Why have we underestimated ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ in Oscars race?

Most of us awards-watchers have been guilty of underestimating “Dallas Buyers Club” in the Oscar race. That became clear this week when the film continued its run of the industry guilds, earning key nominations from the PGA and today the WGA. Now I think it’s starting to look pretty safe for a Best Picture nomination despite the fact that, up until today, the film had failed to make our list of Top 10 candidates when the Experts’ picks were combined. (Check out the calendars at the bottom of this page to see past rankings.) Why didn’t we see it coming?

Our first indication of the film’s strength came at the SAG Awards, where it earned expected nominations for lead actor Matthew McConaughey and supporting actor Jared Leto, but also an out-of-nowhere bid for Best Ensemble Cast. A nomination like that is often telling because it shows strong industry support.

By that I don’t mean “Dallas Buyers Club” didn’t deserve its nomination, but rather that it wasn’t an intuitive choice. “The Butler” and “August: Osage County” were obvious candidates, whether or not they end up at the Oscars, because big, star-studded casts are usually nominated by SAG. “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” also have large ensembles, and they’re major contenders to win Best Picture at the Oscars, so they were no surprise either.

“Buyers Club,” on the other hand, is largely driven by the performances of McConaughey and Leto, who have been earning nominations and wins consistently throughout the season. Four other actors are cited among the nominated ensemble cast: Jennifer Garner, who has the third major role in the film, but also Denis O’Hare, Dallas Roberts, and Steve Zahn, who have markedly less screentime and story. The film is ultimately dominated by just three people, so for SAG to nominate them for ensemble acting indicates not only admiration, but flat out love for the film.

After that the hits kept coming: a Best Picture nomination from the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Producers Guild, and a Best Original Screenplay nod from the Writers Guild. Those guild notices are especially important because they’re decided by Hollywood filmmakers, the same peers who decide the Oscars. And as we’ve noted before, the Producers Guild uses the same voting system as the academy, and thus it’s been very good at predicting the Oscars.

Even more impressive: “Dallas” is one of only two films to have been nominated for top honors at all three of those guilds. The other is “American Hustle.” Could it even be nominated by the Directors Guild? That seems unlikely, but at this rate I wouldn’t rule it out.

All this is surprising because gritty, character-driven independent dramas usually aren’t major contenders for Best Picture. They often receive nominations and wins for acting and/or writing, but not Best Picture. Consider “Blue Valentine,” “Frozen River,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “The Wrestler,” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” just to name a few – all critically acclaimed, but none of them recognized beyond acting or writing.

Then again, I’m neglecting a number of dramatic indies that did make it into the Best Picture race, like “Precious,” “An Education,” “In the Bedroom,” “Winter’s Bone” and, of course, “The Hurt Locker,” which managed to win. It looks like “Dallas Buyers Club” will join their company this year.

Are you surprised by its rise in the Oscar race, or did you see it coming all along? Predict Oscar’s Best Picture below, and feel free to post your “I-told-you-so’s” in the comments.

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