Cary Grant is generally considered the best screen actor of all time. But he was nominated just twice in his long career, and he never won.
Oscar nominators saluted him for the dramas "Penny Serenade" and "None But the Lonely Heart." Those are hardly the best-remembered titles in a career that includes the classics "Bringing Up Baby" (a flop in 1938), "The Philadelphia Story" (James Stewart won best actor), "His Girl Friday," "Notorious" and "North by Northwest."
Grant made acting look effortless and subtle. The academy prefers a showier variety of acting exemplified by Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson, who have each won three times.
That acting often incorporates accents, makeup, disabilities and great figures of history. It's not the best acting so much as it's the "most" acting.
Streep gives a symphony of acting in "August: Osage County," for which she is a best actress nominee this year. Oscar voters like to see their candidates work for the big prize.
But Cary Grant didn't play that game, so we have the irony of the best actor in movie history never winning the movie industry's biggest prize. As the years go by, his work ages better than many performances that won the Oscar.
There's a lot of talk this year about how close the races are. Any suspense will be a boon to the big night March 2 on ABC.
But early prize ceremonies suggest that Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto of "Dallas Buyers Club" and Cate Blanchett of "Blue Jasmine" are shoo-ins in their categories. They all deliver showy performances and work for the prize. Judi Dench, who is marvelous but low-key in "Philomena," is at a disadvantage next to Blachett's bravura.
For supporting actress, Lupita Nyong'o seems the favorite now over Jennifer Lawrence of "American Hustle." Nyong'o's emergence as a fashion superstar during the Oscar campaign season will help her chances, and Lawrence won best actress last year for her stellar work in "Silver Linings Playbook."
For best picture, prognosticators say it's a three-way race among "American Hustle," "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave." "Gravity" is likely to clean up in technical categories.
But the best-picture prize usually goes to the most serious film, and "12 Years a Slave" has a huge edge there for its uncompromising portrayal of slavery. On Oscar night, "12 Years a Slave" producer Brad Pitt would get to give a speech, pleasing stargazers.
Pitt practices an effortless form of acting and has never won despite three nominations in performing categories. Maybe actors have to move into other categories if they hope to win the statuette.
Robert Redford, never a victor for acting, won best director for 1980's "Ordinary People." He was snubbed this year for "All Is Lost," a stunning piece of subtle acting.
With the Oscar, subtlety often has little to do with it.
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