The Academy Award acting nominees continued to make news this week, whether or not they wanted to. Without lifting a finger, Jessica Chastain scored a coup at the box office by starring in the No. 1 and No. 2 movies over the weekend: the brand new horror film "Mama" and holdover "Zero Dark Thirty," for which her Best Actress nomination is now the film's most likely prize. Entertainment Weekly made the absurd suggestion that the box office triumph could backfire, that "Mama" could be her "Norbit" (a reference to the embarrassing Eddie Murphy comedy whose Oscar-season release seemed to kill his chances at a Best Supporting Actor prize for "Dreamgirls" five years ago), but the so-so reviews for "Mama" aren't anything like the sense of offended outrage over "Norbit." The one-two punch can only help Chastain's profile, and nobody has anything bad to say about her.

Except maybe Jennifer Lawrence. Hosting "Saturday Night Live" over the weekend, the "Silver Linings Playbook" Best Actress nominee poked fun at her own Golden Globes acceptance speech (where she quoted Bette Midler's "First Wives Club" line, "I beat Meryl") by trash-talking her Oscar rivals. Normally, the Academy and its members frown on negative campaigning; let's hope they know Lawrence was kidding.

Best Actor nominee Joaquin Phoenix did the opposite: trashed himself while endorsing one of his rivals. The occasion was his acceptance speech for his Best Actor prize for "The Master" at the London Critics' Circle awards this week. He sent a statement that began, "I struggle with the idea of winning awards for acting," went on to share the credit with everyone else who worked on "The Master," and concluded with, "P.S. There's an up-and-coming actor named Daniel who's in a movie called 'Lincoln.' You should check it out." Now, Phoenix has been talking for months about his disdain for acting prizes, so it'll be no wonder if Academy members start taking him seriously. Of course, they're also still more likely to vote for that Daniel fellow anyway, but Phoenix's Day-Lewis endorsement may keep anyone from feeling conflicted about it.

Meanwhile, there's been a lot of second-guessing about "Argo" and its Oscar chances. Pundits are still trying to figure out how the movie earned nods for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actor but not Best Director. The words "Driving Miss Daisy" have been invoked (the 1989 film was the last movie to win Best Picture without even scoring a Best Director nomination), with the suggestion that the movie may have enough support among the Academy's technical branches to overcome the Ben Affleck snub. Still, how did Affleck, like "ZDT" helmer Kathryn Bigelow, fail to get the directing nod everyone expected?

One scenario (suggested by Coming Soon's Edward Douglas, among others) is the "Home Alone" theory. In this analogy, Affleck and Bigelow are Macaulay Culkin and the Academy voters are the rest of his family. Everyone assumed someone was taking care of those two frontrunners and so felt free to turn their attention to their own personal favorites. But not enough voters actually did see to it that Affleck and Bigelow earned votes, so that allowed such longshots as Michael Haneke ("Amour") and Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") to take their slots.

Of course, that argument doesn't explain why it was Affleck and Bigelow -- and not Steven Spielberg ("Lincoln"), Ang Lee ("Life of Pi"), and David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook") -- who were snubbed. Maybe the support of the crew members and tech staffers made the difference.

This week, for instance saw the nominations for the Motion Picture Sound Editors' Golden Reel Awards. The sound editors picked the same honorees as the Academy: "Argo," "Django Unchained," "Life of Pi" and "Skyfall," but left off Oscar nominee "ZDT." That could be a sign that overall Academy support for "ZDT" is soft.

Among the Costume Design Guild nominees announced this week were all five of the Oscar nominees for Best Costume: "Anna Karenina," "Lincoln," "Les Miserables," "Mirror Mirror" and "Snow White and the Huntsman." But the Costume Guild has 15 nominees in all (five each for Period, Fantasy and Contemporary Costumes), so it also nominated such Oscar hopefuls as "Argo," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty." So the Academy's members who design costumes are also likely to vote for these movies in the non-costume Oscar categories.

One change this year for rank-and-file Oscar voters was the institution of online voting. There were fears that the new system would stymie Academy members who are older and less computer-savvy, but the Academy announced on Tuesday that that wasn't the case. "Despite some challenges, more members voted for this year's nominations than they have in the past several years," said Academy Chief Operating Officer Ric Robertson in a statement. "We are looking forward to a continuation of that trend in the final voting."

So with more members voting, it's going to be harder for any one movie (or even any two movies) to dominate. What once looked like a two-picture race between "Lincoln" and "ZDT" has now opened wide. At least until the Screen Actors Guild prizes (to be handed out this Sunday, Jan. 27) and the other Guild awards are handed out over the coming weeks, it's still anybody's race. Which means contenders like Chastain, Lawrence and Phoenix may want to be careful what they say and do. Everyone's watching.
categories Movies