Apparently we’re in the thick of Oscars campaign season, with a slew of films and talk-show anecdotes arriving ahead of the ceremony in March. It’s basically a livestock show in which stars are tagged with the title of their movie and trotted out in executive suites across America, to be looked over and — in the old days — prodded by a cabal of old white men reminiscing about orgies with Fatty Arbuckle. And that’s the public-facing side.
Of course, the Academy has undergone reforms following the #OscarsSoWhite uproar in 2015 and 2016, which forced them to reveal 93 per cent of its 6,261 members were white, 76 per cent were men and there was a median age of 63. Following much shame-induced restructuring, last year the Academy declared its members were now one third female and 19 per cent ‘under-represented minorities’ (yeah, under-represented thanks to you lot).
Nevertheless, the Oscars are changing, and after Chloé Zhao became the first woman of colour to win Best Director this year, the 2022 race is intriguingly open. However, any idea that voting may be in some way ‘fair’ would be a little naïve. Academy members resembling the cast of Cocoon remain the majority, and it’s still made up of mainly American ‘film industry professionals’, which means the Oscars reflect Hollywood, with all the self-congratulatory insanity that implies.
The Oscars have never been about rewarding the best films, they’re about showcasing Hollywood’s idea of itself to the world, and back to itself. The narcissism is fevered on Oscars night, not least in the grandiose speeches that reveal a collective belief that film-makers are not simply providing an alternative to an evening at Pizza Express, but are gods come to save us all. A personal favourite came when Paul Newman, accepting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar, called America ‘the most generous country on the planet’, and Hollywood ‘the most generous community in the country’, then said, ‘so to be singled out like this is an honour’, thereby declaring himself the most generous man on earth.
What Hollywood thinks of itself remains critical in predicting the award winners themselves. Traditionally, Oscars bait are those films that have a certain mighty worthiness, that show off the power of the Hollywood machine and its self-perceived good-heartedness. Indeed, for an industry that awarded Harvey Weinstein’s films some 81 Oscars, it’s a case of the more aggressively goodhearted stories the better, to cover a multitude of sins. That’s why it became ‘a thing’ for Best Actor winners to portray a disability. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump… Eddie Redmayne recently said he regretted playing a trans woman in The Danish Girl, but what about winning an Oscar for hopping in a wheelchair to play Stephen Hawking? You suspect that today Daniel Day-Lewis wouldn’t get away with being carried around the set of My Left Foot every day ‘in character’ as Christy Brown without serious questions over whether one man’s cerebral palsy should be another man’s trophy bid.
Staying with My Left Foot, guess who was behind its 1990 Oscars drive? Yep, Harvey Weinstein, who created a ‘guerrilla’ campaign where, chillingly, he arranged meet-and-greets between the film’s stars and Academy members. Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker both won that year. Weinstein’s Oscar tactics were varied in their dirtiness, but all had money at the heart, like the $5 million campaign for the pathetic Shakespeare in Love, which resulted in it beating Saving Private Ryan to Best Picture. In Peter Biskind’s book, Down and Dirty Pictures, publicist Mark Urman said Weinstein would ‘set up screenings at the Motion Picture Retirement Home, because Academy members live there, even if they’re on life support’.
Given the complexities of the voting system, a pillow over the face may be preferable. Best Picture is famously nightmarish. According to new rules, each member ranks their choices for Best Picture and a film has to get 5 per cent of first place votes to qualify for a nomination. But the final winner is decided by a complex preferential voting calculation. So complex that PricewaterhouseCoopers is employed to figure out a winner.
So to this year, and a time when a ‘reformed’ Academy is concerned with celebrating not just films that appear worthy, but actually mean what they say. Whether this has been forced on them doesn’t matter; what matters is that the industry is hustling it, same as ever. The member boost has increased the number of international votes: hence Parasite’s triumph in 2020. This year Netflix’s The Power of the Dog has appeared at a ludicrous number of festivals around the world, which has been seen as a big play to international voters. Also, showing it outside of actual Netflix is important, given the lingering prejudice against streaming-site films.
Does any of it matter? Discounting lifetime achievement apologies, Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar. Nor did Kubrick. Nor did Chaplin. Ben Affleck, meanwhile, won Best Picture for directing Argo. Yet the Oscars remain a fruitful excuse for derisive sneering, and with that in mind, turn over and meet the front-runners for 2022.
House of Gucci
Millennial hater Ridley Scott may blame smartphones for the recent box office failure of The Last Duel, but the fact is he hasn’t made anything Ridley Scott-esque since Prometheus (2012), and even that was third-rate Ridley Scott. Pleasingly, with House of Gucci he’s having a ‘sod it, I’ll have fun’ moment, much like Scorsese did with The Wolf of Wall Street, only this is nowhere near as good. House of Gucci is not played strictly for laughs, but certainly embraces silliness; not merely the high camp of fashion, but a carefree approach to Italian accents rarely seen beyond Goodfella’s pizza ads. No chance of Scott picking up his first Best Picture nomination since The Martian (starring Matt Damon and other potatoes), but Lady Gaga is in with a shot at a prize for playing Patrizia Reggiani, the vengeful ex-wife of Maurizio Gucci. Gaga plays it as subtly as you’d expect from someone who once wore a meat dress (another Goodfella’s pizza nod?), and quite right, too. Out now
Should win: Best Foreign Accents in an English Language Film
Will win: Best Actress, Lady Gaga (er, maybe)
Best Picture chances: 5 /10
This is a film in black and white, therefore it heads straight to the top of likely winners for Best Picture. Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed it, which adds to its chances, as it could complete Branagh’s arc from new British Orson Welles (Henry V) to vapid Shakespearean vomit factory (As You Like It, Love’s Labour’s Lost) to Hollywood cap-in-hand apologist (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), and into position for a ‘he is an auteur after all, we told you so’. Belfast looks at a family torn apart by the Troubles and stars Jamie ‘thank Christ I no longer have to shave my arse’ Dornan and Dame Judi Dench. It’s just the kind of gritty but sentimental drama that appeals to Hollywood types. Out 21 Jan
Should win: Best Original Screenplay, Kenneth Branagh
Will win: Kenneth Branagh, Best Director
Best Picture chances: 8 /10
Don’t worry, Branagh fans, this isn’t a Shakespeare film by some other semi-auteur about to steal an Oscar from under his nose. Instead it’s a biopic of Richard Williams, the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena, a man who wrote a 78-page manifesto about his daughters’ lives before they were born. Even from the perspective of a parent in East Dulwich, that’s another level of ego-maniacal child ‘steering’. Thanks to a mega-watt performance by Will Smith and direction from Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men), this is another leading contender, with the advantage of looking at bona fide American icons, giving everyone a chance on Oscar night to say ‘God bless America’ — even though it appears to be Satan’s deadly hellscape. Out now
Should win: Best Picture
Will win: Best Actor, Will Smith
Best Picture chances: 8 /10
Paul Thomas Anderson is an incredibly likeable director who makes incredibly likeable pictures, and as such has consistently failed to win Best Director and Best Picture Oscars. This won’t change with Licorice Pizza. Set in 1970s LA on the film industry fringes, it depicts the friendship between a 25-year-old woman and a teenage boy. It’s a big-hearted coming-of-age story, nostalgically depicting a time before kids became zero-humoured cyber-junkie agents of the thought-police. Expect Anderson to receive his ninth Oscar nomination for Best Director and be snubbed again. An acting win may be a possibility, given the young lead is Cooper Hoffman, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son. Out 7 Jan
Should win: Best Director, Paul Thomas Anderson
Will win: Best Original Screenplay, Paul Thomas Anderson
Best Picture chances: 7 /10
Mostly this film has been acclaimed because it isn’t the David Lynch original and doesn’t involve Sting. The film is also decent in the way that all Denis Villeneuve films are decent, in that you sense you’re watching something spectacular by a true master but by the end feel like you’ve spent three hours telling your son how good his handprint paintings are. Anyway, Oscars voters don’t really like sci-fi — okay, there was the aforementioned The Martian (multiple nominee in 2016), but that was sci-fi with all the good bits replaced with bits about potatoes so it doesn’t count. But there’s an outside chance of a win as Dune is draining enough to confuse the exhausted, medicine-steeped brains of the Academy old guard. Out now
Should win: All the technical stuff
Will win: Best Score, Hans Zimmer, and all the technical stuff
Best Picture chances: 6 /10
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Now sadly for Branagh fans this is a Shakespeare adaptation by a semi-auteur. Coming from super-cool studio A24, it looks like they’ve given Joel Coen free rein in his first film without brother Ethan. Denzel Washington plays the Scottish king, and Frances McDormand plays his wife. It looks stunning, but unfortunately was made for Apple TV+. If the Academy isn’t giving the big prize to Netflix to appease the crowds, there’s no way they’re giving it to the crowd-free Apple TV+. Washington and McDormand must be eyeing a big moment at the Oscars, though, an occasion Shakespeare would have described as ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. In cinemas 25 Dec, on Apple TV+ 14 Jan
Should win: Best Director, Joel Coen
Will win: Best Actress, Frances McDormand
Best Picture chances: 7 /10
The Power of the Dog
Could this be Netflix’s first win for Best Picture? Very possibly. Director Jane Campion has good form with judges — at least, she’s one of the few female directors to have been nominated for a Best Director Oscar (for The Piano in 1994), and indeed could be the first woman to be nominated for that award twice. It’s an exceptional Western about a toxic rancher, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, raging at Kirsten Dunst as his brother’s wife — but will Oscars judges award Best Picture to a film created for a streaming service? Will they risk having Martin Scorsese come knocking at their door sporting a Mohican? In cinemas and on Netflix now
Should win: Best Director, Jane Campion
Will win: Best Picture
Best Picture chances: 9/ 10
West Side Story
In which Steven Spielberg attempts to wreak Oscars havoc with a massively budgeted and entirely needless remake of a classic musical. Set in 1957 (why not update it?), this stars Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in the lead roles, and to be fair it looks like an ever-present exploration of racial prejudice and love across the divide — that Shakespeare, eh? If Spielberg can stay away from the cheese, this could steam in and win everything in sight, as it’s one to appeal to both the old-school Academy members and the ‘newcomers’. Out 10 Dec
Should win: Nothing
Will win: Everything
Best Picture chances: 9/ 10