Overview: Two nominations, for best supporting actress (Ruby Dee) and art direction. Notes, with possible plot spoilers, after the jump ...
Overview continued: "American Gangster" is a rather fictionalized version of the story of drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an honest cop battling the New York drug trade and its attendant corruption.
In another year, I could see this doing much better than two Oscar nominations.
Not only does it star two previous winners, it was a sizable commercial success; its $130 million box-office take was bigger than that of any best-picture nominee (although "Juno" is at $100 million and still selling tickets). Indeed, according to Box Office Mojo, "Gangster's" gross means that Ruby Dee by herself gets credit for almost as much money as the other four nominees combined. After Dee, the next most commercial supporting-actress nominee is Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton," which has taken in about $42 million.
And you could go beyond Washington, Crowe and Dee for potential nominees; Josh Brolin has a showy supporting role in "Gangster," which with his turn in "No Country for Old Men" should have made him seem more award-worthy to the Oscar folks.
Moreover, "American Gangster" has echoes of many fine movies, including "The Godfather," "Scarface," "New Jack City" and other films about this period, like "Serpico" and "Prince of the City." Unfortunately, in spite of a promising first hour, the movie fails to maintain its momentum for its full 2 1/2-hour length. Nor does the movie always appear to be certain about what it is. The title suggests that it is about Lucas, but Roberts gets considerable screen time; I have to wonder if this is a matter of increasing the part to allow for an actor of Crowe's stature, or a commercial calculation offering a major white character as an audience draw when an African-American is at center stage. In any case, it doesn't work; the Roberts story takes away from the far more interesting account of Washington. When the two actors finally intersect late in the film, there are few sparks -- and the ending feels too hasty.
(By the way, all this is based on my viewing "American Gangster" on DVD, much as I did with "Michael Clayton." Although the DVD release includes an extended, unrated version, I watched the theatrical version, to gauge the movie as the academy would have.)
So, I can see where the movie got brushed aside by some formidable contenders. (Well, mostly formidable contenders. See my tepid reaction to "Michael Clayton" in a previous Oscar post.) Why, then, did Ruby Dee, as Lucas's mother, get nominated?
She is good. She has been consistently good over her long career. And while she has relatively little screen time, she does get one of those big Oscar-telecast-excerpt scenes, where she slaps Washington and makes you feel it. And, for people who believe in cheering their hometown heroes, she was born in Cleveland. (As I have pointed out elsewhere, Cleveland has two acting nominees this year, the other being Hal Holbrook.)
But, having seen four of the five contenders in this category, I think any award going to Dee would be largely sentimental or a career-achievement award, since this is her first nomination.
I would not put Swinton ahead of Dee, but neither would I put Dee ahead of Cate Blanchett ("I'm Not There") or Amy Ryan ("Gone Baby Gone"). Since I have not yet seen "Atonment," I can't yet rate Saoirse Ronan. But with Blanchett and Ryan giving scary-good performances, this is a tough category to turn over to Dee.
As for the art-direction nomination, I will pretend no expertise.