The critics spent months pleading and begging and whining about the Oscar category for popular films. Right? The Academy then tabled the plan and dangled the invisible threat that if the Oscar race doesn’t start to become relevant — as in, picking popular films — then THAT CATEGORY WILL BE BACK! When the SAG voters then nominated popular films and popular stars the same observers were upset that it was TOO popular. Though it’s worth noting that Spike Lee’s marvelous BlacKkKlansman is not really in the same group as Bohemian Rhapsody, Crazy Rich Asians, and Black Panther. All in all, in this regard, you could say things flipped today from how they they used to be: when mostly traditional so-called Oscar movies were nominated and a rare popular film or two were thrown in, almost by accident.
Either which way, what people want to know is — why was Roma shut out? Why was If Beale Street Could Talk shut out? Why was Vice shut out in ensemble? That’s a prominent head-scratcher in a day filled with head-scratchers, no? What any big awards show does best is offer up a publicity moment for a contender. That doesn’t mean everything, of course, but it’s important. Here’s why.
Back in 2000, when Marcia Gay Harden was up for Supporting Actress without a SAG nomination for Pollock, the Oscars were held in March. That meant — we’re not deciding in December, but we’re deciding in late January or February. Everything was pushed up when the Academy decided to change their big night from March to February. You wouldn’t think that would have that much of an impact, but those of us who follow the race closely noticed the change. Four weeks is a lot of time to lose when movies are still jostling for position. There wasn’t time for anyone to really think about anything. The cascade of screeners and wall-to-wall precursors began to rain down really fast.
That is probably why every winner in the supporting category since 2000 has had a SAG nomination. But Marcia Gay Harden still won an Oscar without one. Was that because voters had four more weeks to see her on the circuit? Quite possibly. That means it used to be theoretically possible that someone who didn’t receive a nomination, like Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk, could still win. If the performance is strong enough. If it had several more days to gain traction. If enough people feel like some great injustice or oversight has been done. If there isn’t another actress waiting in the wings to swoop it claim that spot. Like, say, the very overdue Amy Adams in Vice.
The big question marks that remain are not who didn’t get in so much as who did and whether they can repeat that support at the Oscars. Or whether those who were left out, namely Regina King and Claire Foy, can be bumped into spots that are not yet carved in stone. These more fluid candidates would be Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place and Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots. I would wager that one will get in but not both. I will continue to predict Regina King to get in, along with other nominations for Beale Street.
The Shape of Water shattered the requisite Best Picture stat of needing a SAG Ensemble nomination last year, although it did have top nominations, like Best Actress. However, with its cast of unknown and first-time actors, Roma was always a long shot in the acting categories. We could also note that a black and white film in a foreign language doesn’t get often nominated. One reason being that judging acting from people acting in another language is hard — harder than you’d think. In fact, one could almost say that the only people really qualified to judge a performance are those who speak the same language because they hear how the lines are being spoken, the nuances and inflections. We don’t ordinarily abide by this rule — none of us do. English speakers feel equipped to judge performances by actors speaking a different language (with the help of subtitles), and people who speak different languages certainly feel qualified to judge American actors (because many millions of them are fluent in English). But acting is hearing as much as it is seeing. There is only so much you can get and so far you can go in terms of assessing a performance.
Whether Alfonso Cuaron can win Best Director for Roma will not depend on the SAG awards. It will depend on the outcome of the Globes and the DGA. The real question with the film is: can it reach thousands and thousands of voters? Will enough voters watch it? Will they get it — the subtext and cultural cues? Some will, for sure. But will enough of them? Will many of them not watch it, and say they did, and then vote for someone else? Will some not watch it, or fully get it, but still recognize what a towering achievement it is and vote for Cuaron anyway? Hard to say.
This might be the moment that A Star Is Born is launched on a proper winning streak. Leading the SAGs, doing well at the Globes, it could just start winning and never stop. The whole “make the Oscars popular again” thing will be served and everyone will be happy, right?
Just remember this if you remember nothing else about past awards seasons: long time readers will recognize this sentiment. It is a paraphrasing of a Bob Dylan lyric. People want to be on the side that’s winning. It is human nature. A few of us oddballs like to be on the side that’s losing or fighting to stay in the game, but most people really want to back a winner. That is the only problem with someone missing out on a nomination. It tends to deflate hope. Each absence will contribute to an incremental diminishment. Seeing this happen can make people either want to fight for someone, or abandon someone.
The SAG nominating committee is a randomly selected group of 2,000 voters drawn from both the SAG and the AFTRA membership. That means they’re not necessarily all actors and since they’re scattered all across the country their tastes tend to reflect a more populist vibe. There are so many other unknown variables that we still need a lot more intel on this race to figure out where this is going. We have a vague idea but nothing solid yet, and today did little to clarify anything. The new members of the Academy are another unknown factor this year. And then we return to the year’s most pesky question: will there will be a push to reward “popular” movies, or else.
Voters will now gather with family and friends in their holiday dens — aglow in firelight, and wine, and weed, and the warmth of the season — and select from the teetering Jenga tower of screeners that have been sent to them.
How any of the films play in this setting will be the key factor in determining what gets nominated. Which families are going to want to watch which movies? We know the popular movies will get watched. We know the films with big stars will get watched. But can critical acclaim alone propel other films towards the DVD/Blu-ray player? Which films will seem to be too much of a bummer to watch? Which ones will warm the cockles of the heart?
These are all the remaining mysteries of this, one of the strangest Oscar races I can ever remember.