Sorry, John Hawkes. Better luck next time, Joaquin Phoenix. Hard cheese, Hugh Jackman. Get your gracious-loser faces perfected, because this year’s Best Actor Oscar has Daniel Day-Lewis’s name written all over it. Again. Because, you know, he’s frickin’ Daniel Day-Lewis. And he’s playing frickin’ Abraham Lincoln. Try fighting that. Just try. What? Have I seen the movie? That’s cute.
Such, at least, is the logic of numerous comment-thread denizens (and a hasty blogger or two) who began declaring the two-time Oscar champ a racing certainty as early as November last year, when the first on-set photos of his augustly bearded visage surfaced online. “Daniel Day-Lewis + Lincoln = Oscar,” opined one Awards Daily reader. “It might as well be Meryl Streep playing Jesus Christ,” agreed another. Just yesterday, a Hollywood Elsewhere regular ventured that “Phoenix is a threat to Day-Lewis like Mondale was a threat to Reagan… the [only] other pseudo-competition is the duo of Crow-Jackman in ‘Les Miserables.'” Bold statements for four performances no one has yet clamped eyes on.
Sceptics, of course, can fight back with stats to counter the likelihood of such an occurrence. No one has ever won three Best Actor Oscars before, much less from a mere five nominations. Steven Spielberg’s films have won a combined total of 29 Oscars — with not one acting prize among them. And although it might seem a tidy short-cut to awards attention, no actor has ever won for playing a U.S. president. (Five have been nominated.)
Of course, bringing up these points to prove why Day-Lewis won’t win is as ill-advised as using on-paper prestige as the basis for calling his victory seven months in advance. It seems strange that one has to point this out on an annual basis, but seeing the films counts for everything in this game. For every baity bit of casting that does indeed result in the intended Oscar — Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady,” for example, though by no means did she walk to victory — there’s another that swiftly collapses once the performance is unveiled. Remember those people who said Morgan Freeman couldn’t lose for playing Nelson Mandela under the eye of Clint Eastwood? There were plenty of ’em, I tell you.
Whether or not the powers behind “Lincoln” had such breathless, presumptuous expectations in mind when they set a release date of November 9 for the prestige biopic, it seems a sensible way to manage them. For many, not least those predicting an avalanche of awards attention for the film, the opening is earlier than one might expect for such a project, not least since Spielberg’s last two Best Picture ponies — “War Horse” and “Munich” — both opted for a Christmastime debut.
As it stands, “Lincoln” will now precede a number of prestige studio hopefuls this winter, including “Life of Pi,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Django Unchained,” “The Hobbit” and its chief rival for sight-unseen Best Picture buzz, “Les Miserables.” If “Lincoln” is a hit with critics and/or audiences, it’ll need strong legs to withstand competition from later seasonal distractions; if it’s a miss, or a qualified success, it’s in danger of a quick burial.
That’s not as risky a strategy as it sounds if they know the film’s got the goods, not least since it gives the film more time to establish a reputation than those that sneak in just before the year’s end. The Weinstein Company opened both “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist” in November, confident enough in the films’ critical and audience appeal to know they needn’t hide them until the last minute to gain a lead in the Oscar race. Settling on a release date for a high-profile contender necessitates striking a fine balance. Too early, and you could fall foul of voters’ notoriously short memories; too late, and they might not get round to your movie at all.
Over the last few years, perhaps mirroring the recently condensed awards calendar, December has often fallen into the “too late” category: not since presumed spring release “Million Dollar Baby” craftily snuck onto the 2004 awards calendar eight years ago has a film released that late won the Best Picture prize. In Spielberg’s case, it’s debatable whether “War Horse” and “Munich” benefited or suffered from their late appearances: both entered their respective seasons as heavy favorites, only to face a significant backlash upon their release. Spotty precursor showings followed, and both landed Best Picture nomination by the skin of their teeth, by which time they were already firmly out of the running. In the case of “War Horse,” I suspect an earlier showing might have cancelled it out of the race entirely; “Munich,” however, could possibly have used more time for its supporters’ counter-backlash to take hold.
Already in the undesirable position of entering the season as a nominal favorite for Best Picture and Actor, it has thus allowed itself plenty of time for the media and voters alike to get to know the movie behind the inflated hype — hype that can prove dangerous if early consensus is anything less than ecstatic. And, indeed, even if it isn’t: this week, fans and critics alike have begun anticipating — nay, demanding — Oscar success for a very different flavor of prestige product, “The Dark Knight Rises.” In this case, the pressure is being laid more on the Academy (which, many seem to think, has a debt to pay to Christopher Nolan) than the film itself, but it still doesn’t help Batman: whether in the form of fanboys’ pleas or an admonishment from Kenneth Turan, Oscar doesn’t much like voting as instructed.
Inadvertently voting as expected, however, is another matter. When it comes to “Lincoln,” the sight-unseen predictors may be over-eager, but not entirely off-base: given the wider safety net of the expanded Best Picture category, “Lincoln” could open at Christmas and easily secure a top nod on fumes alone, just as “War Horse” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” did last time round. This year, Team Spielberg seems to be playing a longer game, which may suggest they have more than token nominations in their sights.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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