The next phase of the awards race will be the critics awards. As is almost always the case, they will start the ball rolling with their pics. New York comes in first, at the end of November, along with the National Board of Review that comes in shortly there after. Los Angeles is a week or so later. After that, the consensus among critics begins to form. Sometimes that consensus “agrees” with the industry, sometimes it doesn’t. The bigger influencer for the awards race still seems to be Golden Globes, or the HFPA. Granted, they have two categories for each of the leading acting acting races, which make their overlap an easier match. But their tastes tend to mirror, somewhat, the Academy’s. Although this can change, and has changed here or there.
The critics, though, can sometimes be influencers, but they’re more commonly disrupters. This is particularly true with the Los Angeles film critics, but it can be with New York too. Los Angeles often rejects the narrative and deliberately goes their own way, most notably in the female acting categories. There has been a shift since the year 2000. Much has happened in the past 20 years, including the rise of the blogs, the abundance of folks becoming film critics and the many critics awards that seem to crop up every year. But New York and LA, and maybe the National Society, still lead the pack.
At some point, they all come together and form a consensus. For instance, Willem Dafoe, Timothee Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan last year. It didn’t ultimately impact the awards race, because they are two different animals. Critics and actors, or industry voters, or people who vote the way do see acting differently than the critics do, or at least these critics.
In general, one could conclude that these critics prefer understated, naturalistic acting to bombastic acting. Actors tend to prefer the opposite. They seem to like it when their craft is showcased. A good example of this is Dafoe in The Florida Project from last year. It was confounding how he kept winning award after award after award when his role was the most understated of his entire career. There was no way actors in a million years were going reward that performance, especially when going head to head against Sam Rockwell’s performance in Three Billboards.
Actors are more likely to be impressed by Dafoe’s latest, playing Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. Why? Because actors look for different things when assessing what they consider to be good work. Do they transform themselves into someone else to make us believe them? Is their performance authentic? It’s everything they were taught and everything they try to do when they find their character in a film.
Critics seem to not necessarily look for acting skill, although they will tell you it’s all about the acting. They define it differently, and often, they prefer performances in films directed by directors they revere. Like Timothee Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name. He was great, no doubt about it, but it was hard to assess his work as an actor because he himself was as compelling as the character he played, and there wasn’t a lot of previous work to compare it to. It was a great and worthy performance, but to actors he could not compete with Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. Oldman had the role of a lifetime, a role most actors would kill to play. That is, to actors, a career high point and worthy of an Oscar. The critics thought it was too bombastic, overdone, hammy even.
There is one area where critics and actors tend to agree and that’s this: they can’t resist star power. Star power is Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook winning awards for what was an okay performance but nothing as transformative as, say, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. But Lawrence was such a star at that moment in time: she was queen for a day and nothing was going to stop that train. I suspect Lady Gaga is that person this year. Her performance was good, but she is going to win more for who she is and what she represents than the performance. That’s what happens when a star that big enters the Oscar race. How do you deny her? You can’t, as long as she isn’t flat out bad or embarrassing like some singers-turned-actors are.
The critics have had an odd relationship with the Academy over the years. In the early days of the Oscars there were a handful of very important critics whose opinion could make or break the success of a contender. The New York Film Critics (which started in the 1930s) and the LA Film Critics (which started in 1975) have a hit and miss crossover with the Academy. In fact, what led to the disconnect was that for most of Oscar history what mattered more than pleasing the critics was pleasing audiences. A big hit that was considered a respectable winner mattered more than if the critics raved about a film. On the other hand, without the critics there would likely be no influx of foreign films or directors like Stanley Kubrick. The critics have often held the bar much higher than the industry has and that does influence how people think and vote.
But the critics no longer have the same kind of power they once had. Where we would once wait with bated breath the Thursday night before a film opened on the weekend to read what Kenneth Turan and Manohla Dargis thought, now films are screened for critics much further in advance. Also, what defines critics anymore? They aren’t as many highly placed individuals at highly respected outlets anymore. Critics now include basically anyone who has an opinion on movies and sees them for free. Bloggers and people sent to junkets and film festivals are given early looks at movies and to a degree the fix is in.
Now, film criticism functions as its own wave of consensus. If you notice, people, by nature, want to agree with the consensus because that makes them a part of the tribe. Going against the consensus isn’t for everybody. A mixed reviewed film will divide people into two camps. But the critics do tend to unite more often than not, like with Willem Dafoe last year, like some other years where they rallied behind one movie to the exclusion of all others. What was that about? Well, it’s the same thing that drives the consensus in the awards race. It’s a consensus: a group of people who all agree on what they think is good. It’s hard not to get swept up in it.
When it comes to actors, we have two voting bodies comprised of professional actors: the Screen Actors Guild awards and the Academy. But the SAG is not just actors anymore. Now, it’s also AFTRA, anyone involved in television media, including journalists, not necessarily trained actors.
Similarly, the Academy has an actors branch comprised of roughly 1,200 actors. But not only actors vote on the winners. The winners are chosen by everyone: sound technicians, makeup artists, composers, short film directors, visual effects artists. In a sense, they aren’t really a sum total of what just actors think.
In both cases, we are bound by the rules of a broad consensus when it comes to acting, which is probably why it’s easiest to predict the acting races when it comes to the Oscars.
Critics have a smaller sample size, though they’re comprised mostly of one singular demographic: white middle aged men. Although they are making strides to mix it up, it is dominated by the same voices that dominate Rotten Tomatoes.
The largest critics group that votes is the Broadcast Film Critics Association. They have roughly 300 members. They don’t exactly mirror what the critics do. They more or less mirror what they think the industry is going to do. But they happen much earlier now than they used to so they are much more along the lines of influencers – like how the Golden Globes and National Board of Review are influencers — rather than predictors.
Acting winners, or consensus leaders, start out with the critics. The industry either confirms that consensus or they go against it. Last year, the critics were really about Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan, and Timothee Chalamet. The industry quickly became about Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell: even though a backlash rose up against Three Billboards, those winners were unshakable.
The lead acting awards, unlike Best Picture, really do build with momentum. Not necessarily in the early critics awards (see Willem Dafoe last year), but with the Globes, the Broadcast Film Critics, and eventually the SAG awards. By the time of the SAG awards, the frontrunners should be in place. It’s rare for lead actors to win the Globes and not the Oscars, although it happens.
What you notice as a general rule is that the critics can sometimes push a contender into the race by handing over wins to those not expected to win. It puts enough attention onto the contender that their movie will get watched, at least.
But as you can tell by studying recent awards history, the critics aren’t exactly in step with the Globes, the SAG, or the Oscars. This is especially true starting around the year 2000. Before that, their picks, at least where the Los Angeles Film Critics are concerned, were a little more mainstream. What has happened in the years since 2000 to make their picks more bold, leaning more towards foreign film than they were before? Well, it could be the abundance of film critics. We’ve gone from roughly 30 to about 300.
So how do we expect it will go?
I will not be surprised if Roma does very well with both New York and LA. I won’t be surprised if A Star is Born does very well with the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Broadcast Film Critics. I also won’t be surprised if Toni Collette shows up somewhere, or, for Los Angeles at least, an actress not in the mainstream of the awards race, but someone outside of it — perhaps an actress in a foreign language film, like Cold War. We’ll try to predict more as we get closer to the end of November. We’ll have to wait and see how it goes.