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Oscar Watching: Make Way for the President

Twenty years ago, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln might have been the undeniable, no-holds-barred front-runner to win best picture, best director, and myriad other prizes at the Academy Awards.

While such a sweep might not happen in this day and age, the aura of a prestige film with an iconic director at the helm, incredible actors carrying the story, and a legendary scribe framing the story with his screenplay still screams, “Oscar!” It probably always will, so there’s no surprise in many throwing the film into such high positions on their Oscar prediction lists.

It didn’t appear on the festival circuit, but the film’s lack of presence was expected considering how Disney operates with its Oscar contenders. But when the AFI Fest scheduled Lincoln as its closing film on Nov. 8 – one day before its theatrical release – it seemed that the Mouse House might not be so confident in the film.

However, an unfinished version of Lincoln had a “secret” screening at the New York Film Festival on Monday and a ten-city screening on Wednesday, suggesting that Disney might have high hopes for Lincoln after all. With that, we finally have reactions on which to determine its Oscar potential.

Of course, while gauging the current reaction to Lincoln, Sasha Stone of Awards Daily reminds us of how people felt about Martin Scorsese’s Hugo at this point last year. An unfinished edit of Scorsese’s family-friendly ode to film played at NYFF to notably mixed response.

We immediately dismissed its Oscar potential, but as Oscar watchers know, Hugo won five prizes on Oscar night, and you could argue that it was The Artist’s primary competition for the best picture win. Lincoln comes with even more favorable reaction than Hugo thus far. But as Stone notes, “the Oscar race is fluid, not static and knowing what will win right now is a best guess at best.”

That being said, the reaction to Lincoln is mostly positive. Spielberg and Tony Kushner might respectively return to best director and best adapted screenplay if the film continues to build steam throughout the season. Meanwhile, a best picture nomination for Lincoln feels like a safer bet than recognition for either the director or the scribe.

As expected, the response to Daniel Day-Lewis’ work as Honest Abe is more than favorable, and the two-time best actor winner shouldn’t have trouble securing another nomination. However, we probably won’t be talking about his Oscar candidacy far beyond that.

Word is that the performance is a bit understated for him to win a third, and even if it wasn’t, third acting wins – and fourth in the case of record holder Katharine Hepburn – only go to prolific performers. Call him discerning, or call him picky, but Day-Lewis is anything but prolific.

Assuming that Oscar history never changes in that regard, two-time best actress winner Sally Field stands a better chance at winning if she earns a nomination for playing Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd. But we might not even see that happen. People aren’t high on her work, with some saying that she’s an awkward fit for Lincoln. I suspected as much based on the trailer, but trusting a trailer isn’t usually the way to go.

Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand, emerged with positive notes. Some even say his performance as Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens steals Lincoln from Day-Lewis. Combine that with the great notices he received for Hope Springs, which will certainly be on Oscar’s radar to some degree thanks to Meryl Streep, and we probably have a legitimate contender for best supporting actor.

The other actors in Lincoln – whether we’re discussing a breakthrough performer like Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son or a veteran like Gloria Reuben as Mary Todd’s confidante, Elizabeth Keckley – probably won’t be in the conversation aside from a potential Screen Actors Guild nomination for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture. But look for Lincoln to make an impact in the crafts races and – obviously – original score for John Williams’ composing.

While that film hits theaters on Nov. 9, what about the films that debuted last weekend? Well, box-office champ Taken 2 won’t be in the conversation – not that you were really wondering. Oscar voters dismissed its predecessor, and its 20% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes seals its fate.

Meanwhile, Frankenweenie (reviewed here) emerges as director Tim Burton’s first critical success since Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 2007. Audiences, though, aren’t quite as impressed, as the film opened to just $11.4 million. The monochromatic nature doesn’t help, and it’s a stop-motion film like ParaNorman – another critical hit that wasn’t so successful with the general public – which debuted in August.

Perhaps audiences subconsciously drew comparisons between the two films and dismissed it for the more mainstream – and completely abysmal – Hotel Transylvania, which pulled in over $27 million. We can probably count on Frankenweenie appearing in the best animated feature race thanks to Burton’s clout and the critical raves, but it might be a stretch to call it for the win.

You can point to Spirited Away and Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit as previous best animated feature winners with low box-office numbers, but was anyone expecting those films to perform well? Burton’s Frankenweenie comes with a different set of financial expectations, and when accounting for Dark Shadows, the other financial disappointment he directed this year, his track record at the box office right now isn’t favorable. Burton might have to wait even longer to win his first Oscar.

I doubt Lee DanielsThe Paperboy (reviewed here) goes anywhere this awards season, and its per-screen average of less than $10,000 from 11 screens doesn’t help its case. But if it does gain any traction this awards season, it’ll be for Nicole Kidman’s performance.

The more likely case, though, is that she’s snubbed this year and makes her way into the conversation next year with Grace of Monaco, in which she stars as the titular Oscar winner and Princess consort of Monaco, and/or The Railway Man, in which she portrays the wife of a survivor of World War II’s Death Railway.

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Donovan Warren

Donovan Warren

Donovan Warren loves the wonderful world of film and all that comes with it. He specifically loves long takes, fabulous actresses, and keeping up with the Oscar season - even when it's far too early to make sense of anything.