For the second year in a row we are seeing what the Oscar race looks like when voters have time to contemplate the films and think about who to chose as their winners. Usually, by now the Oscar ceremony would be done. The whole thing finished. In 2019, for instance, the Producers Guild was held on January 19th. The SAGs were held on January 27th, and the DGA Awards on February 2.
With a longer season, the whole thing has been spread long like taffy, and the massive consensus that shapes the awards has time to really watch the movies. You sacrifice the excitement of a short season for, perhaps, a more unpredictable race. That is what we have this year. So many factors have contributed to this, from COVID times, of course, to the big awards dump on January 27th when the PGA, DGA, and WGA all dropped their nominees on the same day, to the rise of streaming platforms in the race like Apple (which won its first major award last night, elbowing aside the studio films and Netflix with the irresistible CODA), to the BAFTA’s committee voting, to the Golden Globes being mostly canceled as a live show.
With enough time in the season, CODA could become much more the “little movie that could” and less about having been purchased by Apple for $25 million, which was the story out of Sundance. Marlee Matlin reminded the SAG audience of that get, but to Apple, it’s worth it because now they are as legit of a platform as Netflix and Amazon. These Big Tech companies are swallowing up the movie studios out of necessity. Most of their movies actually play better on the flat screen than they do on the big screen. Just rewatch The Tragedy of Macbeth on your Apple TV and you’ll see how much sharper it looks. CODA also looks a lot better on screener than it does in the theater where it isn’t quite suited for the larger format.
But it is surreal to be typing this on an Apple machine, strapping on my Apple watch then taking my Apple iPhone with me when I walk my dogs while writing about an Apple movie, just as it’s strange to buy things off of Amazon and also be talking about Amazon movies. One thing about Netflix, it only does one thing. That makes it slightly different from the other streaming platforms and makes it much more a hybrid between movie studios and streaming.
But films like Dune, Belfast, Nightmare Alley, and even Netflix’s The Power of the Dog require the movie theater experience to get the full experience of watching them. Survival requires adaptation and here we are, doing what humans have done for millions of years, adapting. You are living through that massive shift right now, and most people are barely noticing.
Given the time frame, the changing formats, the general mood of the industry, this might be a good year to go on instinct and not on stats. Although for people like me, that’s like prying away the tumbler of vodka as the bar is closing.
Stats can only really take you part of the way. They help try to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense. The rest of it has to do with feeling the buzz, knowing which way the wind is blowing and where the hearts and minds of a specific group of people are heading into our last month of this year’s awards race at long last. But take heart, factoid specialists. As every devoted statistician knows, like every other evolving thing on earth, our stats will adapt to reflect these new mutations. We just need to learn how to factor in the changes.
The only four categories that feel locked heading into the final stage of the Oscar race include Will Smith in King Richard and Ariana DeBose in West Side Story. We can probably now add Troy Kotsur in the Supporting category for his work in CODA. That feels like a lock too now after the rousing reception he received winning at the SAG awards. CODA also won Ensemble cast, which makes Kotsur’s ultimate win a sure thing.
It also feels like Jane Campion is locked to win Best Director for The Power of the Dog. We have just the critical acclaim and the Golden Globes to go off of. There doesn’t seem like there is anyone who can overcome Campion’s momentum.
But there are still some questions with Best Actress and Best Picture.
Many will simply think The Power of the Dog has solidified its strength since Belfast didn’t win Ensemble, and that might be true. Or they may believe CODA now has the momentum. Belfast without editing or cinematography and being a film written, directed, and about a white male isn’t exactly 2022 zeitgeist material. We’re a long way away, in this industry, from thinking about “best” in terms of personal taste. Best, as the SAG awards made quite clear with their messaging, can be very much about doing good in the world with their awards. They want to be good people doing good things and their votes will reflect that.
Predicting film awards means knowing your consensus voters. If you know generally what they’re responding to, and especially if you approach it with a certain amount of objective cynicism (“an unknown number of them are performative virtue signalers”) you might do better ultimately in predicting the outcome of the awards in 2022. That is probably going to matter, I’d say, with the upcoming final Oscar vote.
This consensus, Oscar, and industry voters are mostly white, mostly male but people in need of a guiding purpose because they aren’t necessarily church-going folks, though clearly some are. One thing I have learned about getting to know the world of the conservative voters is that they have actual religion as a guiding principle. Thus, they don’t need politics or film awards to fill that void. But on the left in this country, especially the people who make more money than God and don’t have many ways to define their sense of purpose, their film awards, their politics, and even the cars they drive and the food they eat define their sense of purpose. Everyone needs one. Whether some of them get that sense of fulfillment from a daily hunt on Twitter to attack and destroy their perceived enemies, or they do it on Instagram with a picture of Ukraine — or by donating thousands of dollars to send help to all those innocents under attack.
This has always been true for Oscar voters, it must be said. It’s just that what defines their sense of purpose has changed. For a long while, on through the 1970s, it was looking cool. They had been called out for being old and out of touch for so long that looking cool became a higher priority. Now, that has flipped. Looking cool really doesn’t matter at all but looking virtuous does.
So what does this all mean for Best Picture? It’s a tough thing to sell to this group because let’s say CODA had more than just three nominations heading in for Best Picture. Let’s say it had not just Best Director but a DGA nomination, an ACE nom, an editing nom, and perhaps a craft or two. Then it would easily be a frontrunner to win Best Picture in an extended season. But it doesn’t have those nominations. So what are its chances?
Our old stats don’t matter as much perhaps, but how many stats can be broken in one night?
Films featuring anyone with a disability are rare enough just to get made at all, but to do so well in the awards race is even rarer. With so many motivated to make change within their industry, they might want to reflect that change by awarding the first film with a predominantly deaf cast to win. It is also helped by having been written by a woman, not a dastardly white male. That makes it much more attractive than it otherwise might be, provided Apple really gets that piece of information out there. I have not seen a massive publicity push by them for this film, but maybe in the next few weeks, they can use some of that Big Tech muscle to drive that baby home. Then it could be like Driving Miss Daisy, which won without either a DGA or a Directing nomination (though it did win the Golden Globe for Best Picture).
Most people did not see CODA as a frontrunner, though I know Jeff Sneider did as he’s talked about it for months now.
If you’re looking for a great movie to watch with your family this week… https://t.co/dBfpLhmUfN
— Jeff Sneider (@TheInSneider) November 24, 2021
And indeed, I can’t watch CODA without tears streaming down my face the entire time. Literally, the entire time. That is the stuff that Best Picture winners can sometimes be made of. The stretched-out time frame is what could be causing CODA to suddenly be the movie people are thinking about where it wouldn’t have been in a more rushed season. Thus, when it comes to Best Picture, who knows how it could end up. CODA is exactly the kind of film that will do well on a preferential ballot. It will come in it at 1, 2 or 3 – there is no way it lands at the bottom of anyone’s ballot.
There seems to have been a concerted effort to dampen Belfast’s chances out of Telluride when it was seen as the frontrunner. Shame on all of us who loved that movie, appears to be the attitude of some. How dare we? There is nothing about it that can be amplified with engagement stuck to any specific issue, which means it just dangles out there as a plainly wonderful movie. For some, that is enough. For a community that needs a sense of purpose, it might not have that attached to it.
Belfast might resonate somewhat more, given the war in the Ukraine. Its message of unity and forgiveness usually never resonates with the film community, though. Because in this group, identity matters more than anything else. But also, we can assume that some of them don’t want to unify. They want to still fight their war against the other side. They are still very much in it.
The Power of the Dog has several issues at play, starting with the great Jane Campion’s return to cinema. But it has more than that. It’s so much about the conflicts of humans and the wilderness they wrestled to the ground. It’s so much about what we hide about ourselves and what threatens us about other people. Its message is subtle but powerful.
If Belfast and The Power of the Dog were the two frontrunners heading into the race, then the only film that can really challenge them would be CODA. And when you think about stats you have to factor in the film featuring a predominantly deaf cast. Its nomination in the race at all is something that has never happened before so in a sense, our stats for that have to start at zero.
So who knows!
The last time Nicole Kidman lost the SAG and won the Oscar was for The Hours, which had a corresponding Best Picture nomination with five slots on the ballot (so did Renee Zellweger with Chicago, who had also won the Globe).
With no Best Actress this year attached to Best Picture, we don’t have that kind of anchor. What we have now is probably a showdown between Nicole Kidman, Jessica Chastain, and yes, Kristen Stewart for the final vote. Remember, Stewart wasn’t at the SAG and she’s not at the BAFTAs. I don’t know that she can build the necessary momentum now heading in – I think and would guess, that Chastain has it. This is based on her outstanding career up to now. She’s never won and she has delivered one brilliant performance after another. She has also worked with almost every actor in the Academy. That helps.
I really liked what Chastain said about her portrayal of Tammy Faye, that she “practiced radical acts of love” and didn’t discriminate. I love that about her too, and I think it’s a great message for right now. It so easily could have turned into a performance that made fun of its subject, but she didn’t approach it that way. She approached it with kindness and empathy. Just read Twitter for the occasional comments here and you can see unfiltered hatred coming from some of the same people who position themselves as “good.” So Tammy Faye, in the capable hands of Chastain, isn’t a hypocrite. Her love is universal.
How the race settles out is going to depend on how voters want to be seen. We’re living through a time of extreme fear in the industry. So many people are afraid of everything and everyone. They are afraid of Twitter. They are afraid of all Republican politicians and of most Republican voters. They are afraid of COVID. They are afraid of being seen as racists. They are afraid of Trump running again. They are afraid of being seen as out of touch with Generation Z. They are afraid of making a wrong move and never working again. The fear comes from a very lopsided society with extremely rich people mixing it up with people who have nothing and sooner or later something will have to give. Hollywood feels more today like an elite country club than it ever has. They are afraid of the growing mob forming outside of it.
That’s why the shift to streaming platforms away from the free market automatically puts you in a community or a tribe that can exist in its own bubble. There are no market constraints. The ticket-buyers really don’t have much of a voice. You only need to serve your membership. To do that, you must protect your image. With films playing in movie theaters anyone could walk into one and pay to see them. In any town in this country, you get the mass market movies and if you’re lucky an art-house or two. But with streaming as the dominant provider of films in the awards race, it is flipped. The art-house is bigger and the mass market smaller.
That is why it was refreshing to see SAG-AFTRA include Yellowstone in its awards last night. It’s a mass-market series that almost every kind of person can watch. It was slightly jarring to see Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, not to mention Kevin Costner, show up. But that was an interesting thing to witness regardless, even if they seemed somewhat out of place – strangers in a strange land.
It feels to me like we are between worlds. We are clinging to the old world as the new world is growing beneath the crumbling foundation. Change is never easy. But if ideological angst is your biggest worry, you’re doing pretty well.