Crashes Fuel High-Risk Oscar Race

It’s a long-established maxim that fans of auto racing are (consciously or unconsciously) there to see what happens when things go bad. If high-speed racing didn’t involve the risk of crashes and rollovers, who knows what the attendance would look like. And like racing, awards season, especially when the rubber hits the Oscar road, has its own grisly thrills and chills.

And it’s not just accountants and bankers who find the sight of red ink flowing irresistible.

Today, the moment any awards or nominations are announced, the internet is buzzing with “snubs and surprises” stories. They’re the red meat of awards season, the kudos equivalent of the Formula One favorite hitting the wall, the Indy black sheep who comes from last place to take the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Oscar history is packed with “what just happened?” moments. Among the toppers:

Oscar night 1997, when Hollywood icon Lauren Bacall proved even legends can go down in flames.
After months of stories about how she was “a lock” and “sure thing” for an Oscar she was “due” as a career achievement make-good for her terrific work in Barbra Streisand’s “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” Bacall was riding for a fall.

Her startled look when Juliette Binoche’s name was called as supporting actress for “The English Patient” is at the top of every “you know what happens when you assume” cautionary clip reels.

More recently, “Creed” supporting actor Sylvester Stallone had his own Bacall moment when the star was touted as the sentimental favorite, only to have the dark horse Mark Rylance scoop the only Oscar for Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.”

2017 has been packed with excitement for those who like lots of action in their honors. This is the year that proved no matter how much a movie can look like an awards season winner on paper, it can lose gas — sometimes straight out of the gate, sometimes as the season grinds on. How?
Let’s count the ways:

Nate Parker’s powerful “The Birth of a Nation” ignited a bidding war at Sundance, earning both the highest acquisition fee ever paid ($17.5 million from Fox Searchlight) and mostly ecstatic reviews. Its velocity toward the Oscars was also powered by the moral righteousness of #oscarssowhite, which was in full force during last year’s Oscar nominations and powerfully reminded industryites that it might be the right time to get on the right side of Hollywood history. Especially when Oscar campaigning would begin again in only a few months.

“Nation” blew a tire in the summer when a nearly 20-year-old incident from Parker’s past took over all discussions about the artistic merits of the film. Though acquitted of rape charges in that criminal case from his college days, a combination of circumstances — from Parker’s often-brittle stance in interviews to revelations of the victim’s suicide a few years ago — turned the roar of a major Oscar contender to a film that fizzled at the box office and fell from the awards season discussion — save a Directors Guild nomination for debut feature.

It should be noted that if the scandal is troubling enough, as was certainly the case here, the Oscar exile can be lengthy if not permanent. Mel Gibson’s brilliant “Apocalypto” crashed and burned with a much publicized DUI arrest and rant during the 2006 awards season. And it’s taken a decade — and an even more brilliant film — to see Gibson score a clutch of Oscar nominations, including director for his WWII drama “Hacksaw Ridge.” Hollywood loves a comeback story and Gibson’s “Ridge” work brought him gloriously back.

You’ll never find a better example of a film that screams “Oscar” on paper, but whispers “fuggedaboutit” in theaters than Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating dream project, “Silence.” Directed by an American master, based upon a universally acclaimed novel, focusing on Serious Film subjects like faith and courage, set in the traditionally Oscar-rich milieu of the colorful foreign historical past, once “Silence” was seen, all its assets were just so many blown gaskets.

Maybe history will be kinder to the maestro’s cherished cinematic effort. It certainly can’t be harsher than the cold shoulder it’s gotten from this year’s movie fans, voters, and pundits.

Another striking example is Ben Affleck’s equally catastrophic commercial and critical spinout, “Live by Night,” which proves that even an Oscar-winning filmmaker working in a classic Hollywood genre — the gangster film — can crash in the first lap.

After scoring Oscar nominations and wins at a furious pace, for the past 13 years Clint Eastwood has had some astonishing commercial successes to console him for his lack of Oscar gold. This year’s “Sully” looked on paper like his best shot in some time, as it starred double-Oscar winner Tom Hanks, a story about a beloved true-life figure, and was a solid critical and commercial hit.

But as “Sully” sputtered through awards season, the film extended not only Eastwood’s cold kudos streak, but also Hanks’. After being nominated five times since 1989’s “Big,” Hanks, even with first-rate work in hits like “Captain Phillips” and “Sully,” has not snagged so much as a single Oscar nomination since 2001.

Why haven’t two of America’s finest film artists been earning the industry’s top honors lately? There’s no clear answer but take this as consolation: Meryl Streep’s cold streak with Oscar wins ran almost 30 years. And think about the amazing Streep performances from 1984-2011 that were nominated, but never won.

Which brings us back to those “sure thing” actor nominations. Amy Adams has at least been spared the agony of the frontrunner who fails in front of 100 million TV viewers. Despite being one of the season’s heavy favorites for a lead actress nomination in Denis Villeneuve’s deep and touching sci-fi gem, “Arrival,” Adams had the bittersweet experience of seeing her film take off down the track with eight Oscar nominations, but no room for her in the car.

With five Oscar nominations in the past decade, she certainly knows what she’s missing when everyone else’s pulses are racing on Feb. 26 at the Dolby.
And one assumes she’s undaunted by watching this one from the grandstands and already in training for her next race.

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