Oscar predictions push the envelope

San Francisco ChronicleMarch 1, 2014 

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The best way to predict the Oscars is to look at what has won in the past. Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is more than 80 years old, it has remained fairly consistent in its tastes and choices.

In acting categories, the one ironclad constant, from Mary Pickford in “Coquette” (1929) to Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln,” is that the academy favors chameleonic transformations over roles in which the actors seem to be playing versions of themselves. Though the latter performances tend to age better over time, these ultimate expressions of the self – such as Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” Bette Davis in “All About Eve,” Judy Garland in “A Star is Born” – invariably lose.

There are other historical factors, specific to each award.

Best actress

Historically, the best actress is under age 35, and she usually wins the first time she is nominated for an Oscar. Playing an essentially noble or good person helps, as does playing someone with an illness or disability. Playing a real-life or historical figure is also an advantage. But the most important thing is for the actress to be playing something unlike her usual screen self.

This year, all the best actress candidates – Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Amy Adams, Judi Dench and Sandra Bullock – have been previously nominated for Oscars, and all are over 35. So toss out those criteria.

None of the characters they play are disabled, and only two are sick in some way: Streep’s matriarch in “August: Osage County” has mouth cancer, but she’s not manifesting any signs of illness. And Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” is mentally ill.

Bullock (“Gravity”) and Dench (“Philomena”) play people who are noble, and Dench plays a real-life person. But this category is going to turn on the chameleonic question.

Bullock is tremendous in “Gravity,” but academy voters will think of her performances as Sandra in outer space, so she’s out. Adams and Dench play characters unlike their usual selves, but not to the extent that their performances can be called chameleonic transformations.

That leaves Streep and Blanchett. Streep is subject to the Streep Exception, which rules that, if an actress is herself thought to be a chameleon, any chameleonic transformation can be dismissed as not truly chameleonic. In addition, Blanchett has the advantage of comparative youth, and she was remarkable in “Blue Jasmine.”

So the winner will be … Cate Blanchett.

Best actor

For best actor, prior nominations are an advantage, and it’s best to be as close to age 40 as possible. Other criteria are the same as for best actress.

In “Nebraska,” Bruce Dern plays a man with dementia – a plus. But Dern has played demented men for most of his career, so he loses chameleon points. At 77, he’s the oldest nominee.

The effectiveness of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance in “12 Years a Slave” is the way he plays an essentially modern man forced into brutal servitude, meaning his is not a chameleonic performance. At 36, he is on the young side, and he has never been nominated. He does have the advantage of playing a noble person and a real-life historical figure.

Christian Bale in “American Hustle” is a true chameleon. He plays a man with a touch of nobility, though not a noble figure. He’s 40 and a previous supporting actor winner.

Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”) has never been nominated for an Oscar. That’s a disadvantage. On the plus side, he plays a real-life historical figure, who grows into some nobility of spirit. And he plays a very sick man. He lost more than 40 pounds to play an AIDS patient. It was a complete physical transformation, the kind the academy likes. And he’s a good age, 44.

Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) is 39 and has been nominated in the acting category three times before but has not yet won. He plays a real-life historical figure, but the character has nothing noble about him.

The question may turn on whether DiCaprio’s is a chameleonic performance. He has dark hair in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and doesn’t talk like his usual self. That helps him. DiCaprio specializes in playing men who accept America’s formula for success (Gatsby, the husband in “Revolutionary Road,” J. Edgar Hoover, even the villain in “Django Unchained”) and have to live with the consequences of their self-delusion. Far from a chameleonic performance, “The Wolf of Wall Street” presents DiCaprio’s apotheosis. His is the best screen performance by an actor this year, but I know the historical pattern.

So the winner will be … Matthew McConaughey.

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