1. It's a wide open race.
The last five years, the Supporting Actor derby has been incredibly easy to call. Just consider the wins by Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men,” Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds,” Christian Bale in “The Fighter” and Christopher Plummer in “Beginners.” Were any of those outcomes ever in really in doubt? Each of those men was declared the frontrunner early in the season and then prevailed at both the Globe and SAG Awards. The Oscar presentation was really just a formality.
Finally, 2012 has brought us some suspense. There has been no clear critical favorite, with non-nominees Matthew McConaughey taking both the New York and National Society prizes for “Magic Mike” and “Bernie,” and Dwight Henry winning in Los Angeles for “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Christoph Waltz was the upset Globe victor for “Django Unchained” while Tommy Lee Jones just triumphed at SAG for “Lincoln.”
It’s in topsy-turvy tourneys like this that we often see a different name called at the Oscars. Since Alan Arkin in “Argo” has a relatively small role and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “The Master” isn’t up for Best Picture, Robert De Niro would appear to have the best opening for a come-from-behind win.
2. He’s gone the most years without winning.
Much has been made of the fact that all of these actors have already been honored with the Academy Award. For Waltz, Arkin and Hoffman it was within the past ten years. For Jones it was within the last 20. But you have to go back 32 years to De Niro’s last glory, for the classic “Raging Bull.” Many of the current Academy members weren’t able to vote for either of his first two wins. With the actor’s consistent work in films over the past three decades, he probably seems due for another career achievement trophy. True, he’s the only one in the category to have won twice. Still, this is De Niro whom we’re talking about, one of the most revered actors in Hollywood. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep already have the triple Oscar collection and Daniel Day-Lewis is headed there, too. The Academy won’t hesitate to add De Niro to this most exclusive club.
3. It’s the classic Best Supporting Actor formula.
In “Silver Linings Playbook,” the one-time “Taxi Driver” is blessed with an important, sympathetic, screen time-heavy and beautifully written role. It’s a three-dimensional character, seen in the context of being a father, a husband and a businessman. He has the opportunity to show off a wide range of emotions, combining several big dramatic scenes with some quieter tearful ones, as well. (Remember his heartfelt words of wisdom to Bradley Cooper near the film’s end?)
The endearing performance is similar to other recent winners in this category, like Michael Caine in “The Cider House Rules,” Jim Broadbent in “Iris,” Morgan Freeman in “Million Dollar Baby,” Arkin in “Little Miss Sunshine” and last year’s Plummer in “Beginners.” It doesn’t scream Oscar, yet it gently whispers it.
4. It’s the best chance to honor “Silver Linings Playbook” in a major category.
This is may be the best reason of all, so consider this carefully. Whether or not Jennifer Lawrence wins Best Actress, I suspect that many of those voting for her are diehard fans of the film. There’s a good chance that they’ll also be voting for De Niro. More importantly, those members NOT voting for Lawrence WILL want to honor the film somewhere.
Let’s face it: it’s extremely unlikely that “Silver Linings” is going to take Best Picture or Best Director. There’s no way that Bradley Cooper or Jacki Weaver can win, either. So for anyone who doesn’t feel like Lawrence is ready for the Oscar just yet, De Niro is the only place to turn.
It’s the same type of “coalition” that allowed Tilda Swinton to pull off a surprise win for “Michael Clayton” five years ago. She received votes from those Academy members selecting the film across the board, AND the non-“Clayton” voters who didn’t want the film to go home empty-handed. (I’ll happily admit that I came to that realization after the lord of all pundits, Pete Hammond, was the first to make the bold prediction for Swinton.)
If De Niro wins, you can expect a boisterous standing ovation before he takes to the stage and praises his director and cast members. Harvery Weinstein, David O. Russell, Cooper, Lawrence and Weaver will all surely be ecstatic. Even if the film loses every other category that night, a De Niro victory will be a true silver lining for “Silver Linings Playbook.”
5. People are overestimating support for Tommy Lee Jones in “Lincoln.”
So TLJ wins SAG and now he’s unstoppable, right? Hold your horses. A SAG triumph certainly helps, but it hardly seals the deal – especially in this competitive category.
Do you remember the Academy Award speeches by Ed Harris (“Apollo 13”), Robert Duvall (“A Civil Action”), Albert Finney (“Erin Brockovich”), Ian McKellen (“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”), Christopher Walken (“Catch Me If You Can”) or Paul Giamatti (”Cinderella Man")? No – because they lost the Oscar even after winning at SAG.
Think about Jones’ role in “Lincoln.” He has relatively little time on screen and not much character arc. The wig is a distraction and there’s been criticism that he comes across as too contemporary (and too Texan) for the part. With the lead actor Oscar already sewn up for “Lincoln,” will voters really feel it necessary to give it a supporting prize, too?
Finally, remember Gold Derby founder Tom O’Neil’s often discussed “huggability” factor. It sounds silly, but it really can be a key factor as Academy members mark their ballots. Think about it this way: would Hollywood rather give a giant hug to De Niro and his Philadelphia family man or Jones and his Republican congressman? (You have your Oscar answer right there.)
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