There will be blood at the Oscars tonight. There will also be glamour and long-winded speeches and incessant commercial breaks and jokes about the writers’ strike, which ended just in time for the 80th Academy Awards telecast to go on at 8 p.m. EST Sunday as planned.
But lurking beneath the pageantry and vanity of Hollywood’s annual toast to itself will be a noticeable darkness—an embracing of movies unafraid to explore the least flattering aspects of human nature.
This is unusual for the Oscars, which more often than not favor uplift and positivity and good-for-you moral messages, neatly wrapped in digestible packages (for more on this, see “Crash” or “Forrest Gump” or “Chicago”). But it is telling that the two movies with the most nominations going into tonight’s derby—“No Country For Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” tied at eight apiece—are bleak and despairing dramas about the worst impulses in American society, and how they are wont to run amok if left unchecked.
They also happen to be challenging, uncommercial movies that have managed to find their audience—proof that all is not lost when it comes to the multiplex. Part of the argument Hollywood filmmakers often use about why movies are so dumb is that audiences don’t turn out in large enough numbers to see the ones that matter. But the fact that a long, slow film like “There Will Be Blood” has grossed $31 million—not a huge number, but not a small one for what is essentially an art film—or that “No Country For Old Men” has become the biggest hit to date for Joel and Ethan Coen ($61 million and counting) suggests viewers will still turn out for “difficult” fare, provided the movies are worth their time.
The Oscars are more than just gloom and doom this year, of course. The teenage pregnancy comedy “Juno,” this year"s “Little Miss Sunshine” (aka The Little Movie That Could) is a contender in several major categories, has grossed a shocking $125 million thus far and could conceivably win the biggest prize of all, Best Picture (emphasis on “conceivably,” Oscar voters; I like “Juno” and all, but come on). The Pixar smash “Ratatouille” is bound to get some Oscar love tonight, and “Atonement,” which is up for seven Oscars, is the kind of literary, high-toned period piece the Academy Awards have historically drooled over—and often showered with statuettes.
But there’s a palpable lack of suspense about tonight"s awards, primarily because the winners seem so obvious. It’s not a coincidence that several of the year’s best films happen to be so thematically dark—movies, after all, are a reflection of the times in which they are made—and the Oscars seem poised to follow suit and honor their achievements, even if their messages are the opposite of crowd-pleasing. Yes, there will be blood tonight. And that is a good thing.
Here are my predictions for tonight’s six major races—the ones you’ll probably have to stay up past midnight to see handed out:
There is no such thing as a bad Daniel Day-Lewis performance, but the actor’s work as the greedy, misanthropic oil prospector in “There Will Be Blood” is something else entirely, even by his standards: The kind of rare, once-in-a-lifetime acting job in which the performer appears to be transforming in front of your eyes from the inside out. The entire movie is built around Day-Lewis’ throaty rumble, his increasingly hateful eyes and his cynical, bitter view of the world around him. It’s a landmark performance, bound to be studied and dissected by Method-actors-in-training everywhere, and no one else stands a chance—certainly not “Michael Clayton’s” George Clooney or “Sweeney Todd’s” Johnny Depp, both of whom were at the top of their games but couldn’t come close to Day-Lewis’ orbit.
Julie Christie is no stranger to the Oscars, having won this category once before (for 1965’s “Darling”) and been nominated two other times (for 1971’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and 1997’s “Afterglow”). Logically, on paper, Christie shouldn’t have much chance of winning tonight, because the Oscars are notoriously stingy about whom they grace more than once. But Christie’s performance in “Away From Her” as a victim of Alzheimer’s is something that transcends matters of popularity and statistics and numbers: It’s the perfect marriage of actress and material at just the right moment—Christie, at 67, has rarely looked lovelier or more luminous—and despite fine work by “The Savages’” Laura Linney as a distraught daughter and Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose,” this one is no contest.
It’s not easy playing an implacable force of nature. But Javier Bardem’s turn as the relentless killer Anton Chigurh in “No Country For Old Men” doesn’t just give the movie its near-unbearable sense of menace and dread; it also makes for one of the great screen movie villains of all time. The fact that we know so little about Chigurh and still fear him so viscerally is a testament to Bardem’s cool, demonic performance, which he pulls off even though he’s saddled with a ridiculous Prince Valiant haircut. Fellow nominees Hal Holbrook (“Into the Wild”), who in another year would have been the sentimental favorite, and Casey Affleck (“The Assassination of Jesse James”), who broke out as an actor last year in a major way, might complain Bardem actually belonged in the Best Actor category, since his role is so sizable. Sorry, guys.
Amy Ryan’s performance as the mother of a kidnapped little girl in “Gone Baby Gone” has won her so many prizes on the road to the Oscars that it seems insane not to expect her to win this category tonight. But the dual nominations for “I’m Not There’s” Cate Blanchett (who is also a Best Actress nominee for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”) are proof of just how much Academy members like her. And with all due respect to Ryan, Blanchett’s uncanny impersonation of Bob Dylan is second only to “There Will Be Blood’s” Daniel Day-Lewis as far as performances go this year. “American Gangster’s” Ruby Dee is a potential spoiler, since there have to be more than a few Oscar voters who’d like to reward the 83-year-old legend’s career. But “American Gangster’s” poor showing in the other categories implies a lack of love for the movie. This one goes to Dylan—I mean Blanchett.
Joel and Ethan Coen grew up with “No Country For Old Men,” putting aside the irreverence and smirky inside-humor that had started to make their movies close to intolerable. What’s more, the movie is a perfect match for the brothers’ sensibilities—it is, in some ways, a dead-serious version of “Fargo”—and was so perfectly and confidently directed that it accomplished what few book-to-movie adaptations do: It rendered the reading of Cormac McCarthy’s genius novel superfluous. They will win, handily, although one could argue that Julian Schnabel’s sublime direction of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” or Paul Thomas Anderson’s high-wire act of sustained control in “There Will Be Blood” are worthier. Perhaps, perhaps. But tonight, the Coens graduate from bad-boy pranksters to Oscar-winning filmmakers.
The only thing standing between “No Country For Old Men” and the Best Picture Oscar is that pesky ending—the one that so many people have found anti-climactic, disappointing or just plain frustrating. The movie takes an unapologetically grim view of the world and doesn’t let viewers off the hook at the end, which has led to rumors of a backlash within Academy ranks. Meanwhile, the surprise underdog “Juno” is riding a crest of critical and commercial popularity, and its number of nominations is proof how much Oscar voters like it. If “There Will Be Blood” steals enough votes from “No Country,” and members miffed by its muted ending secretly vote against it, “Juno” could pull off an upset. I don’t expect it to happen, but then again, I didn’t think “Crash” could really beat “Brokeback Mountain,” either.