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Burning Questions: How Much is "Overdue" Worth?

Michael C here to introduce my new column: Burning Questions. Every week I will tackle an issue of pressing importance to film lovers the world over - or I'll just let fly with whatevers on my mind when I sit down at the laptop. Either way, I'm jazzed to get started. First up, the question of the "career honors" Oscar win. 

One of my most vivid memories as a young Oscar viewer is the '97 race when Juliette Binoche beat out Lauren Bacall’s heavily-favored performance in The Mirror Has Two Faces. The press had declared Bacall a mortal lock. Not only was she Hollywood royalty, she was overdue Hollywood royalty. Should've been nominated for To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and a half dozen others, so forget everything else and bet the farm on the former Mrs. Bogart. The unmistakable shock on both her and Juliette’s face when the envelope was opened suggests they had read the same coverage I had. It turns out that when voters were presented with the privacy of their ballots, Bacall's history of snubs proved no match for a strong performance in a popular film.

Yet despite this, every year we still get prognosticators writing about this or that star's overdue status as if it were a simple bank transaction, collect enough overdue points and trade it in for a shiny new trophy. This year the race is crowded such names. From Christopher Plummer with his career stretching back to Sound of Music, to the equally legendary Max Von Sydow, to five-time runner up Glenn Close, Albert Brooks, Nick Nolte, and the still never nominated Gary Oldman. With so much delayed Oscar justice poised to be dealt out it begs the question:

How much is “overdue” status really worth?

Of course, it's impossible to pin down the murky motives of Oscar voters with much certainty since the Academy doesn’t conduct an exit poll (Now there’s a thought). People often attribute Henry Fonda’s win for On Golden Pond to career honors, to name one example, but I think it had more to do with the fact that his was the strongest nominated performance and it was from one of the year’s most popular films. I think it’s safe to assume even if he had he won for Grapes of Wrath way back in the day, his performance in Pond would have gone home with the trophy anyway. 

To be fair, there are more cut and dry examples. One could make a strong case for John Wayne’s and Paul Newman’s Oscars being as much about career achievement as the winning performances. But even if that were true, it still shows the limits of such sentiments. Both triumphed over relatively weak, or in the Duke’s case divided, competition. If Wayne’s True Grit had come out a year later and gone up against George C. Scott’s Patton, all the overdue standing in the world would not have brought him a victory.

On the other hand, the list of superstars who missed in their last stabs at Oscar glory is long indeed. The wildly overdue Richard Burton lost for the seventh and final time to the youngest Best Actor winner ever up to that time, Richard Dreyfuss. Both Judy Garland and Monty Clift received their last career nominations for Judgment at Nuremberg and both were pushed aside to make way for the fresh-faced stars of West Side Story. The urge to hand Fred Astaire his first and only nod at age 75 was good enough to see him nominated for tripe like Towering Inferno, but all that good will went out the window when he went up against the young DeNiro’s take on Vito Corleone.

And let us not forget Peter O'Toole, the patron saint of Oscar also-rans, who set the all-time record for nominations without a win in '06 when he received his eighth Best Actor nod for Venus.  And what did all that accumulated good will buy him? A front row seat to witness the Forest Whitaker juggernaut cruise to victory - on his first nomination, no less.

So for all the importance placed on it I think it’s fair to say “overdue” status is over-valued. It’s a bump. A nudge. A tie-breaker. Did it help Alan Arkin eke out a win over Eddie Murphy? Probably. Will it be good enough for Glenn Close to beat this year’s stiff Best Actress competition if Albert Nobbs' reception remains lukewarm? Doubtful. In the final tally, the greatest benefit of overdue status lies less in garnering votes and more in garnering buzz, bringing attention to performances that are worthy on their own merit. All the career honors chatter is great for winning Beginners viewers, but when the ballots go out better for people to remember how terrific Plummer is this year than to think back on how badly he was snubbed for The Insider.

Any other questions you want me to tackle? Let me know in the comments. You can follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm

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Reader Comments (38)

Terrific read! Can't wait for future episodes.
I agree that people tend to exaggerate the overdue factor very often, but there are quite a few examples to the contrary as well that I think cannot be explained any other way. Cheif among them is Pacino's win, in my opinion.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

Ugh, Don Ameche. There is no other explanation for his win, and he really wasn't that "overdue," he was just plain old. ;-) But anyway, Juliette's win over Lauren Bacall is one of the Academy's finest hours, and LOVE Lauren Bacall.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

I don't think Arkin's win over Murphy in 2006 was entirely based on overdue status. I thought it was goodwill for Little Miss Sunshine, which by that point was seen as a threat to win Best Picture. The fact that he was a veteran actor who had never won an Oscar certainly helped, but I don't think he would have won had the movie itself not been as beloved by the Academy.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn-Paul

Ha! Joan Allen's just like, Mmmhmmm...

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Oh! I watched those reactions shots over and over for days... I love when the Academy pulls out a Binoche or a Harden! Too bad they almost never do it anymore...

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

1996 was a banner year too. A victory from any of those actresses would have been well justified.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

Jessica Tandy and Geraldine Page were clearly "Over-due" Oscars".... and Tandy did not even had a solid filmography behind her.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I wish the Academy had been less sentimental in 1967 (Katharine Hepburn over Anne Bancroft), 1970 (Helen Hayes over Karen Black), 1977 (Lee Grant over Ronee Blakley or Lily Tomlin), and 1989 (Jessica Tandy over Michelle Pfeiffer).

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

*Grant over Blakley/Tomlin was '75, my bad.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

Also, I think what Peter O'Toole really needs if he wants to win an Oscar (which he very much does, by the way) is a supporting role that would allow him to chew some scenery. As you pointed out, all 8 of his nominations were in the Best Actor category (although I, for one, actually think he should have gone supporting for The Stunt Man). Jeff Bridges aside, the Academy doesn't seem to give Best Actor to the 60+ crowd very often. I think he'd have a great shot if he had a juicy supporting role. Just look at this year where we have Christopher Plummer and Albert Brooks as the two current frontrunners in the category.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn-Paul

Worth pointing out Streep hasn't won since 1982. She's been nominated 14 times since and lost all 14 times. Think about it! So much for great performances, good will and over due status.

The Marisa Tomei win was a real stunner.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

My win for O'Toole: based on what I've seen, I'd give him two wins. 1. For Lawrence of Arabia. I understand why Peck won, but I'd never give Peck a win. 2. For, of all things, Ratatouille. For me, that performance just gets stronger on every viewing.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

<sigh> Meryl Streep is NOT overdue. She has two Oscars.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterClaude North

Of course Meryl Streep is overdue. <sigh>

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Amir - I think the Academy loved Pacino's hamminess in Scent of a Woman at the time and it would have won regardless even if he had won Best Actor for Godfather Part II like he should've. Plus he lost for Glengarry the same night he won for Scent and even without the sure win for Scent I think he'd have lost to Gene Hackman.

Brandz - Yeah, Streep would qualify but with two Oscars she will never be able to play that card. Facts aside people just associate her with winning all the time. Maybe if she doesn't win for Iron Lady or Osage County then she will seem due again.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

Great, great article! I agree that the "overdue" factor is also blown out of proportion...we all know that actors win Oscars for varying reasons and for specific moments in time...

I liked how you pointed out (regarding Wayne and Newman's cases), how overdue actors oftentimes win out in relatively weak years, which I think is going to be the biggest downfall to someone like Glenn Close this year since there are so many strong female performances we have seen so far. Will the Academy really honor her over talents like Streep, Swinton, Davis, Theron, Williams, etc., who are being raved left and right in better received films? I don't think it's going to work out for her this year, and although Glenn Close has never left the Hollywood spotlight, she has been mostly absent from the big screen for a long time.

I do think Christopher Plummer can win this year considering that Beginners is beloved by many and his performance is the best thing about the film. Albert Brooks has the problem of being in a divisive film that won't appeal to all Academy types.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Hilary Swank 2 Best Actress Oscars
Meryl Streep 1

Meryl Streep is overdue.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter//3rtful

i wish the great nick nolte would get traction,warrior is superior to a lot of films being taked about this year,it may become beloved in the next few years.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermark

I completely agree that the role that being overdue plays is often overstated.

There's also a fine line between "overdue" and getting undue praise for a late-career role. In the case of On Golden Pond, Fonda may have been overdue, but Hepburn certainly wasn't. They both won for several reasons (which may or may not have included being overdue) - the great story of two legends working together for the first time, Fonda's being ill, a film that people loved, etc.

Jessica Tandy may or may not have been "overdue", but there was no way she wasn't going to win for being Miss Daisy - the heart and soul of the most popular film that year.

I also believe Pacino was going to win for Scent of a Woman whether or not he had won previously. It was another case of a very-respected actor being unduly praised for a meaty, popular role.

Similarly, the Streep (or name your own favorite "respected" actress) vs. Swank thing is ridiculous to me. You have to look at each year individually, and make a case for who could have won (and not who should have won). Hilary Swank may not be anyone's idea of a great actress, but she took two incredible roles and played them very well. I can't imagine anyone else winning either year that she won. 2004 is another great example of "overdue" being overrated. There's no way the general academy wanted to give Swank another Oscar so soon after her first, and Bening was clearly "overdue" (as, it could be argued, was Winslet), but, at least in this case, the Academy voted for whom they considered the best actress that year.

All just my opinion, of course, but I think being overdue gets you some points, but being part of a great story, and performing well in a well-liked film can easily trump that.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergwynn1984

Yeah, being overdue plays in the game, but ultimately they care much more about simply: "but I actually liked this film / performance more." Hence Swank over Bening, Binoche over Bacall, and obviously O'Toole losing in 2006 because simply, people had NO interest in his film, legendary actor or not. I think that's also why Robert Duvall didn't get nominated last year, and I wonder if Glenn Close can overcome it this year.

I'd say Oldman, Plummer and Brooks will easily get in this year, and some might even win: people care about their films, and their performances can generate passion. That's always the key. Overdueness comes in second. That's why this year, they won't care that Clooney has already won and that Oldman or maaaaybe Pitt are "overdue" : if they like Clooney's perf much more, he'll win.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterzn3v6

The worst thing about the overdue talk is to see some wonderful performances dismissed because they won Oscars for great overdue actors.

I mean, people dismiss the fabuluos performance of Denzel Washington in Training Day or the very very strong Kate Winslet in The Reader?

I agree with you: Denzel and Kate would never win if people didn't love their performances.

That's it.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Mike M -- agreed. the sentiment thing is crazy-making. though maybe gwynn is right (argh!) that Pfeiffer would have lost anyway given the academy love (overall) for Miss Daisy... which will always be like my most hated Oscar moment of all time. BLARGH!

Cal -- that is an unfortunate side effect yes. I think both of those performances are strong too (maybe not winning strong but still) and people just hate them. I mean they aren't like Scent of a Woman. lol.

December 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Wow! That's quite a statement. Nathaniel, do you really hate Daisy over Crash or Bullock?

PS I hate Matlin ;)

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

If you look up the dictionary defintion of 'overdue', it simply means past due. It has nothing to do with previous wins.

I would never suggest Streep play the 'overdue' card. It's the worst thing she could do. Not that I think she ever would, it's just not her style. I agree all her nominations, in some crazy way, work against her because people think she's wins all the time. She'll win again one day though.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

@Nathaniel - I think Denzel deserved to win for this specific performance. It's winning strong.

I am not sure about Winslet, but it was a very difficult work and she definitely pulled it off. She was nomination worthy at least, and her winning is not a bad moment for best actress. No reason to shame (My choice for that year is not a popular one, Meryl Streeo for Doubt...).

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

The worst thing about Pacino winning for Scent of a Woman is that it stopped him geeting a nomination and winning for Carlito's Way or Heat, two of the greatest movies of the 90's, in which he was no less than brilliant in his very specific shouting way.

And, you know, Scent of o Woman is a remake, and the original actor, Vittorio Gassman was a hundred times better than Pacino.

And I just read Volvagia complaining about Peck winning for To Kill a Mockinbird. One more example to my theory. I love love love love Peter O'Toole (best actor in my book for The Lion in The Winter) but Peck deserved every single molecule of his Oscar.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

While I'm not necessarily part of the Streep is overdue camp, I can see where they're coming from.

I'm sure the "Not overdue" retorts would be seem to them like telling a Cubs fan that the Cubbies are not overdue for a World Series win since they have as many titles as the Phillies,

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterajnrules

Oh, I strongly recommend the Exchanging Oscars Game while waiting for the bus or the dentist!

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Peggy Sue -- oh okay second most hated Oscar moment (after Brokeback's loss). I was fine with Bullock. Not my choice for the win but nothing to cry about. Pfeiffer losing for such an iconic career defining role for 1989, on the other hand, NOT forgivable. Almost as horrifying as Brokeback's loss.

December 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Cal Roth - I would add Donnie Brasco to that list of superior Pacino performances

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

Nathan Baby

Whenever I hear the DMD theme I think of you and burst into laughter. Not because I'm cruel but because you're so loveable.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter//3rtful

This is a wonderful topic, BTW.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Excellent article. I vividly remember that Bacall/Binoche year. The look of disgust on the guy's face sittiing next to Bacall after Binoche was announced was priceless. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Good times.

I think that career honors come into play sometimes. There's no doubt in my mind that Paul Newman won his Oscar b/c of that, and Al Paciino, and Henry Fonda, and on and on. But the upsets and juggernauts can overcome the veterans when need be. That had to have happened for Binoche, Whitaker, and countless others. When the career win is at play, the actual performance nominated (you know, the whole purpose of what the Oscars are supposed to be about) better be worth it, otherwise, it perpetuates a vicious cycle of makeup wins and undeserved wins and more career wins down the road. It's such a slippery slope, but that's what you get with a subjective awards-giving body.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLem

Plummer has the upper hand, though, because he actually gives a great performance in Beginners, and a fucking tearjerker one at that. Nobody's going to look at that and say "nah, it's just that he was due".

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlandshark

landshark -- true. his performance is even better the second time 'round, too.

December 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Michael C. -- One somewhat similar question I wonder about is how bad or good precursor speeches figure into Oscar wins. Among the bad, I was worried Melissa Leo loopy early speeches might hurt her (they thankfully didn't), though I sometimes wonder if Julie Christie's somewhat spacey (in my mind) SAG speech unfairly hurt her (I was so upset!). Among the good, Meryl's fabulous speeches never help like they should, although I think Halle being overcome with her win may have won some votes. Impossible to really know, of course!

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

Lem -- The guy sittiing next to Bacall was her son Stephen Bogart.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

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