Every once in a while, the Oscar nominations include surprises that, in hindsight, shouldn't have been such shocks. Toni Collette ("The Sixth Sense"), Alan Alda ("The Aviator"), Maggie Gyllenhaal ("Crazy Heart"), and Michael Shannon ("Revolutionary Road") all reaped bids despite being disregarded by most precursor awards. Ethan Hawke ("Training Day") wasn't considered a strong contender until the SAG Awards foretold his unexpected Supporting Actor Oscar nod.
All of them shared one key factor: they were given maximum visibility thanks to high-profile films and co-stars. Collette rode the coattails of Haley Joel Osment, who gave a breakthrough performance as her traumatized son in Best Picture nominee "The Sixth Sense." Gyllenhaal and Hawke got a boost by starring opposite eventual Best Actor winners in "Crazy Heart" (Jeff Bridges) and "Training Day" (Denzel Washington). Alda starred in one of 2004's top Best Picture rivals, "The Aviator." And though the Academy actors' branch rejected Kate Winslet's performance in "Revolutionary Road" in favor of "The Reader," enough of them watched the film to recognize Shannon's work as her unbalanced neighbor.
Visibility is everything, so who among this year's under-the-radar contenders could be taken along for the ride?
Ezra Miller, "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Tilda Swinton has racked up multiple critics' awards and key nominations from SAG and the Golden Globes, so it's likely most voters will take the time to view the film. That means they'll also be watching Miller's chilling performance as the title character, a sociopathic teenage boy who torments his mother and commits a violent crime. The Best Supporting Actor race is still unclear (only Christopher Plummer seems to be an unshakable lock), and this category has recently favored other showy villain performances (Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men," Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"), though Miller may be disadvantaged by his young age in a category full of acting veterans.
Ewan McGregor, "Beginners." Speaking of Christopher Plummer, there's no question voters will be watching the Best Supporting Actor frontrunner's performance in "Beginners," but what about McGregor, who plays his lovelorn son? It's a somber, understated performance and thus a tough sell in a crowded Best Actor race, but McGregor has never been nominated for an Oscar -- not even for "Moulin Rouge!," which contended for Best Picture -- so if enough Academy members are eager to change that fact, they might use this opportunity to do so.
Carey Mulligan, "Shame." Oscar voters will most likely be watching the film for Michael Fassbender's lead turn as a sex addict, but they'll also see Mulligan's work as his emotionally fragile sister. However, there's no guarantee voters will watch "Shame" at all; even with its acclaimed performances, a bleak, explicit drama about sexual addiction may inspire many voters to turn off their DVD screeners, if they decide to watch them at all.
Kristen Wiig, "Bridesmaids." The film has been a surprise hit with the guild awards (SAG, PGA, WGA and even the Art Directors), but most of the attention for the film's acting has gone to boisterous Supporting Actress contender Melissa McCarthy. However, while watching for her work, might voters be impressed by Wiig's performance as a maid of honor having a midlife crisis? Possibly, but she faces the same challenge as McCarthy: the bias against broad comedy. Even if voters admire Wiig's work, will they take it seriously enough to honor it among an intensely dramatic field of female performances?
Marion Cotillard and Corey Stoll, "Midnight in Paris." All Academy eyes will be on "Midnight," a likely Best Picture nominee from one of their most honored filmmakers, Woody Allen. Cotillard, a previous Best Actress champ for "La Vie en Rose," has a prominent role as Owen Wilson's 1920s love interest, and Stoll steals scenes as famed author Ernest Hemingway. If the film is especially loved by Oscar voters, one or both of them could surprise.
Ben Kingsley, "Hugo." Kingsley won the Best Actor Oscar in 1982 for "Gandhi" and has contended three more times since. Even though he has received few individual accolades thus far for his work as pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies in "Hugo," the Academy may not be able to resist one of their own playing one of cinema's great forerunners in a Best Picture hopeful directed by Martin Scorsese.
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