The best way to predict the Oscars is to look at what has won in the past.
Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is more than 80 years old, it has remained fairly consistent in its tastes and choices. In acting categories, the one ironclad constant, from Mary Pickford in “Coquette” (1929) to Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln,” is the academy favors chameleonic transformations over roles in which the actors seem to be playing versions of themselves. Though the latter performances tend to age better over time, these ultimate expressions of the self – such as Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” Bette Davis in “All About Eve,” Judy Garland in “A Star is Born” – invariably lose.
Traditionally, best picture has been the most historically embarrassing. Over the years, the academy has favored bigness over quality – long, difficult-to-shoot movies that represent a technical advance. The academy also likes movies that espouse a cause, usually one that no one can disagree with. They like movies that are artistically conservative but politically to the left, though in an innocuous way (like “Crash”).
“12 Years a Slave” has an advantage as the only film that could be called political – and political in an inoffensive way. (No one endorses slavery.) It’s also a grand-scale film that feels like a possible best picture winner.
“Gravity,” by contrast, isn’t long. It runs about 90 minutes. However, it does have the advantage of being technologically innovative. And, though it has a Mexican director, Alfonso Cuarón, it’s an American studio project with American actors.
The only other film in contention is “American Hustle.” Comedies rarely win in any category. That goes double for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which is funnier and nastier.
Historically, the best actress is under age 35, and she usually wins the first time she is nominated for an Oscar. Playing an essentially noble or good person helps, as does playing someone with an illness or disability. Playing a real-life or historical figure is also an advantage. But the most important thing is for the actress to be playing something unlike her usual screen self.
This year, toss out those criteria. All the best actress candidates – Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Amy Adams, Judi Dench and Sandra Bullock – have been previously nominated, and all are over 35.
None of the characters they play are disabled, and only two are sick in some way: Streep’s matriarch in “August: Osage County” has mouth cancer, but she’s not manifesting any signs of illness. And Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” is mentally ill.
Bullock (“Gravity”) and Dench (“Philomena”) play people who are noble, and Dench plays a real-life person. But this category is going to turn on the chameleonic question.
Bullock is tremendous in “Gravity,” but academy voters will think of her performances as Sandra in outer space, so she’s out. Adams and Dench play characters unlike their usual selves, but not to the extent that their performances can be called chameleonic transformations.
That leaves Streep and Blanchett. Streep is subject to the Streep Exception, which rules that, if an actress is herself thought to be a chameleon, any chameleonic transformation can be dismissed as not truly chameleonic. In addition, Blanchett has the advantage of comparative youth, and she was remarkable in “Blue Jasmine.”
For best actor, it’s an advantage to have been nominated before, and it’s best to be as close to age 40 as possible. All the other criteria are the same as for best actress.
In “Nebraska,” Bruce Dern plays a man with dementia – a plus. But Dern has played demented men for most of his career, so he loses chameleon points for that. He is also, at 77, the oldest nominee.
The effectiveness of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance in “12 Years a Slave” is related to the way he plays an essentially modern man forced into brutal servitude. That means his is not really a chameleonic performance. At 36, he is on the young side, and he has never been nominated for an Academy Award. He does have the advantage of playing a noble person and a real-life historical figure.
Christian Bale in “American Hustle” is a true chameleon. He plays a man with a touch of nobility, though not exactly a noble figure. He’s 40 and a previous Oscar winner in the supporting category.
Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”) has never been nominated for an Oscar. That’s a disadvantage. On the plus side, he plays a real-life historical figure who grows into some nobility of spirit. And he plays a very sick man. Never fat to begin with, he lost more than 40 pounds to play an AIDS patient. It was a complete physical transformation, the kind the academy likes. And he’s a good age, 44.
Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) has some strong advantages. He’s 39 and has been nominated in the acting category three times before. He is more or less understood by all to be an extraordinary actor, but he has not won an Oscar. He plays a real-life historical figure – that’s a plus. But the character has nothing noble about him – that’s a minus. Neither is the character physically ill; however, he is a drug addict and an alcoholic, and the role is physically demanding.
The question may turn on whether DiCaprio’s is a chameleonic performance. He has dark hair in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and doesn’t talk like his usual self. That helps him. DiCaprio specializes in playing men who accept America’s formula for success (Gatsby, the husband in “Revolutionary Road,” J. Edgar Hoover, even the villain in “Django Unchained”) and have to live with the consequences of their self-delusion.
Far from a chameleonic performance, “The Wolf of Wall Street” presents DiCaprio’s apotheosis. His is the best screen performance by an actor this year, one that will be remembered long after the others are forgotten.