When the Oscar nominees were announced Thursday morning, neither snubs nor surprises were particularly egregious. Aligning with expectations, “American Hustle” and “Gravity” led the pack with 10 nominations each, followed closely by “12 Years a Slave” with nine nods. As 2013 drew to a close, one great movie after another generated awards buzz, so it’s hard to be too shocked that the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” didn’t get much love from the Academy or that perennial favorite Tom Hanks didn’t secure a nomination.
What was surprising is the scenic routes some nominees have taken on their way to the glitzed-out red carpet at the 86th Annual Academy Awards on March 2. Sure, there’s always Meryl Streep, whose nomination (best actress in “August: Osage County”) is her 18th and who kicked off her career with such masterpieces as “The Deer Hunter” and “Manhattan.” But for every Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, there’s Jared Leto and Jonah Hill.
And, of course, there’s the whiplash turnaround of Matthew McConaughey, star of “Dallas Buyers Club.” When he was filming “Failure to Launch,” one of many romantic comedies on his résumé, could he have guessed that one day he’d be nominated for an Oscar mere days after winning a Golden Globe? (As if he needed to remind us, his acceptance speech started with “all right, all right, all right,” an invocation of his first movie role as a cradle-robber in pink bell bottoms in “Dazed and Confused.”)
Like McConaughey, Leto dropped serious weight for “Dallas Buyers Club,” but his career transformation has been even more striking. Once best known as teen heartthrob Jordan Catalano from ’90s teen TV drama “My So-Called Life,” he’s nominated for playing a transgender AIDS patient, donning high heels and shaving his eyebrows for the role. In the supporting actor category, he’s up against Hill, who was once best known as just another Judd Apatow disciple, bringing aggressive and foul-mouthed humor to “Superbad” and “Knocked Up.”
Still starring in comedies such as the upcoming sequel “22 Jump Street,” Hill hardly fits the bona fide thespian stereotypes; a method-acting Daniel Day-Lewis he is not. And yet this nomination for “The Wolf of Wall Street” is his second after 2011’s “Moneyball.” It’s getting harder to deny his talents.
Even contenders with promising early careers have had their share of setbacks. David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is tied with “Gravity” for most nominations, but the accolades come after a mid-career slump. Late last year, the best director nominee discussed the dark period between his promising early movies, such as “Flirting With Disaster” and “Three Kings,” and his critically acclaimed recent streak of “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter.” That era was beset with scrapped projects thanks to Shakespearean-caliber self-doubt.
“A period began where I was over-self-conscious and over-thinking things too much,” Russell told Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post. “You start down certain paths, you do the same thing as before the bubble burst, [so] I did a project with Vince Vaughn, because I just love his voice. I spent a lot of time working on that only to go Hamlet, so we decided not to make it. Don’t ever go too Hamlet, that’s what I say.”
Those days are behind him. “The Fighter” kicked off his big comeback, and since then he’s repeatedly worked with some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, including Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, who both won Oscars for roles in Russell’s movies, and Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams. All are nominated this year for their roles in “American Hustle.”
Lawrence won the Golden Globe for her supporting role in “American Hustle” and has overshadowed the competition, because of both her talent for playing slightly unhinged characters and her real-life everywoman likability. It’s rare to see a starlet falling down on her way to accept an award, much less photobombing on the red carpet.
But don’t discount June Squibb, who’s also up for the Oscar for a late-career breakout role. At 84, she’s nominated for “Nebraska,” Alexander Payne’s black-and-white tale of an aging alcoholic (Bruce Dern) convinced he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes. Squibb plays his wife, Kate, a sniping martyr with a wicked sense of humor. This memorable turn is her second time working with Payne — she was also in “About Schmidt” — although much of her career has been dominated by television shows, such as “The Young and the Restless” and “Ghost Whisperer,” and bit parts.
The group of nominated newcomers is somewhat small this year. While Brie Larson did fine work in “Short Term 12” and Michael B. Jordan proved his leading man capabilities in “Fruitvale Station,” it’s hard to compete with the likes of Streep and Bale. One notable exception is Barkhad Abdi, nominated for best supporting actor. Abdi starred in “Captain Phillips,” playing a fiercely determined Somali pirate who captures a ship, and the actor held his own opposite Tom Hanks. The part was Abdi’s first after the Minnesota-based limo driver showed up for a casting call.
His newcomer counterpart in the supporting actress category embodies the victim rather than the aggressor. Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave” plays Patsey, one of the film’s most tragic characters as a slave who is both the object of desire of a sadistic plantation owner, played by Michael Fassbender (also nominated), and the target of his equally demented wife (Sarah Paulson). Like Abdi, this is the first feature film role for Nyong’o.
Another new name is Washington area native Joshua Oppenheimer, the director behind the unconventional “The Act of Killing,” which was nominated for best documentary feature. For the movie, Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia where he filmed former members of death squads, men who were sanctioned by the government in the 1960s to kill communists and ethnic Chinese. Far from being punished, the murderers have been lionized and even brazenly re-enacted some of the massacres for the documentary. Oppenheimer watched the announcements Thursday morning, and as the phone calls and e-mails were flowing in, he considered when he knew that his debut movie might take off.
“We felt at the film’s premiere at the Telluride Film Festival that audiences were responding to the film very, very powerfully,” he said a few hours after receiving his nomination. “But I think at each stage of this journey, I’m astonished — I’m unprepared for the recognition or the excitement. I’m surprised every time anyone comes to see it frankly. I don’t think I ever really realized it was going to make the next level of prominence.”
Such humility sounds sweetly genuine from a first-time filmmaker. Much more so than from, say, Blanchett, even though she proved she’s a pro at accepting awards when she was recognized for “Blue Jasmine” at the Golden Globes. But sometimes the unexpected nominees are the most exciting ones. Or maybe we’ve just been brainwashed by Hollywood, which loves to remind moviegoers that the endings are happiest when there are a few disasters along the way.