Oscar mystery solved: Why didn’t ‘Spotlight’ pull Mark Ruffalo to victory?

During our final pre-Oscar podcast, Tom O’Neil and I had a fierce discussion about this year’s Best Supporting Actor race. Like most pundits, Tom was convinced that Sylvester Stallone was a virtual lock for his career comeback in “Creed.” Sly had the narrative, the IOU for his Oscar loss for “Rocky,” and the rousing standing ovation at the Golden Globes. However, I warned Tom that this contest was ripe for an upset. The supporting actor lineup kept changing at each awards show. Stallone may have been honored at the Globes and the Critics’ Choice Awards, but those prizes were doled out by journalists – not people in the industry. Without nominations at SAG and BAFTA, one had to question just how strong support for Stallone really was. Also, I stressed to Tom how difficult that it was to win an acting Oscar on a film’s sole nomination. Stallone’s four challengers were all in Best Picture contenders. Wouldn’t one of them come out ahead of him?

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In picking an alternative to Stallone, I used a simple process of elimination. The always-superb Christian Bale might have had a shot for “The Big Short” had he not been the only previous winner in the category.

Tom Hardy in “The Revenant” was just as deserving of recognition as Leonardo DiCaprio, but I didn’t see the film taking two acting prizes.

As for Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies,” his part seemed too small and too subtle to beat out the flashier competition. And while he may have been a celebrated stage actor, his motion picture resume was still relatively brief. Would west coast academy members even know about his work in the West End and on Broadway? More importantly, would they care?

That left Mark Ruffalo in “Spotlight.” It seemed to make perfect sense. He was the top-billed star in the movie and had a meaty role with a classic, scenery-chewing Oscar moment. He had a long list of film credits and was a widely respected as an actor. This was his third nomination in six years without a win. Even if “Spotlight” didn’t claim Best Picture, voters seemed to like the film enough to give it more than just Best Original Screenplay.

Sure, Ruffalo’s omissions at the Golden Globes and SAG were concerning. I reasoned that at least Ruffalo WAS in contention at the Globes, for his heartwarming role in the little-seen “Infinitely Polar Bear.” And it was probably vote-splitting with his “Spotlight” cast mates (Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci) that cost him an individual SAG nod. The film still won Best Cast, and Ruffalo himself served as the primary spokesperson for the group. As for BAFTA, it was little surprise that he fell to hometown favorite Rylance (considered acting royalty in the UK.) So I confidently marked my ballot for Mark, expecting the biggest upset in a major category in recent memory.

When Patricia Arquette finally came out mid-show to present the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, I had a strong feeling that it wasn’t going to Stallone. As she opened the envelope, I screamed at the television “Say Mark!” When she read the name “Mark,” I cheered – thinking for a split second that my longshot had come through. When I realized that she said “Rylance,” I went “What?”

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Up until that time, I had been wondering about Tom’s last minute switch to “Spotlight” for Best Picture. If Ruffalo had in fact won, it might have indicated more support for “Spotlight” and potential for an Oscar shocker. Since Ruffalo couldn’t even beat Rylance, it seemed doubtful to me that “Spotlight” could triumph with only one other award under its belt.

That made it all the more confusing when Morgan Freeman announced “Spotlight” as the Best Picture of 2015, over both “The Revenant” and “The Big Short.” Tom was clearly right about the passionate support that he was hearing for “Spotlight.” But where was the passion when those “Spotlight” enthusiasts were looking at the supporting actor nominees? Surely a good chunk of them would have gone with Ruffalo, especially if they weren’t sold on Stallone. Why would they throw a curve ball and pick Rylance?

This question was also raised by the insightful Chris Beachum during the post-Oscar web chat with the Gold Derby editors. Daniel Montgomery wisely pointed out that Rylance was the only contender who had hit all the precursors. The only thing that I might add is that is the three men with dramatic roles in top-tier Best Picture nominees (Bale, Hardy and Ruffalo) essentially canceled each other out – and Rylance squeaked through. But that’s just a guess.

I always thought that Ruffalo was bound to win an Academy Award. After losing for 2010’s “The Kids Are All Right” and 2014’s “Foxcatcher,” it seem liked this might finally be his year to catch the prize. At the rate that he’s going, he may be waiting even longer than Sly.

Let’s hope that Ruffalo (and Hardy and Stallone) eventually score that Oscar knockout.

Photo: “Spotlight” (Open Road)

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