Does career achievement matter?

Eye on the Oscars: Talent Roundup 2012

Three years ago when Christopher Plummer was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for playing Leo Tolstoy in “The Last Station,” there was chatter that Academy members may vote for the then 79-year-old actor on the basis of not just the performance but his body of work.

That line of reasoning didn’t do the trick. Plummer lost to an actor playing a Nazi — Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”

This year, when discussing Plummer’s Oscar-nominated supporting performance in “Beginners,” nobody’s talking about career achievement. Nor need they be. Plummer’s elegiac turn as the father who comes out of the closet and declares his homosexuality after the death of his longtime wife won unanimous praise when the film opened in June and the buzz has continued through awards season.

“Yes, it’s mind-boggling that it’s just his second nomination ever,” says Associated Press film critic Christy Lemire. “If he wins this year, it won’t be on sentiment. He’s just completely lovely in that film.”

The Oscars have a long tradition of questionable timing in handing out acting honors, rewarding legends for their careers and not necessarily for their greatest work. The 1980s and early ’90s had a run of these choices, with Henry Fonda, Paul Newman and Al Pacino winning their first Oscars for, respectively, “On Golden Pond,” “The Color of Money” and “Scent of a Woman.”

Geraldine Page and Jessica Tandy took lead actress honors during the same period, though both actresses were known more for their distinguished stage work than film roles.

But somewhere around the time that prognosticators’ favorite Lauren Bacall (1996 pic “The Mirror Has Two Faces”) lost the supporting actress Oscar to Juliette Binoche (“The English Patient”), Academy members seemed to become harder to persuade by sentiment.

“What you don’t seem to see so much of is an undeserving contender winning just for the sake of it,” says Sasha Stone, founder and editor of the Awards Daily website. “The performance has to be great on top of their reputation.”

Though they have their admirers, including Academy members who thought enough of their work to nominate them, lead actress candidates Meryl Streep and Glenn Close are finding the “it’s-her-year” path tough going against “The Help’s” Viola Davis, who recently won the SAG Award.

“When you have someone as consistently brilliant as Meryl Streep, it makes for this kind of tough decision on almost annual basis,” says film critic Leonard Maltin. “And every year that she doesn’t win — and it’s been nearly three decades now — that kind of sentiment will just continue to build.”

Streep has two Oscars; one for lead (“Sophie’s Choice” in 1982) and one for supporting (1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer”), while Close has yet to win. The six-time nominee received strong reviews for her work in “Albert Nobbs” when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and many thought her 15-year commitment to shepherding a project that she co-wrote and produced might sway voters.

“Sometimes, it just goes back to the no-win situation of having to choose among five excellent pieces of work,” Maltin says.

There have been occasions recently when, one might argue, career wins have occurred. Stone considers Kate Winslet’s 2008 lead actress victory for “The Reader” an overdue reward for the five previous nominations that failed to bring her the Oscar. Similarly, Maltin notes that Sandra Bullock’s win the following year for “The Blind Side” could also be, by some measure, chalked up to sentiment.

“Here was an actress who had done consistently good work for 20 years and finally had her shot at the Oscar,” Maltin says. “And look who she beat that year — Meryl Streep for ‘Julie & Julia.’ Sometimes the timing just works out right.”

Eye on the Oscars: Talent Roundup 2012
Does career achievement matter?
And the nominees are:
Lead Actor | Lead Actress | Supporting Actor | Supporting Actress