Chiwetel Ejiofor is a likely Oscar nominee for his role in '12 Years A Slave.' (Carlo Allegri / AP)
There’s a certain weirdness developing in this year’s best actor and best actress Oscar races.
One of them seems wide open while the other looks darn near closed. And one is filled with hopeful newcomers while the other is nothing but familiar faces. The dissonance likely echoes the opportunities available in Hollywood.
Let’s start with the best actor race, which promises to be the wildest shootout in years. If the Academy suddenly decided to expand the list of nominees from five to 10, there would be no trouble filling all the slots, and there might still be some worthy performances excluded.
The familiar faces vying for nominations include two-time winner Tom Hanks for “Captain Phillips”; previous winner Forest Whitaker for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”; and Robert Redford, who’s been nominated as actor once and won best director as well as an honorary Oscar, for “All is Lost,” which arrives next week. You expect to see these guys every few years at the Oscars.
What’s exciting here is the abundance of new faces (or at least new to best actor nominations) in the race. Chiwetel Ejiofor seems a lock for his role in “12 Years a Slave,” which also opens locally next Friday. Matthew McConaughey has been climbing back up the ladder of respectability for the past few years, and it may pay off with a nomination for his role as a man fighting HIV and big pharma in “Dallas Buyers Club” (opens here Nov. 15).
Young Michael B. Jordan caught a lot of eyes playing a young man on his last day in “Fruitvale Station.” Also on the youth side is Oscar Isaac, who has drawn raves as the star of the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Dec. 20).
In the not-so-young but very admired category you’ve got Bruce Dern, who was last nominated in 1979 as a supporting actor in “Coming Home,” likely to be an old boys’ favorite with “Nebraska” (Nov. 22). And then there’s Idris Elba, who’s gotten a lot of respect for “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (2014).
And these are just the movies people have already seen. Christian Bale has both “Out of the Furnace” (Dec. 6) and the widely anticipated “American Hustle” (Dec. 25) coming. Joaquin Phoenix has “Her” (Dec. 18), and three-time nominee Leonardo DiCaprio has “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Nov. 15).
See what I mean?
Things are crowded. And there’s always the chance something will come out of left field.
Let’s hope something comes out of left field in the best actress race. Every likely nominee here is a former Oscar winner, most are multiple nominees.
Sandra Bullock is a lock for “Gravity.” Cate Blanchett seems strong for “Blue Jasmine.” Judi Dench, in what is supposed to be one of her last performances, plays wonderfully against type in “Philomena” (Nov. 27). Emma Thompson’s getting tons of buzz as the woman who wrote “Mary Poppins” in “Saving Mr. Banks” (Dec. 20).
And then there’s the spot reserved nearly every year for three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, this time for “August: Osage County” (Dec. 25), and she is a hoot as a drug-addled, mean-spirited matriarch.
There are still a few wild card possibilities out there in the actress race — four-time nominee Amy Adams looks strong in the “American Hustle” trailer — but it’s obviously a much more closed ecosystem. Strong indie performances — Brie Larson in “Short Term 12,” Julie Delpy in “Before Midnight” — will get overwhelmed by big studio campaigns.
The disparity between the two categories likely reflects how many more good roles there are for men in film and how few for women. Those already at the top get to cherry-pick. Thus the familiar faces.
But Oscar needs constant transfusions of new blood to stay fresh. Look how Jennifer Lawrence’s best actress win last year at age 22 livened everything up.
I’ve seen four of the five likely best actress performances and they were all excellent. But the wealth needs to be spread around, and there need to be more films with roles worthy of consideration.