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Friday, January 3, 2014
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Actors on the Oscar Bubble: Hiding in Plain Sight or New to the Scene?

By Mark Pinkert

We’ll find out for sure on Thursday, January 16th, when the Oscar nominees are announced, but for the time being it seems that the Best Actress ticket will be filled with usual suspects. According to the trustworthy Feinberg Forecast, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Sandra Bullock, and Cate Blanchett are the frontrunners in this category. If one of these five actresses doesn’t make the ticket, my guess is that they’ll have been replaced by Amy Adams, whose performance in American Hustle was seductive, uninhibited, and also widely discussed.

All of these Best Actress frontrunners are already household names with fortified film careers, but there are other actresses on the bubble who deserve and could use some of the Oscar recognition. One actress who has stuck out is Brie Larson of Short Term 12 (2013). Though this must-see film has only done about $1 million in revenue, Larson has received outstanding praise from critics and from the indie award circuit (she won the Gotham award for Best Actress and was nominated for Independent Spirit and Critics Choice awards), and it’s clear that she has a bright future ahead. She’s only twenty four, but she’s been acting since she was very young, and in a way has been hiding in plain sight. She has had roles in the Showtime show United States of Tara (2009), Noah Baumbach‘s Greenberg (2010), Don Jon (2013), 21 Jump Street (2012) and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010), but playing Grace in Short Term 12 was definitely her breakthrough performance.

Short Term 12’s distributor, Cinedigm, hasn’t been able to manufacture a strong Oscar campaign for Larson and it’s unlikely that she’ll get enough of a push to make it to the Best Actress category. It’s a shame because, if nothing else, the Oscar ceremony is publicity heaven, and can often thrust underdogs into the Hollywood spotlight. At the very least, Larson will benefit from the indie press and get bigger roles down the road.

As far as thrusting actors into household name status, though, the Academy Awards has done it often in the past and will certainly do it again this year. If Larson could somehow get a nomination for Best Actress, she’d fall under the “hiding in plain sight” category I mentioned before. This category is comprised of character actors with few notable lead/major roles and actors who have been in mostly smaller films without much press. Others actors in similar standing this year are Chiwetel Ejioforof of 12 Years a Slave, Greta Gerwig of Francis Ha, Oscar Isaac of Inside Llewyn Davis, Melonie Diaz of Fruitvale Station, and Isiah Washingon of Blue Caprice.

Then there are complete unknowns that find themselves thrust into the Oscar spotlight–this is the smaller, more fortuitous group of actors (sometimes non-actors) who go from zero to sixty in the span of just one Oscar season. Those who fall into this category are entirely new to American cinema because they were a) too young to have acted much before b) TV actors with very few film credits c) non-actors who were specially cast or d) foreign actors who are making their American film debuts. In that group this year are Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips, Lupita Nyongo of 12 Years a Slave, Steve Coogan of Philomena, Adele Exarchopoulos of Blue is the Warmest Color, Sophie Nelisse of The Book Thief, and Michael B. Jordan of Fruitvale Station.

Who will get the most career momentum out of the Oscars this year? Out of the “hiding in plain site” category, I think that Oscar Isaac, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Brie Larson will be the big winners. My money is on Ejiofor to win it all for Best Actor in a Leading Role, which would undoubtedly launch him into stardom. Ejiofor reminds me a bit of Adrien Brody back in 2002 when the latter won Best Actor for The Pianist (2002). Before their Oscar runs, both Ejiofor and Brody had excelled in smaller roles and then made their big breaks with ultra-poignant dramatic roles. Ejiofor probably has a heftier resume–with success in England, as well as on television and in theater–than did Brody in 2002, but I think that their rises seem similar, especially considering the type of roles that have brought them widespread recognition.

Brie Larson is a bit like Jennifer Lawrence in 2010, when the latter was nominated for Best Actress for her role in the independent film Winter’s Bone (2010). Larson also has a stronger resume than did Lawrence at the time, but Jennifer Lawrence went on to land a major blockbuster lead in The Hunger Games (2012), which really elevated her career. If Larson can ride the indie buzz into a major blockbuster, as did Lawrence, I think we’ll be hearing her name quite a bit.

Oscar Isaac might not even get a nomination for Best Actor, but I think the Oscar buzz in itself will push him forward quickly. He reminds me a bit of Jeremy Renner circa 2009, who was a Best Actor nominee for The Hurt Locker (2009). Both actors had succeeded in non-leading roles in big films (in fact, Isaac had a role in The Bourne Legacy (2012), which Renner starred in), both look the part of a Hollywood male lead, and both are musically talented. Renner is a bit more suited for the male-action role, but I think Isaac will get a few cracks at blockbuster action/suspense/dramas.

The unknowns this year, and every year, are tougher to predict. Adele Exarchopolous’ accent is very heavy, which will probably keep her in French cinema for a while (not necessarily a bad thing). She reminds me a bit of Omar Sy, the French actor who starred in The Intouchables (2011), a foreign language film that received critical acclaim in American film circles two years ago. Sy proved to be remarkably talented and dynamic, but the language barrier has kept him from transitioning to American film.

Barkhad Abdi will likely get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but his accent is also very thick and he’ll have a tough time getting a lead Hollywood role. Michael B. Jordan is a borderline “unknown,” and only made the category because his film credits were anemic. However, he has had success on television and is recognizable from Friday Night Lights (2009-11) and The Wire (2oo2). If he’s lucky, he could be like a Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who began in television, scratched the surface with Brick (2005), and eventually broke out as an A-lister. Fruitvale could be Jordan’s Brick, but he’ll need to follow up really strong in order to stay relevant in movies. Likewise, Steve Coogan could get lucky and become a 2013 version of Christoph Waltz. Waltz is a classically trained, Austrian-German actor, who was entirely unknown in the U.S. until his breakout role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009). Likewise, Coogan was a relative unknown in the United States, but has been a comedic favorite in England and, like Waltz, studied acting at a reputable school of drama. Of course, Coogan hasn’t made nearly the splash that Waltz did with Inglorious Basterds, but British humor can transition easily to the U.S. and the fact that Coogan can handle comedy-drama alongside the likes of Judi Dench will serve him well in the States. Of this category, I think he and Michael B. Jordan will see the most future success in American film.

As is often the case with the Academy Awards, the big A-list names (the Streeps, DiCaprios, McConaugheys, et al.) will probably take up most of the spotlight. But keep an eye out for the lesser-known actors who have been hiding or who are entirely new to the scene; some of them will be big names soon enough.

photo courtesy of Cinedigm

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