Here’s how Sandra Bullock (‘Gravity’) can pull off Oscar upset

According to the 27 Experts polled by Gold Derby, the Oscar frontrunner for Best Actress is Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine“), as Tariq Khan pointed out. But is that really true? I’m skeptical because lying in wait is Sandra Bullock (“Gravity“), who I think is perfectly positioned for an upset.

In some ways, Blanchett gives exactly the kind of performance the academy loves: big, boozy, and emotionally unhinged. But it’s also caustic in a way they don’t usually go for. As a socialite who loses everything, she’s all downward spiral and no uplift, and even if we sympathize with her and her damaged psyche, we never really root for her.

Bullock, on the other hand, plays one of the most heroic characters of the year, a stranded astronaut using her wits to get safely back to Earth. She’s not as broadly emotional as Blanchett, and there are a lot of special effects in “Gravity” competing for attention, but the entire point of the film is how much we’re rooting for her to succeed. And, let’s remember, the Rooting Factor is often what determines who wins.

It doesn’t hurt that Bullock carries “Gravity” all by herself. For most of the film she’s the only actor on-screen, mourning past losses and facing her mortality in a physical role that is a drastic departure for her.

You might argue that Bullock won Best Actress only four years ago for “The Blind Side” after a career of mostly romantic comedies; will voters think it’s too soon to honor her again? On top of that, does she deserve two lead-acting Oscars before an actor’s actor like Blanchett even has one?

Those questions may be going through the minds of some voters, but there’s too much precedent suggesting those numbers don’t matter to them as much as they do to us Oscar-watchers. Tom Hanks and Spencer Tracy won Oscars two years in a row. Christoph Waltz just won his second award last year after only a three-year wait. Sally Field and Sean Penn won Oscars five years apart.

Hilary Swank‘s two Oscar wins were also five years apart, and I think she’s the closest direct comparison to Bullock. After less-than-prestigious roles in “Beverly Hills 90210” and “The Next Karate Kid,” Swank became a critics’ darling in 1999 for her role in “Boy’s Don’t Cry,” winning Best Actress. Then in 2004 she starred in the Best Picture winner, “Million Dollar Baby,” and won Best Actress again.

The second time, Swank’s Oscar fate was tied up with the success of her film, and I suspect the same will be true for Bullock. It’s very possible “Gravity” will win Best Picture, and if it does, won’t a voter checking off a one-woman show for the top prize also probably check off the one woman for acting?

Even if it doesn’t win Best Picture, “Gravity” is certain to have more below-the-line support than “Blue Jasmine,” with likely nominations and possible wins for music, production design, editing, sound, visual effects, and cinematography. All those behind-the-scenes artists and technicians will be voting for the Best Actress winner along with the academy’s acting branch. That could be where Bullock pulls ahead.

Can Bullock really beat Blanchett? And do you think she deserves a second Oscar so soon? Make your predictions, then post in the comments below.

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