The Academy can be a bit condescending towards lighter fair. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, films like As Good As It Gets, Lost In Translation, Broadcast News, The Descendents, Sideways, Juno and so on, grab hordes of critical praise only to fizzle into obscurity a few months later. Do people even remember that Sideways was one of the best reviewed films of 2000s? In a year where Million Dollar Baby crept into a “weak” Oscar race, Sideways was somehow brushed aside as being over-hyped and frothy. Almost like clockwork, every year one film that targets the mature 30 to 50 demographic with, often waspy, comedic tropes appears and sucks in a ton of praise. By the time awards season barrels into Oscar night, these films have already left the building, never to be heard from again.
This year that film will almost certainly be Silver Linings Playbook. An apparently intelligent, brash, mature, topical comedy starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, directed by David O. Russell. Already anointed a shoe-in by many Oscar pundits, Playbook did very well at
Toronto. Since it’s star actress and director have had their respective Oscar breakthroughs, it’s not a stretch to see this as your mature-target movie that will rack up close to double digit nominations and leave only with, as history tells it, a Best Screenplay award.
That is, unless Jennifer Lawrence gets campaigned strongly and propelled to the forefront of the race. It could happen and certainly a number of predictions are already handing her the statue. Jeffrey Wells said, “Jennifer Lawrence is a cast-iron lock for Best Actress.” Knowing that these kinds of films tend to fair well in the Actress categories (at least in terms of nominations), I took a look at the last few years. Below is a list that I would argue fulfilled the category that Silver Linings is vying for:
2001 – Renee Zellweger – Bridget Jones’s Diary (LOST to Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball)
2003- Diane Keaton – Something’s Gotta Give (LOST to Charlize Theron, Monster)
2005 – Judi Dench – Mrs. Henderson Presents (LOST to Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line)
2006 – Meryl Streep – The Devil Wears Prada (LOST to Helen Mirren, The Queen)
2007 – Ellen Page – Juno (LOST to Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose)
2009 – Carey Mulligan – An Education (LOST to Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side)
One could even argue that American Beauty, a biting piece of satirical comedy, was even left cold in this category with Annette Bening being the only one of its major players not winning the Oscar.
You need to go back 15 years to Helen Hunt’s win for As Good As It Gets to find an actual success in this category. And even that film followed the regular trajectory in almost every other way by winning Best Actor but nothing else. And 1997 was a bit of an aberration. That year, Hunt was against Titanic, a film recognized more for it’s scale than it’s acting. Outside of Winslet, Hunt was in one of the weakest crops of Actresses in recent memory:
Helena Bonham Carter, Wings of a Dove
Judi Dench, Mrs. Brown
Julie Christie, Afterglow
Before As Good As It Gets, you have to go back almost another decade to Cher in Moonstruck.
This year we’ve already seen a breathtaking child performance from Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), a textured performance from an actress waiting to breakthrough: Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), a subtle, highly praised elder actress, Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), and stand out performances from some old reliables: Michelle Williams (Take This Waltz) and Marion Cotillard (Rust & Bone). None of these necessarily look like easy winners, but each performs in the kind of film that tends to age well and play better around awards season.
Lawrence might be campaigned as Supporting and in that category history does not rest in her favor either. Prior to last year, the Supporting Actress category has been saturated with dramatic films. With few arguable exceptions (Penelope Cruz in Nine or Meryl Streep in Adaptation for example), the past decade has been wrought with strong, difficult performances by actresses pushing the boundaries of grit or otherwise challenging boundaries. Look at the winners for the five years before last:
2006 – Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
2007 – Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
2008 – Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
2009 – Mo’Nique, Precious
2010 – Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Last year may have signaled a slight changing of the guard as The Help, Bridesmaids, and The Artist could each be said to be appealing to that same flyover state, mid-life demographic as Silver Linings. The same could possibly be argued for Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech. That said, Octavia Spencer stood out in a highly regarded, mainstream film. If Silver Linings develops a similar following then, and only then, perhaps Lawrence has a chance. Of course, race and type comes into play as well. History can be kinder in the Supporting Actress category to older or minority actresses seen as being exceptional outside the typical Hollywood “glam.” Mo’Nique and Melissa Leo come to mind.
Jennifer Lawrence is a star in the making, a leading lady with the looks of a starlet. This can, and likely will, work against her in the Supporting category. Going into the nominations last year, Shailene Woodley was a favorite for her outstanding turn in The Descendents. She wrapped up nominations in the Golden Globes and the Spirit Awards, only to be left on the outside looking in at the Academy. And just like that her marvelous performance seems to have fallen out of public consciousness. She’s an attractive young star who was representing a lighter (as the voters likely saw it) film.
It’s not a revelation that the Academy prefers heavier pieces to lighter ones. What does seem shocking is how regularly just one comedic film will rise to the height of public awareness each year. With the swell of praise for Jennifer Lawrence, similar to that for Giamatti, Page, Streep, and Murray, one must wonder if Lawrence may sputter out too early. If history has taught us anything it’s that critical thought can be harsh to comedic films that initially garner tremendous praise. Juno has endured a backlash, as has Sideways and An Education.
Much will be written over the next few months about Jennifer Lawrence. Many will book her ticket into movie history, over-praising her, calling her a possible shoe-in for the award. Many will point to Russell’s actor-oriented direction and his recent double win in the Supporting categories for The Fighter. Don’t believe the hype. In fact, the best guess we can make is the more praise she gets, the more we should prepare to look the other way. Hollywood doesn’t change and critical thought has become more and more homogenized. There’s a pattern to the tides and that trend doesn’t pull in Lawrence’s favor.