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Will 'Uncut Gems' earn Adam Sandler an Oscar nomination?

Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner in "Uncut Gems."

Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner in "Uncut Gems."  Credit: A24 Films

This year's awards season chatter includes four words that might sound strange together:

Adam Sandler, Oscar nominee.

His unexpectedly searing performance as a gambling addict in the dramatic thriller "Uncut Gems" (opening Friday, Dec. 13 in Manhattan; Dec. 25, wide) could put Sandler in the running when the Academy Awards are handed out in February. Granted, this year is shaping up as a highly competitive one for the best actor race, making Sandler far from a shoo-in. But for an actor known mostly for lowbrow comedies ("Happy Gilmore," "Jack and Jill") and a multimillion-dollar, eight-film deal with Netflix that has produced more of the same ("The Ridiculous 6"), the fact that he's being mentioned in the same breath as Oscar is a remarkable development. And this isn't just media hype: On Tuesday, the National Board of Review named Sandler the best actor of the year.

"He's really great in this movie, playing a role against type of what we've come to expect," says Pete Hammond, awards columnist and chief film critic for Deadline. "I would say he's very deserving."

Sandler has a history of making dramatic films with well-established directors: Paul Thomas Anderson for "Punch Drunk Love" in 2002, James L. Brooks for "Spanglish" in 2004, Noah Baumbach for "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)" in 2017. Josh and Bennie Safdie, the writing-directing brothers behind "Uncut Gems," are known mostly on the art-house circuit, where they've earned critical acclaim for the drug-addiction drama "Heaven Knows What" and the heist film "Good Time," starring Robert Pattinson. The Safdies sent an early script of "Uncut Gems" to Sandler's team in 2012 but were turned down; it was "Good Time," released in 2017, that convinced Sandler to work with them.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a shady jewelry dealer in Manhattan's Diamond District who seems to thrive on chaos, stress and the adrenaline rush of the long-shot bet. Ratner is in some ways a Sandler-esque role – a combination of boyish charm and masculine rage – but he can also be vulnerable, even helpless. The Safdies have said Ratner was inspired by their father's stories of working in the Diamond District. (The siblings' tangential connection to Long Island – their mother was raised there – also informs the movie. They constructed the set of Ratner's shop at Gold Coast Studios in Bethpage; Ratner's wife is played by Long Islander Idina Menzel; and one of the film's odder characters, an unnamed bag-man with a deep tan and a toothy smile, is played by Oceanside-raised fashion designer Wayne Diamond.

"It's such a frenetic, tireless, tense performance – it mirrors the energy of the movie," Kevin Polowy, a Yahoo Entertainment correspondent and longtime contributor to the awards-race website GoldDerby, says of Sandler. Polowy is one of a handful of experts at GoldDerby who recently predicted Sandler would become a best actor nominee. "His character shouldn't be likeable, he doesn’t have any redeeming qualities to speak of – but you can’t help but root for the guy," Polowy says. "And I think that stems from Sandler's utterly desperate performance."

"Uncut Gems" has drawn Sandler out of his comfort zone not only as a performer but as a public figure. Sandler recently gave a rare interview to The New York Times Magazine and has been supporting his movie with in-person appearances at such festivals as Telluride, Toronto and – perhaps most surprising – the highbrow New York Film Festival. In short, Sandler appears to be on the campaign trail.

It's a long way from the publicity circuit to the gold statuette, however, and there are major obstacles in between. Hammond at Deadline points out that "Uncut Gems" arrives in theaters late in the year, giving Oscar voters little time to see it before submitting their nomination ballots Jan. 7. Sandler could also get a boost from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which will announce the nominees for the Golden Globes on Dec.  9. (After first classifying "Uncut Gems" as a comedy, the HFPA reversed its decision earlier this week and placed the film in the dramatic category competition.) One place Sandler might find some awards-season traction is from critics' groups, though they're not normally his biggest supporters.

All of which doesn't even factor in Sandler's potential competition, a roster of such heavyweights as Robert De Niro in "The Irishman," Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker," and both Christian Bale and Matt Damon in "Ford v Ferrari." Adam Driver, in "Marriage Story," also seems a likely nominee. And if there is a wild-card spot in the best actor race, it could go to Eddie Murphy, who earned rave reviews in his Netflix biopic "Dolemite Is My Name."

Ultimately, Sandler's Oscar chances will be in the hands of his fellow actors who vote in the acting categories, according to Hammond.

"When you see him do this role, Howard Ratner is an insane kind of part," Hammond says. "The actors watching this, they're going to be the most receptive to what he does to pull this off." 

WHO IS THAT GUY?

Of the many interesting actors you'll see in the Safdie brothers' new crime drama "Uncut Gems," which stars Adam Sandler, professional basketball player Kevin Garnett and the rapper The Weeknd, one is likely to stand out: Oceanside's Wayne Diamond, making his feature-film debut.

Playing an unnamed bag-man who helps a young woman (Julia Fox) carry money out of the Mohegan Sun casino, Diamond cuts quite a figure – a swaggering older fellow with a Florida tan, feathered hair and a schmoozer's smile. Appearing out of nowhere near the film's end, Diamond is likely to prompt viewers to ask: Who is that guy?

The question isn't easy to answer, partly because there's little information available on Diamond and partly because he's difficult to pin down in conversation. Asked how old he was during a recent phone interview, Diamond responded with the two-word equivalent of a middle finger – then gave a hearty, hoarse laugh.

"I'm a kid! I always wanted to be a kid, and I never wanted to get old," Diamond said. "I look good, that's all that matters."

Here's what could be pieced together from Diamond's ping-ponging talk. He is Jewish, grew up middle-class and attended Oceanside High School, where his father taught accounting. After graduation he worked in Manhattan's garment industry and eventually formed his own clothing line, Diamonds Run, which rode the trends of the disco-driven 1970s and the puffy-shouldered 1980s. (You can still find his dresses at the vintage site Etsy.) According to Diamond, his jumpsuits were the talk of the town.

"I made hundreds of jumpsuits, different styles," he said. "I was a designer, it was really fun. But in my heart, I really wanted to be an actor."

After selling his business in 2001 and retiring with a $110 million nest egg, Diamond lived in Old Westbury for a time and went through a listless period. While drinking at The Spotted Pig in Manhattan one evening, Diamond struck up a conversation with a young director named Josh Safdie, who enjoyed his colorful stories and jokes. They kept in touch. Eventually, Josh and his brother, Bennie, found a role for Diamond in "Uncut Gems."

"I still go to school for acting. I want to get a real part, a serious part," Diamond said. "I like Shakespeare, the Russian artists, that stuff." He added, "I'd like to do some real stuff. Something to show that I have talent."

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