...And the winner might be...
Ah, September... the month when summer fades, the kids go back to school... and the Oscar season kicks off. Seriously? Oh yeah—the actual Academy Awards aren't handed out until next February but the horse race has well and truly started.
Now, Oscar pieces are usually written closer to the big day itself but we thought it might be interesting to take a look at how things stand at the starting post, partly by way of a curtain raiser but mostly for what they tell us about how the Oscars work, and about the industry they celebrate.
So this isn't, strictly speaking, a set of predictions for what's going to happen in nearly half-a-year's time. But here’s a prognosis for you: we'll be mightily sick of all of them by the ceremony itself, and will likely have forgotten them by next summer. And then it will be time for the whole thing to start over again...
The Academy usually thinks superhero films are a bit beneath them, especially those that were released in cinemas before last year's ceremony. You'd better believe they're going to make an exception for this one, though: Black Panther has been a bona-fide phenomenon and Oscar desperately wants to stay relevant, especially when fewer people are watching the awards on TV.
In fact, so desperate were they to ensure Black Panther got a nod, they even invented a whole new category for it, the stupidly-titled “Best Popular Film.” Luckily, online mockery persuaded them to drop it this time, but if Black Panther doesn't score a Best Picture nomination, expect to see a “Best Superhero” gong given in 2020.
Oscar controversies get earlier every year. Time was, you had to wait until the big day for people to start kicking up a fuss. Now it happens before movies even get released. First Man was considered an awards front runner before anyone even saw it: it's a life story of Astronaut Neil Armstrong (and Oscar loves a biopic), directed by Damien Chazelle (who made La La Land), it has Ryan Gosling (who was in La La Land).
Then the early reviews appeared, reporting that the film doesn't show the American flag being planted on the lunar surface. Some gobby “patriots” are not best pleased about this, saying it's yet another example of Hollywood disrespecting their country.
How does this affect the film's chances? Well, if Hollywood is as anti-American as those folks say then First Man must be a shoo-in...
There's always at least one “prestigious” British costume drama in the mix and this year, let's hope it's The Favourite. It's directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and you don't expect him—he made Dogtooth and The Lobster—to make a conventional period piece. He's got Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone (another La La Land alumnus) playing rival courtiers vying for the attention of a foul-mouthed Queen Anne, played by a scene-stealing Olivia Colman.
Best of all, though, is a title which defiantly refuses to bow to American spelling (and which will retain its “U” when released in the USA). Favourite! FavoUrite! FAVOURITE! Hahaahahaha!
Mary Queen of Scots
The other likely big “prestigious” British costume drama. The story of Mary (and her cousin Elizabeth I) is a well-worn story and here you've got Saoirse Ronan in the title role and Margot Robie as good queen Bess. If the PR people are doing their job, they'll put the emphasis on it as a story about STRONG WOMEN and stress the unconventional aspects of the production (it's got Anglo-Asian actress Gemma Chan as a 16th-century Scottish noble woman) and tell us that it's not one of those boring old traditional costume dramas, actually. Even though it blatantly is. (See also: the upcoming Collete with Keira Knightly.)
If Beale Street Could Talk
You'll remember the brou-ha-ha of a couple of years ago, of course: that time when it looked like La La Land had scooped the Oscar but—no!—Moonlight had instead! The memorable circumstances in which it was presented overshadowed the fact it was one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history where the rank outsider beat out the overwhelming favourite.
If Beale Street Could Talk is director Barry Jenkins' follow up to Moonlight. It's eagerly awaited but early reports have been mixed: Jenkins has declined to make a big audience crowd pleaser. Instead, he's had the temerity to follow his muse and make another heartfelt, artistic movie. Bad news for his Oscar hopes; good news for the rest of us.
The first rule of Oscar watching is that the quality of the film matters less than what it symbolises. Roma is Alfonso Cuarón's first film since he won Best Director for Gravity (in 2014) and it's already taken top prize at the Venice film festival. Many have hailed it as a masterpiece.
What's really important, however, is that it's made by Netflix, the upstart streaming company. They're DESPERATE for an Oscar and the prestige it would bestow upon them, so they'll be lobbying hard. The trouble is, their business model—which is based on “disrupting” the film business—has put a lot of noses out of joint in the film business they're trying to disrupt.
So, the success or otherwise of Roma will be about politics and the strength of old skool Hollywood, no matter the quality of the film; the clash promises to be one of the more interesting sub-plots of awards season.
A Star Is Born
Back in 1937, A Star Is Born had Janet Gaynor playing a young actress who hits the big time and eclipses her husband's (Frederic March) career. In the 1954 remake James Mason was the established star and Judy Garland the ingenue while in 1976, they had regenerated into, respectively, Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand and the story re-imagined about musicians rather than Hollywood actors.
It's that version that is the template for this, with Bradley Cooper as a country singer who discovers a hot new talent played by Lady Gaga. Moreover, this looks as though it could do what none of the other versions did and scoop Best Picture. Reviews and audiences alike have been enthusiastic and besides—the Academy just loves films about show-business.
If any film illustrates the point of this feature, it's this one, showing how the horse race changes and how symbolism matters. Because a couple of weeks ago, no one had given any thought to Green Book—why would they when it was directed by Peter Farrelly, half the fraternal team who gave the world Dumb and Dumber?
That was before it played at the Toronto film festival to a reception that can only be described as “ecstatic”—it went on to win the People's Choice Award there, pretty much the best barometer for Oscar success there is.
If that wasn't enough, it's based on a true story: Viggo Mortensen (of Lord of the Rings fame) plays a driver escorting celebrated pianist Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali, who won an Oscar for Moonlight) on a concert tour. Only—get this: it's down in the Deep South during the Civil Rights struggle. True story? Uplifting content? Can this get any more tempting for Oscar?
But nothing is certain yet: many a front runner has stumbled and, as Moonlight shows, surprises still happen. What writer William Goldman said about Hollywood still holds good, especially about the Oscars: “Nobody knows anything.”