Pete Hammond

The tight Oscar race for Best Actress between the presumed co-frontrunners, Silver Linings Playbook’s Jennifer Lawrence and Zero Dark Thirty’s Jessica Chastain, took a few twists and turns this weekend. But will any of it affect the outcome one way or another? Momentum is a fickle thing — you can win it or lose it  in an instant.

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Both young stars are coming off a stellar week where they won Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Awards for their performances. And now, just 2 1/2 weeks before Oscar voting begins and smack in the middle of SAG balloting, Chastain pulled off the neat trick of starring in the No. 1 and No. 2 films at the box office (#1 Mama and #2 Zero Dark Thirty). Before Mama opened, some pundits observed that starring in a standard horror film in the midst of Oscar crunch time could hurt Chastain the same way Norbit’s Oscar-time release was perceived to hurt Eddie Murphy when he lost for Dreamgirls. But in fact Mama received generally good reviews (62% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) and way overperformed at the box office, helping to make the emerging Chastain an even bigger star. And the fact that she simultaneously continues in her Broadway run in The Heiress (a film based on the play won Olivia DeHavilland an Oscar) also helps as voters love actors who move between theatre and movies with ease.

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Lawrence, on the other hand took a different tact, jokingly targeting her Oscar competitors including Chastain in her monologue as host of the first new Saturday Night Live in a month. Her film also finally hit wide release on more than 2500 screens after spending the last two months in more limited release as The Weinstein Company changed its original plan to go wide over Thanksgiving. A smart move in retrospect, both for box office health and the kind of shrewd Oscar strategy for which the company that has won the last two Best Picture Oscars is known. It soared to No. 3 this weekend, just behind the double dose of Chastain, and clearly validated the Weinstein plan of holding it back and gambling that Oscar nominations would give it a boost even after all that time. With 8 key nominations including all four acting categories for the first time in 31 years, the move has worked and the film seems poised to be on its way to a potential $100 million gross (It’s up to $55 million right now, the same number Zero Dark Thirty has amassed in half the time).

But the decision to put Lawrence on SNL as host right in the thick of the race seems more problematic in hindsight, judging by some of the growing Internet chatter about her appearance — particularly a monologue where she “trash talked” about her Best Actress competition. Obviously it was written for her, was all meant as a joke and done purely for laughs, but sometimes there is a delicate balance about anything you say when there are bigger things at stake, whether it is a Presidential race or an Oscar race. Humor can be mistaken for arrogance, especially taken out of context.

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Beginning by trying to clarify her Golden Globe acceptance speech where she said ”I beat Meryl” (Streep, who was nominated in the same category for Hope Springs), she explained during her opening monologue that she was referencing a quote from The First Wives Club. “I would never trash talk any of my fellow nominees at the Golden Globes — but the Oscars are a different story” she said. That launched into a comic insult routine that would make Don Rickles proud –  if only she had his stand-up comic reputation and style of delivery. “Ladies I love you all, but you are about to get served. Well well well, look who it is. Jessica Chastain. More like ‘Jessica Chas-ain’t-winning-no-Oscar-on-my-watch”! Then she took on The Impossible’s Naomi Watts, saying winning for her would be “impossible”, and paraphrased a Diff’rent Strokes catch-phrase (“Whachu talking about, Wallis?”) to size up 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis’ chances. Lawrence ended by saying this about Amour’s Emmaneulle Riva: “An 85-year-old French lady? I think I can take you!” In trademark Rickles fashion, she softened each blow by praising after skewering (for Watts: “you are amazing in everything you do”; for Wallis: “You are a revelation”). Clearly this was just a comic bit handed to her by SNL writers, but how it will ultimately play for older Academy voters as it goes viral is anyone’s guess — particularly the line about Riva, which was the only one she delivered without a word of praise afterward. Lawrence is a hell of an actress and very genuine in person, but she’s not Rickles. The SNL team probably didn’t do her any favors with this bit.

Weinstein has used SNL effectively in the past, such as last year when eventual Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin made a well-received surprise appearance doing a song-and-dance takeoff on his role in The Artist as Oscar voting was taking place. And Weinstein was also able to use Lawrence’s appearance to run two extended TV ads for Silver Linings Playbook in the first commercial block following the monologue that emphasized the brilliance of the movie and Lawrence’s work, which may have blunted any damage caused by comically skewering her competition.

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Another Oscar frontrunner who has used SNL to show comic chops this season is Anne Hathaway, but her November appearance wasn’t timed to key voting periods and she didn’t use it to rip her rivals. However, Hathaway did raise some eyebrows with her Golden Globe acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress when she singled out chief rival Sally Field, praising her as a mentor but pointedly reminding that Field started out as The Flying Nun before going on to play Norma Rae and Mary Todd Lincoln. This week, Jimmy Kimmel showed the clip on his show and surmised that Field, though smiling in the audience, probably wasn’t too pleased.

Of course, when Bill Murray was a regular on SNL he used the platform to annually mock the Oscars and all the nominees. Then years later he found himself a front-running Best Actor nominee for Lost In Translation but lost to Sean Penn. It wasn’t lost on him that sometimes you can pay for obvious jokes when we spoke in Toronto earlier this season, and I asked if he thought those SNL bits might have somehow hurt his chances. “Yeah, I did mock the Academy and all that stuff and then it figures that when the Academy gets their chance to vote for me they go, ‘that little bastard’!”

Will any of this matter in the end? Probably not. Hopefully this year the Academy just sticks to business and votes for the performance in the movie and not anywhere else.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.