The race is on. The polls are in. We have a frontrunner in trouble. A muscular challenger making hay. Gaffes. Melt-downs. Campaign coffers swollen with cash.
The only question is: can the voters learn to love a sandcastle humper? I refer, of course, to the race for the Academy Award for best actor. You didn't know it was already underway? Where have you been? You've got better elections to be obsessing over?
While everyone's attention was diverted by the small matter of who gets to lead the free world, Hollywood has begun the five-month-long jamboree that now constitutes the run-up to the Academy Awards.
Here's what you need to know: everyone has decided Jennifer Lawrence is going to win best actress. Joaquin Phoenix was the front-runner for best actor until a few weeks ago, when he called the Oscars "bullshit".
Such is the received wisdom of the Oscarologists, that strange mole-like race of people who live underground for most of the year, emerge blinking out of the ground in early September to attend film festivals, pore over trailers and teasers, sift the soil through their fingers, sniff the air and type things like "I smell trouble" on their blogs. Here is how the race for best picture looks to them[click for graph], as of last week.
The keen-eyed amongst you will notice two things: 1) Silver Linings Playbook's spell as frontrunner bore a suspicious resemblance to "the length of time it was playing at film festivals" snd 2) Argo's turn in the spotlight bears a suspicious resemblance to "the number of weeks it has been in general release."
Those of you who object on the grounds that Silver Linings Playbook hasn't been released yet, and furthermore you have zero idea what it even is, need to toughen up. Awards season is not for pussies. By the end of it, we'll have you calling next year's race, blind, on the basis of which agent got the biggest shout-out at this year's ceremony.
The tracks of the best actor race are roughly set. This year it looks like a three way race between Joaquin Phoenix, Denzel Washington and Daniel Day-Lewis. Thus far, Phoenix has been dominating the conversation with his electrifying jumble of method voodoo and chemically-induced jibber-jabber in The Master, although he damaged his chances considerably by giving an interview in which he called the Oscars "bullshit. I think it's total, utter bullshit, and I don't want to be a part of it. I don't believe in it."
Actors have gotten away with this sort of thing in the past — Dustin Hoffman called the Academy Awards "a beauty contest" while George C Scott, nominated in 1970 for Patton, called the ceremonies "a two-hour meat parade" but that was then. Such comments don't go sit well in the world of $15m Oscar campaigns.
And the performance? Phoenix's portrait of a man in a state of acute spiritual undress is right up the Academy's street. They certainly like their meat gamey: see Halle Berry's win in 2000 for Monster's Ball, or Natalie Portman's 2010 win for Black Swan. Although it's also a curiously opaque, depthless performance, raising more questions about the intentions of the director Paul Thomas Anderson than it does Phoenix's character. As Richard Brody put it, "It's not a work of psychological realism," one reason, perhaps, why the film has failed to catch on the box office. Is it too nuts even for the Academy? As one of the commentators at Hollywood Elsewhere put it, referring to a scene in which Phoenix makes out with a beach, "Oscar doesn't generally go for sandcastle humping."
This could well turn out to be the question of the season.
Well, do they or don't they? Phoenix's main competition couldn't be more dignified or draped in gravitas — and twice decorated already. Given his track record at bringing American period to life, I wasn't sure Daniel Day-Lewis was going to find much fresh turf in Spielberg's Lincoln – between his Hawkeye, Bill the Butcher and Daniel Plainview, haven't we already seen his Abraham Lincoln? – but Day-Lewis tacks in the complete opposite direction to come up with a soft miracle: stoop-shouldered, spindly of frame, his Abe Lincoln is slightly weary, sagacious soul, but ramrod straight, driving the entire two-hour-and-twnety-minutes of Spielberg's epic as surely as an ox.
Ordinarily I would say: no contest. One of our greatest screen actors, playing one of America's greatest presidents. No humped sandcastles, just nations rebuilt with blood, sweat and oratory. Call it a night and go home early. The only question hanging over the performance is whether the Academy are quite ready to usher Day-Lewis into the hallowed company of three-time winners that include the likes of Hepburn, Streep and Nicholson. Put it like that, and the prospect seems irresistible. The Academy are whores for "greatness" and love to make their own history. Or would they prefer to bestow that honor on Denzel Washington?
He's landed one of the meatiest roles of his career in Robert Zemeckis's Flight (released last week), playing Whip Whitaker, the substance-abusing pilot who lands a malfunctioning plane while high as a kite.
It's by far the best star performance of the year, which is not to downplay it. As David Edelstein said of Washington:
He's not an actor who opens himself up – you never quite feel you know him, underneath. But that's why his onscreen explorations of control and its opposite feel so right, so true to who he is as a performer and a man. When you watch Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, you see the Method at its most perilous and wobbly: you see an actor who has lost control as an actor and with it the ability to shape his performance. Phoenix is vivid but he's all over the place: if he played Whip, he'd be dissolving in the first shot, randomly zigging and zagging in the ether. But Washington takes Whip to another level. Despite the script's overfamiliar beats (yes, there are twelve-step meetings), he anatomizes Whip's existential seesaw. He breaks Whip's – and his own – cool into pieces, the good and the bad, the supremely potent and pathetically impotent. This is a titanic performance.
My own feeling is that it's too good for the Oscars. Like Brad Pitt's performance in Moneyball last year, Washington's work in Flight has the kind of sanded ergonomic beauty that sails right past the grimacing and gurning required by the Academy to reassure them they are in the presence of "great acting."
Washington's major impact on this year's race could be to draw enough votes away from Day-Lewis to allow Phoenix to slip through - but right now, it feels like Day-Lewis's to lose.
From now until 24 February this column will examine all the major categories in the Oscar race (best picture, best director, actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress) factoring in all the elements – talent, history, buzz, 'narrative', the arrangement of the tea leaves in Harvey Weinstein's morning cup of tea – that make for an Oscar win. Next:— best picture.
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