The Oscar race has been a bit of a bubble for a while now. It was trending in that direction after the Academy pushed their date up by one month, which meant the whole thing was more or less decided at film festivals among critics and bloggers. There were other factors, of course: the rise of at-home movie watching, streaming, superhero movies.
But nothing has made the Oscar race more of a bubble than COVID. It isn’t just that theaters were closed, it was that the people the movies were aimed at — upper middle class, urban sophisticates (the Academy demo, basically) — were not going to turn out to watch the movies they ordinarily would. That is what happened to West Side Story and King Richard, two films that probably would have earned $100 million or thereabouts otherwise in normal times. And the one “adult” movie they did turn out to see, House of Gucci, was mostly shut out of the Oscar race, including its main draw — a person who would have likely boosted Oscar ratings by a million or so on her own, Lady Gaga.
The ultimate effect is where we find ourselves today, with an Oscar race that is very much a closed system. People are talking about them, just in a very positive way.
The Screen Actors Guild (and the BAFTA) did nominate Lady Gaga. While she did not win the Golden Globe (Nicole Kidman did), the presence of Gaga in the wake of her absence at the Oscars will be a pretty big deal. She might even win the BAFTA. It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that she COULD win the SAG, which would, to me, signal that an actress not nominated for the SAG will win the Oscar (Kristen Stewart or Penelope Cruz). But that doesn’t seem likely. We’ve seen it happen before, however, when Idris Elba won for Beasts of No Nation when he was not up for the Oscar. Emily Blunt also won for The Quiet Place without an Oscar nomination.
The addition of AFTRA (which boosts their membership to 150,000) makes the SAG, without a doubt, the most populist of the awards bodies. They are also the most diverse, and were the only major awards to nominate Jennifer Hudson for Respect.
What the Screen Actors Guild Awards will tell us more than anything is just how out of the woods we are in terms of “getting back to normal.” How weird is it going to be? How suffocating or stilted? Will it be as celebratory as the Super Bowl was? The ratings there were high, but did not quite top the 2015 record. If the Screen Actors Guild sees a boost in ratings, we might see the public’s appetite for awards shows returning. Maybe.
The SAG Awards will also take the temperature of whether or not the industry is interested in drawing the broader public; perhaps a better way to say this is whether or not they want to continue alienating audience members by using the award show to further their political beliefs. I sort of suspect that they will, given that we’re a long way off from the pendulum shift that will likely reflect a backlash to politics at awards shows.
The public’s distaste for people at the top of the food chain talking about political causes will especially problematic right now, in the third year of COVID when audiences are looking for escapism and relief, as opposed to more doom and gloom. But Hollywood (and the Oscar race) is still very much locked into the efforts they’ve made to diversify their industry and they’re going to want to talk about that. At least I think they will.
The decline in Oscar ratings does track alongside the rise of Trump, which makes sense since the entire industry took the side of the Democrats such that, at some point, it was impossible to really tell the difference between the awards shows and the Democratic National Convention.
Politics at the Oscars used to be so frowned upon that when Marlon Brando sent up Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his Oscar for him, it was widely condemned. Politics, many said back then, had no place at the Oscars. Of course, the Academy Museum now displays this moment as a point of pride, which shows you how far they’ve come.
Vanessa Redgrave’s anti-Israel comments got her in a lot of trouble:
Here is Paddy Chayefsky condemning them and setting the tone for years to follow – listen to the crowd erupt at the message that politics don’t belong at the Oscars. He was the Ricky Gervais of his day:
It was still so frowned upon that in 1989 when Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was mostly shut out of the Oscars and Kim Basinger said something about it, the moment was not even discussed when the New York Times covered the story the next day.
After 2016, however, it was a requirement that celebrities and athletes made public statements when someone put them in front of a mic or they won an award. If they didn’t, it was noticed and commented upon by Twitter. In a sense, they are caught between wanting to be seen as good people and not wanting to come off as privileged.
I don’t know how much the celebrities care about ratings, or about the public more broadly. Many of them have platforms on social media and they believe the way to boost their image among Gen Z is to be activists online, which might mean they “get political” anyway. I expect that we’ll be seeing both continuing politics blending with film awards and, as a result, probably not a big ratings jump. But then again, there is no guarantee if they dropped the politics more people would watch. I sort of think that ship has sailed anyway. They could however, not turn off a new generation who might tune in to see the new audience award play out.
I will be watching the SAG Awards to check in with the industry interfacing with the public to see where they are in terms of providing something entertaining or whether they still see it as an avenue for activism. I do think that will impact how they vote on the major awards.
Nicole Kidman does seem to be owning the season, not just because of her work in Being the Ricardos, but because of her recent work in Big Little Lies and The Undoing, which was a reminder of just how versatile she is. The only other two contenders that she’ll compete against with Oscar nominations would be Jessica Chastain, long overdue for an impressive career, and Olivia Colman who didn’t win the SAG when she was up for The Favourite. It’s worth remembering that Kidman herself has never won a SAG award for Best Actress, which is another notch in her favor.
The SAG Awards will also likely decide Best Supporting Actor, which could shift the race as well. If it is Kodi Smit-McPhee, as expected, then that bodes well for The Power of the Dog winning. But if, say, Troy Kotsur wins there, then that definitely shifts the race and could lead to an Oscar win. In general, the SAG winner wins the Oscar, but it isn’t always the case and this is a very strange year. But we’ll know which films have more buzz or more strength heading into the SAG Awards, our first big guild ceremony.
The Ensemble award will also take the temperature of the Best Picture race because four out of the five nominees are Best Picture nominees. The only one of them, however, that has a DGA and Best Director nomination is Belfast.
To me, Belfast is the best film overall of the five. But taking the temperature means figuring out what resonates more with a very large crowd. If CODA wins, they will make history and that is a powerful motivator. It would likely receive a standing ovation, giving it a major bounce heading into final Oscar voting. But Don’t Look Up has the bigger, more impressive cast in terms of star power. How do you not get Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, and Timothee Chalamet on stage? It also has the climate change issue, which would give Leonardo DiCaprio another chance to talk about the climate. King Richard could show strength here and maybe challenge the two frontrunners. The only one of them winning that would be shocking would be House of Gucci, which has no Best Picture nomination.
Either way, we’re kind of in limbo right now. We do not have any really clear smoke signals at the moment. Surely those will arrive soon. We don’t know if we have a wide open Best Picture race, or a competitive race, or one movie that just wins everything. The SAG Awards won’t clear that up since The Power of the Dog is not nominated. In 2019, it seemed like 1917 had it locked up. But then Parasite won at SAG and it ended up completely changing the race.
That is why we will be watching the SAG very very carefully on February 27th, just ten days from now.