by Pierre de Plume
This Year’s Oscar Race for Supporting Actor:
Comparing SAG and Oscar Winners
(and other factors)
Most people – even many film fans – would consider Oscar prognosticating to be a rather meaningless waste of time. A core of Oscar fans, however, become just a bit obsessed this time of year with many of the awards races. Always looking (and hoping) for a surprise win or upset to make Oscarwatching more interesting and fun, fervent fans enjoy dissecting the competition through statistics and anecdotal evidence.
Of the year’s acting races, the supporting categories appear more fluid. This article focuses on the supporting actor field, where Christian Bale (The Fighter) presumably holds the lead, primarily because of critical dominance and the SAG and Golden Globe awards he recently received.
Some prognosticators of late, however, have been suggesting a potential win for Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech), citing a recent groundswell of support for that film. Let’s take a look at the numbers and some of the anecdotal evidence that might conceivably support such a call, focusing primarily on what many consider to be the strongest pre-Oscar indicator in the acting races, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards. Listed below are the SAG and Oscar winners for acting, including ensemble acting, for years these 2 awards didn’t match:
Won SAG Won Oscar
Meryl Streep (Doubt) Kate Winslet+ (The Reader)
Inglorious Basterds The Hurt Locker
Julie Christie (Away From Her) Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose)
Ruby Dee (American Gangster) Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)
Little Miss Sunshine The Departed
Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine)
Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man) George Clooney (Syriana)
Sideways Million Dollar Baby
Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Carribean) Sean Penn (Mystic River)
Daniel Day Lewis (Gangs of New York) Adrien Brody (The Pianist)
Renee Zellweger (Chicago) Nicole Kidman (The Hours)
Christopher Walken (Catch Me If You Can) Chris Cooper (Adaptation)
Gosford Park A Beautiful Mind
Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind) Denzel Washington (Training Day)
Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings) Jim Broadbent (Iris)
Helen Mirren (Gosford Park) Jennifer Connelly* (A Beautiful Mind)
Benicio del Toro§ (Traffic) Russell Crowe (Gladiator)
Albert Finney (Erin Brokovitch) Benicio del Toro+ (Traffic)
Judi Dench (Chocolat) Marcia Gay Harden* (Pollock)
Annette Bening (American Beauty) Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry)
Robert Duvall (A Civil Action) James Coburn (Affliction)
Kathy Bates (Primary Colors) Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love)
The Full Monty Titanic
The Birdcage¶ The English Patient
Lauren Bacall (The Mirror Has Two Faces) Juliette Binoche (The English Patient)
Apollo 13 Braveheart*
Ed Harris (Apollo 13) Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects)
Kate Winslet (Sense and Sensibility) Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite)
Jodie Foster (Nell) Jessica Lange (Blue Sky)
+Category confusion (won SAG supporting)
*Not nominated by SAG
§Category confusion (won Oscar supporting)
¶Not nominated for best picture Oscar
1. When one includes in the tallies the SAG ensemble as correlative to the best picture Oscar, SAG and Oscar choices diverged 38% of the time.
2. When one excludes comparisons of the SAG ensemble/best picture Oscar and compares only the 4 acting categories, SAG and Oscar choices diverged 34% of the time.
3. Of the divergences, 2 involved category confusion (Kate Winslet and Benicio del Toro won the Oscar and SAG, but in different categories because of a lack of consensus regarding which category to place them in).
4. Of the acting divergences, 2 individuals won the Oscar but weren’t even nominated for the SAG (Jennifer Connelly, Marcia Gay Harden).
5. Of the SAG ensemble and best picture Oscar winners, 1 (The Birdcage) won SAG ensemble but wasn’t nominated for the best picture Oscar, and 1 (Braveheart) won the best picture Oscar but wasn’t nominated for SAG ensemble.
Of the 22 divergences between SAG and Oscar winners in the 4 individual acting categories, 15 (68%) of the respective Oscar races can be said (some arguably) to have had no clear or detectable frontrunner:
Spacey (The Usual Suspects) vs. Harris (Apollo 13)
Harden (Pollock) vs. Dench (Chocolat)
Swank (Boys Don’t Cry) vs. Bening (American Beauty)
Coburn (Affliction) vs. Duvall (A Civil Action)
Dench (Shakespeare in Love) vs. Bates (Primary Colors)
Christie (Away From Her) vs. Cotillard (La Vie en Rose)
Swinton (Michael Clayton) vs. Dee (American Gangster)
Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) vs. Murphy (Dreamgirls)
Cooper (Adaptation) vs. Walken (Catch Me If You Can)
Washington (Training Day) vs. Crowe (A Beautiful Mind)
Broadbent (Iris) vs. McKellen Lord of the Rigns)
Del Toro (Traffic) vs. Finney (Erin Brokovich)
Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) vs. Winslet (Sense and Sensibility)
Brody (The Pianist) vs. Daniel Day Lewis (Gangs of New York)
Dench (Shakespeare in Love) vs. Bates (Primary Colors)
Conversely, of the 22 divergences between SAG and Oscar winners in the individual acting categories, 7 (32%) of the respective Oscar races appeared to have a clear or detectable frontrunner:
Winslet (The Reader) vs. Streep (Doubt)
Lange (Blue Sky) vs. Foster (Nell)
Clooney (Syriana) vs. Giamatti (Cinderella Man)
Penn (Mystic River) vs. Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean)
Kidman (The Hours) vs. Zellweger (Chicago)
Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) vs. Mirren (Gosford Park)
Bacall (The Mirror Has Two Faces) vs. Binoche (The English Patient)
Of the 2 major Oscar upsets, 1 (Binoche) involved a race with a presumed frontrunner (Bacall), and 1 (Brody) involved a race where there was more than 1 frontrunner (Day Lewis, Nicholson).
Of the 22 divergent races where the Oscar winners emerged from a field having no clear frontrunner, 3 (27%) of the 11 victors in the supporting categories won for roles many say should have been competing in the lead category: Connelly, Harden, and Del Toro.
Of the divergences, only 1 Oscar winner (Coburn) can be considered to be a true sentimental choice.
In the 15 divergent races where the Oscar victor emerged from a field with no clear or detectable frontrunner, 4 (36%) of the winners appear to have been helped by performing in films the Academy appears to have favored: Dench (Shakespeare in Love) vs. Bates (Primary Colors), Cooper (Adaptation) vs. Walken (Catch Me If You Can), Brody (The Pianist) vs. Day Lewis (Gangs of New York), and Swinton (Michael Clayton) vs. Dee (American Gangster). Of these, Swinton beat Dee despite personal sentiment for veteran Dee.
Of the 22 divergent races, 4 of them (18%) can be said to have been characterized by negative factors not directly related to the actual performances: Arkin vs. Murphy, Washington vs. Crowe, Brody vs. Day Lewis, and Broadbent vs. McKellen. (McKellen’s loss can arguably be partially attributed to his publicized sexual orientation.)
In the 2011 supporting actor Oscar race, Christian Bale is the presumed frontrunner on the basis of his many critics awards, as well as wins from SAG, the Golden Globes, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. In addition, his film (The Fighter) is a high-profile best picture nominee. Bale has never before been nominated for an Oscar.
Bale’s presumed primary competitor, Geoffrey Rush, is a more established veteran who already has won an Oscar in the lead category. Rush also has won several critics awards this year in competition with Bale. Rush’s film, The King’s Speech, received the most Oscar nominations (12) this year and has emerged as the new frontrunner for best picture on the basis of its PGA, DGA, and SAG ensemble wins. In addition, Rush is credited as a producer of the film because of his efforts in bringing the story to the screen.
Bale is generally well-regarded as a performer. He began acting as a youth, a factor that the Academy seems to take into consideration at times (e.g., Jeff Bridges, Sean Penn, Jodie Foster, Helen Hunt). His performance in The Fighter is largely viewed as a so-called standout, where he overshadows the lead (Wahlberg) and can be said to carry the film – a factor that often leads to an Oscar win even in a supporting category (e.g., Christopher Waltz, Heath Ledger, Javier Bardem, George Clooney, Martin Landau, Marisa Tomei). Bale is considered to be highly dedicated and extremely passionate about his work.
Rush is regarded highly in the industry and appears to be eloquent, gracious, and professional in his off-screen demeanor. His character, speech therapist Lionel Logue, is seen as a positive role model. Rush may be viewed as the sentimental favorite over Bale, while his film most certainly is seen as the sentimental favorite. In some ways his character is seen as a co-lead, a circumstance that has helped propel previous supporting nominees to Oscar victory (e.g., Benicio Del Toro, Tommy Lee Jones, Gene Hackman, Jennifer Connelly, Rachel Weisz, Marcia Gay Harden).
Even though Bale’s character in The Fighter overcomes drug addiction, it’s permeated by role model negativity. Offscreen, Bale is known to be volatile as evidenced by a videotaped blowup on the set and also run-ins involving family and legal authorities. This factor may hurt his chances as similar circumstances are said to have negatively affected other Oscar outcomes (e.g., Russell Crowe, Eddie Murphy, Mickey Rourke). Some view Bale’s acting technique as excessive to a fault. His recent acceptance speeches reveal eccentricities and what some may consider lapses of judgment or even immaturity (e.g., delivering acceptances speeches in character, allowing his real-life counterpart in The Fighter, Dickie Ecklund, to share the SAG stage with him).
Rush appears to have no negative factors affecting his Oscar prospects other than a previous win (for Shine), which in some ways might even help his chances this time around.
Although awards precursors point to a Bale win, the demographics of AMPAS suggest a possible upset by Rush: On many occasions the Academy choice has differed from the critical consensus, Golden Globe and SAG. These factors (discussed above) include sentiment, offscreen factors (both positive and negative), and surging momentum for a film that creates a favorable coattail effect (e.g., Binoche, Morgan Freeman, Dench, Del Toro, Brenda Fricker). It’s reasonable to suggest that, because of Academy demographics, its voters hold Bale in sufficiently different regard than critics and SAG voters to push Rush ahead of Bale in the final Oscar tally. Bale’s brand of professionalism, for example, may not be as appreciated by AMPAS voters as it apparently is by film critics, the HFPA, or SAG. The Academy’s seemingly snowballing love for The King’s Speech – combined with regard for Rush as an actor, producer, and gracious competitor – suggest a trend that could favor Rush at the final outcome.
Since Rush cannot be reasonably viewed as the Oscar frontrunner at this point, one must first look to the exceptions (divergences) discussed above to offer any kind of informed prediction: Winslet’s Oscar victory appears to have no relevance to the competition between Bale and Rush because her win not only involved category confusion but also reflects a palpable momentum at the time to award her an Oscar as an “overdue” recipient. Likewise, Lange’s second Oscar appears to have occurred in part through default given Foster’s 2 previous wins. Clooney appears to have won largely because of his prominence and popularity. Kidman appears to have beat Zellweger because she was seen as more “overdue” despite the greater strength, Oscarwise, of Chicago as a film. Penn beat Depp presumably because Depp’s SAG win was viewed as an aberration.
The remaining 2 of the 7 divergencies, then – Connelly/Mirren, and Bacall/Binoche – seem to be the more relevant in analyzing this year’s supporting actor race. But that’s not much data to go on, so let’s consider some other, albeit more subjective factors.
A victory for Geoffrey Rush on Oscar night 2011 might be correlative to some anecdotal evidence from past races, such as Katharine Hepburn’s victory for On Golden Pond when she beat Meryl Streep’s performance in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Because SAG hadn’t established its awards that far back, statistical comparisons for these 2 races aren’t applicable. However, acclaim at the time for Streep’s performance included awards such as the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the Los Angeles Film Critics. Nonetheless, it also is said that a coattail effect arising from Henry Fonda’s popular best actor victory, not to mention the upbeat tone of On Golden Pond, helped seal the deal for Hepburn’s fourth (and final) Oscar.
Beyond the possible “On Golden Pond” effect just described, one can see similarities between the Bale/Rush race and Alan Arkin’s surprising, last-minute surge to victory over Eddie Murphy, where positive factors favoring Arkin (a long and distinguished career, popularity of his film) trumped potentially damaging factors for Eddie Murphy (negative buz for offscreen behavior). Other similar comparisons include the race where Robin Williams (good career, popularity of film) beat Burt Reynolds (his diminished popularity and the controversial nature of his film, Boogie Nights), as well as when Judi Dench (high professional regard, momentum of her film) beat Lynn Redgrave (ill-timed, sordid publicity regarding the acrimonious breakup of her marriage).
All factors considered, if Rush does indeed take home an Oscar this year, he clearly will be doing so in defiance of the measurable odds. Anyone who bets on his chances will be betting for a rare upset, a “perfect storm” if you will that exists only as a hunch – unless one is privy to enough Academy buzz to make an informed guess.
There’s one factor we haven’t talked about yet – and it makes a win for Rush feel more palpable: The King’s Speech has defied the statistical odds by leapfrogging, over the course of just 1 week, to frontrunner status. Until late January, the film to beat was Fincher’s The Social Network, which has garnered near unanimous critical acclaim and also the Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards. That dominance was shattered, however, when The King’s Speech took the PGA, DGA, and SAG ensemble.
As the logic goes: If Rush’s film can defy the odds, why too can’t Rush ride the wave?
In the end, this is what makes the usually predictable Oscarcast bearable and — if we’re lucky — exciting enough to glue onself to the TV for the 3-plus hours it takes to hand out all those shiny statuettes.
I’m not quite ready to predict a surprise win for Geoffrey Rush, but stay tuned