Are this year’s contenders disadvantaged by their reputations?

Success can be a double-edged sword at the Oscars. The mere announcement of Steven Spielberg‘s “War Horse” was enough to launch rampant Oscar speculation, sight unseen. It’s a war film, already a popular genre among the Academy, but even more so when Spielberg’s name is attached. He won two directing Oscars for war-themed films in the 1990s: “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). He won as a producer of “Schindler’s” when it won Best Picture, and he was recently nominated for producing another World War II-set Best Picture nominee, “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006).


But with heightened attention come heightened expectations and inevitable comparisons. As “War Horse” finally screens for critics, audiences, and awards groups this month and makes a case for adding two more Oscars to Spielberg’s mantel, it’s not comparisons to “The Descendants” or “The Artist” that could hurt him the most, but potential references to his past work. “Is ‘War Horse’ any good?” “It’s no ‘Schindler’s List.'”

Spielberg isn’t the only artist in this year’s Oscar race who could suffer from such comparisons. Meryl Streep is poised to receive her seventeenth nomination for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” extending her record for most Oscar nominations for acting. Most two-time winners would be hard-pressed to call themselves overdue, but it has been almost thirty years and twelve bids since Streep took home a trophy, and though she has the most nominations in Oscar history, she trails Katharine Hepburn (4), Ingrid Bergman (3), Walter Brennan (3), and Jack Nicholson (3) for total wins, and she has only won once in the lead category.

But Streep has a tough act to follow; her previous win was for “Sophie’s Choice,” a film that has become synonymous with great acting. Is “The Iron Lady” a worthy successor? She won Best Actress honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and received Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe, and SAG nominations for the role, but the film itself has been received more coolly. That’s common for Streep, who is typically better liked than the films she’s in. Of her twelve nominations since “Sophie’s Choice,” only one of those films was nominated for Best Picture (“Out of Africa,” which won), and only three others received writing or directing nominations (“Silkwood,” “Adaptation,” and “Doubt”). Four of them received no nominations at all apart from Streep (“A Cry in the Dark,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “One True Thing,” “Julie & Julia”). Is the Academy waiting for a masterpiece to justify her long-awaited third Oscar? If so, Streep may be waiting a while longer.

Clint Eastwood has had an even more remarkable track record in the past ten years, earning Picture and Director nominations for “Mystic River” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” and winning both categories for “Million Dollar Baby,” bringing his career Oscar haul to four. That explains the intense anticipation that preceded the release of “J. Edgar“; like “War Horse,” it combines an Oscar-friendly genre (historical biopic) with Oscar-annointed filmmakers (Eastwood behind the camera and “Milk’s” Dustin Lance Black writing the screenplay). Perhaps that also explains why the film fell so hard upon its release. It’s rated only 42% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and after being considered a threat to win Best Picture, it’s currently a 8/1 longshot just to be nominated, behind “Bridesmaids” and “Harry Potter.” Would the film have been more generously received were it not for the high bar Eastwood set for himself to clear?

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Two legendary filmmakers have mostly avoided the pitfalls of heightened expectations, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s doubtful many would place “Midnight in Paris” in the same echelon as “Annie Hall,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” or “Crimes and Misdemeanors” in the Woody Allen oeuvre, but it’s his best reviewed film after more than a decade of critical disappointments and the highest grossing of his career (not accounting for inflation); there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than a good comeback story.

Martin Scorsese played possum a few years ago, claiming “The Departed” wasn’t an Oscar contender before it went on to win Best Picture and Best Director. It was easier for him to lay low with “Hugo” this year because the film, a family-friendly adventure in 3D, is so unlike anything they’ve nominated him for. It’s an unconventional Oscar film to come from any director, so when it was released to glowing reviews and began picking up momentum from critics’ groups, it became one of the major surprises of the season. Now it’s tied with “The Artist” for the most nominations at the Critics’ Choice Awards and earned a Golden Globe nod for Best Picture.

Is it wise for high-profile actors and filmmakers to dominate the awards discussion early, or should they hang back until their films can speak for themselves. Consider that before this year’s Oscar nominations have even been announced, Spielberg has already ignited Oscar buzz for next year‘s race for “Lincoln,” which is both a war film and a historical biopic and stars two-time Best Actor-winner Daniel Day-Lewis. If he hopes to manage expectations, he’d better start now.

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