Once the news that Mary Poppins Returns was actually good, it didn’t take long for many of the Oscarati to say with confidence that it was in play for Best Actress and maybe for Best Picture. Yes, it’s that good, some of them said. If you think about what people have been saying, it’s as though no biases exist now and almost that they never have existed. So the question is: Do they? Did they ever?
Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, along with A Star is Born, is a remake. Or a sequel, as it happens. The original Mary Poppins hit the Oscar race in 1964. None of the first 3 versions of A Star is Born ever really did — the first two garnered quite a few top nominations, but only managed a single win (Best Original Story for the 1937 original). The less said about the Streisand-Kristoferson version, the better. Bradley Cooper’s reboot is being touted as the best and only worthy version. Can it detach itself from the earlier versions and stand on its own? By all accounts, yes, at least so far that seems to be the general perception.
But Mary Poppins Returns, and Black Panther, are films that you have to imagine being named by 200, 300 people as their number one film of the year on a ballot that gives them only five choices. If you imagine Disney executives and Academy Poppins/Panther participants as block voting for their teams – you can imagine them standing behind one of these two but not both, right? Do people believe there’s a chance that both, along with A Star is Born, might get in for Best Picture?
threat suggestion by the Academy that they might add a popular film category has made people reconsider how they assess and judge popular movies. So much so that some even have the idea that movies like Crazy Rich Asians or Creed II might also have a shot at consideration, breaking with tradition as to what kinds of films are recognized.
What films in Oscar history have gotten in that were remakes or sequels or franchises? To date, no superhero movie has gotten in for anything other than a nod in the screenplay category and for crafts. Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was a remake from a Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs. As for sequels – Return of the King was a sequel to Lord of the Rings, and The Godfather II was technically a sequel to The Godfather. Toy Story 3 got in for Best Picture and won Animated. But in truth, these were continuing stories rather than sequels. Most of us define sequels as films that rely essentially on repeated the same formula to bring audiences back for the kind of high they expected from the first film.
Mary Poppins Returns can be seen as a remake though many people say it’s technically a sequel, or a continuation of the previous story. Rob Marshall himself says it is most definitely a sequel, picking up the story later from when the original takes place.
There is no doubt Black Panther, as good as it is, is a franchise movie out of the Marvel universe and definitely NOT in the Academy’s usual wheelhouse, as such.
A Star is Born is a riff, you might say, on a familiar song, or a cover version that’s much better than the original. But the Academy is still going to have to overcome its familiarity with the trope to love the movie enough to award it the top prizes, as many are expecting it will do.
But the film industry is also backed into a corner this year, as are the critics. They’ve done nothing but complain about Netflix and now that Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece, Roma, is headed for the awards race they will have to confront and reconsider those feelings. People like Steven Spielberg are going to have to overcome his aversion and his dislike of “Netflix movies” if they want to award Cuaron. It is only a matter of time anyway since Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is coming on Netflix next year.
You can’t stop what’s coming.
A quick glance at international box office tells us that a huge number of overseas audiences enjoy Hollywood spectacle, spectacle and more spectacle. They haven’t been keen on A Star is Born. They kind of liked Black Panther but what they really liked was Avengers: Infinity War which has made, no joke, $1,368,084,629 worldwide. It made $678 million here. By contrast, Black Panther earned less worldwide than it did in the US, at $646 million. Avengers: Infinity War made a billion dollars worldwide. That’s astonishing. If Hollywood wants to make money (and it appears that they do) then they’re going to keep churning out movies people worldwide will want to see — and those movies are usually male driven. It helps if they feature mostly white movie stars but male is preferable to female unless the franchise is so appealing it doesn’t matter, like The Force Awakens which made $1,131,561,399 in worldwide sales. People everywhere will pay to get a wild ride, and not so many will necessarily be drawn to films to contemplate the meaning of their lives.
Bigger, branded product is where the future of Hollywood films are headed yet Oscar island has remained, so far at least, immune to this mutation or cultural adaptation. What usually gets in for top nominations are nuts and bolts filmmaking. Films that tell uniquely original or prestige adapted stories that spring from individual imagination. The films this year that fit that bill would be:
If Beale Street Could Talk – 100% Academy’s thing. A meaningful, moving story driven by writing and acting that sends a powerful message.
The Favourite – a costume period piece about royalty in history featuring an ensemble of cheeky, bawdy women, driven by actors, heavy on crafts.
First Man – say what you will about the box office but this is an original, important story made by one of America’s most talented Oscar-winning directors, written by an Oscar-winning screenwriter and released by a major studio.
Green Book – currently awash in a shitstorm, it’s still the kind of film the Academy likes to reward – unless they’re frozen in fear by said shitstorm.
Ben is Back – an original script written and directed for an actor’s showcase with a leading role by a beloved Oscar-winning star about something important – addiction.
Widows – a heist movie that is also struggling at the box office but made by a director whose last film won Best Picture, starring an Oscar winning actress.
Leave no Trace – an intimate story by a director whose last film was Best Picture nominated, about something important and driven by actors and writers.
Bohemian Rhapsody – a classic biopic about a rock n’ roll legend, driven by a bravura performance by Rami Malek, shocking and everyone and making a bundle at the box office. Yes, awash in a bit of a shitstorm but it’s as yet unknown whether said shitstorm will have an impact or not.
First Reformed – made by the Hollywood icon, legend Paul Schrader – 100% driven by ideas and actors. An original story brilliantly told about something important.
BlackKklansman – a story about race in America told from the point of view of one of America’s most important voices and filmmakers, Spike Lee, driven by actors and writers.
Vice – hard-driving political message written by an Oscar-winning screenwriter, driven by an ensemble cast and some of the best actors in the industry.
Can You Ever Forgive Me – a non-traditional biopic about a woman most people would not pay much attention to. Driven by two actors and a clever screenplay.
The Front Runner – written by political journalists, directed by Oscar nominated Jason Reitman and involving a subject that many older Oscar voters are familiar with (hi Warren Beatty!).
8th Grade – the kind of film that would ordinarily be plucked from obscurity and lauded with top nominations. An original story of optimism and hope from a geeky, awkward teenage girl.
And yet — the two frontrunners are going to provide a Sophie’s Choice of sorts for voters:
Roma – one of the best films this year, if not the best. And yet it’s a foreign language film that will win in that category too. But more importantly, it would hand Netflix its first Best Picture win. That means people like Steven Spielberg are going to have to vote for it.
A Star is Born – Bradley Cooper is beloved, the movie made big money, and has become a cultural phenomenon, but the Academy will have to overcome its bias for remakes. Can it?
However this year turns out, it will feel like history has been made one way or the other. It’s worth noting that the Producers Guild will give a lot of people hope that some of these films will get in. But that’s because the Producers Guild has ten slots on their nomination ballot and not five. Expect Black Panther to land there, maybe even Mary Poppins. Whether they make it into the Academy’s five is a different story.