Monday, January 5, 2015

By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 5, 2015 at 5:07PM

Oscar campaigners call them the Steak Eaters. The Academy is full of them--they're red-blooded males (not just American--Europeans and Aussies too), often directors, writers and craftspeople. They're the guys who voted for "Argo," "The Silence of the Lambs," "Braveheart," "Gladiator," "Avatar" and yes, "Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain."

Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood
'American Sniper'
'American Sniper'
"They vote for big movies that make big money, good solid moviemaking with great actors and good storytelling," one veteran Oscar campaigner told me. "'True Grit' is for them." This faction of the Academy is also likely to vote for such mainstream 2014 hits as Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," David Fincher's "Gone Girl" and Dan Gilroy's "Nightcrawler."

Academy voters are predominantly male; the dominant actors' branch comes closest to a 50/50 male/female split. Three late-breaking Christmas hits that did not make the Producers Guild Ten on Monday: Rob Marshall's "Into the Woods," Ava DuVernay's well-reviewed indie "Selma," and Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken." For those who think that the Academy proved itself not sexist by voting for Kathryn Bigelow and war movie "The Hurt Locker," not so fast. The Academy directors snubbed Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," although it landed a Best Picture nomination. Can we assume that the very male and clubby Academy directors branch will come through for member DuVernay? They may choose revered eminence grise Eastwood instead.

Thus "American Sniper," which had been written off by Oscar pundits on the basis of early mixed reviews, is gaining momentum, even though it was ignored by the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards. The Iraq War film was included on the American Film Institute and National Board of Review top ten lists, and won NBR's best Director. Both "Sniper" and "Nightcrawler" (which did register with SAG and GG) landed nominations from the PGAArt Directors and  Editors guilds.

Open Road "Nightcrawler"
Eastwood is an accomplished Oscar perennial (ten nominations and three wins as producer, director or actor); "American Sniper"'s war scenes are complex, tense and well-executed. Bradley Cooper expertly channels the late sharpshooter Chris Kyle, building 35 pounds of muscle in the process, and is gaining extra cred from his powerful performance on Broadway as John Merrick in "The Elephant Man." (I saw the show and was impressed by his sweet, emotional portrayal.) But he's still one of four actors vying for two Best Actor slots. (Assuming Michael Keaton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne are locks, Cooper is competing with "Selma" star David Oyelowo, "Nightcrawler"'s Jake Gyllenhaal (also excellent on Broadway in "Constellations") and Steve Carell ("Foxcatcher").

Assuming that the Academy in a weak year votes in eight to nine Best Picture nominations, which films among the PGA Ten would be left off? "Gone Girl" with a possible five Oscar nominations should make the Oscar cut. I predict that "Nightcrawler" will land nominations for original screenplay and Best Actor Jake Gyllenhaal, but no Best Picture nod, while the Liberal Academy will give "Selma" four nominations including Picture, Director, Best Actor David Oyelowo and Original Song.

But "American Sniper" could steal "Selma"'s thunder. Eastwood's war movie is surging at the box office in limited release and will be huge when it goes wide January 16. But which nominations would "American Sniper" nab? Its Rotten Tomatoes score is a merely respectable 74% (in the range of "Crash," which had 75%), lower than all its rivals except "Unbroken," which is at 49%, statistically too low for a Best Picture nomination, despite its commercial bonafides. "Selma" is at 100%, no matter what contrarian Armond White writes.

Most likely are Art Direction, Editing, and Sound Mixing and Editing. That's it. Does that make it a Best Picture Contender? It'll be the mainstream producers, executives and publicists that could push it in.

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