Studio execs from 20th Century Fox met with Oscar consultants a few days ago to mull this question: What happens when the year's most acclaimed acting turn to date comes in a movie that skews about two generations too young for most film academy members?
Shailene Woodley, playing the cancer-stricken heroine in "The Fault in Our Stars," won raves from both sides of the theater aisle when the film opened last week. It didn't matter whether critics wept like newborns while Woodley's heroine, Hazel Grace, and the love of her life, Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), navigated the fears, anger and joy of young love in the shadow of the Big C or whether they remained dry-eyed (monsters!) through the whole thing. To use the parlance of the film's core audience: Everyone has the feels for Woodley.
"It is Ms. Woodley's movie at almost every moment she's on camera," enthused Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern. "She has the precious gift of simplicity, whether she's observing the people around her with a cool eye or filling the screen with a warmth that seems to come naturally. Others in the cast work at being winning; she wins by seeming to be herself. This young actress is the real, heart-piercing thing."
Did we mention the 22-year-old Woodley does all this while hooked up to an oxygen tank and wearing a breathing tube for most of the movie? And that she has a real gift for comedy, as effortless in putting across Hazel's goofy gallows humor and raw-edged wit as she is in articulating the character's despairing nihilism. And that she does all this without a trace of self-consciousness.
So a lead actress Oscar nomination is in the bag, right? Not so fast. If we learned anything from reading John Green's young adult novel and then watching the movie adaptation, it's that the world is not a wish-granting factory. And the Oscars aren't the MTV Movie Awards.
Which sometimes is a problem. Because while we don't want the academy to bestow honors for best kiss or best gut-wrenching performance (Johnny Knoxville was robbed last year! Robbed!), it wouldn't hurt this august body to realize that great work can come from any number of genres, not just festival favorites and films backed by Harvey Weinstein.
Jennifer Lawrence may have won an Oscar for her marvelous acting in "Silver Linings Playbook," but take her beating heart away from the "Hunger Games" movies and you'd be left with an empty spectacle. The difference for academy voters? She's acting in "Silver Linings," while in "Catching Fire," she's running, suffering, shooting a mean bow and arrow and, yes, lending the series an integrity it desperately needs. If this were major league baseball's MVP vote, Lawrence would have won for Katniss, not "Silver Linings'" Tiffany.
But the Oscars aren't baseball, if for no other reason than there's plenty of crying. It's practically ingrained in the ceremony. Aside from the occasional outlier (Johnny Depp's singular, surprising Capt. Jack Sparrow in the original "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, Russell Crowe doing his "Are you not entertained?" act in "Gladiator"), academy voters turn up their noses at genre films and, really, just about any movie that doesn't possess some sort of indie cred or veneer of prestige, be it biopic, historical drama or Important Movie for the Times in Which We Live. That's why Meryl Streep won an Oscar for "The Iron Lady" but was ignored when playing a recognizable human being in the intimate, adult drama "Hope Springs."
So, back to Woodley. She has several strikes against her from the outset. "The Fault in Our Stars" comes from a young adult novel that was insanely popular (yikes!), especially among adolescent girls (double yikes!). It's a weepie, a genre taken even less seriously than comedy as an art form. And its studio, 20th Century Fox, will have no financial motivation to spend any money on an Oscar campaign because the movie will be long gone from theaters and well past its DVD/Blu-ray release date by the time awards season begins in earnest — considerations that often spur awards efforts.
Then again, the studio does seem to be considering it, and why wouldn't Fox spend a little money on a movie that's bolstered its bottom line in a big way? Last year, Brie Larson, Woodley's contemporary and close friend ("We have a primal connection," Woodley told one reporter) should have received an Oscar nomination for her raw, honest turn as a foster care worker in the low-budget drama "Short Term 12." But its distributor, Cinedigm, barely had enough dough to send out DVD screeners, much less win the attention of academy members too busy to notice this fantastic little movie.
That shouldn't be a problem with "Fault." Rupert Murdoch isn't exactly cash-poor. And as for awareness, anyone who has visited a bookstore or come even into passing contact with an adolescent girl in her native habitat (i.e., Starbucks) knows about this movie. Now it's just a matter of reminding voters that the girl who memorably played George Clooney's character's daughter in "The Descendants" can now carry a movie on her own and do so with a loveliness befitting the name of her character, a young woman named Hazel Grace.