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Why Adam Sandler Should Be a Serious Best Actor Contender for ‘Uncut Gems’ (Column)

Adam Sandler is on a roll — that could send him all the way to the Oscars.

Not only is he up for a Gotham Award for his work in “Uncut Gems,” but his performance also nabbed him an Indie Spirit Award nomination just last week.

If all is right in the world, Sandler, 53, will be recognized by the Academy with a nomination.

Uncut Gems,” Josh and Benny Safdie’s follow-up to their 2017 crime drama “Good Time,” is a deeply dark dramedy starring Sandler as Howard Ratner, a loudmouthed jewelry dealer in New York’s Diamond District whose gambling addiction is destroying his professional and personal life. The movie follows him over the course of just a few days racing around New York City and out on Long Island as he tries to pull off another one of his con jobs to pay off a debt and get a couple of violent goons off his back.

This isn’t Sandler’s first time on the awards campaign trail. It’s been almost 20 years since the former “Saturday Night Live” player attracted major Oscar buzz for his unexpected dramatic turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love.” He was shut out of the Academy Awards, but he received a Golden Globe nom. The same awards attention came his way 15 years later for Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” in 2017, but again he didn’t make it to the Oscars.

Sandler’s name was immediately added to this year’s Oscar conversation after “Uncut Gems” premiered at Telluride in August. The movie isn’t for everyone, however. Not only is it a nonstop anxiety-inducing cinematic heart attack, but Howard is a loathsome character with few, if any, redeeming qualities. “I was scared of Howard when I read the script,” Sandler told me the morning after the film screened at TIFF, adding, “When I was reading it, I was just looking for the love in the guy.”

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If Academy voters have a hard time embracing Howard they may also find it difficult to support Sandler. Not that actors haven’t been honored for playing horrendous characters: Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs,” Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” are a few who come to mind.

Despite Howard’s shortcomings, he’s also an antihero of sorts, someone we root for because we feel sorry for the poor schmuck. A couple weeks ago I moderated a Q&A with Sandler and the Safdies at a SAG-AFTRA screening, and most of the audience raised their hands when I asked who actually liked Howard.

I can’t talk about Sandler at the Oscars without addressing his possible comedy problem. His list of credits includes “Water Boy,” “Happy Gilmore” and “Big Daddy.” I’m not passing judgment on Sandler’s brand of popcorn comedy because his movies have their place at the multiplex and have grossed close to $3 billion over his 33-year career, but voters may turn their noses up at his Razzie-winning Happy Madison Prods. empire.

Or not.

If Sandler makes it to the Oscars, he’ll follow in the footsteps of other comedians who made the jump from comedy to drama with great success. Jamie Foxx’s post-“In Living Color” career includes an Oscar in 2005 for his portrayal of Ray Charles in 2004’s “Ray” and a nomination that same year for supporting
actor in Michael Mann’s “Collateral.” Six years after “Mork & Mindy” went off the air, Robin Williams earned the first of four nominations, and scored a win for “Good Will Hunting” in 1998. Dan Aykroyd (“Driving Miss Daisy”), Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”), Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”) and Eddie Murphy (“Dreamgirls”) are also some of the high-profile funny people who have earned noms.

“Comedians get this weird rap,” Idina Menzel, who plays Sandler’s estranged wife in “Uncut Gems” told me, in an appearance on “The Big Ticket” podcast. “Comedians are the most courageous artists out there. What they have to do with their instrument and their body, it’s just incredible. I don’t know why we’re always so surprised, you know? [Adam] does his goofy stuff, but you can tell he’s just such a deep, soulful person.”

The lead actor category is crowded this year. With Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”), Adam Driver (“Marriage Story), Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), Robert De Niro (“The Irishman”) and Jonathan Pryce (“The Two Popes”) heading the pack, and many other potential and well-deserving nominees in the mix, Sandler’s path to the Oscars will take a lot of work.

Here’s hoping his diamond-filled performance gets a gold setting.

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