Oscar Archetypes & Where to Find Them

One of the more divisive topics among film nerds online has got to be the validity of the Oscars and the weight they hold. One side sees them as the gold standard of how a film or career is truly defined. It’s the kind of thing that have people clamoring “Sure, Samuel L. Jackson is the highest grossing actor in history but he’s only been nominated for ONE Oscar and he didn’t even win!” or “Meryl Streep had done more for American cinema than any living performer, even if “The Devil Wears Prada” is the only movie of hers you’ve seen!” These people stink.

On the other side we have people bitching about how film is art, not a competition. “If the Oscars really meant something then why didn’t [insert actress you’ve never heard of] win anything for [insert Avant Garde student film]” or “They just gave [insert critically and commercially successful film in *gasp* a franchise] to get people to watch the broadcast.” These people stink just as much.

The Oscars are supposed to be fun. A celebration of the year in movies and a unique opportunity to give films or artists a platform to market themselves to the masses we may not have seen otherwise. There is a great financial impact for those films are fortunate enough to be nominated. Would anyone have watched Nomadland without the word “Oscar” associated with it? Despite what all the Frances McDormand stans may say, the answer is no fucking way. Do they get every award right? Of course not. Think of all the incredible actors to never win anything: Tom Cruise, Amy Adams, Michael Keaton, Annette Bening, heck Jim Carrey has never even been nominated! Surely these people have never accomplished anything in their careers.

We’re coming up on the meat of the calendar where a bunch of high profile projects are being released with the intention of being fresh in Academy voters minds at the end of the year. The acting fields this year are starting to take shape so I think it’s time for a quick refresher in some of the archetypes and stories we often see associated with this time of year.

The ‘They Were Actually That Good’ Winner

Let’s start off with the easy one. Some years critics, artists, internet trolls, #FilmTwitter, and even your auntie who went to the movies once this year can all agree on who the best was. This is the Academy equivalent to a state senator running opposed for the fourth term in a row. Think J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds), or Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight). Best Supporting Actor tends to provide most of these because as they (by ‘they’ I mean I’m paraphrasing something I heard once) say “Good guys win the girl, villains win awards”.

That’s not without exception of course: Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave. These people often have to deliver more lines during awards season than in their performance and the world is perfectly okay with that.

It’s still early but the best chances of watching this archetype paly out this year is likely Branden Fraser for The Whale.

The ‘Hey, We Owe You One’ Winner

Ahh yes, the distant cousin of the ‘lifetime achievement’ winner (more on that later). This winner if often one who has a few nominations under their belt but has never pulled it off or is someone who’s been a leading man/lady that has been popular with audiences but never resonated with voters. This is also a go-to in weaker years to help hype up the broadcast. The easiest example of this is Leonardo DiCaprio winning for The Revenant. It was was his fifth nomination and first win though many agree that The Revenant doesn’t come close to his career best performance compared to something like The Wolf of Wall Street or The Aviator. Not to mention the Academy owed him a solid for not even nominating him for Django Unchained and giving Best Supporting Actor to his co-star instead AND giving Matthew McConaughey, his Wolf co-star, a W for Dallas Buyers Club, his first nomination.

Best Actor is ripe for these kind of stories. McConaughey fits this mold, as does Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) and Will Smith (King Richard). Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) benefitted from a weak Best Actress race last year on her third nomination, Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) had gone over twenty years since her second win (the Academy’s first performer to win their third Oscar out of pity), Julianne Moore (Still Alice) won on her fifth nomination for a movie nobody ever saw, and Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood) also picked up a well deserved win in a thin race.

We could see this narrative play out this year in a few places. Colin Ferrell (Banshees of Inisherin) is long overdue for a first nomination as are Everything Everywhere All At Once’s Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis. Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans) is a four-time nominee but there have been conflicting reports as to whether she’ll run in the lead or supporting category but if she’s in Supporting Actress she should walk to the podium. Angela Bassett may become the first Marvel performer to receive her first nomination in almost 20 years for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

The ‘Character Actor Finally Getting Their Shining Moment’ Winner

While similar to the category above, this one is for actors less used to glitz and glam and more accustomed to asking riddles under bridges and hiding from the sunlight. That’s right! Character actors! Every now and then we get a winner who used to be ‘the guy from that thing’ and the Wednesday after the show can be seen guest starring on Chicago Water and Power. For film and TV buffs this is often one of the more rewarding and satisfying storylines to watch. A great recent example of this is Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. After spending twenty years as Wild Bill from The Green Mile and leading the occasional indie, Rockwell quickly became one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood. One of the great things about this was after his win many of his older projects back into the limelight.

This archetype is dominated by the Supporting categories. Allison Janney (I, Tonya) was no stranger to awards shows, having received seven Emmys before her first nomination from the Academy but it is certainly one of the highlights of her career. Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Laura Dern (Marriage Story), Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Octavia Spencer (The Help), and to an extent Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) all locked up awards for films that acknowledge their brilliance. J.K. Simmons also fits in here but he’s more of a “Actually That Good” winner.

This storyline will likely pop up again this year and Brendan Gleeson seems to be the consensus Best Supporting Actor favorite for The Banshees of Inisherin. While he’s won an Emmy previously, his film work has largely gone unnoticed by awards season save for a pair of Golden Globe nominations for In Bruges and The Guard, both well deserved. With a filmography that includes Braveheart, Gangs of New York, 28 Days Later, Troy, and of course playing Mad Eye Moody in the Harry Potter franchise, this one just feels right.

The ‘Lifetime Achievement Award Not Included in the Actual Lifetime Achievement Award Winners’ Winner

Not to be confused with ‘Hey, We Owe You One’ winners, this one is specifically reserved for all the silver foxes well past their prime receiving acknowledgement for work that is far from their best. While not incredibly common, this class of winner usually is reserved for long overdue stars that may or may not need assistance walking up the stairs to the podium. Classic example: 82 year-old Christopher Plummer winning for Beginners. This is in no way an attack on Plummer, but come on. The man beat out an incredibly weak field including two actors that would have fit this type as well (Max Von Sydow and Nick Nolte, who in my opinion is awful in Warrior), Kenneth Branagh in some Marilyn Monroe movie, and Jonah Hill in Moneyball. Like I said, weak field.

This tends to fit into the Best Actor and Supporting Actor category. Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), and Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby) fit this mold though it’s not as obvious as Plummer’s win.

This year we will likely see this narrative with 86 year-old Judd Hirsch for The Fabelmans. He’s not favored but the man’s filmography dates back to 1971 and his only Academy Award nomination came 41 years ago for Ordinary People. 60-year old Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All At Once) could fit this mold as well though the Best Actress race is packed this year.

The ‘Who The Hell Is This Guy?’ Winner

Commonly known as an underdog story, every couple of years some largely unknown performer comes along and blows us all away and beats out handsome leading men or an actress on her sixth nomination wondering just how many more prosthetics she’s going to have to wear next time to make lucky nuber seven the one. Take last year for example: if you had put money on Troy Kotsur winning Best Supporting Actor for CODA a year prior you’re likely reading this from your private, though modest, yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean. Personally I remember seeing Kotsur’s performance thinking “that was the best acting I’ll see all year but there’s no way he’ll get the acknowledgement he deserves” but fast forward six months and I was cheering louder than anyone.

Watching these people win are often the highlight of the broadcast. Take Youn Yuh-jung being handed her Oscar for Minari by Brad Pitt:

The other cool thing about this storyline is sometimes it launches their careers to new heights (see Lupita Nyong’o, Marion Cotillard, and Christoph Waltz) and sometimes we barely ever see them again (Jean Dujardin and Alicia Vikander).

Sidebar about Vikander real quick: what a strange career she’s had. She started off in Europe, got her English-speaking breakthrough with Anna Karenina in 2012, crushed it in Ex Machina and The Danish Girl in 2014, won an Oscar for the latter at age 27, appeared in a series of high profile action movies (The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Jason Bourne, and a failed Tomb Raider reboot), and then POOF! She’s been acting since but her most high profile project post Tomb Raider failure was the critically overrated The Green Knight. It’s just bizarre to see a young actress burst on the scene like that and fizzle out so quickly.

Anywho, this is obviously a tough category to predict as we often don’t know its happening until after the nominations come out. However if anyone could crash the party this year its Thuso Mbedu for The Woman King, who I was shocked to find out is 31 and not a teenager.

So that just about does it. I’ll be diving much more into the Oscars in the coming months but this is just a sneak peak of how nerdy I can get over this stuff. Give me a follow @thatguysull for more takes and rambling.

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