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Oscar Contenders Have Voters Seeing Triple

What do Tracy Letts, Michael Stuhlbarg, Caleb Landry Jones and Timothée Chalamet have in common besides being talented actors?

They all have scored a trifecta of sorts by appearing in the casts of three films this year that were sent as “For Your Consideration” DVD screeners to various voting groups, especially those who fill out Oscar ballots, that might come into play during awards season. Such added exposure can only improve their chances of gaining a berth in the acting categories.  

The best bet for Tracy Letts awards-wise is as the depressed laid-back dad to Saoirse Ronan’s high-spirited teen in “Lady Bird," which ended 2017 as the year’s top-grosser in limited release with $30 million-plus. Letts, who is also a notable playwright ("August: Osage County”), is a standout as well in “The Post” as Fritz Beebe, a lawyer and chairman of the Washington Post Company who was against publishing the Pentagon Papers for business reasons. While “The Lovers,” a well-received May release with Letts collecting plaudits for his philandering middle-ager who cheats on his mistress with his own wife (Debra Winger), hasn’t made much of a year-end ripple, it was an early-to-arrive screener.

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Red-haired Caleb Landry Jones also held his own in a trio of titles: As the creepy brother in “Get Out”; motel manager Willem Dafoe’s helper son in “The Florida Project”; and as the businessman who kindly rents out the roadside ad space to Frances McDormand’s grieving mother in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”  

When it comes to sheer screen time, Michael Stuhlbarg gets the biggest boost from his threesome. He is memorable as Abe Rosenthal, managing editor for The New York Times, who first decides to print the top-secret Pentagon Papers in “The Post.” He has a meatier part in “The Shape of Water” as a compassionate undercover Russian scientist who helps save the day. But the role that is likely to seal the deal on a supporting Oscar nod is as the understanding father of a 17-year-old (Chalamet), who delivers an insightful speech filled with soothing wisdom after his son’s summer fling with a male grad student (Armie Hammer), comes to an end in “Call Me by Your Name.” Given how Oscar voters are often suckers for a show-stopping speech, Stuhlbarg is the likeliest candidate to provide a hurdle for Willem Dafoe, whose work in “The Florida Project” is expected to bring him an Academy Award that is long overdue and would honor his nearly four-decade career as well.

Meanwhile, 22-year-old whippersnapper Timothée Chalamet has been poised as a shoo-in to make the cut as a lead nominee. Helping matters and underlining his versatility are his roles as Ronan’s caddish high-school suitor in “Lady Bird” and as an Army private in the Western drama “Hostiles.” Of course, he will probably have to face off with Gary Oldman, who is favored for now to earn his first statuette for his inspired work as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” If Chalamet does manage to triumph, he would also erase Adrien Brody’s status as the youngest actor to win a lead Oscar after he claimed the prize at age 29 for 2002’s “The Pianist.”    

Yes, the quality of each of their performances should be what counts. But it can’t hurt to pop up in multiple films as voters in various groups played catch-up with 2017 releases over the year-end holidays. Even doubling up on titles can provide a bonus, especially if one of the films is a high-profile blockbuster, according to Tom O’Neil, founder and overseer of the Gold Derby awards site.

Richard Dreyfuss pulled off one the biggest upsets in history when he won best actor for 1977’s ‘The Goodbye Girl,’ crushing favorite Richard Burton’s chances to take the trophy for "Equus,'" O’Neil notes. “It was his seventh try without a win and he ended up going to his grave in 1984 tied at the time with Peter O’Toole as Oscar’s biggest acting loser.” The reason Dreyfuss triumphed was due in large part to his lead as the alien-obsessed Everyman in one the biggest hits of that same year, Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

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Other Oscar acting champs also have won for more intimate films while making a splash in a commercial effort in the same year. “Jim Broadbent had a rather passive role as a supportive husband in 2001’s ‘Iris,’ which brought him a supporting Oscar,” O’Neil notes. “But he got extra points for his showy turn as the cabaret owner who sings Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ in "Moulin Rouge.'"

In 2012, Jennifer Lawrence won the Oscar for Best Actress as a young widow in the romantic comedy “Silver Linings Playbook.” But that same year, she solidified her status both as a star and a box-office attraction as Katniss Everdeen in the first for four films based on YA book series “The Hunger Games.” 

“Oscar voters were impressed by the emotional range of both performances,” O’Neil says, “and the fact that she successfully carried an indie and a megahit.”

Other actors doubling up this year with efforts both high-profile and low-budget include Lois Smith (“Lady Bird,” “Marjorie Prime”), Woody Harrelson (“War for the Planet of the Apes,” “Three Billboards”) and Bradley Whitford (“The Post,” “Get Out”). Meanwhile, Lucas Hedges’ 2016 supporting nomination for “Manchester by the Sea” paid off with worthy roles in both “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards.”

But there is one likely contender who pulled off a real coup: Two coveted leads in one year that complement each other but in diverse genres. Sally Hawkins, the 41-year-old British actress who was previously nominated as Cate Blanchett’s supportive sister in 2013’s "Blue Jasmine," shines as a mute laboratory cleaning lady who falls for a fish man in the romantic fantasy “The Shape of Water” [pictured above]. She also shone in “Maudie,” a June biopic about Maud Lewis, a Canadian folk artist who didn’t let her debilitating arthritis keep her from painting or falling for Ethan Hawke’s cranky fish peddler. 

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As O’Neil points out, “We know that Oscar voters probably saw ‘Maudie’ because its summer release allowed it to be one of the earliest screeners sent to voters last year.” In fact, James Ivory—the 89-year-old producer and screenwriter of “Call Me by Your Name” and a voting Academy member—told me in the fall that “Maudie” was one of his favorites that he saw in 2017.  

The first test for how Hawkins might fare will arrive this weekend when the Golden Globes ceremony airs this Sunday. We will see if “The Shape of Water”—the most nominated film of the evening with seven possibilities to claim a prize—pays off for its leading lady in the drama category. It will mark the first time Hawkins will face off with her most formidable foe. That would be McDormand in “Three Billboards,” who hasn’t had a lead role with such impressive emotional range since she won her first and only Oscar for her pregnant sheriff in “Fargo” nearly 20 years ago.      

However, Hawkins has another secret weapon in her awards season arsenal. She returns as the mother of the storybook bear’s adoptive human clan in the family-friendly film “Paddington 2.” While the sequel to the 2014 hit has already raked in nearly $100 million overseas, it doesn’t open until January 12 in the States—the very date of when Oscar nominating ballots are due. Still, if it does well with American audiences before nominations are announced on January 23 and final ballots are due on February 27, it may serve as just one more reminder of Hawkins’ considerable gifts.

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