Are Pundits Underestimating the Awards Potential for 'Boyhood' Star Ellar Coltrane?

The 20-year-old newcomer could, conceivably, ride the popularity of his film to a best actor Oscar nomination
Andy Kropa/Invision/AP
Ellar Coltrane, left, with his 'Boyhood' director Richard Linklater

If the 87th Oscars were held tomorrow, as opposed to Feb. 22 of 2015, my strong suspicion — which is shared by others who watch this stuff closely — is that Richard Linklater's Boyhood would win the best picture Oscar. No other 2014 film that has already been released in theaters has resonated nearly as much with critics, moviegoers or Academy members, nor does any other 2014 film, released or en route, possess the sort of ready-to-market narrative that it does: It is a completely unique undertaking that was 12 years in the making.

Moreover, most take it as a given, at this point, that Linklater will receive best director and best original screenplay noms and that Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who play ex-spouses in the film, will receive noms for best supporting actor and best supporting actress, respectively — and might even win. But if Boyhood is so beloved by Academy members, and it is, then why aren't pundits giving the actor who plays its central character, 20-year-old Ellar Coltrane, much of a shot in the best actor category? I think that they — make that "we" — should.

Sure, the kid has a lot going against him. For one thing, he's a virtual unknown whose only prior credits were small parts in little-seen films. Additionally, he has the misfortune of coming along in one of the deepest years in recent memory for the best actor category. (We've already seen worthy work from Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Keaton, Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Miles Teller, Chadwick Boseman, Bill Murray, Timothy Spall, Ben Affleck, Jake Gyllenhaal and Kevin Costner — and still await Matthew McConaughey, Jack O'Connell, Bradley Cooper, David Oyelowo, Oscar Isaac, Mark Wahlberg and James Corden.) And, furthermore, since he began his work on Boyhood when he was just 6, many wonder how much of his performance is really "acting," as opposed to simply "doing as told" in front of the camera and therefore devaluing his candidacy.

But, at the same time, Oscar voters love this movie, and when they love something they sometimes behave in ways that catch pundits by surprise. Remember Jonah Hill from Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street? Most pundits acknowledged that he was very good in both films, but — particularly in the latter case — also assumed that candidates with more Academy-friendly résumés would ultimately beat him out for a spot. Instead, he snagged noms for both, not least because those movies were extremely well-liked, just as Boyhood is this year.

But being well-liked isn't enough — a film and a performance also need to be widely seen. The deep, dark secret of Oscar voting is that most Academy members don't watch very many of the eligible movies — probably somewhere between a dozen and 20, on average — and they then fill out their ballots drawing from the pool of movies that they have seen. That's why publicists fight so hard to lure voters to just see their movies. That's why, in the age of the expanded best picture category, so few acting nominees come from movies that aren't also best picture nominees. And that's another thing working in Coltrane's favor. Most people have already seen Boyhood based on its unparalleled word-of-mouth, and the rest certainly will once its screener arrives sometime around Thanksgiving.

Also keep in mind that Coltrane's momentum, like that of his film, may well get a boost from some of the earliest groups to dispense awards this season. I fully expect him to be nominated for — and quite possibly win — best breakthrough actor at the Gotham Awards. I think that the National Board of Review could pick him as their breakthrough actor, as well. Critics groups who are enamored with the film could champion him in similar ways. And I'd be surprised if, a bit further down the road, he isn't nominated for the best actor Independent Spirit Award, as well.

As important as anything is that Coltrane appears to be an impressive guy offscreen as well — soft-spoken, humble and not particularly fazed, one way or the other, by his newfound fame, of sorts — and the more that his film and he are feted on the awards circuit, the more that Oscar voters will begin to see this.

Sure, at the end of the day landing an Oscar nom might turn out to be a "close but no cigar" pursuit for him, just as it was last year for Inside Llewyn Davis' Oscar Isaac and Fruitvale Station's Michael B. Jordan, and in years prior for many other impressive newcomers. But, for all of the aforementioned reasons — on top of the fact that IFC Films is financially supporting the film's awards campaign and the experienced folks at Strategy PR are executing it — at least grant me this: It's possible!

One word of advice for the youngster, though: Think of the Academy like you think of your grandparents. In other words, if you haven't done so already, lose the nose ring STAT.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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