West Side Story screened yesterday for press and various other sorts. In an ordinary year, this film probably would be one of many very good movies entering the Oscar race. But this is no ordinary year. And these are no ordinary Oscars. So much has changed. For one thing, we’re potentially watching the death of movie theaters as we once knew them.
West Side Story was among those films postponed for a year because of COVID. We’ve been waiting a long time to see it. There was also a Twitter dust-up over Ansel Elgort, wherein I received some of the most abusive tweets I’ve ever gotten. I know — considering me and my big mouth, that is saying a lot. You can read all about that here, written in June of 2020. But look, man, I’d do it again. You have to be as obsessed with history — and especially mass hysteria events throughout history — to really understand what’s happening right now and look at it with a critical eye. You don’t have to. You are probably safer not saying anything. If I had been alive in 1692, I’d probably have been hanged as a witch. Now I know this for sure about myself. I would not have been someone who went along with it, which means I would not have survived it. Surviving is better. Say nothing, but don’t go along with it.
The bottom line is this: the more popular and powerful West Side Story becomes as a contender, I imagine the louder Twitter will get. But maybe I’m wrong. Let’s wait and see how that goes.
Okay so let’s get on with the show, shall we?
A few rules I follow in the Oscar race in general.
- There are no rules to follow in the Oscar race. Meaning, just because something has never happened doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Parasite’s win, The Hurt Locker’s win, etc.
- In general, though, Best Picture is the girl next door (familiar, been around a while) and not the one night stand (fleeting but intense passion).
- In the era of the preferential ballot, follow Screenplay OR Director, rarely both. The only films that have won both: 2009, 2010, 2014, 2019. Otherwise they split the big prizes. In that case, Best Pic goes with screenplay: 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018. Or director: 2011, 2017, 2020. Most common is Pic + Screenplay.
- Film Twitter is not the industry. Critics awards are not the industry. This is the difference between hundreds of people ringing in and thousands. While hundreds can give you some indication of where things might go, thousands will give you more. Producers Guild = 8,000. Directors Guild = 16,000. Screen Actors Guild = 100,000. Academy = 9,000. But more than that, when you are writing about film now or the Oscars, whether on Twitter or at a major outlet, your brand is your opinion. Whether you like a movie or not has to be part of that brand. While it’s true the Academy can sometimes vote that way, it’s not to same extent an alpha voice on Twitter can be. They exist in very different universes. But it’s hard to not let the noise invade one’s critical thinking.
- Despite their noble and valiant efforts to diversify its membership, the Academy is still 70% male and 84% white. While that used to mean something different than it means now (they are more likely to signal their virtue with their vote than they used to be), it is still going to come down to the majority’s taste – what stories grab them that they can relate to. Think boomers. Think people who are more likely than not to listen to NPR and read the New York Times and drive a Prius. This is going to matter because there is going to be a fraction of voters who vote for their ideals and their politics. The industry and the Academy are at their best when they are not aiming for purity and goodness. But that probably is a long way off where we are right now.
- Think longer term than usual. Voting doesn’t start until the end of January for Oscar voters. They used to vote during the holidays and that definitely influenced how they voted. Now that won’t be the case. A lot can happen between now and the end of January.
- Split years are more common in the era of a preferential ballot, but in the recent years where we had a straight ten nominees, 2009 and 2010 we did not have split years.
- Time decides greatness, the Oscars don’t. While we spend time dissecting movies, analyzing them, deciding whether they’re good or great or whatever, Oscar voters, in general, don’t do that. They look at the list and they think, which movie do I LIKE BEST. It’s the publicist’s job to negotiate that for them before they ever get to the ballots. They do that by micromanaging PERCEPTION. Perception is everything in advertising, politics, and yes, the Oscars. What makes you FEEL GOOD when you look at it is often an irrational emotional experience. If you can make people feel disgusted when they look at the title, you can knock that film out of contention, no matter how good it is. Likewise, a mediocre film can make you feel good thinking about it, no matter if in ten years people say that movie was not that great.
- The preferential ballot is an odd beast. It isn’t a matter of split voting. It’s a weird way to calculate LEAST HATED and MOST LIKED. But it doesn’t necessarily reflect the majority’s idea of the best. It merely figures out which movie they can most live with. It often comes down to the top three vote-getters. So in a sense, it is a silly game to play with the expanded ballot since really it’s a matter of those three top movies. In that case, whatever is 2nd or 3rd can sometimes overcome the top vote-getter. In other cases, a movie probably has so much support on the first round nothing can catch it.
- Nobody knows anything. Scott Feinberg often (in the past anyway) said to me “it isn’t true. There is a lot we do know.” Sure, fine. But the basic premise is right. Until we see how a movie plays overall, how a campaign goes overall, how external factors impact these things — we have to assume we go in not knowing anything (ah, William Goldman. We remember you well).
We finally have a real race, with several very strong films in contention and many films that might also be in play, depending on how they play, like Don’t Look Up, Tick Tick Boom, and others. But we’re getting down to the wire in terms of seeing everything. There is only one movie left to screen and that’s Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, which will premiere tomorrow night at the Academy theater.
It’s always a gamble to write up frontrunners this early. But for me, I like to jot it down for history’s sake, just to see how wrong or right it is once the wins actually do come down. How much could we see from the beginning of December? What changed? Why did it change.
With that in mind, here we go. None of this is set in “Stone” so to speak, but here is a spitball or two of how I currently see the race.
Frontrunners for the win, not for nominations, and their main challengers (subject to change):
Frontrunner — Belfast
Challengers — The Power of the Dog, West Side Story, King Richard, and Being the Ricardos — I think these are your top five. With several other movies in the conversation.
Belfast, so far, inspires nothing but goodwill. This is what you want on a preferential ballot. But you also need urgency to vote for it. Some people will feel that way about Belfast and its powerful message of unity and forgiveness. But Jane Campion will also have that for Power of the Dog, as her crowning achievement. And of course with West Side Story we have the double whammy of Stephen Sondheim and Rita Moreno. King Richard has goodwill and potential urgency to vote for it. Being the Ricardos could win Original Screenplay and in a split year, maybe Picture.
Frontrunner — Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Challengers — Kenneth Branagh, the Comeback Kid for Belfast; and Steven Spielberg, who would be winning his third Best Director Oscar — putting him on par with John Ford, Frank Capra, and William Wyler. But if anyone deserves to be among those names, he does.
Frontrunner — Will Smith, King Richard
Challengers — Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog; Andrew Garfield, Tick Tick Boom; Peter Dinklage, Cyrano; Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos; potentially Bradley Cooper for Nightmare Alley
Frontrunner — Kristen Stewart, Spencer
Challengers — Nicole Kidman for Being the Ricardos, Penelope Cruz for Parallel Mothers, Olivia Colman for The Lost Daughter, Lady Gaga for House of Gucci
Best Supporting Actor
Frontrunner — there isn’t one. Anyone can get nominated, anyone can win.
Strong contenders would be: Ciarán Hinds, Belfast; Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons from The Power of the Dog; Ben Affleck, The Tender Bar; JK Simmons, Being the Ricardos; Mike Faist and David Alvarez from West Side Story; maybe someone from Nightmare Alley
Best Supporting Actress
Frontrunner — There isn’t one. Anyone can get nominated, anyone can win.
Strong contenders would include: Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog; Ann Dowd, Mass; Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard; Rita Moreno and Ariana DeBose, West Side Story; Caitriona Balfe, Belfast; Nina Arianda and Alia Shawcat, Being the Ricardos; Marlee Matlin, CODA; and Judi Dench, Belfast
Best Original Screenplay
Frontrunner — Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Challengers — Aaron Sorkin, Being the Ricardos; Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza; Adam McKay, Don’t Look Up; Zach Baylin, King Richard
Best Adapted Screenplay
Frontrunner — Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Challengers: Tony Kushner, West Side Story; Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
That is about all we know so far, and we don’t even know it. We just assume it. I do not feel qualified to say what the frontrunners in the major crafts categories, like Cinematography (I think The Power of the Dog) or Editing (I think West Side Story) or Sound (West Side Story) or Production Design (Dune). So we’ll leave it at this until next we meet, Oscarwatchers.