END OF AWARDS SEASON

The 89th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 26, 6 days from today.

End of awards season: DGA, BAFTA and WGA
With less than a week before the Academy Awards, the knowns and unknowns of the Oscar race are becoming slightly clearer. One of the knowns? La La Land has very good odds to win Best Picture. On February 4, La La Land director Damien Chazelle took home the top DGA Award. According to Scott Feinberg, “the DGA’s top prize is and long has been the strongest predictor of the Academy’s top two awards. Indeed, over the 68 years in which it previously was presented, its winner went on to take home the best director Oscar on all but seven occasions (or 90 percent of the time), and his or her film went on to win the best picture Oscar on all but 14 occasions (or 79 percent of the time).” So while it’s possible that Chazelle may lose Best Director or La La Land Best Picture (last year’s DGA winner, Alejandro G. Inarritu, won Best Director but lost Best Picture to Spotlight), that is not very likely to happen. (If he wins, Chazelle will become the youngest Best Director Oscar winner, breaking a record set in 1931.)

A week later, at the BAFTAs, La La Land did it again. It picked up five awards, including the ones for picture, director and actress. BAFTA wins are not all that amazing for Oscar predicting (according to Feinberg, “at the 16 previous BAFTA ceremonies since the BAFTAs moved in front of the Oscars on the calendar in 2001, only seven best film BAFTA winners went on to win the Best Picture Oscar”), but La La Land‘s momentum is pretty overwhelming. Rounding out the top awards, Casey Affleck won Best Actor, Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress and, somewhat surprisingly, Dev Patel won Best Supporting Actor. Affleck is in a tough race with Denzel Washington, but this victory is largely discounted because Washington was not even nominated for the BAFTA. Mahershala Ali is the alleged favorite in the Best Supporting Actor race, so many discount Patel’s win since BAFTA members like to award Brits. Still, I’m not convinced that this race is as wrapped up as others claim.

(BAFTA also took a turn toward the political. The Hollywood Reporter notes a lot of the good lines, including one from Viola Davis about Donald Trump’s anti-Meryl Streep attack: “Anyone who labels Meryl Streep an overrated actress doesn’t know anything about acting.”)

Finally, the WGA awards were given out yesterday. They are pretty much the last precursor award left before the Academy Awards. La La Land did not win the original screenplay award, falling to Moonlight (which, in the Oscars, is billed as adapted screenplay), and Arrival took home the WGA adapted screenplay award. The WGA’s choices underline Moonlight‘s industry support, further emphasized by the fact that Moonlight took home the USC Scripter award, given to the best adapted screenplay in a given year. (The last six winners of this award have gone on to win Best Adapted Screenplay.) This may pose an issue for La La Land in the screenplay race, though it’s main competition there (Manchester by the Sea) also did not prevail at the WGA.

This week (if not already), pundits will start to put together their lists of who will win what on Oscar night. (See this article for a quick look at five of the most competitive races.) I’ll try to give some more thought into it and send an update on Friday.

Spotlight on La La Land backlash
La La Land has been a huge success. It has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and has made $300 million on a $30 million production budget. It’s loved by critics, audiences and Oscar voters, who have nominated it for a record-tying 14 nominations across the board. Because of this success (and frontrunner status), many people have zeroed in on what they find troubling within the movie. La La Land think pieces abound, as do news articles discussing whether there is a backlash against the movie and whether this backlash will kick in before Oscar night. In my last post, I discussed the main arguments against La La Land (it’s too light; it’s racist, homophobic and hates jazz; and it’s an “Oscar grab” or “easy movie to pick”). Since then I’ve read many more articles (from the New York Times, Salon, the Guardian and Moviefone) and come up with a few other criticisms:

  • The actors can’t sing and dance: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not necessarily triple threats. The argument goes that Broadway-caliber actors and actresses should have been cast instead. This is pretty typical in modern movie musicals, where you cast big names (*cough* Russell Crowe) rather than those best suited to perform. While I would defend Emma Stone against this a bit (she was on Broadway in “Cabaret” and actually does a good job singing in the film, especially in “Audition”), I have nothing good to say about Ryan Gosling’s singing abilities.
  • It’s not original: This argument has two parts. The less intelligent one is that it is derivative and borrows from many films, such as Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. (It’s called homage and it’s on purpose.) The more nuanced one is that the modern Broadway musical is actually a lot more innovative than anything in La La Land (think “Hamilton,” “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” and “Dear Evan Hansen”). As one New York Times reporter writer, “A musical can be more than just a meet-cute song-and-dance escape; it can also be an opportunity to push the form forward.”
  • It’s not Moonlight, Fences or Hidden Figures: What I think underlies most of the other arguments is that if La La Land did not come out this year, one of the three Best Picture nominees focusing on African American protagonists would have a chance at winning the big prize. All three are deserving movies and would have sent a strong political message in the year of Trump.

A more notable entry into the La La Land discussion is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Most of his article is an analysis of the film’s themes (largely about ambition, dreams and romance), though the headline-grabbing passage comes from the beginning of the review. He presents, in my mind, the best argument against La La Land on racial grounds — not that there are not enough black actors, not that Ryan Gosling whitesplains jazz, but that the main black actor is portrayed in a negative light.

As someone who finds La La Land bold, daring and deserving of all its critical and financial success, I can also admit that there are a few elements that warrant closer examination, particularly regarding its portrayal of jazz, romance and people of color. In fact, the better a work of art is, the more we must dissect it, because now we’re not just measuring Rotten Tomatoes popularity or boffo box office, we’re assessing its proper place in our cultural canon. No, I don’t think the film needs more black people. Writer-director Damien Chazelle should tell the story as he sees fits with whatever ethnic arrangement he desires. … But I’m also disturbed to see the one major black character, Keith (John Legend), portrayed as the musical sellout who, as Sebastian sees it, has corrupted jazz into a diluted pop pablum. … The white guy wants to preserve the black roots of jazz while the black guy is the sellout? This could be a deliberate ironic twist, but if it is, it’s a distasteful one for African-Americans. One legitimate complaint that marginalized people (women, people of color, Muslims, the LGBT community, etc.) have had about Hollywood in the past is that when they were portrayed, it was done in a negative way. The ditzy blonde, the Muslim terrorist, the gay predator are all familiar stereotypes from years of TV and movies. So much has been done in recent years to overcome those debasing images, but we still have to be careful. It’s not that a black man can’t be the sellout or the drug dealer, it’s just that they shouldn’t be if they’re the only prominent black character in the story.

Another interesting take on La La Land comes from Sasha Stone. She talks about how La La Land‘s publicity team is actively working to counter the backlash.

The publicity team behind La La Land is the best in the business, and there is no way they’re going to drop the ball on this. To help deflect from some of the charges of John Legend being a sell-out next to purist Ryan Gosling, they are bringing out John Legend to perform the songs at the Oscars. Legend was also on hand at the Producers Guild (as I recall) to accept La La Land. He’s being put out front and center whenever possible as a way to say, see, this isn’t what La La Land is deliberately about. It’s a brilliant publicity strategy for the final stretch to erase any potential setback in perception.

On the more positive side, here are some La La Land movie analyses and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the song “Someone in the Crowd.”

Spotlight on cancelling the Oscars
There are a few articles I’ve seen (particularly in the Atlantic and A.V. Club) discussing how awesome it would be for the Academy to cancel the Oscars, sending a message to the world that they stand in opposition to the immigration ban and in support of their excluded nominees (particularly Asghar Farhadi for The Salesman):

The most effective way to create real change is to disrupt—we’ve see this in the women’s suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, and more recently, the gay rights movement. That’s why I think that canceling the Oscars would make a far more powerful statement than an Oscar ceremony full of actors pontificating. It would also send a true message of solidarity to those in the industry barred from attending, immigrants currently working in Hollywood, and would-be refugees whose status is in jeopardy.

The articles ultimately agree, though, that such a move is hugely unlikely to actually happen. And that’s for a few reasons. First, such a move is self-harming for the Academy and its members. Exposure from the Academy Awards helps lesser-known films make millions at the box office, and accepting an Oscar on the stage of the Dolby Theatre is a lifelong dream of many in the industry. Second, such a move is relatively self-important. If the Oscars aren’t on, many Americans will simply watch something else. Even though it’s the biggest night in Hollywood, thinking that regular Americans will necessarily care that the big night is cancelled is a little egotistical. Finally, such a move does not make the most of the Oscars ceremony. A cancelled Oscars will lose political jokes from the host and touching speeches by the winners. (Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes is a clear example of a political speech done right.) Though the authors have misgivings about La La Land and Casey Affleck, many agree that the show should go on:

If La La Land dominates, as many suspect it will, the Oscars will seem more frivolous than ever, overlooking weightier cinematic efforts for a dreamy musical about show business in the opening months of the Trump presidency … There is no denying that the Oscars sometimes shine a spotlight on films, and filmmakers, that many would deem objectionable. But despite their perceived triviality and occasional misguidedness, the Academy Awards also have the power to champion art that might otherwise be overlooked. This influence makes the show a platform that can’t be ignored this month, no matter who will be in attendance.

One interesting point on Farhadi and The Salesman. Before the immigration ban, it was assumed that Best Foreign Language Film would go to Toni Erdmann. Now, The Salesman is a huge threat. It’s gained significant amounts of publicity in the past few weeks, and there is now a moral or political reason to vote for it. (“London Mayor to Screen Iranian Film in Trafalgar Square on Oscar Night.”) Is that a good thing? Is that fair to the other nominees? Well, no one can really complain and everyone is very supportive of Farhadi.

Spotlight on the nominee class picture
On February 6, everyone nominated for an Oscar gathered for a nominee lunch and what’s known as the “class photo.” It’s always fun to overanalyze the picture (Is that Emma Stone, Matt Damon, Natalie Portman and Octavia Spencer all sitting next to each other? Are they friends? Why is Ryan Gosling so unhappy looking?) and a bit sobering to see the predominance of white men in suits.

Adding to the fun was Lin Manuel Miranda, nominated for Best Original Song for Moana. He took his mom as a date and live tweeted his experience, prompting a Vulture article with the subhead “He might soon have an EGOT, but he will never have any chill.” Highlights include meeting Viggo Mortensen (“He speaks gorgeous fluent Spanish. My mom almost floated away.”), meeting Steven Spielberg (“I mean what even.”) and describing what it is like to be actually taking the picture (“Here is Oscar’s butt and Pharrell.”).

Interviews with nominees

  • Secret Talent Theatre: Vanity Fair has another edition of its “Secret Talent Theatre.” Watch Natalie Portman teach you Hebrew slang, Emma Stone teach you how to pogo stick and Amy Adams teach you how to throw a football.
  • Mahershala Ali: The Hollywood Reporter has a whole feature on the Best Supporting Actor favorite.
  • Dev Patel is the Woody Allen of the gym: Patel tells the New York Times, “I enjoy going to the gym. It calms me down, and makes me feel a lot better. But as my trainer says, I’m a bit of a Woody Allen in the gym. I’m just neurotic and all over the place, and kind of a comedy routine when I’m training.”
  • Fences scenes: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis discuss their three favorite scenes in Fences and what makes them work.
  • More Denzel: Washington talks to the New York Times about Fences.
  • Where would you put your Oscar: According to E News, Naomie Harris would put it front and center. Ruth Negga would make her mom take care of it. And Lucas Hedges would store it with his other trophies: “I grew up playing squash. I have all these squash trophies in my room…I was like third in the country. Granted I was like 13 and a hundred people play squash…But it would go right alongside my squash trophies.”
  • Working with Sunny: Garth Davis talks about how to get an incredible performance out of an adorable actor.
  • Octavia Spencer: The New York Times talks to Best Supporting Actress nominee Octavia Spencer, who talked about living in the Trump era (“Every now and then I have to turn the news off, and guard my space, my home, with solace, with positive energy. We have four years to put up with this.”) and hearing she was nominated (“You hear people saying, ‘Oh, I wasn’t up.’ Believe me, you get up”)
  • Hidden Figures director’s dad was in the mob: Theodore Melfi shares his story with The Hollywood Reporter.
  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson is fed up with awards season: Taylor-Johnson tells Vulture, “Coming home from the Globes with an award was brilliant, but I’ve been promoting Nocturnal for six months. As an actor, you prefer to put that kind of energy into something creative. It was good to finally step off the train. You do kind of go, I’m losing my mind.”
  • Moonlight actor Alex R. Hibbert: Hibbert, who plays Little in Moonlight, talks to the New York Times (while at a trampoline park) about wanting to cure cancer and get cast on The Walking Dead.
  • Isabelle Huppert: Isabelle Huppert giving the most Isabelle Huppert answer imaginable.
  • Writers talk writing: Nine screenplay nominees share stories of lines that worked and scenes that were cut. A highlight involves the line reading of the scene in Hidden Figures where Kristen Dunst says, “You know, Dorothy, despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all,” and Octavia Spencer replies “I know. I know you probably believe that.” The way it worked was when Spencer read it more as forgiving than challenging.
  • Producers talk producing: Nine producing nominees share stories about making this year’s Best Pictures. A highlight involves coming up with the name of one of the films (“When I got here, I was like, ‘I’m going to get this movie made come hell or high water.'”)
  • Actors talk acting: Ten acting nominees share stories of the “challenges and thrills of their work.” Highlights include Ryan Gosling’s advice for a first-time Oscar nominee (“Bring your mom”), Emma Stone on the hardest scene to shoot (“The audition scene. You know what Damien wrote in the script? The only thing it said in the stage directions for the song in the audition room was, ‘Mia sings, she is astonishing.’ That was the only stage direction. I read it and I was like, ‘Damien, that’s a lot to live up to, adjective-wise.'”) and Nicole Kidman on her favorite Meryl Streep performance (“Sophie’s Choice is for me … exquisite. That’s probably a flawless performance. Did she win for that? Look, see? I don’t even know. I feel like she should win all the time. She can do anything. The woman can do anything.”)

Other news

  • Harvey being Harvey: This.
  • Why might they win: The Los Angeles Times dissects the “Oscar scenes” for the Best Actor and Best Actress contenders.
  • Why Moonlight: The Los Angeles Times makes the case for why Moonlight should win Best Picture.
  • Puns: Zootopia filmmakers spoof the Best Picture nominees.
  • Oscar history: Variety discusses some important moments in the history of the Academy Awards, such as the first acceptance speech and television broadcast.
  • But why, Hollywood? Foreign language film nominee Toni Erdmann is now being remade with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig.
  • Cinematography tribute: This montage looks at all the films that have won Best Cinematography since 1928. (Worth noting again that all the winners were men.)
  • Sound mixers who never win: Kevin O’Connell and Greg P. Russell worked together for years, earned 12 nominations but never won. Now they are at the Oscars again, O’Connell for Hacksaw Ridge (21st nomination) and Russell for 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (17th nomination). They probably won’t win.
  • Red carpet Ruth: Apparently Best Actress contender Ruth Negga is good at Red Carpet-ing. “Maybe it’s her theater background,” Ms. Welch said. “She knows how to work it like a pro.”
  • What’s your name, man? Lin Manuel Miranda: According to The Hollywood Reporter, Miranda is going to be singing the nominated Moana song “How Far I’ll Go” with Auli’i Cravalho, who actually sang the song in the film (and actually can sing). Other Academy Awards performers this year include Justin Timberlake and John Legend. Also, here’s another article about LMM. I’m done sorting these. Why do people write so much about the Oscars?
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