E: Quick history lesson. The Oscars were conceived, some 90 years ago, as a way to boost movie sales. It’s that plain and simple; studio heads wanted a gimmick to draw even more of the public into theaters, and so the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was born, conceived in greed and birthed by cash in 1929. In 1930, the awards were broadcast for the first time. From radio to television, the spectacle has always had one purpose and I, like so many others, follow its call. I see the movies. I play the game. You probably do, too.
And I like to play the game. I like supporting excellent art; I even like that following the Oscars forces me to see movies I might otherwise avoid. Sure, sometimes I hate them like I’m expecting to, but sometimes they’re so revelatory, and shine such a window on human experience. Movies can make the lives of other people real to us. Knowledge, wisdom, empathy, intellectual rigor, excitement, and pure whimsy and joy – the cinema can bring us all these things.
Since the 1990s, AMPAS has shifted its attention away from studio fare and onto indie films. At the time, I lauded this turn as a focus on much better and deeper films. Today, however, I look at the slate of Best Picture nominees, and I think about the favorites, and I wonder just what that turn of events has wrought. Whose Best Picture is this? These days most Oscar nominees don’t play at the multiplex down the street, especially if you happen to live somewhere other than coasts. This year, in fact, the likely winner isn’t playing in theaters at all – it’s playing on a streaming service – and it’s hard to know if anyone is watching it there.
This is all to say that it’s good to think about what makes a movie popular or beloved, and correspondingly, what makes an award show watchable. It’s not a coincidence that in the last 25 plus years of more obscure films taking over the Oscars, the show’s ratings have dipped as much as 30% a year. And as a foreign film no one has seen is poised to make history by winning Best Picture for the first time, it seems reasonable to ask; what’s the point of the Oscars, and why should we care? Who are the Oscars for? Surely it’s foolishness to declare a best film at all; art is subjective. Taste is subjective. The film that possesses the imagination of Hollywood voters in any given year is rarely the movie audiences prefer, or even critics. So as we talk about what will win – and as always there are solid favorites in each category – it’s worth thinking about what each win means, and for whom. Look at the many ways Oscar goes global and stays local at the same time! As always, we’ll dive deep into the top 6 categories, with brief looks at some of the others.
Best Supporting Actor:
And the Oscar Goes to:
Mahershala Ali, Green Book
How Certain am I? 80%
If Not Him, Then Who?
Sam Elliott or Richard E. Grant?
Racking Up Career Nods:
Sam Rockwell, Vice
Welcomed Into the Nominee Fold:
Adam Driver, BlackkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me
This one’s an easy one. There’s play in most of the other categories, but not much suspense here at all. Only Grant and Elliott have won anything else all season, while Ali has collected the Golden Globe, the SAG, the Critics Choice and the BAFTA. It’s obvious from his first imposing moments on screen that Ali commands our attention and respect as pianist Dr. Don Shirley, in a monumentally different way than his thoughtful drug dealer in Moonlight. He brings dignity as well as urbane polish to Green Book‘s buddy comedy. There’s some controversy around the movie and about the film’s portrayal of his character, but it shouldn’t affect him. This will be two wins for two nominations, and will make him only the second black actor ever to win two competitive Oscars.
After a long and storied career, Sam Elliott scores his first nomination for his heartbreaking role as Jackson Maine’s manager brother Bobby, who loved his much younger brother but couldn’t save him from addiction and depression. It’s not, perhaps, an unusual character, but Elliott brings quiet strength to it, a rock solid confidence and patient advocacy. Whatever damage their father inflicted on his younger son, the elder has overcome with hard-found wisdom. I am thrilled to see the 75 year old finally acknowledged. I wouldn’t even mind if he won, but I don’t at all expect him to.
British character actor Richard E. Grant has an great facility with words; they spill out of him, they twirl, they dance. You probably know him from Downton Abbey, Gosford Park, Twelfth Night, Portrait of a Lady, Age of Innocence, The Scarlet Pimpernel or Doctor Who, but it’s the delicious and devastating comedy Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a true story of two misanthropes scamming the literary world, that brought him his first Oscar nod more than thirty years after his first leading role in cult classic Withnail and I. If anyone was going to unseat Ali, we’d have seen it at BAFTA; the Brits love their own enough to triumph over other of this year’s favorites. No such luck. It looks as if Grant is delighted to be at the party, however, and soaking it all in. Cheers to you, sir!
Now, you may remember that I really, really loathed Sam Rockwell’s simplistic racist cop last year. No nuance, and no insight. But he won – he’s by all accounts an incredibly popular actor. He’s back this year as Vice‘s George W. Bush, a charming slab of Texas Toast, twice as thick as any person could be, and again, I’m not impressed. (The level of satire in Vice just didn’t impress me, perhaps an irony because I think it’s probably pretty accurate in its portrayal of government shenanigans – it’s just that the people involved don’t come across as real people). I guess I should say that in both cases my main beef is with the writing and not the acting – Rockwell does well playing brainless and likable – and I hate saying this because I really like Sam Rockwell. The role doesn’t do it for me, but it’s also not really in contention.
Finally, we have first time nominee Adam Driver, who hasn’t exactly had a lengthy, storied career, but has captured the imagination of audiences and casting directors, starting as a heartless love interest in Girls and culminating as Star Wars’ poster boy for angry brooding, Kylo Ren. Last year he got quite a bit of critical attention for his role as a bus driving veteran in Paterson, which probably helped him break through this year. It’s so much easier for a younger man to snag a supporting nomination! In Spike Lee’s astonishing true story BlackkKlansman, he plays a tart, quiet veteran cop, the Christian de Neuvillette to John David Washington’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Which is to say, Washington’s sadly snubbed Ron snares the Klan on the phone, and Driver’s Flip Zimmerman continues the undercover work in person. It’s not a showy role – it’s quite a break from force-choking the scenery in the Star Wars films – but one he carries out with conviction.
Best Supporting Actress:
And the Oscar Goes To:
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
How Certain Am I? 55%
If Not Her, Then Who:
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
They Like Her But It’s Not Her Year:
Amy Adams, Vice
Another Notch in Her Belt:
Emma Stone, The Favourite
The Surprise Entrant:
Marina de Tavira, Roma
They Was Robbed:
Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place
Margo Robbie, Mary Queen of Scots
Possibly the most celebrated group of nominees, Best Supporting Actress boasts two Oscar winners (Stone and Weisz), a storied television vet with Emmys and Golden Globes to her name, and one of the most nominated actresses of the 21 century.
We should start with the favorite, though of all the acting categories, this one is most in flux. First time nominee Regina King – who’s worked since her days on the sitcom 227, finding small but pivotal roles in films like Jerry Maguire and substantial, Emmy winning turns in American Crime and Seven Seconds – seemed unassailable at the start of the season, taking home the Critics Choice and Golden Globe in quick succession. And this is after snagging all the critics prizes – LA, New York, Boston, NSFC; grabbing city and state prizes from Las Vegas to Detroit and North Carolina. If you have seen this lovely, heart-breaking movie, it’s immediately apparent why. It’s not an enormous role, but it’s so substantial, so vital, so quote-worthy and so filled with love. Sharon Rivers is the parent I aspire to be, calming her children, fighting for them with dignity, inspiring them with her rock-solid determination and soothing them with her wisdom.
But then – but then. Then came the last two major awards shows, and she wasn’t nominated for either the Screen Actors Guild or the BAFTA. People are quick to say that BAFTA has the biggest cross over with AMPAS membership, and that the Academy is mostly made up of actors, but it’s hard to say anything conclusive about who will beat whom when there wasn’t a head-to-head contest. According to people who know people, and prognosticators around the country, it still is King’s race to lose, but I’m worried about one thing.
At the Golden Globes, King gave a glorious, impassioned speech about how she’s going to make sure that in the projects she produces, there’s parity and representation in the cast and the crew. Hollywood films are overwhelmingly crewed by white men, and she’s right that this is a vital step to changing the industry. My fear here is simple. What is AMPAS made up of, besides white men who work in the film industry? After recently seeing fanboys railing against Brie Larson for daring to suggest that the pressroom for Captain Marvel be representative, that it made her sexist and racist to say that women and minorities deserve a proportionate place at the table; well, that’s my worry about King. Will insiders look at her and fear for their jobs, and vote to give her less of a boost, less of a chance to speak and affect their industry? I’m not saying that this is going to happen, but if she loses, I think that’ll be why. It will be twice a travesty if that happens.
Who benefits if it does? Since SAG winner Emily Blunt wasn’t nominated here (and that poor girl – two hugely acclaimed roles this year and no nominations to show for it, AGAIN), that role falls to BAFTA winner, supporting actress winner for 2005’s The Constant Gardner, Rachel Weisz. In a complete shift from the mysterious activist she played in that film, Weisz is nominated here for her steely, manipulative lady-in-waiting and longtime companion to the spoiled, childish Queen Anne. Weisz’s Lady Sarah was by far my favorite character in the film – truly devoted to both the queen and her husband, thoughtful in her politics, terrifying and brutal as she matches wits to keep her elevated status as the favorite in The Favourite, weirdly honest even in her manipulations. If she were to surprise and win, it would be her second win in as many nominations.
Consistently nominated this year is Weisz’s costar, three time nominee Emma Stone. Her grasping Abigail is a far cry from La La Land‘s artistic dreamer, for which Stone recently won best actress. It’s a stretch for her, which is nice, but it’s also a tragedy; Abigail schemes and prostitutes herself for security, winning herself a marriage and the attention of the Queen but, unlike Lady Sarah, is not happy or satisfied with either. She shares no affection with her husband (the attempted rape scene is the movie’s funniest moment, which should indicate to you why I’m not a fan) or with the Queen with whom she curries favor, or to the politician with whom she allies; her only thought is of survival. While this is understandable, it also makes her final expression – bored by her constant service to the Queen, still trapped, still insecure despite the luxury around her -absolutely devastating. As with her previous nomination in this category, for 2014’s Birdman, she’s expected to lose.
This year, Amy Adams ties The King and I‘s Deborah Kerr with six nominations and no chance at a win. Of course, Kerr has no chance at a win because she’s no longer living; Adams will get her chance someday, one presumes. Not only has she racked up an impressive number of nominations, she’s done that in impressive time. Only Meryl Streep, the all-time record holder for nominations at 19, has received more acting nods in this century; 9 to Adams’ 6. Indeed, if you count from Adams’ first nomination for Junebug, the total is 7 to 6, and some people are still peeved that she got passed over for Enchantment. She’s clearly doing a lot that’s right. So, someday, but not today. Most of Adams’ roles lead with her and her incandescent charisma, and steely Lynn Cheney, who participated fully in all her husband’s politics, who was the making of him, who demanded he do better for her, is clearly not one of those roles. It may be the most against-type I’ve seen her play. I did wonder, when King was not nominated by SAG and BAFTA despite steamrolling wins at the Globes and Critics Choice, if Adams could work up enough momentum to change the race. She lost both of those races, however, and so once again we say that this is not her year.
I have to be honest; Marina de Tavira (though wonderful and naturalistic) has a role that reminds me of the adults in a Peanuts cartoon special. She’s almost always speaking off in another room, overheard through a door, talking on the phone to someone we can’t hear, off on the side of the screen in a conversation we don’t completely catch. As Roma’s abandoned wife and mother she’s mercurial, both compassionate and cruel to her children and employees, long suffering and irritable, quick to irrational anger and even quicker to apologize. The distanced, documentary style of filming director-cinematographer Alfonso Cuaron favors makes her character hard to know (she’s rarely, if ever, the focus of a frame of film), but her situation is nuanced and complex. I wouldn’t have voted to nominate her – the role is very, very slight – but I hope it’s an honor the Mexican television actress can parlay into bigger jobs in the future.
By All Accounts, Your Winner:
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
How Certain Am I? 65%
If Not Him, Then Who?
Christian Bale, Vice
Here For the Party:
Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
John David Washington, BlackkKlansman
Like Regina King, Rami Malek has been tearing it up on TV lately; he won another Emmy last year for the hacker drama Mr. Robot. It’s a mark of how the relationship between the big and little screens have changed that Malek would be the first actor winner to be in that kind of position, winning awards for both mediums in the same year. King and Malek should be plotting themselves a concept album or a Broadway run together; after tonight they should be half way to an EGOT.
This is an interesting race. No one really expected this movie, which was critically panned but adored at the box office, to make the late end run it did. Bio pics may be Oscar’s bread and butter, but for many Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t really transcend the level of a VH1 Behind the Music special. It’s likely to be the glorious concert scenes which pushed Malek’s exuberant performance over the edge. Up until SAG, prognosticators had given the advantage to Christian Bale, perhaps because they considered his movie more highbrow, but SAG and BAFTA both rewarded Malek instead for his swaggering, strutting introvert taken too soon, and indeed it was his performance that brought audiences to the theaters.
In his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, four time Oscar nominee Christian Bale acknowledged the oddness of winning an award for playing a stiff, charisma-less bureaucrat. In a triumph of make up, we see a young wastrel transformed into a slick, amoral political operative, ever greedy for power, ready to trade anything and everything for more access, more power, more money. Recent events have shown that awards-giving bodies (like audiences) seem to want more. And Bale, who has won before in his single appearance in the supporting category, is famous for the kind of temper tantrums and bad behavior that’s getting called out much more often now. Voters may be looking for a fresh face, and neither one Bale wears here may qualify.
Poor Bradley Cooper. I think he’s a victim of his own success with AMPAS; he’s a seven time Oscar nominee, four for acting, two for producing and the last for screenwriting. He labored long to bring this wondrous, emotional, gut-wrenching movie to theaters, and he knocked it out of the park. This is the movie that all my mom friends and all my high school classmates love the most; we swooned over his swagger, and sobbed over his brokenness. (Believe me when I say this is not an audience who gets a lot of love thrown their way – where are the grown up films with complicated, realistic, emotional relationships? They don’t make them much any more.) Cooper envisioned A Star Is Born‘s classic lead as a country singer with a heart of darkness, a broken child who drinks to forget his depression and impending hearing loss, who find temporary solace in the most authentic romantic relationship put on film in a long time. I shouldn’t feel sorry for him – his film made tons of money and won tons of acclaim – but it’s weird slide from frontrunner lock to also-ran does make me sad, as does his exclusion from the directing race. Too talented, too handsome, too young for Oscar to acknowledge him. My vote of this crew would go to him. (Fun fact: this is the third time that the two leads of A Star is Born’s three versions have both received nominations, a feat not achieved by any other fictional characters.)
Viggo Mortensen has a funny knack for playing various European ethnicities; he was nominated first for playing an icy Russian assassin in Eastern Promises, and here picks up his third nod for Best Actor as a chatty, colorful Italian fixer with a love for street food and a fascinatingly flexible moral code. He makes an unlikely foil for Ali’s gracious, elevated Dr. Shirley, and the interaction between the two men may follow a conventional arc but is not less delightful for being something we’ve generally seen before. He was never going to win, and he certainly did his reputation harm on this press junket, but I flat out enjoyed this movie, as I usually do watching Aragorn work. As an Oscar junkie, I can’t help enjoying the fact that this movie came out of the camaraderie that the two actors found two years ago while they were on the awards season for Moonlight and Captain Fantastic.
Willem Dafoe plays madman Vincent Van Gogh in all his ear-cutting, straight-jacket wearing glory. At Eternity’s Gate gives us a beautiful notion of Van Gogh’s take on the world, the way he is undone again and again by beauty. The film gives us a gritty-pretty take on the past, often blurring lines so we see what Vincent sees. I was irritated by the fact that most of the other actors spoke in heavy accents while Dafoe sounds resolutely American; perhaps this choice occurred because the story takes place in France, to distinguish Van Gogh as an outsider, but it interfered with my ability to take him seriously. And then there’s the fact that Dafoe is a good thirty years older than the real Van Gogh was when he died. And the moment when he says “I think I’m painting for people who haven’t been born yet”? True, but what are the chances that he knew that? I’d say slim to none.
A small shout out should go to John David Washington, son of Denzil. If your effervescent performance in BlackkKlansman is anything to judge by, you have a lot to give audiences, especially after only acting for about three years. I very much look forward to whatever you do next.
And the Oscar (FINALLY) Goes To:
Glenn Close, The Wife
How Sure Am I? 85%
Why Can’t There Be Two?:
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Welcome to the Big Show:
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Isn’t It Nice to be Taken Seriously?
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns
This afternoon, Glenn Close is the most nominated actress to not win an Oscar, but that no doubt unhappy distinction will pass during the Oscar telecast, the mantle falling (as previously mentioned) on Amy Adams.
Before I saw The Wife, I didn’t know how anyone could beat Lady Gaga’s incredibly honest and raw performance as Allie, the star being born in Bradley Cooper’s opus. We know she can sing – the whole world knows she can sing, with technical proficiency and with raw emotion – but who knew that she could act as well? I believed utterly in her performance, in her relationship with Cooper’s Jackson (and with her best friend played by Anthony Ramos, and with her dad, played by – yes – Andrew Dice Clay), in her singular voice, and in what she had to say with it. Audiences fell for her just as Jackson does. She richly deserves this first nomination, and the only thing about it that’s sad is that I don’t know what other role she could have that would suit her so well.
But not only has Close been nominated more than any other unrewarded actress living or dead, not only has it taken her thirty plus years to get here, but she has the role of a lifetime here. If you have not seen The Wife, you must do it. If you love film, if you love those complex adult dramas, this is your movie to see. I don’t want to spoil a minute of it, but suffice to say that there are so many layers, so much truth, so much that we don’t know about the self-effacing wife of the also excellent Jonathan Price’s Nobel Laureate. Often great actors get their Oscars at the end of their careers, a consolation when their true greatness has past. (Think Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman.) But Glenn Close? If Glenn Close had never worked in Hollywood, if she didn’t have the weight of iconic roles behind her, if you’d never heard her name she would deserve this award for this role. How much more meaningful is it that she earns it now and still has the power of the past behind her? It will be an emotional highlight to see her finally take this step.
Also? See the damn movie. I promise you, even if you are a man and frightened of the name, you will like it.
I’ve been a fan of Olivia Colman’s since I first saw her excellent work as the local police detective in Broadchurch, so I’m quite happy for her. Her performance is mercurial and raw, though I found it (and the film) rather cliched. I also find it hard to justify calling her performance a leading one without giving similar status to Stone and Weisz, whose competition drives the action of the film, but I suppose they weren’t going to put them all in one category no matter who got the most screen time. She took the most recent bellwether, the BAFTA, but seems quite unlikely to best Close. I will be, in fact, infuriated if she does.
Can You Ever Forgive Me is a funny movie, but it’s not the kind of broad, slapstick film you’re used to seeing Melissa McCarthy star in. It’s an excellent stretch for her – dark, mordant, eloquent and painful – and I’m so glad to see her rewarded for it with her first leading nomination and second nomination over all. Writer Lee Israel, desperate to pay her rent and save her sick cat, and uncertain of her own voice as a writer, forges literary letters and memorabilia. By adopting the voices of others – and eventually failing spectacularly and losing everything – she eventually works her way to finding her own voice. I’m super curious to see if she’s going to be at the telecast, and I can’t wait to read her book upon which this weird and moving movie was based.
This brings us to first time nominee, and first time actor Yalitza Aparicio. If you’ve heard of her at all, you know she’s the central character of Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical Roma, the tribute to Libo, the nanny/maid who helped raise him. You probably also know that she’s the first native Mexican to be nominated for best actress. Cleo the maid is quiet, self-effacing, deferential, even malleable with other adults, funny and playful with the children. As with Marina de Tavira, we rarely see a close up of her face; the film’s two iconic images are of her embraced by her employer’s family on a beach, and staring dreamily out a car window, a child in her arms. The latter is nearly the only close up of her face in the entire film; the former is definitely the only moment that speaks of her own feelings, and it’s a gut-wrenching climax to a film that’s seen her suffer horribly and act with great bravery.
Finally, I’ll ask again; what does Emily Blunt have to do to get herself a nomination? My God, what hasn’t she done? She sings, she dances, she opens up portals to alternate dimensions, she flies. She does all that and a posh accent just in this one role; she’s fought creepy science fiction monsters as a soldier, eluded mythical manipulators, danced some more, held her own against Meryl Streep, solved mysteries and saved her family in others. Get with the program, AMPAS. At this rate when you finally break down and nominate her you’re probably going to have to give her the award.
And the Oscar Goes To:
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
How Sure Am I? 95%
They Like Him But It’s Not His Year:
Adam McKay, Vice
First Time Nominee Party:
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Spike Lee, BlackkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Worst Snub (tie):
Ryan Coogler, Black Panther
Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
Come on. We all know this is Cuaron; he’s more assured than any other winner this year. He’s had a mortal lock on this category all season. For the personal nature of his film, for it’s artistry, for the fact that he did the cinematography himself… he’s likely to pick up an award tonight for that, too. He’s already the first director to be so nominated, and will be the first to achieve that win. This will be his second directing Oscar in as many tries; this evening also marks his third entry into the screen play races (previously for Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men). He’ll continue the 2010s dominance of the so-called Three Amigos; he and friends Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Inarritu have won 4 out of the last 5 directing Oscars, and he’s primed to bring the total to 5.
Personally, I found Roma weirdly remote; the audience feels like a person in the room, but not in the conversation taking place on screen – everything happens at a great distance, almost never close up. The characters are carried along in a flood, in the images of water so prevalent in the film, never understanding the outside forces that control their destinies. I wish I knew more of Mexican politics from the time period, because I definitely don’t understand what was going on; I’m not sure that matters to our experience of the film, though. We’re supposed to view it as children, as a slice of real life. An odd life filled with odd details (naked martial arts! the ghillie suit! the dog poop! good God, the wall decorations!) but a real life nonetheless.
In case you’re ready to come at me for the title heading (First Time Nominee Party), I know that Spike Lee has been nominated before, but that was for his screenplays. This year, he finally gets recognition as the multi-hyphenate he is. Ironically, this is also the year he’s most likely to take home the adapted screenplay award, although he may lose out as Moonlight winner/If Beale Street Could Talk scribe Barry Jenkins picks up his second statuette in that category.
Critics fawned over Yorgos Lanthimos for his animal fantasy The Lobster, but his nomination here is its own reward. The same is true for Pawel Pawlikowski, who helms a sumptuous ode to his parents tumultuous love story (even though you probably don’t know his name, you’ve likely seen him accepting the foreign film Oscar for Ida back in 2015). Which one of them made it in over Bradley Cooper we’ll never know, but it’s exactly the sort of stunt that the iconoclastic director’s brand loves to pull, putting an early favorite out of contention.
Adam McKay makes thinky movies, perhaps quicker to capture the head than the heart. I liked The Big Short well enough, but I despised Vice. I’m far from a fan of Dick Cheney, but if someone like me comes out of the movie feeling like it was a self-satisfied, frat boy hatchet job painting him as an evil cartoon – if it made me sorry for him – then you’re just doing your job wrong. It’ll be curious to see where his career goes, and what might happen if he added a little heart to it. Clearly the Academy respects his abilities (and of course agrees with his politics), but until it makes them feel something (as Cuaron clearly does with this deeply personal ode to his childhood and his nanny) he’ll keep getting nominations and no wins.
I addressed Cooper’s snub, but Ryan Coogler? What he did was damned extraordinary, and I’m sorry they didn’t see fit to acknowledge it.
The Favorite (which is not The Favourite):
How Certain Am I? 50%
If Not, Then Who?
The Most Fun Surprise:
A Star is Born
It’s An Honor Just to be Nominated:
Second Worst Snub:
Mary Poppins Returns
Indulge me in a little rant, would you? For many years, the documentary branch has had a certain reputation. If a film from this attention-hungry, unsexy category got any box office or press attention, that made it likely to be left without a nomination. Starting with the revolutionary Hoop Dreams and stretching to this year’s outstanding Mr. Rogers biography Won’t You Be My Neighbor, documentarians have a storied history of ignoring work that’s been generally recognized as good. I’m starting to feel like the Academy itself is taking on that crusty, anti-establishment persona. If it makes money, then that’s its own reward. The Oscars should be about purity, but also about highlighting the work that hasn’t found an audience, and anything that’s commercial, well, that’s clearly pandering to low tastes.
Yes, yes, I know. The Academy has finally nominated a comic book adaptation after years of eschewing even the most lauded from that genre! We should give them a pat on the back for noticing the top box office earner of 2018 (the first time that’s happened since 2003). Of course, Black Panther also happens to have a higher fresh meter grade on Rotten Tomatoes than all the other Best Picture nominees. Yes, that’s right. More than The Favourite, more than Roma (both tied at 96%) and you better believe it’s been reviewed by substantially more critics than either Vice (66%) and Bohemian Rhapsody (61%).
I will tell you, too, that Oscar winners don’t always rank that high on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. As recently as ten years ago, the winner wasn’t the movie that won the critics awards – it was something well reviewed but accessible and popular. Look at inspirational costume drama The King’s Speech beating out the more sterile, downbeat critics favorite The Social Network and you’ll see that they used to care about awarding films the public liked too; Oscar has written that story over and over. Today, however, accessibility and box office don’t matter. Now, I don’t think that box office should be the be all and end all, and I think it’s good to challenge audiences’ expectations, but ignoring what audiences respond to risks ignoring films that could stand the test of time, that will inspire and excite and move audiences for generations. It’s actually something in a movie’s favor if people like it; why do we not remember that? Twenty or thirty years ago, there were places for movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Mary Poppins Returns on the Oscar slate – family movies, romantic comedies, even a well made horror flick like A Quiet Place. (I’m thinking of E.T., The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Full Monty, Out of Africa, Driving Miss Daisy, Silence of the Lambs and so many more.) I’m sad to see those genres so poorly represented at the Academy Awards. And don’t even get me started on The Wife, the most complex and absorbing drama of the year, adult not in the sense of gore or horror or nudity but in terms of the nuanced detailing of human behavior and interaction, utterly ignored, and why? Because what could be interesting about a wife?
So, I’m sorry. I’m just getting a bit tired of the stories that AMPAS deems impressive enough (overwhelmingly men’s stories told by men), and I’m extra tired of all the wondering and hand-wringing and think-pieces written about why no one watches the Oscars anymore. People don’t watch the Oscars because they don’t nominate movies people have seen, and because their idea of what’s best cuts out what most people like. It’s certainly true that the big studios are making fewer mainstream movies that cater to adults (how many Terms of Endearments and Steel Magnolias get made today?) and romantic comedies have nearly disappeared as a genre. And yes, almost every family film is a cartoon. Sometimes – as with Crazy Rich Asians, A Quiet Place, The Wife and Mary Poppins Returns – those movies are out there, and Oscar just pretends they’re not. And why? To honor a lame, insight-less take down of Dick Cheney?
Let me tell you what I like about Roma, the presumed winner, the toast of the BAFTAs and the Critics Choice. I like that the main character is a woman, and that the movie is largely about women and children. I like that she’s a woman of color, and a minority within her community, and I like that the story is set in our much maligned southern neighbor. I like that it’s a movie about class, though I am not certain about all the ways it deals with that subject. I think it’s cool that it’s a foreign film, even if again, it’s not among my favorite foreign films. My biggest frustration is that it gives little insight into its characters; three of the four children are basically indistinguishable, the other servants in the family home have no personalities. The only people who truly speak about themselves – what they think, what they want, what they hope for, how they feel – are Cleo’s stiff, angry lover Fermin, and dreamy little Pepe, the family’s youngest child. It bothers me that we don’t get to hear Cleo’s real voice. I can’t decide if the movie is echoing her economic and personal isolation, or if it can’t even imagine what her inner life might be.
Despite being the presumed favorite and tying for the most nominations (10), Roma hasn’t had the smoothest road to Oscar. Since films that aren’t in English are ineligible to be nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press, the two Golden Globe winners this year were music biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and The Green Book. Critics were never very enraptured by Bohemian Rhapsody (alleging that in wanting to please living members of the band, the film treats them with kid gloves), and Producer’s Guild winner The Green Book appears to have been undone by various racial controversies. (Did the movie treat Don Shirley fairly? Didn’t it perpetuate the notion that the black owned businesses listed in the real green book were trashy, and that this was only a driving guide for travelers in the South?) It’s a shame, because both films are more purely entertaining than most others on this slate. Green Book in particular is funny and charming, with real heart.
And then the Screen Actor’s Guild didn’t nominate Roma, either, continuing to make this an odd year. We don’t get to see a clear arc of what voters are thinking across the typical awards season. It’s too volatile, too filled with gaffs and smear campaigns and puzzling omissions. Still, I think the favorite is likely to prevail.
That brings us to surprise SAG winner Black Panther, the first comic book adaptation nominated for Best Picture, though I would argue that the Academy fought hard to ignore it too (remember that whole “Best Popular Picture” disaster?) and still doesn’t respect it for the complex Afro-futurist alternative reality it presents, and the way it speaks directly to America’s long standing geo-political debate (isolationist or world’s policeman?). I adore this movie, and I love what it represents; an image of Africa unbowed by slavery, a wondrous alternate world history, a celebration where we usually see a dirge. You have to think back to the days of Titanic and The Return of the King to see a popular film this well made, this beloved, this inspiring to audiences, which received awards adoration as well.
Odd and audacious BlackkKlansman finally garners Spike Lee the respect he’s earned through a lengthy career. My favorite thing about The Favourite is of course its three female leads (so rare in both Hollywood and in awards films), though I find its critical popularity rather puzzling; does the fish eye lens and anachronistic dancing make up for the pedestrian nature of its hollow ambition?
I’ve spoken at length of Vice (the sour, one-sided comedy about Dick Cheney’s plot to take over the world) and A Star is Born. I really thought, back in the fall, even back in December, that nothing could beat A Star is Born. I’d have been very happy to see that prediction come true.
As it is, I’m left hoping for – I don’t know what. Black Panther to surprise us all? I wish I thought Green Book had a real chance. Perhaps I just need to watch Roma again.
Other thoughts: Mexico will almost certainly win it’s first foreign film Oscar on it’s ninth try. No film has ever been nominated for both best picture and foreign language film, and failed to win foreign film. (As note, none has ever before won both.)
It’s absurd that there are songs in the best original song race from any other movie than A Star is Born and Mary Poppins – it’s a travesty. Those two films have enough brilliant music to fill a nomination slate each, and nothing else compares. I’ll be happy to see Jennifer Hudson perform “I’ll Fight,” but it’s beyond ridiculous that they included “When A Cowboy Trades His Boots for Wings,” entertaining as that daffy little moment might have been in the film. And I’d much rather listen to “Pray for Me” than “All the Stars” if I was listening to the Black Panther soundtrack. Of course it seems likely that everything will lose to the astonishing powerhouse “Shallow.” Lady Gaga should have gotten her first Oscar several years ago for “When It Happens to You” and could reasonably have earned a best actress statuette if not up against Glenn Close’s differently brilliant performance; if she doesn’t pick up this one award, I’m going to be livid. I’m thrilled to be seeing tonight’s performance of that song.
I’ve certainly noticed all the rap that’s getting used in the promotions for the night, however, clearly trying to tap into Black Panther’s overwhelming popularity; will audiences coming for the first comic book movie feel mollified or annoyed if the juggernaut wins (as expected) only a single award, production design? That would be a well deserved award, and one which has never before gone to an African American (Hannah Beachler, in fact, is the first African American to even be nominated for the award), but the win that would be most delightful to me would have to be an upset by Ruth Carter in costumes. The Academy tends to fall for attention to historical detail rather than originality, despite the fact that historical costumes are largely rented while science fiction and fantasy costumes have to be created. Carter’s work, recognizably pulling from the entire continent of Africa, truly created a Wakandan wonderland. The scene at the waterfall for the first fight is like paging through an anthropology textbook, but seen through that unique Afro-futurist lens. It’s a marvel.
Other notes: the frontrunner for Best Score, First Man, failed to score a nomination. I’m not sure what will win, but if Mark Shaiman takes it for Mary Poppins Returns he’ll be the sixteenth person to achieve EGOT status. (Technically he’s nominated for best song, for the absolutely lovely “Where the Lost Things Go” but unless there’s actually a vendetta out there against Gaga, that’s a far less likely avenue). I don’t have a clear opinion on this one – I’m a fan of most of these scores, including the sadly snubbed First Man, and I don’t think there’s enough evidence out there to call it.
Two expected wins make me quite happy thinking about them: Vice for make up, and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse for animated feature. I loathed the simplistic Vice, but bow to the make up that rendered Christian Bale utterly unrecognizable. And Spider-Man was genuinely one of the best films of the year, using the animated form in such an original way. It’s like nothing on film, it’s taken all the animation awards against impressive competition, and it’s worth seeing whatever your age.
One bellwether for best picture is the editing award, but oddly Roma didn’t receive a nomination in that category, peculiar for a film that’s not only the Best Picture favorite, but also universally celebrated for it’s cinematography. In fact, Cuaron actually has an Oscar already for editing Gravity. Picture and editing don’t always match up any more, but it used to be a little known but meaningful indicator. If Bohemian Rhapsody (or even Green Book) sneaks a win here, however, it’ll make the rest of the night slightly more interesting to me.
And I guess that’s where I leave you, rooting for Glenn Close and Regina King, rooting for great speeches (no laundry lists of names to thank, darn you!), for meaningful words, for “Shallow,” for Hannah Beachler and for Ruth E. Carter, and for Spider-Man. I think in general I’m rooting for surprises, and I’m rooting for this whole no-hosting thing to work out. I’m rooting for a good time. And I’ll talk to you tomorrow about how it all turns out.