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Why I reserve special, ornery ire for the ‘we owe you’ Oscar nomination

I have my own pet peeve: when actors I don’t think deserve Oscar nominations win the Oscar. And it can happen for a number of reasons.

Front view Oscar award statue isolated on white background. 3D illustration. The base of the statue has been altered to say "Consolation Prize."Image from Adobe Stock/Globe staff photo illustration

The Oscars were always a tradition in my house growing up, a rare opportunity for me to stay up late on a school night. I don’t think my Mom gave much credence to the outcome; she watched for the spectacle.

That doesn’t mean she still didn’t get mad when something she enjoyed lost — or if something she hated won. Like my nose and my jawline, I inherited this trait from my mother. I also have my own pet peeve: when actors I don’t think deserve Oscar nominations win the Oscar.

We have a couple of those this year. But I’m getting ahead of the story.


When predicting who will get nominated, I consider factors that have served Oscar prognosticators well: The academy loves to reward mimicry, so is the actor playing a real person (Austin Butler in Elvis, Ana de Armas in Blonde)? Has the actor undergone an extreme physical transformation (Brendan Fraser in The Whale)? Does the role allow Hollywood to pat itself on the back for choosing it? (Andrea Riseborough, here’s looking at you.)

But I have special ire for what I call the “we owe you” nomination. A “we owe you” nomination can occur for a few reasons:

1. When the actor was ignored for Oscar-worthy work in the past but can no longer be denied. We can add an addendum to this one:

1a. When the actor has been ignored or passed over for so long that the academy decides to give them an honorary Oscar. Plenty of choices here: Cary Grant. Barbara Stanwyck. Deborah Kerr. Angela Lansbury.

More recently, there have been a few glitches with this one in non-acting categories. Spike Lee took home an honorary Oscar in 2015, only to win a competitive best adapted screenplay Oscar for BlacKkKlansman in 2019. Last November, Diane Warren received an honorary Oscar after 13 prior attempts to win the Academy Award for best song. Two months later, she received her 14th Oscar nomination for best song.


But I digress. Where were we in this count? Ah yes!

2. When the actor was previously nominated multiple times for great work but lost every time (Oscar wins by Paul Newman and Al Pacino fit this category).

3. When the actor has been around a very long time, and the academy thinks this may be the last chance to nominate them. Henry Fonda’s win for On Golden Pond is a prime example, as is Lauren Bacall’s nomination for The Mirror Has Two Faces. She didn’t win, but they gave her an honorary Oscar in 2009 to make up for it. Come to think of it, they gave Henry Fonda an honorary Oscar, too, the year before he won for On Golden Pond!

This is not to say that a nominated performance wasn’t a feat of great acting. And of course, the general public has no idea what actual factors led to a nomination. (Wins are easier, often boiling down to who played the Oscar-schmoozing game best.) We can only speculate, with our own biases lighting the path.

Which leads me to Jamie Lee Curtis, who is nominated for best supporting actress in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Her achievement did not surprise me — I predicted it here in the Globe.

However, I did not think she deserved the nomination. Compared to the other supporting actors in the film — Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu, both nominated and deservingly so — she didn’t do much heavy lifting. I thought the spot should have gone to one of the actors in Women Talking or The Woman King.


Granted, people have done far less than Curtis did and gotten nominated. Judi Dench, who was onscreen eight minutes, won her supporting actress Oscar for Shakespeare in Love. And she didn’t even have to fight Michelle Yeoh! But, outside of those hot dog fingers and her character’s dour appearance, I couldn’t remember much about Curtis’s performance.

So why did I predict she’d be nominated in the first place? Honestly, it was a wild guess, a long shot prediction fed by the buzz that she could be pulled in along with her costars. But if I had used one of my aforementioned theories to support my guess, it would have been the first tenet of the “we owe you” Oscar.

I can think of two prior performances that Curtis should have received Oscar consideration for: Her role as Lindsay Lohan’s mother in 2003′s Freaky Friday and her role as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unsuspecting wife in James Cameron’s 1994 action-comedy, True Lies.

In both films, she revealed her superb comic timing and the ability to make the most absurd situations believable. In Freaky Friday, Curtis persuades you she’s a teen trapped in a body she finds old and decrepit. True Lies offers her the chance to merge screwball comedy with heart-stopping action. Fans of EEAAO could argue that same point, I suppose.


I didn’t give any of this much more thought until the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Curtis’s surprise win threw the Oscar race for supporting actress into incredible disarray. Suddenly, she’s the front-runner!

In her SAG acceptance speech, she referred to herself as a “nepo baby.” Indeed, both her actor parents, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, received well-earned Oscar nominations (one apiece, and coincidentally, two years apart). They both lost, but it looks like their progeny has a shot.

I’ve been a fan of Jamie Lee Curtis since Halloween, but I’m also a film critic. That ornery side of me doesn’t think she deserves this Oscar nomination.

But as Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

Odie Henderson is The Boston Globe’s film critic. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at odie.henderson@globe.com.