Ladies in Waiting
Three hundred and 11 films were eligible for consideration this year, but when the Oscar nominations are announced tomorrow (Tuesday 31st January) that list will be whittled down to about a dozen titles, with five nominees in each category.
At this stage it would be a major upset if Brokeback Mountain didn't pick up the most nominations. I'm happy to say that America appears to have embraced this film: it has won more critics' awards than the competition, it has more Golden Globe nominations, and (crucially) it is still packing them in at cinemas around the country as it expands from its limited platform release to screen at more than 1000 screens across America.
It may have been branded a 'gay western' by the media, but Brokeback is understood by audiences as a universal love story, and it's the obvious front-runner for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (though Philip Seymour Hoffman may have something to say about that).
One category it won't figure in is Best Actress, though Michelle Williams has every chance in the Supporting stakes. Nor do such acclaimed films as Good Night and Good Luck, Capote, Munich, A History of Violence, Crash or The Constant Gardener provide a substantial leading female role (though it is possible that the Academy will follow BAFTA's example and shoehorn Rachel Weisz in there for her abruptly truncated role in The Constant Gardener, and you could make a similar case for Maria Bello in A History of Violence).
That leaves Reese Witherspoon something like a shoo-in for her portrait of June Carter in Walk the Line (released in UK cinemas Friday). The film is not a sequel or a prequel, but certainly the equal to Ray). The Academy has a fondness for biopics, and especially sympathetic characterizations of showbiz personalities (go figure!).
June Carter fits the bill. On the downside, she doesn't go through the traumas which usually win Oscar hearts, but Witherspoon's ebullient portrait of a good woman coping with a lovesick Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) benefits from drug dependency by proxy. Not only that, but she does her own warbling, which has to count for something.
Witherspoon's main competition comes from Felicity Huffman, a thirty-three year old actress who was practically unknown before Desperate Housewives, and who plays as a pre-op male to female transsexual in Transamerica. Huffman's performance is easily the best thing about the movie, but shouldn't the role have been played by a man? Voters satisfied with Brokeback Mountain may feel this is a bridge too far. (Transamerica is released March 10.)
Don't entirely rule out Charlize Theron either, suffering pluckily as Josey Aimes, a Minnesota mine-worker who took her bosses to court for sexual harassment. North Country (read the review here) is a cross between Silkwood and Norma Rae. It's inferior to either, and Theron's emotional performance feels like too naked a pitch for a second Oscar, but in the history of the Academy obviousness has never been a handicap.
Who else? BAFTA plumped for Judi Dench, predictably enough, in the lightweight Mrs Henderson Presents, and Zhang Ziyi, the weakest of the three actresses in Memoirs of a Geisha. Ironically, Zhang deserves a nomination, but for her heartbreaking supporting turn in 2046. Personally, I'd prefer to see Keira Knightley recognized for Pride and Prejudice and Joan Allen, either for Sally Potter's Yes or The Upside of Anger - or both.
Dark horses? Laura Linney does excellent work, as always, in The Squid and the Whale - but this is probably too much of a supporting role. But how about Naomi Watts, so much more than just a scream queen in Peter Jackson's King Kong? Just on a technical level, Watts had probably the toughest job of any of this year's actresses, establishing a complex, shifting, ambiguous relationship with a 50-ton gorilla while acting opposite a blue screen or a chap in a monkey suit. Her vaudeville routine on the brink of disaster is incredibly gutsy, and you can understand what the big ape sees in her. King Kong has its problems, but how strange that one of the most widely-seen performances of the year seems destined to be overlooked.