I don’t offer a lot of advantages over the Oscar coverage at places like The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Deadline, and The New York Times, but one asset of my decidedly less comprehensive coverage is that I’m less likely to convey the impression that the Oscars are a Very Big Deal This Year. As it happens, they’re not. Blame the president or blame the films, but America has mostly ignored the race this year. As it also happens, this may be something of a relief for most of the participants.
Not every casual viewer knows that #oscarssowhite actually began two years ago, not last year. One reason it wasn’t a bigger deal was that Hollywood was, two years ago, consumed with the #sonyhack in all the ways that an industry can be consumed by a problem. The Oscars were either an afterthought or a statement of defiance against Kim Jong-un. A year later, #oscarssowhite blew up, with the happy result of green-lighting, among other films, Fences and Hidden Figures. Despite the excellent critical reception and box-office of these and one or two other films, there’s a sense that the Oscars aren’t really as big a deal as in, say, early 2013, when seven of the nine Best Picture nominees earned nine figures at the domestic box office. And maybe that’s okay. After the last two years, the town would probably like to get through Oscar season without an existential crisis.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump may have prevented such an outcome, suggesting that this time next year we may be talking about recovery from three straight seasons of existential crises. While not everyone in Hollywood is a leftist activist, one can get that impression from award shows, and one almost certainly will get that impression this Sunday night. The last time a musical won Best Picture (Chicago, early 2003), as leftists marched in the street protesting the behavior of the man they called the Worst President Ever, Hollywood braced, even cringed, knowing that Michael Moore would likely win Best Documentary for Bowling for Columbine and deliver a barn-storming, tub-thumping, mainstream-alienating speech. Yeah, that was then. This Sunday, everyone is going to be Michael Moore. The right will react as it always reacts, while entirely forgetting that this time last year Hollywood was in hot water with the left (see last paragraph). You don’t blame the soldiers at Helms Deep when they’re assaulted from all sides, so give Tinseltown a break. (Pro tip: the next day, when someone tweets/comments “Nobody cares what celebrities think” you might respond like I do: “Then. Why. Are. You. Here?”)
But what about the races? Well, you may have heard that La La Land is poised to do well: it’s got 14 nominations, tying a record held by All About Eve and Titanic. Titanic is a bit of a model for how the night might go: the largely expected sweep alongside two major Oscars for each of three other Best Picture nominees (back then, L.A. Confidential, Good Will Hunting, and As Good As It Gets). Of course, back in 1997-98, there were only five Best Picture nominees (and the fifth, The Full Monty, was clearly in Just-Happy-To-Be-There mode). With the expanded field comes expanded chances for disappointments, and there will certainly be some. There already were for partisans of films like Silence and Hail! Caesar. I’m bracing myself for disappointment for my favorite film of the year, Arrival.
Although I’ve seen all the nominees for Best Live Action Short, Best Animated Short, and Best Documentary, I won’t bore you with the drill-down that I helped podcast, and instead simply give my predicted winners (respectively): Mindenki, Piper, and The 13th. Best Animated Feature was another category I previously over-analyzed; let’s cut to the chase here and say that Zootopia will probably, and deservedly, win. Cinematography? Editing? La La Land has at least a 50/50 chance of winning those, as with most of its nominations. Only in Screenplay and Best Actor (Gosling) is La La Land a la-la-longshot; Screenplay awards will hopefully go to Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, but their excellent writing isn’t exactly on the wall.
In the case of Best Song, La La Land may certainly take it, but there’s also a fairly good chance Lin-Manuel Miranda becomes the night’s other “The 13th” – namely The 13th person to win all four major entertainment awards, also known as the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). His song and film are excellent, and the town already loves him. Best Foreign Film is particularly excellent this year; the smart money is on Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, not least because, four years after Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair at another event, the missing-ness of Iranian Farhadi (because of the president’s ban) is the sort of empty chair statement Hollywood likes.
Farhadi is no lock. Much more likely is Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor for Moonlight, which might be considered a three-fer: assuring Oscar gold for a Muslim-American, for an African-American (after #oscarssowhite, everything helps), and for Moonlight, just in case Moonlight somehow falls short in the other races. (Nobody wants to see this headline the next day: Straight White Musical 10, Gay Black Drama 0.) If precursors are any indication, Ali will triumph along with Viola Davis for Best Supporting Actress for Fences, mollifying the #oscarssowhite crusaders…at least for this year. Also, both actors well deserve it.
Preview pause: something has been bugging me about the articles comparing Casey Affleck to Nate Parker, one the favorite for Best Actor, the other an early favorite who was bounced out of the Oscar race. Such chemistry equations tend to control for race bias, crime severity, and level of pre-existing notoriety. What they do not factor in is the fact that Affleck didn’t direct his 2016 film, Manchester, and Parker did, The Birth of a Nation. What they do not factor in is that when America has refused to separate art from film artist (Woody Allen, Mel Gibson, Roman Polanski), such a film artist has always been a director. Actors get a free pass. Perhaps this is partly because, unlike the trade press that has been writing these false equivalencies, audiences know and like actors, and don’t know or like directors half as much. People do see directors as authors of their films, and thus the makers of dangerous workplaces, but they don’t see hired actors the same way. This is confirmed and somewhat complicated by the fact that Affleck, while directing the 2010 film I’m Not There, evinced the malfeasant behavior in question. The larger point, never made by any of the paid journalists, is that unlike directors, actors in Oscar races haven’t suffered because of bad behavior.
One possible exception is Russell Crowe, whose assault of a reporter may have hurt his chances to win for A Beautiful Mind in 2001-02. It’s also possible that Denzel Washington just deserved to win for Training Day – anyone want to argue that he didn’t? Oddly, and to finally get back to this preview, Washington could, in theory, gain from another actor’s misconduct (Denzel only provided the best self-directed performance ever), but he won’t, for all the reasons I just explained. Ben Affleck’s brother will win, which in star terms feels a little like Eli Manning winning two Super Bowls before his brother Peyton. Best Actress is the only real acting race of the night, but even that has an overwhelming favorite in the form of Emma Stone. Isabelle Huppert would be smashing, and Natalie Portman might have earned it for Most Acting, but if Stone wins as expected, we can comfort ourselves with the fact that the first female-led Best Picture winner since Million Dollar Baby, twelve years ago, will also be the first Best Picture nominee to produce a Best Actress since…uh, Million Dollar Baby. Twelve years is a long time. Twelve years ago, Emma Stone was a teenager who, according to her, “went up for every single show on the Disney Channel and auditioned to play the daughter on every single sitcom,” getting none of them. Her first show, on VH1, was cancelled 12 years ago…before it aired. She was 16 and working at a dog-treat store.
Twelve years ago, Damien Chazelle was a 20-year-old college student from the middle class with no connections to Hollywood. (Yes, he’d lived aspects of Whiplash, though by 2005 he figured his future was less in making music, more in making films.) Remember next Monday, when you’re pooh-pooh-ing Hollywood for loving La La Land, when you’re dissing the industry’s self-congratulations, there’s still a kernel of something amazing and wonderful there. Someone like a Chazelle, a Stone, a Mia, or a Sebastian can come out of nowhere, out of a café or dog-treat store, and become revealers and extenders of the world’s hopes and dreams. On Sunday, when Chazelle becomes the youngest person to win Best Director and Best Picture, remember that La La Land’s title is at least half-ironic, a poignant statement about reckless amateurism (no, the film shouldn’t have hired better singer-dancers), ambition, love, and compromise. Sure, it’s over-praised and a little over-Caucasian, a little like the Oscars. The Oscars this Sunday will be a hot mess, but aren’t they always? Here’s to the mess they make.