The Cabal of 2012: 19 Actors Who Have Been Secretly Running the Last Year in Movies

Editors’ note: This week we’re featuring two posts on the 84th Academy Awards. We had hoped to run them closer to the awards ceremony taking place earlier this year, but technical issues delayed the Blog’s launch until recently. Nevertheless, we think both posts have some interesting things to say about the last year or so in movies, so we’re running them now.

A bit of idle musing on last year’s Oscars a month before the triple crown of Venice, Toronto, and Telluride kicks off a new awards season. For those steeped in Oscars lore, the 84th Academy Awards were memorable for a few things:

• The Best Picture nomination for The Tree of Life, joining Grand Illusion and A Clockwork Orange as among the Academy’s most audacious picks
• The overdue nomination for Gary Oldman and the unlikely one for Melissa McCarthy
• The awards phenomenon that was The Artist: for being mostly silent, all black and white, the first French production to win Best Picture, and the first Best Picture winner about the film industry

However, what fascinated me the most about last year’s Academy Awards struck me last September while watching The Ides of March. At the time, I casually noted how funny it would be if Paul Giamatti, George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, and Philip Seymour Hoffman were all to wind up nominated—for other movies! Namely (and respectively) for Win Win, The Descendants, Drive, and Moneyball. Only one of these four gentlemen landed a nomination, but two of the other films did wind up with a nomination in January, and across all of last year’s movies a LOT of familiar faces popped up. Here are the actors I spotted in multiple Oscar-nominated films this year:

Jim Broadbent — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, The Iron Lady
Jessica Chastain — The Help, The Tree of Life
George Clooney — The Descendants, The Ides of March
Benedict Cumberbatch — Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse
Viola Davis — Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help
Judi Dench — Jane Eyre, My Week with Marilyn
Tom Felton — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
John Goodman — The Artist, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Ryan Gosling — Drive, The Ides of March
Tom Hardy — Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior
Tom Hiddleston — Midnight in Paris, War Horse
Ciarán Hinds — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John Hurt — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Philip Seymour Hoffman — The Ides of March, Moneyball
Gary Oldman — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Christopher Plummer — Beginners, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Mia Wasikowska — Albert Nobbs, Jane Eyre
Emma Watson — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, My Week with Marilyn
Robin Wright — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Moneyball

To slice it another way, here are all of the English-language, live-action features nominated for an Oscar last year, with blue indicating films with a cast that overlaps with another film, and red indicating a non-overlapping cast:

That’s 20 films out of 29, including all but 1 Best Picture nominee and all but 2 films with acting nominations. You can even make a nifty little daisy chain out of five of the nine BP films:

The Artist → John Goodman →
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close → Viola Davis →
The Help → Jessica Chastain →
The Tree of Life → Brad Pitt →
Moneyball

To be sure, some of this is easily explained. Prestige filmmaking has always been a winners’ circle; who is surprised to see Judi Dench in a pair of tony period pieces? For that matter, the two British ensemble films in the mix (Harry Potter and Tinker Tailor) contribute to almost one-third of the connections listed above. And finally, there’s ample precedent for one actor or another having a banner year, from Jim Broadbent’s supporting turns opposite three of 2001’s Best Actress nominees (in Iris, Moulin Rouge, and Bridget Jones’s Diary) all the way back to Claudette Colbert’s top billing for three of 1934’s Best Picture nominees (Cleopatra, Imitation of Life, and It Happened One Night).

However, the number and nature of 2011’s overlaps extend beyond the easily explicable. For starters, while the ubiquity of past winners—like Hoffman and Clooney—and revered veterans—like Plummer and Hurt—is expected, the number of relatively untried names is striking. Chastain (who opened six films last year) had two films in the mix, as did Wasikowska, Hiddleston, and Hardy. Meanwhile, Michael Fassbender had one, Jane Eyre, to show for the four he opened last year, ranging from a Best Actor near-miss in Shame (which would have brought Drive’s Carey Mulligan into the circle too) to lighter fare in X-Men: First Class (with Bridesmaids’s Rose Byrne). I recall when Jude Law’s slate of six films in 2004 struck many as ludicrous overexposure, but it may be becoming the new norm.

Furthermore, the sheer quantity and comprehensiveness of the connections is remarkable. Ten years ago, 2001 saw ten multi-film actors (the aforementioned Jim Broadbent, plus Bob Balaban, Billy Bob Thornton, Ewan McGregor, Josh Hartnett, Maggie Smith, Michael Shannon, Orlando Bloom, Scarlett Johansson, and Tom Sizemore) spanning 12 of the 25 nominated films. Even with the usual British period pieces (Gosford Park, the first Harry Potter) and assorted American ensembles (Ghost World, Pearl Harbor), only half as many connections were to be found back then.

Finally, the presence of links between three productions as different as The Help, The Tree of Life, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close suggests more than the expected level of redundancy at work. No matter how we measure, it seems as though the industry is casting from a tightening pool of talent. There are many possible explanations for this; I would be inclined to look toward international pre-sales as a driving factor in limiting filmmakers’ choices, though even that wouldn’t explain Hiddleston and Chastain, or Hinds and Goodman. I’m curious to see if this trend will sustain itself over the next few years, in which case it could start to mirror the late studio system of the mid-1940s or the post-New Hollywood era of the early 1980s, in which a largely static group of stars, veterans, and newcomers milled in and out of the same set of films under consideration for that golden statue. Upcoming films like Lawless (with Chastain, Hardy, Oldman, and Wasikowska) will put this notion to the test—just something to keep in mind as awards season comes marching around the corner.


NOTES

I compiled all of the data in this post from IMDb and the Academy Awards Database.


Author bio:

Clifford James Galiher received his B.A. in Film and Television Production and M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA, and he is currently a Ph.D. student in Critical Studies at USC. His research focuses primarily on film production in classic Hollywood, including a current project on the history of pre-digital visual effects. His other interests include animation, narrative studies, and digital media history, and he wishes he had the money to pursue his dream of ushering full-time.

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