Normally, the number 21 is associated with a celebratory rite of passage into legal adulthood. For veteran sound mixer Kevin O’Connell, 21 represents the number of times he’s been nominated for an Oscar without a win. O’Connell’s incredible craftsmanship has ridden tangentially with the evolution of sound technology. Typically films that highlight such breakthroughs are ones O’Connell has specifically worked on. For instance, while there are very few kind words to say about the live-action “Transformers” films, O’Connell’s work alongside fellow sound Oscar “biggest loser” Greg P. Russell is the stuff of auditory legend. The grinding clash of Autobot versus Decepticon is a sound audiences are not likely to soon forget.
This year, O’Connell is up for his ear-splitting yet brutally effective work in Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge.” Alongside this nomination, “Hacksaw Ridge” is up for five other awards, including Best Picture. Could O’Connell’s ties with a film clearly beloved by the Academy make the difference on this occasion? “La La Land” is the movie to beat in sound mixing for obvious reasons, though O’Connell’s respect among his peers combined with his losing streak could rally heavy support. If voters feel like a “La La Land” sweep would make for an exhaustive evening, they could opt to spread the wealth in a veteran’s favor. “Hacksaw Ridge’s” bombastic, immersive sound design pits audiences right into the thick of the bloody brothers-in-arms chaos. Even naysayers of Gibson’s comeback have difficulty denying the film’s mastery in sound, making it ripe for Academy plucking.
Combing through O’Connell’s illustrious career, only two films he worked on aside from “Hacksaw Ridge” were nominated for Best Picture. “Terms of Endearment” (1983) and “A Few Good Men” (1992) are the aforementioned films, demonstrating O’Connell’s minority status when it comes to “quality” awards contenders. O’Connell is known more for transcending excellence through the insipid content he works on. From “Dune” (1984) to “The Patriot” (2000) to “Transformers” (2008), O’Connell’s name has been attached to films with an Oscar history despite critical disdain for the films themselves.
Evidence suggests that when loudness is at the forefront of a cinematic experience, O’Connell is called first. Four of his Oscar nominations came as a result of his collaborations with the notorious Michael Bay. Aside from “Transformers,” even critically derailed films “Pearl Harbor” (2001), “Armageddon” (1998) and “The Rock” (1996) couldn’t halt O’Connell’s prowess. If Michael Bay has a secret weapon, it’s O’Connell.
It’s entirely possible that lingering ire for Mel Gibson could affect O’Connell’s chances. After all, this is not the first time O’Connell has worked with the controversial director. His sound design on “Apocalypto” (2006) was also Oscar-nominated, but this was before Gibson was ostracized from the industry. Could rejection by association once again deprive O’Connell of his decades-deserving Oscar? Hopefully Gibson’s path to forgiveness can extend to O’Connell.
From “Top Gun” to “Spider-Man” and its acclaimed sequel, O’Connell has given moviegoers a reason to care about such an underappreciated field. With multiple projects in any given year, his work ethic is an invaluable asset to Hollywood. After three decades of coming up short, O’Connell could finally win his first Oscar after a nine-year nomination absence. Perhaps this time his fellow Academy members will finally “hear” him after all these years. Let’s face it, O’Connell’s overdue status is beyond measurement.
Top 5 Kevin O’Connell Sound Mixes:
2. “Spider-Man 2”
3. “Top Gun”
4. “Hacksaw Ridge”
5. “Public Enemies”