Beneath all the glitz and glamour, the Academy Awards have become a national touchstone for America’s increasingly energized awareness of sexism, racism and our place in the international community. And this year’s Best Picture competition may be the most confusing, contradictory race in Oscar history.
Joining the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Netflix has finally been recognized for its meditative, black-and-white, Spanish-language feature “Roma” garnering 10 nominations, including Alfonso Cuaron’s direction, original screenplay and cinematography. Plus, acting nods for Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira.
Not only did “Roma” win BAFTA’s Best Picture in London but it’s also backed by the most expensive Oscar campaign in history ($50 million), headed by publicist Lisa Taback. But only once in the last 38 years has a movie won the top award with without an Editing nomination.
So which will the 7,902 Academy member choose in the tricky preferential balloting? There are pros and cons for each.
For the first time in his 40-year career, Spike Lee received a Best Director nomination for “Black KkKlansman” about a black cop who went undercover in the Ku Klux Klan.” Adam Driver got a Supporting nod; so did Terence Blanchard for his score. As Spike Lee puts it: “We’re the dark horse in this race. Pun intended.”
When trailblazing “Black Panther” won the Ensemble Award from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) with worldwide earnings topping $1.3 billion, its chances catapulted ahead as the first modern superhero film, set almost entirely in Africa, to feature an almost entirely black cast.
Chadwick Boseman’s SAG acceptance quoted the Nina Simone song, “To be young, gifted and black.” But it’s still a Marvel superhero movie and its director Ryan Coogler was overlooked.
Although it won the Golden Globe and acclaim for Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is tainted by director Bryan Singer’s multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, which is why he was removed from the film, along with massive absenteeism.
It should be noted that “The Favourite,” which exposes the quirky grotesquerie of 18th century British royalty, also has 10 nominations, including director Yorgos Lanthimos, Olivia Colman as Best Actress along with Emma Stone an Rachel Weisz as Best Supporting Actress.
Winning the prestigious Producers Guild Award, “Green Book” is a conventional crowd-pleaser. But some say it’s an interracial road trip, told from the white character’s point-of-view. Others complaint of inaccuracy about Dr. Donald Shirley. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are nominated, but not director Peter Farrelly, whose sordid habit of on-set flashing is a turn off.
Although “A Star Is Born” lost at the Globes and director Bradley Cooper was overlooked as Best Director, this fourth remake of a story that dates back to 1932 has made more than $200 million and reimagines Hollywood classicism as something contemporary and timeless. Problem is: it peaked too soon, a reminder of the danger of being an early frontrunner.
Adam McKay’s “Vice” is a lacerating political satire about the corrupting power of politics, profiling former VP Dick Cheney with stellar caricatures. But I felt it leapt unevenly from drama to farce to political commentary.
If you’re betting money, all statistics point to “Roma” or “Green Book” but “Black Panther” is the African-American game-changer, more conceptually inventive and emotionally affecting.
MY PREDICTION: “Black Panther”
Nominees for Best Director are Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”), Spike Lee (“Black KkKlansman”), Adam McKay (“Vice”), Pawel Pawlikowski (“Cold War”) and Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Favourite”).
The Directors Guild Award is one of the most reliable Oscar predictors, with the DGA winner claiming the Oscar for the last five years in a row, 14 times in the past 15 years and 61 times in 70 years. Alfonso Cuaron won this year.
Quite often, the Best Director Award is coupled with Best Picture. But this year, they all don’t match up. Indicative of how the Academy’s international membership has expanded, Polish Pawel Pawlikowski joins Mexican Alfonso Cuaron with films in the Best Foreign Film category.
MY PREDICTION: Alfonso Cuaron
For Best Actor, the nominees are Christian Bale (“Vice”), Bradley Cooper (“A Star Is Born”), Willem Dafoe (“At Eternity’s Gate”), Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) and Viggo Mortensen (“Green Book”).
Hollywood has been rewarding portrayals of real-life people ever since George Arliss won in 1929 for “Disraeli.”
This year, shape-shifting Christian Bale gained 45 pounds and piled on prosthetics to morph into the cagey puppet-master Dick Cheney. Accepting his Golden Globe, Bale courted controversy saying: “Thank you to Satan for giving me inspiration how to play this role.”
Winning the Golden Globe, lip-syncing Rami Malek flawlessly transformed himself into iconic Queen front man Freddie Mercury; Malek also won a 2016 Emmy for “Mr. Robot.”
Earning his fourth nomination, Willem Dafoe was somewhat of a surprise, playing Vincent Van Gogh in the troubled painter’s final days, and Viggo Mortensen earned his third nomination for embodying Italian/American bouncer-turned-driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga.
MY PREDICTION: Rami Malek
For Best Actress, the nominees are Yalitza Aparicio (“Roma”), Glenn Close (“The Wife”), Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”), Lady Gaga (“A Star Is Born”), and Melissa McCarthy (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”).
Chosen to play Alfonso Cuaron’s nanny, Yalitza Aparicio is a newcomer, while Olivia Colman is equally regal and unhinged as Queen Anne. Melissa McCarthy should be lauded for dropping the humor but not the heart as the writer who forged letters for profit.
By winning the Golden Globe over Lady Gaga and giving a galvanizing speech that drew standing ovations, Glenn Close became the front-runner, an accolade reinforced by the SAG Award. This is Close’s seventh Oscar nomination.
So Lady Gaga may have to settle for a solo Oscar for “Shallow,” the Best Song favorite. On the other hand, both might win, like the Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn tie in 1968.
MY PREDICTON: Glenn Close
For Best Supporting Actor, the nominees are Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”), Adam Driver (“Black KkKlansman”), Sam Elliott (“A Star Is Born”), Richard E. Grant (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), and Sam Rockwell (“Vice”).
Adam Driver delivered a complex portrayal of a Jewish cop who goes undercover in the KKK, and this is beloved vet Sam Elliott’s first nomination, playing Bradley Cooper’s big brother.
Richard E. Grant is excellent as Melissa McCarthy’s buddy who helps her sell forgeries, and Sam Rockwell generates big buzz a former President George W. Bush. Although Ali won in this category for “Moonlight,” I suspect he’ll win again for adding dignity and substance to his role.
MY PREDICTION: Mahershala Ali
For Best Supporting Actress, the nominees are Amy Adams (“Vice”), Marina de Tavira (“Roma”), Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), Emma Stone “The Favourite”) and Rachel Weisz (“The Favourite”).
Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz already have Oscars and, since they’re both in the same film, they could split the vote. This is Amy Adams’ sixth nomination in 13 years which puts her in an ‘overdue’ category. And Marina de Tavira’s contribution has been generally underrated.
Regina King is the only nominee whose film is not up for Best Picture, yet her compassionate, yet steely-mother portrayal has been lauded by critics groups from coast-to-coast.
MY PREDICTION: Regina King
For Best Editing, nominees are “Black KkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Favourite,” “Green Book,” and “Vice.”
Oscar aficionados know the correlation between editing and Best Picture, with only 10 movies winning without an editing nomination. The Cinematographer Guild recently awarded its coveted Eddie to “The Favorite” for comedy and “Bohemian Rhapsody” for drama.
MY PREDICTION: “Bohemian Rhapsody”
For Best Cinematography, nominees are “Cold War,” “The Favourite,” “Never Look Away,” “Roma,” and “A Star Is Born.”
Significantly, two black-and-white foreign films are nominated in this category, and both films tell deeply personal stories. Until the mid-1930s, almost all films were monochromatic. 1939’s “Gone With the Wind” was the first Technicolor film to win Best Picture.
Pawel Pawlikowski and Alfonso Cuaron are not only perfectionists, using the same sort of Alexa camera, but also close friends, and Pawelikowski was one of the first to congratulate Cuaron as the first Oscar-nominated filmmaker to double as cinematographer.
Everyone talks about the elegant, wide-angle shots in “The Favourite,” but Robbie Ryan knew just when to go for the tight close-up.
MY PREDICTION: “Roma”
For Best Original Screenplay, nominees are “The Favourite,” “First Reformed,” “Green Book,” “Roma” and “Vice.”
Paul Schrader’s austere, loss-of-faith drama “First Reformed” impressed critics more than the public; it’s the long-overdue, first-ever screenplay nomination for the man who wrote “Taxi Driver.”
Adam McKay’s “Vice” creates a portrait of power politics, articulating the trajectory of the Republican Party, while Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara penned “The Favourite,” a farce that speaks to aristocracy and privilege as much as it does female ingenuity.
Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie & Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” focuses on prejudice that’s still relevant today. But Alfonso Cuaron’s autobiographical “Roma” is the one to beat.
MY PREDICTION: “The Favourite”
For Best Adapted Screenplay, nominees are “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Black KkKlansman,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “A Star Is Born.”
Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” modernizes James Baldwin’s 1974 Harlem romance. The Coen brothers’ allusive “Ballad of Buster Scruggs” was originally developed as a TV anthology, while Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty wrote “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
But if Spike Lee won, it might compensate for having been overlooked all these years and would provide him the opportunity to deliver a memorable acceptance speech.
MY PREDICTION: “Black KkKlansman”
For Best Animated Feature, nominees are “Incredibles 2,” “Isle of Dogs,” “Mirai,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
Wes Anderson’s stop-motion, heart-touching “Isle of Dogs” mixes a boy and his dog with 18th century Japanese woodcuts with 1960s sci-fi movies.
MY PREDICTION: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
For Best Foreign Language Film, nominees are “Capernaum” (Lebanon), “Cold War” (Poland), “Never Look Away” (Germany), “Roma” (Mexico), and “Shoplifters” (Japan).
Admittedly, some Academy members don’t like to read subtitles, and some older members still feel a Hollywood film should win Best Picture, which is why “Roma” will probably triumph here. In addition, by profiling a hardworking young Mexican woman, Alfonso Cuaron throws down the gauntlet at the President’s anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant comments.
Plus, in the past, foreign language contenders, like “Z” (1969), “Life Is Beautiful” (1998), “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and “Amour” (2012), have been unable to straddle two categories.
But don’t discount “Cold War” in this fiercely competitive category. Oscar-nominated director Pawel Powlikowski previously won for “Ida” and the cinematography is awesome.
MY PREDICTION: “Roma”
For Best Documentary, nominees are “Free Solo,” “Hale County This Morning: This Evening,” “Minding the Gap,” “Of Fathers and Sons,” and “RBG.”
The biggest shock in this category was snubbing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and the omission of the DGA winner “Three Identical Strangers,” so the field seems wide open.
Vertiginous “Free Solo” features professional climber Alex Honnold’s scaling Yosemite’s El Capitan with only a bag of hand chalk. “Minding the Gap” chronicles skateboarding in Rockford, Illinois; “Hale County This Morning: This Evening” captures African-American life in Alabama; and “RBG,” profiling Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
MY PREDICTION: “Free Solo”
For Best Production Design, the nominees are “Black Panther,” “The Favourite,” “First Man,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” and “Roma.”
The Art Directors Guild already bestowed honors on “The Favourite” for Period Film, “Crazy Rich Asians” for Contemporary Film, and “Black Panther” for Fantasy Film.
For her vision of Wakanda, Hannah Beachler became the first African-American woman ever nominated in this category. In the 10 months she had to design the visuals, she wrote a 500-page bible about Wakanda’s history, including cultural trivia about the various tribes.
While production design nominees are picked by craftspeople from the art department, the final winner is chosen by the entire voting body of the Academy, which is less aware of subtleties and more likely to be impressed by visual excitement.
MY PREDICTION: “Black Panther”
For Best Costume Design, nominees are “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Black Panther,” “The Favourite,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” and “Mary Queen of Scots.”
London-based Sandy Powell claims both “Mary Poppins Returns” and “The Favourite,” citing the latter as “a dream job,” creating historically accurate garb for three powerful, independent women, using costume as character, leaving the men to be flamboyantly posturing peacocks.
If I would voting, I’d go for Ruth E. Carter, who wove fantastical Afrofuturism into Wakanda’s world, representing different ethnic groups and tribes. But I’m not an Academy voter.
MY PREDICTION: “The Favourite”
For Best Makeup and Hairstyling, nominees are “Border,” “Mary Queen of Scots,” and “Vice.”
Last year’s Oscar acknowledged Gary Oldman’s transformation into Winston Churchill, so I expect this year’s to reward Christian Bale’s metamorphosis into Dick Cheney. But don’t discount Jenny Shircore’s rival queens.
MY PREDICTION: “Vice”
For Best Visual Effects, nominees are “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Christopher Robin,” “First Man,” “Ready Player One,” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”
These effects come in all sizes and pixels. “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Ready Player One” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story” are big-budget sci-fi films, while “Christopher Robin” combines live-action with CGI to create Winnie the Pooh and his friends, as “First Man” recreates intensive, immersive preparations for spacecraft launches.
MY PREDICTION: “Avengers: Infinity War”
For Best Original Song, the nominees are “All the Stars” (“Black Panther”), “I’ll Fight” (“RBG”), “The Place Where Lost Things Go” (“Mary Poppins Returns”), “Shallow” (“ A Star Is Born”), and “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” (“Ballad of Buster Scruggs”).
“What’s so cool about RBG is she’s 85 years old and, to kids, she’s a rock star,” says songwriter Diane Warren, who created the end-titles theme, sung by Jennifer Hudson, while Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings’ song was the musical-comedy highlight of the Coen brothers Western
But Lady Gaga knew “Shallow” was something special the first time she played the melody for collaborators Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomano and Andrew Wyatt two years ago at a Malibu recording studio, noting: “It’s a song that gives you wings to fly.”
MY PREDICTION: “Shallow”
For Best Original Score, the nominees are “Black Panther,” “Black KkKlansman,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Isle of Dogs,” and “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Composer Ludwig Goransson spent four months in Africa recording music, utilizing different instruments for each “Black Panther” personality, but Nicholas Britell has won several critics’ prizes for “If Beale Street Could Talk,” placing a soft, jazzy horn section atop a lush string arrangement.
MY PREDICTION: “If Beale Street Could Talk”
For Best Sound Editing, nominees are “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “First Man,” “A Quiet Place,” and “Roma.”
Sound editors collect the film’s sounds, including dialogue and effects, so I’m torn between “First Man” and “A Quiet Place.”
MY PREDICTION: “First Man”
For Best Sound Mixing, nominees are “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “First Man,” “Roma,” and “A Star Is Born.”
Music-heavy movies sometimes figure more prominently in sound mixing, since the mixer determines how the audience hears the sounds.
MY PREDICTION: “Bohemian Rhapsody”
For Best Animated Short, nominees are “Animal Behavior,’ “Bao,” “Late Afternoon,” “One Small Step,” and “Weekends.” While I preferred “One Small Step,” Pixar’s “Bao” is hard to beat.
MY PREDICTION: “Bao”
For Best Live-Action Short, nominees are “Detainment,” “Fauve,” “Marguerite,” “Mother” and “Skin.”
MY PREDICTION: “Margeurite”
For Best Documentary Short, nominees are “Black Sheep,” “End Game,” “Lifeboat,” “A Night at the Garden,” and “Period: End of Sentence.”
MY PREDICTION: “Period: End of Sentence”
Finally, there’s the continuing controversy about no Oscar host. A little-known fact is that hosts are paid a pittance – in 2017, Jimmy Kimmel said his pay was $15,000 – while ABC charged $2.6 million for a 30-second ad during the 2018 telecast, half of what that year’s Super Bowl got.
Kimmel said hosts Chris Rock and Billy Crystal were paid the same amount to work for six weeks, sometimes using their own writing staff. No wonder few performers are willing to sign on.
Aside from Bob Hope and Billy Crystal, one of my favorite Oscar co-hosts was Paul Hogan (“Crocodile Dundee”), who opened the 1987 telecast urging recipients to obey the three G’s: “Be gracious, be grateful, and get off!”
The fabled Red Carpet, measuring 500’ long and 33’ wide, is ready, along with the glittering gold stage at the Dolby Theater. Brief snippets of the eight Best Pictures will be sprinkled throughout the show – as opposed to last year’s four-minute encapsulated montage. And people from outside the world of entertainment, like Serena Williams, will talk about what each of the films meant to them.
Will the 91st annual Academy Awards run overtime? You betcha!