Why Christoph Waltz (‘Django Unchained’) could win Supporting Actor at Oscars despite SAG snub

In the incredibly close Best Supporting Actor race, where all five nominees are previous Oscar champs, anything can happen including a victory for Christoph Waltz (“Django Unchained“). Remember, this is a category where surprises are fairly common [e.g., James Coburn (“Affliction”) over Ed Harris (“The Truman Show”) in 1998 and Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) over Eddie Murphy (“Dreamgirls”) in 2006.]

Waltz — who won this award in 2009 for “Inglourious Basterds,” his first collaboration with “Django” writer/director Quentin Tarantino — ranks third with the backing of six of our 25 experts, 4/9 editors and about 20% of users for odds of 3/1.

Robert De Niro (“Silver Linings Playbook“) just edged ahead of Tommy Lee Jones (“Lincoln“) with 10 experts to nine. However, as Jones still has the support of 2 editors and 45% of users (versus 3 editors and 30% of users for De Niro), he has the lead in overall odds at 12/5 compared to 27/10. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman (“The Master“) has the backing of 5% of users and odds of 13/2 while  Alan Arkin has the support of just 1% of users for his role in Best Picture frontrunner “Argo” and odds of 9/1. 

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Jones’ frontrunner status is likely due to his victory at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Since those kudos began in 1994, only one performer has ever won an Oscar without a SAG nomination for the same role: Marcia Gay Harden took Best Supporting Actress in 2000 for “Pollock.” 

Because of this statistic, it is easy to diminish or even dismiss Waltz’s chances at Oscar gold. He is the only one of this year’s Supporting Actor nominees who didn’t contend first at SAG (Javier Bardem was nominated for “Skyfall”). However, Waltz’s snub by his guild should be noted with an asterisk.

He was ineligible to be nominated in the Supporting Actor category at SAG because he was entered there in lead. At SAG, members can only nominate you in the category in which you submit yourself. That is unlike the Oscars, where academy members can diverge from heavy campaigning and select the category in which they feel a performance belongs.

In 2008, Kate Winslet won the Supporting Actress SAG Award for “The Reader” and lost her lead bid for “Revolutionary Road” to Meryl Streep (“Doubt”). However, Oscar voters put her in lead for “The Reader” and she won over, among others, Streep. On the flip side, Benicio del Toro won a SAG Award in the lead category for “Traffic” in 2000, but was demoted to supporting at the Oscars where he also prevailed.

Sure, Waltz could have pulled a del Toro by getting a SAG nomination in the lead category, but he faced two large obstacles.

First, this year’s Best Actor race at SAG was incredibly competitive. Aside from the eventual nominees, those fighting for slots in the lineup included Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”), Golden Globe nominees Richard Gere (“Arbitrage”) and Jack Black (“Bernie”) BAFTA nominee Ben Affleck (“Argo”), Jean-Louis Trintignant (“Amour”) and Anthony Hopkins (“Hitchcock”).

Secondly, Waltz’s performance was little seen by SAG voters when they were selecting their nominees. Harvey Weinstein has admitted he made a mistake by sending out the DVD screeners of the film five days after SAG nominations were announced on Dec. 12. He said he counted on voters attending special screenings before the film opened in theaters on Christmas Day. 

Realizing that Waltz had much a better chance of Oscar success in the supporting race, in early December, the Weinstein Company announced he would be campaigned there for the remainder of the awards season. That shrewd move paid off with wins at the Golden Globes and the BAFTA Awards and,of course, that Oscar nomination.

Only three actors have lost the Supporting Actor Oscar after winning at both BAFTA and the Globes: John Hurt (“Midnight Express”) to Christopher Walken (“The Deerhunter”)  in 1978;  Robert Duvall (“Apocalypse Now”) to Melvyn Douglas (“Being There”) in 1979, and Clive Owen (“Closer”) to Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”) in 2004.

Had there been proper promotion (with early DVD screeners and a submission in the supporting category), I have no doubt that Waltz would have been nominated over Bardem at SAG, and could have won. But we’ll never know that now, will we? 

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