligan for the Best Actress prize), this whole race feels very decided. Moving the Oscars back to early March instead of mid-February has had some unintentional effects, and for actors like Kendrick, Harrelson, and Clooney, it must be difficult to know they'll lose once again come Oscar night.
However, there is one thing that might sway what our memories are of this year: the return of the "surprise." Last year had approximately zero surprise winners in the acting races; after all, Heath Ledger was never going to lose, everyone was obsessed with Kate Winslet finally winning despite how underwhelming the performance was, Penelope Cruz was the frontrunner for weeks, despite sudden momentum for Viola Davis, and Mickey Rourke losing to Sean Penn really wasn't surprising, no matter what so many thought.
Hopefully, this year will yield a few surprises. What follows is my analysis of exactly how likely each contender's chance at the win is. Percentages are based on my wildly unscientific method known as "Absolute Guesses."
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart 50%
George Clooney, Up in the Air 15%
Colin Firth, A Single Man 8%
Morgan Freeman, Invictus 2%
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker 25%
Oddsmakers seem to want to make this race as locked as Best Supporting Actor or Best Supporting Actress, but I just don't see it the same way. Yes, sentiment is definitely with Bridges, and his opponents' inability to agree on either Clooney or Firth left him without a strong adversary in the race. I'd say he has a far better chance of winning than any of his competitors.
BUT: What to make of Renner? Yes, he was probably in fifth place for the nomination, but as far as the win is concerned, I'd say he has a much better chance. He's not an older veteran, as all four of the other actors are (Clooney and Firth kinda cancel each other out, and if Freeman hadn't phoned in his Invictus performance, he and Bridges would cancel each other out as well), and he's also in a movie that has a ton of goodwill right now, so I say if anyone will upset, it's gonna be him.
Clooney organized that Haiti telethon that raised over $60 million, which brands him as Hollywood's Chief Liberal Activist. This can be a positive thing for Oscar (Sean Penn's a double winner, after all), and a bad thing (they snubbed Penn for Best Director of Into the Wild in favor of Jason Reitman for Juno--yikes!). If this were a different year, if it felt like Clooney actually cared about this award, and if he hadn't won for Syriana in 2006, this would be a different story. But he really didn't have a chance two years ago for Michael Clayton, and he still doesn't have much of a chance now.
Firth gave a great performance, and he is easily my winner in this category (though I loved Renner and enjoyed Bridges as well), but for some reason, the buzz never materialized, so his chances are slim to none, and Slim just left town. He should be back in this race soon enough, but this is the performance of his career for now.
Freeman's performance is the stinker here. (Every race has to have a stinker, like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's performances last year.) It's nominated because it sounds prestigious and there wasn't a great fifth option. I haven't heard of one person who is super excited about this performance. Then again, the movie was a stinker, too, so maybe it isn't that much of a surprise that Freeman (and Damon) are the fifth-place finishers in their categories.
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side 40%
Helen Mirren, The Last Station 5%
Carey Mulligan, An Education 10%
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious 15%
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia 30%
I guess that Bullock has the best chance here: she does have the buzz going in, after all. But let's be real here, folks: Bullock's portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuhoy was fun and is considered by many to be her best film performance to date, but it is not better than the brilliant performances from Mulligan, Sidibe, and Streep.
Tangent: I vehemently disagree with this idea that The Blind Side is Bullock's best work: watch Crash to see her at her absolute best. If she had won for that movie, I wouldn't have any problem. And that's something I really hate about the Oscars: it seems as though it's all a time-release system. Last year, it was deemed that Kate Winslet "deserved" to finally win an Oscar, so she won for The Reader, arguably the worst of her six Oscar-nominated performances. (I would have given her the Oscar for Titanic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Little Children instead.) Bridges is getting a lot of the same buzz this year, though I actually think he's deserving for Crazy Heart. But Oscars should award the performance, not the career, and most certainly not the buzz. Bullock is campaigning on both. But it's truly not fair that she's got a great shot at winning for this. Tangent over.
Streep has a lot of fans in the Academy (they've nominated her 16 times; of course she has fans), and they're ravenous for Streep to finally receive her third Oscar after 28 years (but the momentum's really been building since The Devil Wears Prada, to be quite frank). They couldn't come through in the clutch last year, but her Doubt performance was hardly iconic and Winslet-mania had reached a fever pitch. Since there's been time for Bullock's buzz to cool, the voters might actually care about the performance and vote on that.
Then again, if they're voting on the performance, we might see a Sidibe win come March 7. She truly delivered the most raw, emotional performance of the year, and trust me: she's not just playing herself. If Streep and Bullock wind up splitting votes for veteran actors, a Sidibe win could happen. It won't, but it could!
Mulligan is the true victim of awards season. She just seemed so unprepared for everything, and to be frank, I like her character in An Education a lot more than I like her. She seems so weak and Keira Knightley-esque, not the confident, cute, interesting character she plays. I guess not every actor is like their character, but I'd expect her to be a thousand times more interesting than she actually is. I probably wouldn't give her the award either.
Mirren is this category's stinker. She didn't do much for the movie, and when you compare this performance to something like The Queen: damn. Step down much? She literally has absolutely no chance at the win. No qualifier necessary.
Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon, Invictus 1%
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger 15%
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station 7%
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones 2%
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds 75%
In my mind, no one can beat Waltz here. I was tempted to just put him at 100% and let the others languish at 0%, but there's no such thing as an absolute lock. True, Harrelson could use his connections in the industry to pull out a stunning surprise win; after all, Waltz has few friends in the industry. But Waltz has missed exactly one precursor award (the National Board of Review award, to Harrelson), and that particular organization is looking like it will be batting .000 come Oscar time. Plummer should be honored to finally be nominated at age 80 after an illustrious film career, but Hal Holbrook couldn't beat another unstoppable villainous character, Javier Bardem, two years ago with the same "generation" campaign, and his performance was actually good! Not only that, but this category seems to have become the "you evil man!" award (Bardem, Heath Ledger, and now Waltz). Tucci could win on that theory, if his performance was any good, which it, uh, wasn't. And Damon is the stinker here: it's cool that he finally got nominated again after Good Will Hunting, but his nice-guy rugby captain just never caught fire with any precursor voting bodies. It's Waltz's to lose, and he won't.
Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Nine 1%
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air 1%
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart 3%
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air 5%
Mo'Nique, Precious 90%
If Waltz's win is locked, Mo'Nique's is stored in a fireproof, bulletproof vault in the best military fort money can buy. Again, yes, it is quite possible that a surprise winner could come out of nowhere. After all, I'm placing bets in the lead acting categories that there could be surprises. But here's the thing: the lead acting nominees are actually good. The supporting nominees, besides the inevitable winners? Not so much. Kendrick would have more of a chance if Farmiga weren't also nominated, but as it is, they'll vote-split. Cruz is the stinker of the category: I personally love her, but this wasn't even close to her best performance. Blame major accounts of category confusion for her nomination. And Gyllenhaal? She's done better work (Sherrybaby) and more high-profile work (The Dark Knight), so we'll chalk up her nomination to goodwill with voters and a family connection to previous nominee Jake Gyllenhaal.
I can't see any possible combinations of winners on Oscar night besides the following four:
No matter what, the two supporting acting frontrunners will win. If Renner wins, Bullock won't: obviously, the Academy was feeling contrarian, and they won't follow Bullock's buzz. If Sidibe wins, Bridges won't for the very same reason as above. I'd say that if they're going with popular opinion, it will be group 1 for the win. If they want to honor the elder statesmen (and women), they'lll go with group 2. If they're feeling a little contrarian, they'll go with group 3. And if they're feeling very contrarian, it'll be group 4. If they're feeling even more contrarian than that, well, then we might just see Freeman/Mirren/Damon/Cruz. And I would laugh.
This will either be known as the year everyone knew who would win before the nominations were even announced or the year no one knew what was coming until the envelopes were opened. My ideal grouping would be Firth/Streep/Waltz/Mo'Nique, but out of the four above, I would pick group 3. Since it's not likely to happen, I'm hoping that group 2 is our real list of winners. What about you? Which of the four above groups would you like to see win on Oscar night? Which group do you think will win on Oscar night? Or would you have a whole other grouping altogether? Take it to the comments!
Next week, I'm breaking down the Screenplay and Director races, then the next week is Picture and my final predictions before showtime in all 24 categories, along with your chance to play along and beat my predictions!