Oscar Buzz Watch: Helen Hunt Is Definitely Getting Another Oscar Nomination

Okay, here’s how it’s going to go: you’re going to start hearing a lot of craaaazy talk in the upcoming weeks about Academy Award-winner Helen Hunt. About how she’s in a movie again, and that she’s actually really good, and that she’s on her way to a second career nomination. And your first instinct is going to be to not believe it. Not Helen Hunt! She’s history’s greatest monster! She won the 1997 Best Actress award for As Good As It Gets for being a prickly but warm-hearted waitress who had the good fortune to be the object of Jack Nicholson’s OCD affections. She beat such actresses as Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Helena Bonham-Carter (back when she was a respectable star of English dramas and not an eccentric thatch of brambles), and Julie Christie.

At the time, it was not all that controversial a victory. As Good As It Gets was a crowd-pleaser and Hunt held her own with Nicholson (who also won the Oscar). She was also critically acclaimed for her TV work on Mad About You, and believe it or not, she had been considered overdue for an Emmy by the time she won in 1996. Of course, that was the first of four consecutive Emmys, and combined with four Golden Globes and that Oscar, it’s not all that surprising that the worm turned on her popularity. That Oscar win was looking more and more suspect. What did she even do in that movie besides sass at Jack and care for her sick kid? And what about the homerism of the one American in that category besting four Brits? Typical, right?

By the time 2000 rolled around and Hunt struck out on four high-profile releases in the final three months of the year, she had become something of a punch line among Serious Movie People and her Oscar win an object of scorn. That 2000 quartet is an interesting case study. Hunt ended up starring in two of the top five box-office hits of the year! How did it end up killing her career?? Well, her character in Cast Away wasn’t likeable, and it’s not like you could pin the success of that movie on anyone but Tom Hanks. Her chemistry with Mel Gibson was nonexistent in What Women Want, and back then, nobody could chalk that up to Gibson being a misogynist psychopath. Dr. T and the Women was a forgettable Robert Altman effort, though hardly worth sinking a career. But Pay It Forward… wow. Pay It Forward was such a complete flop commercially and critically that it sucked Hunt’s entire narrative down the toilet. The rest of the aughts saw her in only four more movies, five if you count the HBO adaptation of Empire Falls. As career nose-dives go, it was pretty dramatic, and it was proof positive for Hunt’s many detractors that she could neither act nor pick a good role.

Starting this weekend, Helen Hunt is back in theaters with The Sessions, Ben Lewin’s new movie about a polio-stricken John Hawkes who hires a "sex surrogate" (Hunt) to help him lose his virginity. It was a big ol’ hit at Sundance, and Hunt in particular got rave reviews. The positive critical notices continued at the Toronto and London film festivals, and what do you know? That old friend Oscar Buzz is back. This sounds, frankly, insane. Helen Hunt, who starred in the worst movie Woody Allen ever made (Curse of the Jade Scorpion), who cast herself in her directorial debut as Bette Midler’s daughter (the widely ignored Then She Found Me, though it should be noted that Rex Reed loved it!), is now Oscar-worthy, and possibly on a track to win her second Oscar?

As we learned with Ben Affleck last time, though, arc is everything in the Oscar race, and Helen Hunt’s comeback story gets better the more unlikely it seems. The prodigal daughter returns. And in The Sessions, she’s got a lot working for her chances at a nomination. She plays a good woman whose role in the film is to help a man achieve greatness, as reliable an Oscar niche as there is. That the "greatness" she helps Hawkes achieve has to do with having sex with a beautiful woman doesn’t hurt. She’s also, as of right now, due to be campaigned in the Supporting Actress category, despite the kind of screen time and story prominence that would support a Lead Actress claim. Ask Jennifer Connelly how that strategy worked out. (OMG, Jennifer Connelly! If Helen Hunt gets to shake off the dust of a terrible post-Oscar decade, won’t that give Jennifer so much hope that she might do the same??)

Here’s another Oscar tendency that works in Hunt’s favor: the Academy tends to hand out backup nominations every now and then, as if to prove that certain questionable award choices were justified. Remember all that grumbling about Marisa Tomei winning for My Cousin Vinny (grumbling that is TOTAL bullshit, by the way; Marisa was amazing in that movie)? Follow-up nominations for In the Bedroom and The Wrestler put that win in a different context. Charlize Theron’s win for Monster gets called a fluke? Follow-up nom for North Country. Hilary Swank and Sally Field managed to win on their follow-up nominations, so don’t think that can’t happen.

By the way, while we’re on the subject of The Sessions, John Hawkes’s chances for a second career nomination aren’t looking too shabby either. If you think the sex surrogate for a polio-stricken man in an iron lung trying to make it through like with dignity and wry humor is a winner of a role, try playing the guy with polio. It might be condescending, it might be tunnel-visioned, it might be cheap, but Oscar voters tend to leap at performances of disabilities.

I’m just saying you might want to be prepared. Try and remember how Helen Hunt looked on red carpets, because she’s coming back. (Does she still pretend to date Hank Azaria? That could be fun!)

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John Hawkes on Elizabeth Olsen & His Battle to Remain Anonymous

The buzz out of Sundance was that Elizabeth Olsen gave a career-making performance in the subdued cult drama Martha Marcy May Marlene. While that turned out to be true, Olsen’s work isn’t the only acting jewel the film has to offer. The supernaturally reliable John Hawkes—who, after years of solid character work finally got his due with an Oscar nomination in last year’s Winter’s Bone—turns in a quietly menacing performance as Patrick, the magnetic leader of a cult-like”family” that Olsen’s character flees.

Next up, he’ll segue into blockbuster filmmkaing, with a part in Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic, Lincoln. When we recently sat down with Hawkes at the Greenwich Hotel, we found the 52-year-old actor lamenting some of the trappings of his recent success. Here he is on paparazzi encounters, giving interviews, and playing the bad guy.

I know that you don’t like to use the word “cult” when referring to this film. It’s funny that this has gotten around, that’s so amazing. It’s like, boom! That and the “press shy” thing. And that I don’t want to do big movies. It’s interesting how it all gets started.

Have you been slapped with the press shy label? A tiny bit. Doing press is the least interesting part of the job, no offense. I’d rather the work speak for itself. And it is odd to be here talking to you, but I’m talking to you because I’m trying to help this film. My micro amount of fame is about more than I can handle. I am a private person and there are guys on bicycles, paparazzi, chasing me around in New York, which is bizarre. Were the big stars all out of town? I kept discouraging them, and finally I said I’m a private person, and they kind of left me alone.

Is this a result of your Oscar nomination? Oh, I suppose. Little pieces before that, I was in Deadwood, and people love Eastbound and Down; I’ve been working for many years, but, yes, when your name suddenly gets tossed around with the big boys and they consider you part of the club….

Does your desire for anonymity color your decisions at all? No, it doesn’t color my decisions so much as, you know, I’ve been kindly invited to talk shows and things, but look, it’s all for selfish reasons. I just want to be believable on screen. It’s really hard for me to believe someone that I know too much about, I like to retain an air of mystery about myself, which is great to talk about in an interview because it’s all very ironic! I’m here against my will! I’m tied to the chair! But really, I want to help this movie and it’s a joy to discuss things, but we live in an age where things travel so quickly. It used to be you could do an interview for the Peoria newspaper, and it wasn’t going to go anywhere. But now everything you say or do is potential fodder taken out of context. It’s hard for me to believe a movie star in a role role, no matter how great an actor they are. Especially if I know too much about them.

What about acting opposite movie stars? No problem. They’re wonderful actors. It’s just that when I go to a movie, even the best of stars, if I know too much about them, I associate. And so, wow, that movie star is doing an incredible job playing a busboy. But hopefully if they see me, they see a busboy. I’m not interested in too much hype because, it’ll be like “Oh, I saw that guy in Jimmy Kimmel last night.” I love that show, but I’m trying to be effective in my work and I don’t know how else to do it other than to try and duck the light as much I can.

You’ve had success at Sundance before with two films in particular. This is your third. Are you now able to tell beforehand when a film is going to break through at that festival? No, I wish I could. There have been many, many disappointments along the way, and surprises for certain films that get in, that you think don’t have a hope in hell. I like to think I’m a decent judge of material. I think that I’ve come around to being able to find things that I don’t regret doing. I’m not going to do any small movies and later on regret it because I’m a slow decider and I’ve got to really make sure it’s something to put time into, and I guess large movies are the same. I’ve turned down a lot of average sort of roles in average studio movies.

Is Lincoln something you chose because it’s a Spielberg film, and you just don’t say no to Spielberg? Partly that, but I’m also really fascinated with that period and I’m a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis. Now there’s a movie star who is such a cipher, I know that I can still look at him and believe him and he can disappear in his roles. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against movie stars. Some of them are terrific actors. And I don’t think the general audience may feel the same, but for me personally, I just don’t like knowing much about someone if I’m going to watch them act. For the Spielberg thing, it’s a large cast, a lot of supporting roles, people with more visibility than myself playing a lot of those supporting roles. It’s a fantastic script and a great chance to learn more about the period.

What kind of preparation did you do for Martha Marcy May Marlene? I read not much. Yes, that’s true, but I may be selling myself short a little bit. I did a great deal of thinking, but a lot of it was subtraction. It’s always, what is the story and how can the character I’m playing best tell that story. It felt like a lot of it then was just trying to figure out the best way to actually make Lizzie’s character a credible person you would want to follow for an hour and forty minutes. If the character of Patrick is too obviously a cult leader, an evil Svengali, then I think it’s less interesting for us if she can fall under the spell of someone like that. Now an audience member could think, That guy has decent ideas. He just needs to be credible rather than her just falling under the spell of the cliché. There had to be more nuance, more depth and surprise behind it.

He’s sort of a likable guy. I hope so.

But at the same time… He’s just misunderstood, really (Laughs).

He’s frightening, too. Was that in the script, or was that all you? No, it’s just in the script. It’s whatever the scene calls for. If the scene calls for him to figuratively take a character and shake them and throw them against the wall to get them to shape up or listen, all to the greater good by the way, then so be it. And if the scene requires a figurative caress and smooch on the cheek, that’s fine too. It’s really what the story wants.

When during shooting did you realize that Elizabeth Olsen was giving the kind of performance that would be talked about as one of the year’s best? I think as soon as the camera rolled, to be honest. We didn’t rehearse a great deal, but I know that I enjoyed meeting her and I didn’t know her family history, or who her sisters were. I came early, getting the lay of the land, spending time with our director and other crew members, and as soon as we began to work, she surprised and amazed me in a similar way Jennifer Lawrence had a year and a half before. You could just see that something was going on. There was an element of truth that was surprising and an element of just proficiency at the craft at such an early age, which are things most of us strive for our whole acting lives, and to see someone bringing it like that is shocking and beautiful. It was great.

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