Joaquin Phoenix stars in "The Master." (Phil Bray / The Weinstein…)
Sally Field, now up for her third Academy Award for acting, has been much teased, in a "Mean Girls" sort of way, for that infamous emotional gush after her 1985 "Places in the Heart" win: "You like me, you really like me."
But what the actress actually said that night was far more telling about the cultural, social and political dynamics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the most exclusive club in Hollywood: "I haven't had an orthodox career," i.e she emerged from TV, "and I've wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn't feel it," that would be for "Norma Rae" in 1980, "but this time I feel it, and I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!"
That's about as succinct and on-point a description of the Oscar landscape as any I've run across. In the crazy and completely human, cultural, social and political dynamics of Hollywood and the Academy, being "liked" matters.
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With this year's Oscar nominations in hand, it's worth keeping in mind that the race from this point forward is not about quality. Anyone on the list has already cleared that very high bar.
The competition now is about personalities and politics. There are complex cliques — the in-crowd, the outcasts, the wannabes, the don't wannabes — it's worse than high school.
And the vote, when it comes, is ultimately an emotional one, for the Oscar is the ultimate celebrity popularity contest masquerading as a celebration of the "art" and the "science" of the craft.
Field's Oscar speech eloquently revealed an actor's need for validation, as well as how that validation is accorded. The raw need of artists is so fundamental that it drives the art and the craft being celebrated. The Oscar itself represents a starker statement on how careers, and egos, can be made and broken by the club effect.
So what do this year's nominations tell us? There are signs in the acting categories that the clique is cracking perhaps a little, but only a little.
Take the supporting actor category: Christoph Waltz ("Django Unchained"), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master"), Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook"), Alan Arkin ("Argo") and Tommy Lee Jones ("Lincoln"). All five have at least one Oscar on the shelf, but the favorites are the guys who have been around the longest — De Niro, Arkin and Jones.
The choice will not be solely for the performance, if that were the case I don't think De Niro would have made the cut. My bet's on Arkin — a consistently brilliant comic actor (see "Little Miss Sunshine"), but it is the drama of "Argo" that gives him a shot at a second win. The in-crowd always prefers serious stuff.
And for those about to bash me for bashing De Niro, think back — his two Oscars were for "Raging Bull" and "The Godfather: Part II." Does his "Silver Linings" dad really measure up with those?
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There is a lot between the lines in the actor choices — Daniel Day-Lewis ("Lincoln"), Denzel Washington ("Flight"), Hugh Jackman ("Les Misérables"), Bradley Cooper ("Silver Linings Playbook") and Joaquin Phoenix ("The Master"). Let's start with the obvious — and the winner is — Day-Lewis. Incredible performance, two Oscars, a devotee of the acting craft, widely respected.
Washington, much loved, two Oscars, in a year without Day-Lewis, he probably would win. For first-time nominee Jackman, it's good news-bad news — a sign that the club likes him ... on Broadway. For first-timer Cooper, it's props for trying to be more than "The Hangover" hunk. The subtext in Phoenix's nomination is more complex, bittersweet. A stunning performance that demanded academy voters notice. They did. But will they confer gold on an actor who says he doesn't care about awards? They won't. Sandbox rules apply.
The actress category — Quvenzhané Wallis ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"), Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty"), Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Emmanuelle Riva ("Amour") and Naomi Watts ("The Impossible") — is a case of in-crowd confusion and a cause for celebration.
Wallis, 9, and Riva, 85, are sentimental choices with little chance of a win. The note being passed to Chastain, Lawrence and Watts is that the academy likes where they're going. My bet, based on the social politics, is that it will be either Chastain or Lawrence. They are emerging as forces to be reckoned with — chameleons with the ability to play comedy and drama with equal facility and equal passion. The question is whether the academy will go for a role that reached for the heart, Lawrence, or the head, Chastain.
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