2000: “The Contender” and Three Varying Oscar Journeys

This article originally appeared on The Film Experience

Revisiting Rod Lurie’s The Contender, the three primary performances of Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman still pop off the screen.  All three had been critically lauded before the political drama and earned rave reviews for their performances.  Oddly, the film serves as the unintentional catalyst for the Oscar trajectory of all three actors.  In the next 20 years, two would win Oscars, while the other has yet to be nominated again…

Jeff Bridges

If you tell people Jeff Bridges has seven Oscar nominations, they might look at you with incredulous confusion.  Two of his nods came before he even turned 30 (The Last Picture Show and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot) which is unusual for male stars. His first lead actor nomination was also an atypical Oscar situation, as he was nominated for John Carpenter sci-fi romance (Starman).  Bridges’ nomination for The Contender came at a critical revival for the actor, right on the heels of his cult favorite performance in The Big Lebowski, and sixteen years since his previous nod.  With four nominations to his credit after The Contender, a long history of quality work and a family history entrenched in Hollywood, Bridges felt overdue.

He continued working and gaining critical raves from smaller indies like The Door in the Floor, to Best Picture nominees like Seabiscuit, to being the MCU’s first villain in Iron Man.  When Crazy Heart came along in 2009, Bridges’ victory was like a foregone conclusion.  Following his win, Bridges is now cemented as a bonafide Oscar darling, getting two follow-up nominations playing nearly the same character (True Grit and Hell or High Water).

Gary Oldman

There was a time when Gary Oldman couldn’t get arrested by the Academy.  From Sid & Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears, JFK, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Leon: The Professional, Oldman stood as the best actor the Oscars never gave the time of day to.  When The Contender rolled around, Oldman received a SAG nomination, the first major Hollywood nomination of his career, but he was still given the cold shoulder by the Academy.

It took another decade of mainstream success for Oldman to finally enter Oscar’s good graces.  Following well received roles in two franchises (Harry Potter and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films) Oldman finally broke through with the Academy via 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  Much like Bridges, Oldman immediately felt overdue; we all knew when the right role came around, Oldman would steamroll to the award.  That’s just what happened when Oldman portrayed Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.  Oscar voters show no sign of ignoring Oldman now as he just received another Best Actor nomination for his lead role in Mank.

Joan Allen

The fact that Joan Allen hasn’t been nominated since The Contender was hard to imagine at the time.  Allen had an almost unprecedented run of awards success in the late 90s.  Following a pair of Best Supporting Actress nominations (1995’s Nixon and 1996’s The Crucible), she regularly received critical kudos, but was snubbed by Oscar for 1997’s The Ice Storm and 1998’s PleasantvilleThe Contender earned her her first Best Lead Actress citation. But Allen was basically in the conversation for five of a consecutive six years. 

While The Contender sent the two actors hurtling towards Oscar, Allen stepped into smaller roles in larger films, like the Bourne Identity films and The Notebook.  Did this come about at Allen’s own volition, or is it an unfortunate byproduct of Hollywood’s unwillingness to give women of a certain age quality roles?

Allen’s costar in The Contender, Mike Binder, was apparently annoyed by this very prospect and wrote and directed The Upside of Anger specifically for Allen to have a juicy role.  Binder has claimed most major studios rejected the film due to Allen’s casting and was forced to be financed independently.  Despite critical raves for her performance, Allen didn’t return to the Academy’s lineup.

Allen hasn’t resurfaced in feature films since her supporting role in 2015 Best Picture nominee Room.  She is focused more on TV lately, with an upcoming role in Pablo Larrian’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story on AppleTV+.

Allen, Bridges, and Oldman are all of the same generation, separated only by nine years of age.  Despite Bridges being already well-liked by Oscar and Oldman completely ignored at the time of The Contender, the two actors continued to work steadily and were given great roles which eventually led them towards runaway Oscar victories.  Allen had six years of near constant awards attention, but hit her mid-40s and was promptly ignored by Hollywood.

As is often the case, men in Hollywood are allowed to age and continue to work, while the women, even if they have a near-unblemished track record, will be swiftly ignored or shuffled away.  We can look back at The Contender, marvel at Allen’s craft and the restrained ferocity of her performance, and wonder how we ever allowed this to happen.

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