It happens nearly every year. If it’s Oscar season, you can pretty much bet an awards favorite or two will do something not-very-Oscar-y on our movie or TV screens, materializing in some pulpy/weird/mediocre piece of entertainment (usually because of something they signed up for before they realized they’d spend their winter nights amid the tux-and-champagne crowd).
Last year Lupita Nyong'o had the die land on her when — as the supporting actress frontrunner generating all sorts of buzz for her turn in “12 Years a Slave" — she popped up for some flight-attendant foolery in Liam Neeson’s “Taken”-in-the-sky “Non-Stop.” And let’s not forget the year Sandra Bullock was making her run to the podium for “The Blind Side” about the time “All About Steve” was winning us over with its virtuosic writing and emotional fireworks.
These moments of parallel cringiness don’t necessarily spoil an Oscar bid — Nyong'o and Bullock went on to win awards just the same — but it can create some awkward and tense moments.
The inglorious precedent, of course, was set by ”Norbit,” whose Razzie badness began to hit pretty much at the moment Eddie Murphy’s bid for an Oscar in “Dreamgirls” was taking shape back in 2007. In that case the appearance did affect him — Alan Arkin took the prize for his role in “Little Miss Sunshine” — proving that, as in hockey shootouts, timing is everything (and also proving the viability of getting “Norbited” as a verb).
This year, three actors with big Oscar hopes can be seen on screen doing not-so-awardy things. In a strange turn, the two frontrunners (and Screen Actors Guild winners) for lead actor and actress are each playing campy villains in movies that open this weekend.
Let’s run them down:
Eddie Redmayne. You have to feel a little bad for Redmayne, star of this season's "The Theory of Everything." Up-and-coming actor, starts getting the Hollywood calls. Hears summer tent pole, a title like “Jupiter Ascending” and the Wachoswkis, thinks "well, this should be good." Then the movie gets made, and it turns out to be the kind of poorly reviewed mythology mumbo jumbo that gives agents night sweats. To top off the indignity, the film is pushed from summer to February — smack into the middle of Oscar balloting.
Does he survive? There’s not really any way to call what Redmayne does in the movie good — some raspy-voiced British villain, with a button on the neck of his neck, bellowing things like “I create life and I can destroy it” does not the AFI gatekeepers beckon. At a screening I attended, there was laughter a number of times when he opened his mouth. Still, it’s hard to imagine “Jupiter” being held against him. “Norbit” reminded voters that Murphy had been taking easy paycheck roles for years. Most savvy viewers realize Redmayne, looking for a big break, just happened to take a role that looked juicy; it’s not indicative of a larger career history. Plus there’s this bit of consolation: The amount of overlap between the Oscar voters and those who keep up with the villains in “Jupiter Ascending” is virtually zero.
Julianne Moore. “Did you miss me?” Moore asks, in black-winged glory, as she appears in “Seventh Son.” Well, no, because she crushed it as a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice” and has been collecting so many trophies at award shows that she could practically pay rent at the podium. Just in case we did, though, Moore is here, as an evil sorceress, continues doing evil sorceressy things as Mother Malkin, and opposite the Oscar winner Jeff Bridges no less, for what adds up to the most awards-decorated February genre tripe to come along in a while.
Does she survive? In some ways the “Seventh Son” appearance reminds of her versatility, but also that Moore is the kind of actress who takes on a lot of roles — some good, some involving teen monsters and man-bears. She’s been a working actor in the most concrete sense (she also appears in the Cronenbergian satire of “Maps to the Stars” as a washed-up actress and in the money-minting “Mockingjay." In one of the stranger coincidences, Moore too was even in “Non-Stop” (speaking of, where is Neeson’s Oscar, guys?).
Still, for all this, even a small ding will bounce right off the armor she’s created with her role in “Still Alice.” It is fun to think of what Moore’s Columbia professor in the film would make of sons who are the seventh son of people who are the seventh son.
J.K. Simmons. We are Farmers, and we are Oscar winners? The “Whiplash” star seems destined for the supporting actor podium come Feb. 22 at the Dolby, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t pop up routinely on our TV and computer screens giving straight talk on your insurance policy and the unexpected value of kitty litter.
More top name actors have done commercials in recent years, but it’s still a little jarring to see a man who gives one of the performances of the year — and in which he espouses the values of perfectionism, incidentally — cashing checks for talking about the importance of comprehensive coverage.
Does he survive? The commercials don’t seem entirely out of place, given that Simmons has been a supporting guy for a while, and even “Whiplash” may have turned into something else had Damian Chazelle’s filmmaking not been quite as strong. And Simmons still has a lot of goodwill for his menacing turn in "Oz" back in the day. So he probably still rides to the podium. It would be nice if they had a little more fun with his taskmaster "Whiplash" persona in the commercials, though. The most dangerous words in the English language are good job — and you forgot to lower your deductible?