When you look at the titles supposedly in the hunt for Oscar glory this year, there are — as per usual — few connecting links between them: “The Martian” and “Carol” are on different planets in more ways than one, while “Spotlight” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” have about as much in common as Donald Trump and the Dalai Lama. As disparate as the films are, however, one theme is emerging from this year’s awards race: The renewed strength of the movie star vehicle.
That may not seem much of a renewal. The Academy has always liked movie stars, after all: From the past few years alone, the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock have golden statuettes to prove it. But many of this year’s perceived heavy-hitters are actively carried by some of the biggest A-list names in the industry. If some years find
Academy voters welcoming outsiders into their circle — “The Artist” and Frenchman Jean Dujardin, for example, or the diverse ensemble of “12 Years a Slave,” Brad Pitt notwithstanding — this season’s race thus far looks like more of an inside affair.
Take “The Revenant,” for example: a tough, potentially uncommercial film, for sure, but one heavily reliant on the hefty star power of Leonardo DiCaprio to carry auds through its most grueling challenges. DiCaprio’s lead actor chances are already the subject of fevered fan-forum speculation; if he finally takes the gold at his fifth attempt, it’ll likely be the headline of the night.
Still, he’ll have to beat a starry-looking field to get there. How about Golden Globe nominee Matt Damon? Blockbuster “The Martian” owes much of its success and awards buzz to the genial charms of Hollywood’s dependable Everyman: It’s hard to imagine a less-established name holding down vast stretches of Ridley Scott’s marooned-astronaut adventure (with no tangible scene partners for company) to quite the same effect.
Like DiCaprio, Damon (a former screenwriting Oscar winner) is still chasing his first acting Academy Award. So is SAG nominee Johnny Depp, whose slithery, physically made-over turn as Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass” works as a more counterintuitive reminder of his star presence — it’s the Depp you can’t see that you keep thinking of.
Other men in the mix include Tom Hanks. The two-time Oscar winner may not score another nomination for Steven Spielberg’s old-school best picture player “Bridge of Spies,” but either way, it’s a film heavily dependent on his sturdy gravitas as a leading man. Many critics have likened his star persona in the film to that of James Stewart for Hitchcock — the kind of comfortingly familiar presence cast to guide mainstream viewers through thematically shadowy material. Globe nominee Will Smith acts similarly to draw the audience to solemn subject matter in “Concussion.” Over in supporting actor, meanwhile, a veteran icon could take the gold for revisiting his name-making role: A win for Sylvester
Stallone’s Rocky Balboa in “Creed” could be the ultimate Hollywood nostalgia trip.
In the actress categories, typically kinder to new arrivals than their male counterparts, big names also pepper the conversation. Jennifer Lawrence, currently the most bankable woman in Hollywood, carries David O. Russell’s “Joy” with gale-force movie-star quality. Then there’s Cate Blanchett, serving up a kind of Lana Turner glamour assault in “Carol”; never has a film traded quite so luxuriantly on the Australian star’s physical magnetism. Her co-lead Rooney Mara’s no slouch, but perhaps it’s that very imposing aura that has led the Weinstein Co. to classify Blanchett as the lesbian romance’s sole lead.
Lawrence and Blanchett seem likely to take a back seat in the race to two relative ingenues, with “Room’s” Brie Larson and “Brooklyn’s” Saoirse Ronan currently sharing the front-runner position. They may not be supernova-scale stars yet, but they’re hardly unknown quantities: Ronan, after all, has been a regular presence in prestige productions since scoring an Oscar nom at the tender age of 13 in “Atonement” eight years ago. And “Brooklyn” could not be fashioned more devotedly as a star showcase. Ronan’s striking face is repeatedly caressed in close-up in the old-fashioned immigrant love story, practically billboarding the actress’s still-burgeoning star quality. The same could be said for ubiquitous Swedish up-and-comer Alicia Vikander in “The Danish Girl” and “Ex Machina,” the two films for which she received dual Globe noms; even the less-established names on this year’s awards trail feel like heavyweight fixtures to come.