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Naked Gold Man: The "Breakthrough" Business

This week, let's talk beginnings and breakthroughs.

The annual Hollywood Awards, which announced their awards and nominees on Friday (previously noted), aren't typically considered part of the Oscar race. Unofficially-officially the National Board of Review's early December announcement is still the kick-off though the Gotham Awards (late November) have been rising as an alternative "first stop" in power. Still, the Hollywood Awards are glance at in order to see which publicity teams are working overtime to gather kindling for awards fire. Of particular interest, I think, is the plethora of "breakthrough" awards that they hand out. Breakthrough Awards are nearly always more PR driven than other categories by their very nature regardless of worthiness of whoever is honored. That's not a judgement but a neutral statement.

If breakthrough awards didn't exist, it would be much harder for young talents to be competitive in an awards race. They don't come into any contest with the advantages of pre-sold media interest, critical reputation, or habitual preferencing. The only advantage newbies have each year is nascent; people of all shapes, sizes, and ages (including Oscar voters) like receiving shiny new toys to play with at Christmas. Make of this what you will but this lone advantage is quite potent for actresses and often inconsequential for actors.  

But you made me feel...
Yeah you made me feel shiny and new
Like a virgin 

If you stop to think about it from a publicity perspective, Breakthrough Awards are very much like those old Vanity Fair Hollywood covers. Yes, there were probably teams of editors or creative directors selecting the 9 to 13 cover beauties, but those same beauties were essentially culled from whichever young "up and coming" stars had management teams that were able to bend Conde Nast's ears in the first place.

Vanity Fair's 2010 "Dolls". Five of them are in awards-hopeful films this year: Carey Mulligan (SHAME), Mia Wasikowska (ALBERT NOBBS & JANE EYRE), Emma Stone (THE HELP), Anna Kendrick (50/50) and Evan Rachel Wood (THE IDES OF MARCH)

The Hollywood Awards are but the first organization of many to come to name their favorite shiny new toys of 2011. They offer up not one, not two, not three, not four but FIVE (whew) for us to play with. CONSIDER...


Breakthrough Actor Award: JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT - 50/50
Breakthrough Actress Award: JESSICA CHASTAIN - The Tree of Life; The Help; Take Shelter; Coriolanus
New Hollywood Award: FELICITY JONES -  Like Crazy
Spotlight Award: SHAILENE WOODLEY - The Descendants
Breakthrough Director Award: MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS - The Artist 

Though I was joking last week about 16-years-famous Joseph Gordon-Levitt "breaking through", he's actually a perfect example of the gender divide about what constitutes "new and exciting!". Women can and do win big industry prizes their first year or two in the biz, but men nearly always have to prove themselves for a few (to several) years before they're crowned as The Next Big Thing. You'll see this play out again when Jeremy Irvine rides in on his War Horse. Let's assume people end up loving him in the movie. He'll vault forward in the "must cast" ranks but he won't be THE NEXT BIG ANYTHING until 2015 or so (provided things go well), mark my words. 

Which brings us to the actresses.

Chastain, all glammed up and ready for the red... or in this case beige... carpet

Oscar watchers have been wondering about 'the next big thing' since January when hype began to coalesce around four relatively "new" women (Felicity Jones, Elizabeth Olsen, Jessica Chastain, and Rooney Mara) due to Sundance debuts in the first three cases, and in the latter case, a leading role in a hot property (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) that was filming during last year's Oscar season when David Fincher was presumably just not sleeping, travelling from set to awards functions for The Social Network and back again. Cut to: nine months later and the same four women are still being talked up as potential Oscar nominees.

Only one of them (Chastain) has taken the step from hype (manufacturable) to buzz (a living thing that belongs to the public as much as the publicists) because her work has actually seen the inside of movie theaters. People have seen a lot of it in fact with Take Shelter, The Help, The Debt and The Tree of Life all opening in a four month span (with two more yet to open this year: Coriolanus and Texas Killing Fields) and they've already been moved to hand her prizes. If The Help manages to maintain its Best Picture buzz, you could see her winning a nomination in Supporting Actress, that's more a nod to her Queen of Newcomers prolificness than to her amusing performance as the bombshell town outcast.  

The other newbies are all in Best Actress where they will have to compete with each other for media annointing and with their elders for performance recognition. I don't know about you but I'm getting wildly impatient to see how this three-for-all plays out since it's an interesting case study. Does Oscar go with an all previous nominee lineup (as I've predicted this week) or do they cast out some of the regulars for one or more of these newbies? It's truly difficult to say with Dragon Tattoo as yet unseen, Martha Marcy May Marlene well respected but alienating (purposefully so but that probably won't help it win votes), and Like Crazy as the wild card. From my vantage point the latter two look more like solid Indie Spirit bets than Oscar but there is overlap each year.



The newbie situation in the male acting categories is different because all three of the "brand new!" people (Jeremy Irvine, Thomas Horn, Asa Butterfeld) are very young. As in way too young for Oscar outside of the supporting actor categories. Only trouble is they're all leads.

So for this week's Oscar charts I've goosed them up a bit using this debut & breakthrough theme.

PICTURE Hugo climbs into the top ten pushing J Edgar out. Or so this week's hunch says | DIRECTOR - newbie contenders with the most current heat are France's Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist),  Denmark's Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) and Sweden's Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor). seems likely but can any other freshman squeeze in? | ACTOR -Gary Oldman is still waiting on his first nod. Will he have to go on waiting in this very competitive category? |  ACTRESS  -Mara vs. Olsen vs. Jones vs. dark horse Dunst for the first-timers.
SUPP ACTOR -The heat this year is with previous nominees but some newbies in the mix are Jonah Hill (Moneyball), Patton Oswalt (Young Adult), and Armie Hammer (J. Edgar) |  SUPP ACTRESS - This seems like the acting category most likely to have a heavy percentage of first timers. | FOREIGN FILM - New Zealand submitted for the very first time this year (!), Albania had to switch their entry and we are now up to a 61 wide official list. More details to come. | SCREENPLAY | VISUAL CATEGORIES | AURAL CATEGORIES 

Finally, I leave you with John Hawke's singing "Marcy's Song" from Martha Marcy May Marlene. He was part of the freshman class last year. When he started singing in Martha Marcy May Marlene I had fantasies that his afterglow nomination could be for songwriting but, alas, the song is not an original. 


  • Which people looking for their first Oscar grab, will have their baptism of fire? 
  • Which will have to keep dreaming? 
  • How are you feeling about all the freshmen this year?


You know what to do in the comments!


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Reader Comments (23)

Nathaniel what about another title that permiered at sundance the film "Pariah" what I heard is the lead actress give a breakout performance Adepero Oduye

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLester

In the Land of Blood and Honey. But I wont tell you anything LOL

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterI Saw It

i voted Mara because i don't understand how she yet can be an Academy member with her filmography
PS:i really hope Robert Englund is an Academy member

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercaro

Well, if Rooney Mara doesn't make it in with the first film, at least she has two more chances outside of Dragon Tattoo. Not sure which novel has the baitiest storyline for Lisbeth Salander.

I haven't seen MMMM, so I have to go on my psychic powers...I think Olsen has the best shot at a first time nom.

Unfortunately, JGL has to keep dreaming for now...his time will come.

I haven't seen any of Jessica Chastain's performances...is she brilliant, good and servicable, or totally overrated?

Hoping the actress category is very dark and indie this year...Kiki, Tilda, Olivia Colman, and Olsen. Meryl, Glenn, Viola, or Charlize for the last spot.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSoSueMe

It'd be fascinating if the Best Actress race ended up being dominated by the "IT Girls" and with just one spot open for a vet like Glenn or Meryl. Those young girls are really working the circuit hard.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I've been bothered by the "Jeremy Irvine as lead" thing. I thought the book was from the horse's point of view (like Black Beauty), and when I read the play, Irvine's character came off as the most important supporting character, but not at all the lead. Like Babe, the animal is the lead, with all the humans supporting. Unless they're taking a different approach (which they don't seem to be), campaigning Irvine as supporting isn't fraud at all.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWalter

My prayer is that Chastain is the heir to Streep's thrown. I thought it was Blanchett but she's getting old even to me. The Olsen sister is Paltrow 2.0 waiting to happen. The other two starlets I have no real interest in but I know Fincher's girl gives me hope that he'll direct some more female driven pictures in the future. Alien 3 and Panic Room are his only female led pictures and they don't represent the best of him. Although I personally love Alien 3 and hate Panic Room.

Nathan, out of all the veteran actresses up for supporting (Redgrave, Dench, wishful thinking Anjel, etc) who do you think has the best chance of upsetting Chastain or Spencer in the win-able department?

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Walter -- hmmm noted. you may have a point. i guess we'll see when the film arrives.

Bia --- they are working it hard, you're right. i'm still waiting for one of them to really pull ahead of the others though. (maybe that's Olsen... but the film, though terrific, isn't very Oscary)

SoSueMe -- on chastain opinions vary. I loved her in Tree of Life though I don't think it's a difficult performance per se (Pitt & McCracken were best-in-show) but she's really fun in The Help and very very different in Take Shelter so at least she's got range. (i haven't seen THE DEBT)

October 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel . You dont have faith in ITLOBAH (Jolie movie) why?

Sorry, but I have to say my name is I saw it. I cant talk about it. I signed a paper ;)

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterI Saw It

Of all the newbies, I'm rooting for Jessica Chastain. I liked her performance in The Help best (the perfect floozy!), and she was also great in Take Shelter, Tree of Life, and Jolene (I'm couting it as 2011, since it's direct to dvd), and just about the only reason to see The Debt. If that roster doesn't earn her a nomination, she may as well quit.

I'd be really happy to see Martha Marcy break into the Best Actress group... I can see that as I 'lone nominee' film... (really liked her in Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding too!)

Also, someone mentioned Pariah? I saw it at TIFF, and while Adepero Oduye is great, I don't see much in terms awards besides an Spirit nod (which should go to Olsen...)

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPat

Patton Oswald as an Oscar nominee? Yes, please. If the performance is good enough, yes, that would be just fine. Then again, I thought it was absurd that he got so little traction for Big Fan so what do I know?

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Of the newbies listed, I think that Thomas Horn and Elizabeth Olsen will both score leading nominations, even though I'm really shaky on the former since that could very well fall into Hailee Steinfeld territory. After all, Scott Rudin's behind that one like he was with True Grit. Even if that's the case, he'll probably make the Supporting race.

I'm almost convinced that Jessica Chastain will get in Supporting for The Help. I've got her at number six right now, but if I throw her into the mix, I'll have to omit Vanessa Redgrave from my top five!

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulian Stark

I agree that Elizabeth has a Gwyneth-y vibe to her, and she has a new interview every other day. I had to laugh at the one in the LA Times today--she was rather passive aggressive toward her sisters. You can tell she has no respect for their acting work in those straight-to-video classics.

Rooney Mara seems like the surest bet of the newbies, plus she has the most money behind her and a Vogue cover is on the way.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBia

oo I've had Helen McCrory on my long list for awhile (: A still was released of her awhile back from 'Hugo' and she looked really good. Glad to see you thought it was worthy for traction! I'm Felicity Jones all the way. Please no Rooney or Elizabeth. Felicity is a REAL actress with no Industry Connections like the other too (Rooney comes from a VERY wealthy family. Plus I hate her name. Should have stuck with 'Patricia' :P I think Evan Rachel Wood should be higher - if you sniff around alot of people think she has a shot - Gold Derby did a whole peace on her saying she almost has it in the bag and she's been doing the Press thing all year (New Hair/Mildred Pierce/Singing/Crazy Outfits/Tooth Knocked out etc Sad you took out Elizabeth Reaser for Young Adult - I'm looking forward to her in that.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLola

I think Kirsten Dunst and Joseph Gordon Levitt should be in a broadway play together called “How To Succeed In Business Without Getting An Oscar Nomination” and maybe Gary Oldman should be in it too. It’ll be fun.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMikhael

I think (and hope) Elizabeth Olsen will get in. I think the 'sister no one knew about, living in the twin's shadows' thing will work to her advantage.

And I'm still praying nightly that KiKi gets in. I think she still has a chance. (optimism at its finest lol)

Jessica Chastain is spectacular in The Help, I think! I'd love for her to get in. :)
I also hope Evan Rachel Wood gets in...I know I'm a broken record, but seriously, the academy needs to make up for her Thirteen snub. I also think you're underestimating her chances!

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

*I think Mildred Pierce/emmy nom will also help her a lot.

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

I like the idea they included Andrea Riseborough among thei spotlight award recipients. If only for the haters, I love that Madonna's directorial efforts win something

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

I do think Rooney Mara will get in. This Sundance Rage of Mulligans & Sidibes & Lawrences is not normal. The yong first-time nominee usually comes from studio (or British) movies, like Knightley, Roberts and Page. But most of time there is not a little girl slot. Their place is the supporting race.

So, I'd go with Mara in a shaky 5th place.

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

We need to talk about Tilda.

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

I think Elizabeth Olsen will get in. She has the story (Olsen sister), seems comfortable doing press and is in a critical hit the like of Winter's Bone and Frozen River, which the Academy haven't ignored this las couple of years.

Mara would get enough attention and box office that she won't necessarily need the nomination. It's a dark genre film and the Oscars may not go for it, even though it's Fincher.

And Jones, though she's my favourite, seems to be in a film that's too light in comparison. And I think Like Crazy should be released as soon as possible, they're not doing the film's potential success any good with all this waiting.

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

I don't think Gordon-Levitt had a breakthrough, not at all. Seriously, even Brick and Mysterious Skin had more impact than 50/50, not even talking about 500 Days and Inception.

I think male actor breakthrough of this year is no doubt Michael Fassbender. We knew he was great, but this year he really, well... broke through into Hollywood.

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPawel Mizgalewicz

Rooney Mara seems to have a better shot than Liz Olsen, but Felicity Jones simply rocked it on Like Crazy!

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGina @ Postcard Printing
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