Thanks for checking out the 18th episode of A Few Minutes With Feinberg, The Hollywood Reporter’s weekly video series in which I spend -- you guessed it -- a few minutes dissecting the race to the Academy Awards.
For this episode, I thought that it would be fun to highlight a few Oscar nominees whom most people think don't stand much of a chance at winning, but who I think could pull off surprises on Oscar night -- sleeper contenders that might wake up on Feb. 24, if you will!
To begin, consider best director Oscar nominee Ang Lee (Life of Pi). Ben Affleck (Argo) has won every major best director award thus far, but Affleck's not nominated for the best director Oscar, which means that none of the five people who are have any clear edge. Most people assume that Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) will prevail because his film received more nominations than any other and because he hasn't won in 14 years. But Lee, who won seven years ago, has a strong case too. He has directed only the fifth 3D film to score a best picture nom and only the fourth to ever score noms in all of the tech Oscar categories, which reflects strong support from the members of the tech branches that collectively account for the majority of the Academy's membership. Those folks -- "the steak eaters," as Harvey Weinstein famously called them -- have strongly embraced Life of Pi through their guild awards, and several have invited Lee to receive special honors at their ceremonies. Actors already revere Lee, so, with a chunk of them supporting his film, too, I believe that he might be able to do what James Cameron (Avatar) and Martin Scorsese (Hugo) could not, which is win the best director Oscar for a 3D film.
Meanwhile, in the best actress category, Naomi Watts (The Impossible) hasn't won anything yet -- Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) won the Golden Globe awards, Chastain won the Critics' Choice Award, Lawrence won the SAG Award and Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) won the BAFTA Award -- but, unlike them and the category's other nominee, nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Watts has been living and making films in this country for years and, in that time, has endeared herself to a lot of people, many of whom are in the Academy. Moreover, she and her perf check off an awful lot of boxes that have historically meant a lot to Academy members: she plays a real-life person who is still alive and has endorsed her performance; at 44, she's around the average age of the category's winners, which is 35; she is beautiful in real-life but nominated for a part that required her to shed any semblance of glamor; she has widespread bases of support both at home (she and her partner Liev Schreiber lived in New York and were part of the theater community there for many years before recently relocating to Los Angeles) and abroad (she was born in England and spent most of her life in Australia, has worked with numerous Latin-American directors, and The Impossible had the biggest-ever opening weekend in Spain); and she has put in the necessary work on the campaign trail, doing tons of press and Q&As (at many of which industry audiences have responded to her introduction with standing ovations). It's important to remember that Academy members are people, too, and that, in a super-close race, relationships and loyalty may make the difference.
Finally, most people assume that the best foreign language film and best documentary feature Oscars are in the bag for Michael Haneke's Amour (Austria) and Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man because they have virtually every major precursor award for which they were eligible. But it is important to remember how the winners in those categories are chosen by the Academy.
Only Academy members who see all five foreign language nominees are allowed to pick the winner, and the majority of members who have or make the time to do that are older. The subject matter at the center of Amour is upsetting to many older people, and I am hearing that some who are resisting it are instead throwing their weight behind the feel-good nominee in the category, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg's Kon-Tiki (Norway), which the Weinstein Co. machine is pushing hard in the final days of voting. I'm not saying that Amour won't win, but just that it's not the slam-dunk that people think it is. (Don't believe me? Just look at how many other "slam-dunks" have lost in that category in recent years.)
As for the documentary feature category, Sugar Man is certainly the feel-good nominee -- but it is up against another Sony Pictures Classics release, Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers, which, unlike Sugar Man, sheds new light on a subject of true and urgent social significance, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Gatekeepers is very similar, in theme and structure, to Errol Morris' The Fog of War (2004), which won the best documentary feature Oscar. It's much harder to find a precedent for a film like Sugar Man winning. Again, I wouldn't rush to bet against it, but I don't think it's the only nominee in the category that can win.