What's in Store on Academy Awards Night?
The Golden Globes split it down the middle: the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave its Best Motion Picture trophy to Moonlight and to La La Land. Of course, the Globes have always done at least one thing smarter than the Oscars by handing out two top picture awards—one for Drama (Moonlight won this time) and the other for Musical or Comedy (La La Land).
Oscar night has seldom been kind to comedies or musicals—maybe few of the 7000 members of the Academy have a sense of humor or—more likely—they have inherited a sense that film is still a medium that needs to work hard to be taken seriously. Comedy still smacks too much of the Keystone Cops and baggy pants slapstick. In the 89-year history of the Academy Awards, comedies and musicals have won Best Picture around a dozen times or so—depending on how you define comedy. Oscar winners like Terms of Endearment and Driving Miss Daisy were “comedy dramas” with serious themes underlying the humor. As for musicals, West Side Story was no Singing in the Rain as it tackled important social themes.
So in a normal year we might put the odds on Moonlight for taking Best Picture, but then, this has turned into the year of La La Land. The movie has many things going for it. It’s a film about Hollywood, referencing its history and the dreams evoked by old movies, and it has found almost universal critical acclaim and a wide box-office audience. It’s a mostly upbeat movie at a time when many people would like to escape for two hours into a happier Technicolor world than the one we actually live in.
But then, the Academy was under the hot glare of attention last year for continuing to ignore African American actors and directors. This time, seven African-American actors received Oscar nominations—could this be the year when black goes mainstream in Hollywood?
But then again, Moonlight is challenging in form and content, a “poem written in light, music and vivid human faces” as the New York Times called it, dealing with an African-American boy growing up in poverty and with a complicated sexual orientation; it deals with drug trafficking, incarceration, fractured families. The hope and pain of this film doesn’t fit into any easy category. And so, odds are some Academy members seeking to address the question of African Americans in the movies would be more comfortable giving Best Picture to Hidden Figures, a more conventional Hollywood narrative (based on a true story) about a trio of black women who assisted NASA’s quest to put men in space during the 1960s. But then there’s yet another credible challenger, Fences, an excellent film adapted from August Wilson’s Tony-winning play, directed by and starring Denzel Washington.
Even without La La Land, you can see the problem: the “black vote” will be split three ways. And the La La Land juggernaut continued unabated picking up more awards in the weeks before Oscar night.
It seems only natural that the director of the movie that wins for Best Picture would also be voted Best Director, but while that's usual, it doesn’t always happen that way. Hollywood is a political place and some in the industry prefer to spread the trophies around rather than send them home in one basket. Because Moonlight is a leading contender, given its Golden Globe win and the Academy’s sudden sensitivity to African American issues, some voters might decide to vote La La Land as Best Picture but hand Best Director to Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins. Another wild card in the director category is Mel Gibson. Hollywood loves a happy ending at the close of the third act, and rumor has it that some in the Academy would like to reward Gibson for pulling himself together and returning with a successful movie, Hacksaw Ridge.
So if I were placing bets on this year’s Academy Awards, where would I put my money?
A few years ago the Academy increased the number of nominees in the Best Picture category. Once there were only five movies nominated for Best Picture. Now the number fluctuates depending on the percentage of votes a movie receives during the nomination phase. A cynic would say that the Academy is trying to spread the boost that a Best Picture nomination can give a movie at the box office or home movie rentals, and I’m sure that partly true. But increasing the nominees might also be part of the Academy’s move to become more inclusive—to give a wider variety of films a chance of recognition.
The slate is diverse this year. There are three films with African-American themes—Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures, each set in a different time period and presenting vastly different forms of filmmaking. The nine also includes an intelligent low-key science fiction film, Arrival; a World War II movie, Hacksaw Ridge; a film that is essentially a western in a contemporary Texas setting, Hell or High Water; a sensitive drama set on the streets of Calcutta, Lion; a film about loss and family problems, Manchester by the Sea; and La La Land. I don’t think there’s much doubt: Although La La Land probably won’t win in all 14 categories for which it was nominated (tied with All About Eve and Titanic), it likely will take Best Picture.
Mel Gibson will pick up some votes for Hacksaw Ridge and Kenneth Lonergan will also receive some consideration for his much admired Manchester by the Sea. I think the real race is between Barry Jenkins for Moonlight and Damien Chazelle for La La Land. I could be wrong, but I sense the possibility that Jenkins might get it because some Academy members do favor daring unconventional films and others will feel the need to address accusations of ignoring black filmmakers.
My personal favorite for Best Actor is Denzel Washington for his deeply felt performance as a garbage collector in 1950s Pittsburgh in Fences; he is a contender in part because he’s a familiar name in Hollywood and for the Academy’s attempt to make up for past oversights. One might think Ryan Gosling, the male star of La La Land, is in the lead and yet, all the rumors point to Casey Affleck for his part as a sullen, regretful loner in Manchester by the Sea.
A few months ago Natalie Portman seemed in the lead for role as Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie, but the movie was a mediocre performer at the box office and she’s up against the female lead in La La Land, Emma Stone, who took home a Golden Globe and by most accounts will win her first Oscar this year. The always-marvelous Meryl Streep is nominated for Florence Foster Jenkins, but she’s already won several Oscars and probably had to add a wing to her house to accommodate all of the awards she’s already earned. The Academy probably feels she needs no further recognition. Stone is favored to win.
Best Actor in Supporting Role
It’s a good race between talented actors in interesting films, pitting Mahershala Ali as the drug dealer and benevolent mentor of Moonlight against Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals), Dev Patel (Lion) and Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea). I’d pick Ali as the winner.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Here we have Oscar history in the making: three African American women competing against each other—
Naomie Harris for Moonlight, Viola Davis (Fences) and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures). Davis is widely expected to win based on her sweep of three of the big preliminary awards: SAG, BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) and Golden Globes.