Bruce Dern leads ‘Nebraska,’ no matter what anyone else says

Some Oscar bloggers argue that Bruce Dern should compete as a supporting actor for “Nebraska” for two reasons: He has slightly less screen time than co-star Will Forte, and the academy loves to reward veterans in that category (think Christopher Plummer, Alan Arkin, and Jack Palance).

But strategic thinking misses the more important point that such a showcase role is rare for a character actor like Dern, and to shove him into the supporting race devalues the performance, as if to say, “No, you don’t get to carry a movie after all. Go back where you belong.” Dern himself has rejected that notion, and more power to him.

That’s not to say Forte should compete as a supporting actor; I think he belongs in the Best Actor race too.

We’ve seen this kind of dynamic and dilemma at the Oscars before, where the primary lead cedes the juiciest role to a secondary lead played by a bigger star: to name a few, Chris O’Donnell and Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman”; Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington in “Training Day”; Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.” The star with the showy role gets the nomination, while the primary lead is either demoted or snubbed altogether.

But could Dern win in the lead race? It’s possible, and earlier in the season I thought he had the right narrative to win — respected veteran finally gets his due, like Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart” — until, of course, that other respected veteran became a major Oscar player (Robert Redford in “All is Lost“). And then there’s Chiwetel Ejiofor, who could ride the wave of a Best Picture winner if “12 Years a Slave” stays ahead through the end of the season. At this point Dern might get lost in the shuffle. I’d say he’s still in for a nomination, but vulnerable.

As for the rest of the film, it’s not as grandly emotional as “The Descendants” was, but with as many as 10 Best Picture slots, an Alexander Payne film might have enough built-in academy support to break through. A bid for Best Director may be more of an uphill climb.

June Squibb, another veteran actor given a rare showcase role, is a bawdy scene-stealer as Dern’s fed-up wife, and later in the film she’s given touches of tenderness that make her more empathetic. A similar combination of sass and sympathy helped Octavia Spencer win Best Supporting Actress as Minny Jackson in “The Help.”

The film is shot in black-and-white, and that decision could pay off in a nomination for Best Cinematography, though black-and-white films don’t usually win. “Schindler’s List” was the last to prevail: “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “The White Ribbon,” and “The Artist” weren’t able to convert their nods to victory.

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