With the New York Film Festival's closing night presentation of Spike Jonze's Her, the awards fray may have found its next big critics' darling. Jonze's tale of a near-futuristic love affair between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and his intuitive, intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) was received by New York's festival-going press with only slightly less fanfare than an actual parade. It's a story for our technologically-advanced, interpersonally-challenged times. It's deceptively heartbreaking and funny at the weirdest angles. It's a Spike Jonze movie, in other words, and after the somewhat misunderstood Where the Wild Things Are, it looks like he's back to being the critics' choice.
Her was the last but by no means only NYFF presentation to drum up year-end awards talk. It was a remarkably successful seventeen days, at least when it came to screening films that critics were eager to praise and Oscar-watchers were eager to slot into their predictions. Festival-circuit stalwarts like 12 Years a Slave, and the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis continued their respective marches, while it seemed like every day a new campaign for Best Actor was being launched: Tom Hanks for the just-released Captain Phillips, Robert Redford for his one-man-on-a-stranded-schooner drama All Is Lost, curmudgeonly adorable Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne's crowd-pleasing Nebraska. Really, the only awards hopeful to land with anything approaching a thud was Ben Stiller's directorial effort The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and even that managed to elicit more head-patting "I bet this will play well with your parents' friends!" chatter than too many outright pans.
Of course, Jonze is no stranger to critical praise, and his first two films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, were also big hits on the awards circuit, so it shouldn't be that surprising that once again people are talking of his film as a candidate for the best of the year. What is somewhat surprising is who else is reaping the bulk of the Her Oscar buzz. Despite never once appearing on the screen, it's Johansson's voice-only performance that has many wondering whether she might stand a chance in the Best Supporting Actress race. The performance is in many ways the emotional fulcrum of the film, and without the benefit of her celebrated beauty, Johansson is able to deliver a romantic heroine who isn't nearly the idealized, agency-less object that audiences may be expecting. It's the kind of performance that would easily attract awards attention … if she ever appeared onscreen.
It's not like we haven't heard the drumbeat for non-traditional acting nominations before. Eddie Murphy for Shrek, Ellen Degeneres for Finding Nemo, any number of Andy Serkis motion-capture performances -- only none of them has been able to find any real traction. Still, Team Her, undeterred by history, appears ready to make a push for Johansson, if producer Megan Ellison's tweets are to be believed. "Scarlett is eligible, deserves the recognition, and we are going to campaign for her," Ellison tweeted on Sunday morning, after a day's worth of escalating internet praise.
The notion of a ScarJo nomination is certainly an intriguing one. It's not like the field of Best Supporting Actress contenders is so overwhelming at this point. While Johansson's co-star Phoenix will likely have a tough time cracking a Best Actor field that already includes a mix of sentimental favorites and buzz-heavy contenders (in addition to Hanks, Redford, Dern, and 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor, there's Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club still to come, plus Fruitvale Station's Michael B. Jordan as a summer holdover), there really hasn't been anyone to plant her flag in the Supporting Actress race since Oprah Winfrey in Lee Daniels' The Butler. Major contenders await down the road, particularly now that Julia Roberts is reported to be slumming it in Supporting for August: Osage County, but for the moment, there's a hush in the buzz just waiting to be filled by ScarJo's dusky intonations.