Candidates in same category don't guarantee Oscar doom

Many might say that having multiple potential Oscar nominees from the same film competing in the same acting category is a curse in blessing’s clothing.

But you won’t catch everyone complaining.

With its acclaimed urban drama “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” Lionsgate has three viable nominees in the supporting actress competish: comedienne Mo’Nique, singer Mariah Carey and relative newcomer Paula Patton — and Lionsgate Motion Picture Group co-chief operating officer Joe Drake calls it “a good problem to have.”

“Precious” is not the only 2009 film to boast a deep bench in the supporting categories. For example, Paramount has high hopes for Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick as the women in perpetual business traveler George Clooney’s whirlwind world in “Up in the Air.” Sony Pictures Classics is touting Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina as the men tutoring breakout star Carey Mulligan in the ways of the world of “An Education,” while “The Last Station” showcases Christopher Plummer and Paul Giamatti as Leo Tolstoy and his secretary and confidant Vladimir Chertkov.

“If Academy voters liked the film in question, chances are they liked all the performances in the film,” observes film historian and critic Leonard Maltin. “It’s hard enough comparing apples and oranges with performances in different movies. To choose one outstanding performance in a single movie is really tough.”

Multiple acting nominations are thus nothing new for Oscar. In the trophy’s 80-year history, it has happened 30 times in the supporting actress category, including five times in the past decade (most recently, with last year’s “Doubt”). And dual nominations don’t necessarily mean that the actresses will cancel each other out: Ten of the 30 films with multiple nominees saw one of their thesps win.

It’s a less common occurrence in the supporting actor category, where 16 films have had multiple nominees — none since 1986′s “Platoon” — though three films have boasted three nominees in the category: 1972′s “The Godfather,” 1974′s “The Godfather: Part II” and 1954′s “On the Waterfront.”

Some believe studios end up pushing multiple nominees in the supporting categories because they’ve moved some big performances down to take them out of the lead actor and actress races.

“It’s a contrivance, but not of the Academy’s doing,” Maltin says. “Usually, the studio or distributor is imposing the framework on the actor’s status in the film. It’s annoying to find leading performances shoehorned into the supporting category. A classic, ancient example is Walter Matthau in Billy Wilder’s ‘The Fortune Cookie’ — he had more screen time than Jack Lemmon, but he was not yet a star. It was such a dynamic and exceptional performance, but it was not a supporting role.”

Michael Barker, co-founder and co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, counters that the decision to place actors in certain categories develops naturally.

“With ‘An Education,’ it evolved over 10 months, based on the response we got from critics, exhibitors, journalists and people you have screenings for, like SAG members,” Barker says. “You start to hear reactions to the film. Certain names come up more often than others.

“It was clear that the reaction to Alfred Molina and Peter Sarsgaard was very strong. Even when you’re not sure what category to put them in, it becomes more obvious as you show the film to more people. It happens organically. And we listen to the talent themselves to make sure they’re comfortable where they’re placed.”

Maltin concedes that the point of the Oscars is to honor outstanding work. “I’m torn,” he admits, “only because when the performance in question is really great, I’m happy to see it recognized. I just wish it was properly recognized.”

Michael Phillips, film critic for the Chicago Tribune and co-host of the movie review series “At the Movies,” offers some assessments of the co-stars who could find themselves competing against one another.

He lauds Farmiga’s work in “Up in the Air.”

“She’s able to relax onscreen a little,” he says. “It’s funny how an actor can go years without relaxing onscreen because the roles won’t let them. She’s had to fight against some pretty crummy material in her career, and only the mighty survive with the scripts she’s been given.”

Of Kendrick, he observes, “She’s a very good young actress, and the part is one of those instances where you get a two-dimensional character (to) thaw out and expand to three dimensions.”

In “Precious,” Carey gave “a very clean, honest and effective performance,” while Mo’Nique had a memorable scene where she explains her monstrous actions.

“She doesn’t redeem herself, but she justifies her actions to the social worker,” Phillips says. “It’s an unexpectedly good scene — you expect it to be hackneyed, but it’s elevated by her good acting.”

In Oscar’s 80-year history, only three African-Americans have won for supporting actress: Hattie McDaniel for 1939′s “Gone With the Wind,” Whoopi Goldberg for 1990′s “Ghost” and Jennifer Hudson for 2006′s “Dreamgirls.”

Given that history, Drake, who’s championing “Precious,” says “the idea that we have three genuinely notable performances is a pretty extraordinary thing.”

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