It happens every season, the fall festivals start rolling out and those first out of the gate get the prime spots for Oscar pundits to start putting their prediction ducks in a row.
This season Black Mass emerged as a serious candidate (to some) and specifically Johnny Depp for his portrayal of real-life gangster turned informant Whitey Bulger. “Comeback!” they yelled, as if that was reason enough to warrant praise, a bar so low after years of critical and box office bombs you couldn’t limbo under it.
Some pundits have gone so far as to actively try and derail other films in order to push Black Mass. One doesn’t need to go much farther than take a peek at Kris Tapley’s Twitter feed to see that it’s a series of 140-character love letters to Black Mass, Johnny Depp and his buddy, director Scott Cooper? Remember when Tapley tried to make Out of the Furnace happen? Good times. I tease, to be sure, but here’s the thing; Tapley recently left HitFix and was hired on by Variety to be their co-awards pundit. Great job, and congrats to him (we both came from the same Oscar pundit garden by the way, Sasha Stone’s Oscarwatch, now Awardsdaily) but instead of using his position to actually predict and pundit, he’s using it as a bully pulpit to simply push his personal faves. That’s fine for a blog but for what’s arguably the most respected and prolific entertainment journal in the country it doesn’t really qualify as accurate reporting. He does seem to have turned his attention onto Spotlight now but that doesn’t take away from the extreme level of fangirling he gave Black Mass just two weeks ago.
But, I digress.
What’s most important to look at with Black Mass and Johnny Depp is how the Academy reacts to gangster films and its male stars.
Gangsters and gangster films are some of the most iconic in film history. From James Cagney to Marlon Brando to Warren Beatty their films and performances are indelible. But how about when it comes to Oscar nominations? The three I mentioned above all received Oscar attention (with Brando winning) but you might be surprised at how few lead actors have gotten in. Out of approximately 427 Best Actor nominees in Oscar history (you can check the homework there), only NINE gangsters have been nominated for Best Actor.
Special thanks to AW forum member McTeague for the background work on these lists:
– Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York (2003)
– John Travolta, Pulp Fiction (1995)
– Warren Beatty, Bugsy (1992)
– Jack Nicholson, Prizzi’s Honor (1986)
– Burt Lancaster, Atlantic City (1981)
– Al Pacino, The Godfather II (1975)
– Marlon Brando, The Godfather (1973)
– Warren Beatty, Bonnie & Clyde (1968)
– James Cagney, Angels with Dirty Faces (1939)
Breaking down that list we see that all but James Cagney came from films nominated for Best Picture during the period when Best Picture was still only five nominees. Angels with Dirty Faces didn’t make it into Best Picture (in a field of 10, no less) but its director Michael Curtiz did manage a Best Director nomination (he grabbed two that year). While the inclusion of John Travolta and Daniel Day-Lewis may be stretching the gangster definition a bit I think their inclusion is valid. But, if you don’t then we’re looking at Warren Beatty as the last “true” gangster to be nominated for Best Actor. Bugsy led the nominations that year (1992), with 10, and won two.
The landscape is littered with lead actors snubbed for their gangster films even when the film itself has Oscar success. The two most glaring being Ray Liotta in Goodfellas and the eventual 2006 Best Picture Oscar winner (and Martin Scorsese’s much-ballyhooed first Best Director win), The Departed. No nomination for Leonardo DiCaprio (although we know that was a result of his other lead performance in Blood Diamond that year, which he was nominated for), no Matt Damon, no Jack Nicholson; only a surprise nomination for the only non-Oscar nominee/winner of the bunch, Mark Wahlberg. Curiously, Depp’s supporting co-star (and non-Oscar nominated) Joel Edgerton has been receiving some very good ink as well. He also plays the cop in this scenario, like Wahlberg in The Departed.
More often than not a film in a genre like this ends up with a respectable Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes score, decent box office and maybe some outlying Oscar nominations. Looking at those we have:
– American Gangster: 76 on Metacritic, nothing for Denzel Washington, Supporting Actress nomination for Ruby Dee. Box office – $130M.
– Road to Perdition: 72 on MC, nothing for Hanks, Supporting Actor nomination for Paul Newman, cinematography win. Box office – $104M
– Public Enemies: 70 on MC, nothing for Depp or anyone else. Box office – $97M.
– A History of Violence: 81 on MC, nothing for Mortensen, Supporting Actor nomination for William Hurt. Box office – $31M.
– Eastern Promises: 82 on MC, Lead Actor nomination for Mortensen (playing a cop). Box office – $17M.
This is not even mentioning the dozens of films of the genre that make zero impact with either box office or awards traction including Depp’s other gangster flick, Donnie Brasco.
There are signs the film is going to be a box office success. Last week reports came in that it was selling more tickets than its competition this weekend, The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, possibly looking at a $40M opening. But, those have been dialed back and it’s earlier this week it was tracking behind that film and looking at about $22M. Still a strong number but it could also be Warner Bros. lowballing in hopes of it beating that number and be labeled an ‘over-performer.’ As of yesterday it seems they might be ‘neck-and-neck.’ Perhaps the combination of the wild success of the Emmy-winning HBO documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and the frat-bro appeal of criminal movies as how-to story like The Wolf of Wall Street will find Black Mass with a significant audience.
So, how will Black Mass play with Oscar? Looking at history, there’s a tough case to be made that it will end up being a top 5 film with a directing nomination, writing, or any others to boost Depp’s chances. Add to this that Johnny Depp has all but refused to do (much) press for the film in the form of a campaign and his propensity to say really stupid shit and again, a tough case to be made for the film finding Oscar success.
Does Johnny Depp have a comeback narrative that’s that strong? Sure, he’s been nominated three times but at no point was he a frontrunner and those films also received multiple nominations elsewhere. Currently, Black Mass has a Metacritic score of 68, even lower than his previous gangster flick Public Enemies.
So why then is it being pushed so hard by pundits? They’re likely just waiting for the next big thing to focus their attention on in the Tinder-era swipe left mentality of thinking something better might be around the corner.