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October 1, 2014
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Favourites, but underdogs might end up winners

A scene from 12 Years a Slave, one of the favourites for tomorrow’s Oscar night.
By Jen Chaney
The Washington Post (*)
Although there are lots of predictions for the Oscars, there can be surprises as in previous years

When Jack Nicholson presented the Academy Award for best picture in 2006, ripping open the envelope and revealing that Crash had just won over Brokeback Mountain, he couldn’t mask his surprise. As soon as he spoke that word — Crash — he raised those trademark eyebrows, pointed both index fingers to the sky, then, in almost Keanu Reeves-style fashion, said simply: “Whoa.”

“Whoa” was definitely the word for what would go down as one of the biggest upsets in Academy Awards history, a shocker that put an exclamation point on an awards season that had been dominated by Ang Lee’s melancholy love story about a closeted romance between cowboys. For those watching the broadcast at home, that blind-siding win added some genuine surprise to a night filled with Oscars for expected front-runners, including Reese Witherspoon, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Lee, who did at least win for directing Brokeback Mountain. For Crash, the victory would prove to be an initial blessing and a long-term curse, sparking a backlash that eventually hardened into widespread opinion that Crash was not only an undeserving best picture winner, but not a particularly good motion picture, period.

That’s what a truly major Oscar upset looks like: jaw-dropping, exciting, controversial and, sometimes, disappointing on an almost “John Carter” level. We don’t see many of them, partly because the Academy Awards are pretty predictable and partly because more people have become students of awards season buzz. We study hard for the Academy Awards and we start studying early, paying close attention to the outcome of pre-Oscar trophy shows like the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards while simultaneously processing the constant stream of polls and expert predictions published by traditional media outlets as well as narrowly awards-focused blogs. By the time Oscar Sunday arrives, even the casual moviegoer — the one who keeps meaning to see Her but hasn’t — will know enough about the potential gold statuette scenarios to be prepared for almost anything.

Upsets — not mere surprises, but true upsets in which an under-the-radar nominee unexpectedly surpasses the perceived front-runner — are rare. But they do happen. Prior to the 79th Academy Awards, virtually everyone — Entertainment Weekly, Roger Ebert, your mother-in-law — was predicting a best supporting actor win for Eddie Murphy, who had just delivered a resume-revitalizing performance in Dreamgirls. But it was Alan Arkin who ultimately won for Little Miss Sunshine, busting more than a few office Oscar pool ballots in the process. And who honestly expected Adrien Brody to be named best actor in 2003, when he was up against the favoured winners of that awards season, Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis? Brody certainly didn’t, which was immediately obvious from his reaction. “There comes a time in life when everything seems to make sense,” he said in his improvised acceptance speech. “This is not one of those times.”

Upsets in the acting categories or lower-profile races are a bit more common than they are when it comes to best picture. In the past 20 years, there have only been two truly shocking upsets in that category: that 2006 Crash one and the 1999 double-take-worthy triumph of Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. Does that mean the time is ripe for another, perhaps during the 86th Academy Awards, to be broadcast tomorrow night? Probably not, but. . . it’s possible, and it’s possible in two other major categories as well. Here’s a quick breakdown on the three races where an upset could — key word: could — be brewing.

Best picture. The front-runner: from the millisecond this awards season began, buzz and conventional wisdom have proclaimed that 12 Years a Slave would win best picture. It’s an acclaimed, upsetting and extraordinarily crafted portrait of a subject —US’s ugly history of slavery and racism — that’s necessary to confront. Both on paper and while you’re watching it, it sounds and looks like an Academy Award-winning best picture.

But. . . Something weird happened at the Producers Guild Awards this year, which is widely considered the most reliable predictor of which film will take home the most coveted Oscar prize. The guild’s members declared a tie for the first time ever, rewarding both 12 Years a Slave and Alfonso Cuaron’s outer-space odyssey Gravity. That suggests that Gravity could pull off what would be characterized as a minor upset, minor because there’s been an established tug-of-war between these movies, all season long. An even more surprising and controversial upset could take place if the academy’s 10 nominations for American Hustle translate into a surge of votes for it in the best picture category. If the story of con artists in toupees and low-cut dresses wins instead of a serious, harrowing drama about slavery, be prepared for another Crash-level media backlash.

Best actor. The front-runner: in an extremely competitive best actor race, Matthew McConaughey has emerged as the anointed man to beat, not only because of his tenacious, raw performance in The Dallas Buyers Club but because of the way he has made such a commendable career U-turn over the past two years, actively seeking out risky fare and leaving unimaginative romantic comedies in his rearview mirror. If all goes according to plan, McConaughey will be on a stage tomorrow night, “All right, all right, all right”-ing with an Oscar in his hand.

But. . . There’s a chance things won’t go according to plan. In recent weeks, stories have circulated about the possibility of a Leonardo DiCaprio upset. It’s unclear whether these stories are based on a groundswell of actual voter sentiment or a whisper campaign kickstarted by the members of the Association of Grown Women Still Recovering From Preteen Leonardo DiCaprio Crushes. It is clear that DiCaprio’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street is a massive and formidable one. Potentially formidable, too, is Nebraska’s Bruce Dern, a veteran actor with no Oscar wins who has expressed so much “Aw, shucks” gratitude on the awards-season circuit that he could snag more votes than observers are expecting.

Best actress. The front-runner: Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett. That’s all we’ve heard all season: that Blanchett would easily and deservedly win her second Academy Award for portraying a mentally disintegrating socialite in ‘Blue Jasmine.‘ This is probably still true.

But. . . A couple of things have happened since Oscar nomination day. First, the recent revival of allegations that Woody Allen, who wrote and directed Blue Jasmine, sexually molested his daughter, Dylan Farrow, has invited questions about whether voters might steer away from Blanchett in an attempt to avoid all things Allen-related during this year’s ceremony. (The fact that Dylan Farrow’s open letter in The New York Times specifically mentioned Blanchett’s name put the actress in the thick of all this to a greater extent than she might have been.) Second, there has also been a lot of chatter about Amy Adams. This is her fifth Oscar nomination, but she has no wins to her credit. And she’s starring in a movie widely liked by the academy: American Hustle, in which she plays a woman with a faux-British accent who believes her wiley persuasiveness can get her whatever she wants. Perhaps that’s exactly the kind of part that can also hustle its way into the Oscar upsetters circle. Tomorrow night, we’ll know for sure.

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