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Who’s Due for an Oscar?
They call it “The Academy” even though nothing is taught there, and, judging from the voting, little is learned there. In fact, there’s no there there. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences does have a season, and it’s fast approaching, and we thought we’d help launch that season by examining which of the current stars — actors, actresses, directors and writers — the Academy has overlooked. Who’s Henry Fonda in 1980 or Al Pacino in 1991? Who’s due — or overdue — for an Oscar?
First let’s do a little math. There are roughly 6,000 voting members in the Academy, and they are divided into the following branches:
Art Directors: 380
Public Relations: 373
Members at Large: 371
Short Film/Animation: 322
Visual Effects: 250
Film Editors: 229
Branches nominate their own (directors nominate best director, etc.), but in the final round all members vote in all categories.
Now one hopes aesthetics plays a role in the voting, and one suspects politics and advertising and buzz do, too, but the fact remains that if you are an actor nominated in another branch — writing or directing, say — you can count on a greater pool of peers to vote for you. This may help explain why in the past 25 years actors like Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson have all won best director awards, and why in the last 15 years actors like Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have all won best screenplay awards. Actors root for actors, even when they’re writers or directors.
The directors: Don’t be talented
Martin Scorsese (0-5) is the director most screwed-over by the Academy’s acting imbalance. In 1980 “Raging Bull” lost to first-time director Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People.” In 1990 “Goodfellas” lost to first-time director Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves.” Last year “The Aviator” lost to Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” but convincing arguments can be made for that one.
Of course Oscar has bypassed so many great directors it’s almost a point of pride not to win. Don’t win and you join legends like Alfred Hitchcock (0-5), Stanley Kubrick (0-4), Ingmar Bergman (0-3), Josef von Sternberg (0-2) and Orson Welles (0-1). For all the classic pictures Howard Hawks directed — “Scarface,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “His Girl Friday,” “Sergeant York,” “The Big Sleep,” “Red River,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Rio Bravo” — he was nominated only once, for “Sergeant York,” and came home empty-handed. In 1975, two years before he died, the Academy gave him an honorary award. Their way of saying “Oops.”
What other modern directors are due? Robert Altman, like Scorsese, is 0-5. Peter Weir (0-4) has never won and he’s still making good movies. David Lynch is 0-3, Mike Leigh 0-2, while both Joel Cohen and Alexander Payne are 0-1. David O. Russell has yet to be nominated.
But there’s little debate in my mind who’s most embarrassingly overdue. Watching “No Direction Home” on PBS this fall, it occurred to me that maybe when Martin Scorsese finally gets his Oscar it’ll be for something like best documentary. Most likely, he’ll simply be “honored.” Oops.
The screenwriters: Don’t be funny
It may seem pointless to talk about which screenwriter is due for an award since there is no best screenwriter award; there is only best screenplay. Another way Hollywood welcomes writers. You are just some guy to pick up its award. Be thankful we even let you in.
It also feels pointless because screenplays often go through so many drafts, in so many hands, that it’s hard to know — unless you’re inside the industry — who wrote what. “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” won best adapted screenplay for its three writers: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. So who wrote your favorite line? (Probably Tolkien.) Who adapted your favorite scene? Was anything improvised by the actors? No wonder they call it best screenplay.
But, given these qualms, let’s try to muddle through.
If Warren Beatty helps prove the way the acting branch hogs directing awards, he helps disprove it vis a vis screenwriting. In the last 30 years, 361 different writers have been nominated for original or adapted screenplay awards, and most are one-time nominees. Beatty’s a four-time nominee, zero-time winner. That’s the most noms without a trophy. No help from the homies.
This is probably less a reflection on Beatty than on a genre he excels in, light comedy, which, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect. Look at some of the other empty-handed nominees for best screenplay: Neil Simon (0-4), Nora Ephron (0-3), Lawrence Kasdan (0-3), Barry Levinson (0-3), Gary Ross (0-3) and Larry Gelbart (0-2). All funny people writing funny scripts. Their nominated screenplays include “The Goodbye Girl,” “Diner,” “Tootsie,” “The Big Chill,” “Big,” “When Harry Met Sally...” and “Dave.” “Tootsie” losing out to “Gandhi” is especially bad.
As for most due? I might go with Gelbart if he wrote more feature films but instead I’ll be like everyone else and ignore comedy for drama. John Sayles has been nominated twice for screenplay (“Passion Fish” and “Lone Star”) without a trophy. He’s an outsider and a maverick, and Hollywood has never treated these guys well. I’d love to see him win for a great screenplay — if he can deliver one again.
The actors: Don’t be British
If you’re an actor yearning for an Oscar keep this in mind: Don’t be British. Or if you are British, don’t play British. Play Gandhi or Claus von Bulow or Hannibal Lecter. Oh, and leave the booze at home.
The most nominated actors without anything on their mantles are a couple of hard-drinking Brits: Richard Burton (R.I.P.) and Peter O’Toole, both with seven noms and no wins. Fellow Brit Albert Finney is 0-5.
As for the Americans? Both Ed Harris and Jeff Bridges are 0-4, mostly in supporting roles. Our old pal, Warren Beatty, is also 0-4. Makes you wonder about all those actors who keep voting actors as best directors. Might they do it not to support a peer but to clear an easier path to best actor for themselves? In other words, if Beatty and Redford hadn’t already won best director statuettes wouldn’t we be rooting for them in the best actor category? What about Eastwood? Actors voting fellow actors as best director could be taking the long view: “Now that he’s got an Oscar he won’t be pulling any of that John Wayne-winning-for-‘True Grit’ crap on us 10 years down the road.”
Meanwhile Tom Cruise is 0-3 and doesn’t appear to be making any new friends. There’s actually a whole slew of good lead actors who have no Oscars: Javier Bardem (0-1), Johnny Depp (0-2), Leonardo DiCaprio (0-2), Liam Neeson (0-1), Nick Nolte (0-2), Brad Pitt (0-1), Billy Bob Thornton (0-2), and John Travolta (0-2). All are just waiting for the right role in the right year. Same with supporting actors: Samuel L. Jackson (0-1), James Earl Jones (0-1), Harvey Keitel (0-1), William H. Macy (0-1), John Malkovich (0-2), and James Woods (0-2). Not to mention the ones who haven’t even been nominated: Campbell Scott, Jeffrey Wright, Steve Buscemi, Peter Sarsgaard, Liev Schreiber and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I figure Philip’s a lock for the Kodak Theater in March, unless, of course, they pull a Paul Giamatti on him: “‘Capote’ is such a small film, after all. And isn’t he really a supporting actor? He certainly looks like one.”
An argument could be made that the actress most-due is Meryl Streep. Yes, she’s won, twice in fact (lead and supporting), but not since 1982. Since then she’s been nominated nine times (eight lead, one supporting). Time to get her out of her seat already.
You’ve also got Joan Allen (0-3), Glenn Close (0-5), Judy Davis (0-2), Laura Linney (0-2), Julianne Moore (0-4), Michelle Pfeiffer (0-3), Sigourney Weaver (0-3), Kate Winslet (0-4), and Annette Bening (0-3), Warren Beatty’s wife. Hey, what is it about the Beattys and the Academy? One best director in 1981 — and not even a best picture to go with it — and everything else has been the old scroogie.
Bad news, by the way, for all of these actresses except Winslet: The last woman over 40 who won best actress was Susan Sarandon, for “Dead Man Walking,” a decade ago. Since then, youngsters have ruled. Best supporting actress hasn’t been much better. Yes, Dame Judi Dench won in ’98, and, yes, those horribly old broads Kim Basinger and Marcia Gay Harden, each barely into their 40s, triumphed at the end of the millennium; but otherwise it’s been a hubba-hubba fest: Mira Sorvino, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Connelly, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rene Zellwegger and Cate Blanchet.
Me? While I love Laura Linney, Glenn Close feels the most due. Except she hasn’t been nominated since Ronald Reagan was president. And she’s nearly 60.
The Academy: Don’t be stupid
I should add — in case anyone in the Academy is actually reading this — that I’m not advocating voting for “most due” no matter what. They have to deliver. The last thing I want is for a brilliant performance by a novice to be ignored in favor of an OK performance by a legend. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. It’s called the Academy, folks. Let’s be smart for a change.
—Erik Lundegaard couldn’t have written this column without the help of, oh gosh, so many people. But mostly he’d like to thank his lawyer. This piece was originally published 11/7/2005 on MSNBC.com.