Thursday, November 15, 2012

Can Winstead Use "Smashed" for an Acting Nomination?

Left to right: Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul
One of the toughest categories that I have had to gauge this year involves the female acting fields. While we're starting to see a handful solidify, it has been shakier than the male counterpoint, which almost seemed to be concrete since Joaquin Phoenix impressed us with The Master. With the fields starting to tighten, there is a long shot that Mary Elizabeth Winstead can earn her first nomination for James Ponsoldt's Smashed, a tale of overcoming alcoholism. Is the film capable of competing with the big names, or is the no name production holding it back?

Anyone who has seen Smashed will agree, Winstead is phenomenal as Kate, who manages to go from robbing liquor stores to getting her life back in order. The movie itself is a very simple tale and woven together in a brisk 85 minutes. There isn't any flack on this production and it is very much Winstead's show. There are few scenes this year that will be as troublesome as her telling a group of first grade students that she had a miscarriage. The character is just so tragic, and by Winstead's desire not to be overly sympathetic manages to sell the film.

The problem with the film is not that it is bad. In fact, it is phenomenally uncomfortable in portraying the rehab process. It is the approach that leaves this film in a small class of beauty in the dysfunction. It doesn't tell you how to feel, and instead just tells you the story. Also, the supporting characters, which includes Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul are all fine and they have their moments, but Winstead's eagerness overshadows everything else. The quality is great, but it is easy to perceive this as being more of a performance piece than a movie.

When looking at the competition, it is really hard to see any of these films holding as much emotional tension as these few clips did: 

Sure, Winstead hasn't yet gained the acclaim that a Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren would possess, but she is still budding for a nomination. I feel like Smashed will be that film mentioned in years to come of an actress who was sadly not even considered. Of course, this all depends on if her career takes a brighter path or goes down the road with movies like A Good Day to Die Hard. Either way, it is probably the understated momentum in this film that keeps it from reigning higher.

This may also be the case for Michelle Williams' Take This Waltz, which was equally compelling and dramatic. However, that film served itself more as an dramatic art film than a straight up narrative. It also wasn't driven entirely by a singular standout performance. Also, Williams' problems were not that emotionally complex in terms of the Academy's way of thinking. After all, Nicolas Cage won a Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and so did Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart where they played drunks. Of course those roles were a little bit flashier and had momentum compared to Smashed.

However, this hearkens back to my belief that complicated dramas are on the out with the Academy. A few years ago, Williams got nominated for Best Actress for Blue Valentine: a story about a dysfunctional marriage that ended up in a blaze of sadness. While the nomination was proof that they still reward acting, it was co-star Ryan Gosling's tragic fallen hero that got snubbed. He suffered from addiction similar to Winstead and was equally as moving, if not more. The one advantage was that he got nominated before for Best Actor for Half Nelson, which almost seems to parallel Winstead in Smashed

Recent acting nominations more reflect dysfunctional behaviors based on family relationships (George Clooney for The Descendants, James Franco in 127 Hours) and not personal addiction. Things can easily change, as Jeff Bridges' Crazy Heart win was only three years ago. The problem with that is that it in many ways feels like a pity Oscar. While his performance is great, it felt like he won it because he hadn't won before. In a sense, this is a flawed way that the Oscars give out awards and doesn't leave open room for the younger contestants (though Mo'Nique winning for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire will prove exception). 

Left to right: Winstead and Octavia Spencer
Back to Smashed. I believe that Winstead is doomed because not only is she the young person who hasn't gained much traction outside of big budget films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but because her performance is problematic. It has many complexities and the story is driven mostly on her stumbling around trying to put her life in order. Even the end feels somewhat anticlimactic to the average viewer. Still, it is heartbreaking and manages to be what Oscar nominations should be without being overeager about it.

What is her competition? Currently on statistics website Gold Derby, she is listed at #18 with odds of 100:1. That is pretty high until you realize that the eight spots above her all have the same odds and feature Meryl Streep for Hope Springs and Judi Dench for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which should not even be considered). The top competition will be harder to beat, as the attention has been heavily placed on them: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook tops the list with odds of 17:10, followed by Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone with odds of 5:1, Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild  with odds of 6:1, Keira Knightley for Anna Karenina with odds of 9:1, and Jessica Chastain with odds of Zero Dark Thirty with odds of 10:1. This makes up the top five, and may most likely stay that way.

It is possible that Winstead will stand a chance on more niche awards circuits. However, as the list proves, the Academy is not into handing out awards for addiction movies anymore. The subject matter still can be dark, but it seems like there needs to be a happy ending. Of course, Jennifer Lawrence (who beats Winstead on Gold Derby's statistics twice. She also is at #13 for The Hunger Games with odds of 100:1) may be playing dysfunctional and working for former nominee David O. Russell (The Fighter), which already seems flashier and takes away Smashed's energy on the basis that it would seem monotonous to nominate multiple films with similar themes. Since Silver Linings Playbook already seems to be an established front runner, Smashed stands little chance of distinguishing itself from Russell's film.

There is a wild chance that the film could pull a surprise victory. However, it is a small film with not too many flashy elements. Less people are aware of its existence. As brilliant as Winstead is in this movie, it probably won't happen. This may pave the way for a future nomination, but it is still heartbreaking to see complicated indie dramas not get as much love as the uplifting tales that lead the pack. Of course, that is how it usually is, and probably will be. Future alcoholic projects may find trouble getting nominated, and that is something to sympathize with.

Can Smashed pull a surprise nomination? Is this the start of Oscar potential for Mary Elizabeth Winstead? Did Aaron Paul even stand a chance? Is addiction and the Oscars a fad of the past?

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your perspective and very much agree! Also I would like to remind you that this was written by a team of forgot Susan Burke.