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Narrative Over Craft in the Oscar Contest

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

You may see a trailer for a movie and think to yourself, “that film is definitely going to win an Oscar.” In some cases, it may not even be a trailer, and instead just a still image, or a headline that a certain actor is attached to a certain project. Oscar prognosticators only need the smallest inkling to begin penciling in names into their predicted ballots. Before even a single frame of footage has been seen, sites like GoldDerby already have predictions for who will succeed or fail. This headstrong act does stem from the potential greatness within the craft. But more importantly, it has to do with the narrative surrounding a film.

Nomadland (2020) dir. Chloé Zhao

Given that film is such a subjective medium, it would be foolhardy to think that the Academy Awards are a purely objective process for deciding the best in a given year. People, especially those in Hollywood, love a good narrative, and they often need one to rationalize their vote. The job of the awards campaigner is to produce that story and make it seem like your vote means something more than just checking off a box. It’s not what you’re voting for, it’s why you’re voting for it. It does help if the film is actually good, but that serves as a confirmation of what has already been decided.

Like any inanimate object, narratives are not a good or bad thing by themselves. It’s the user that decides their fate. A narrative could be used to authentically sell a candidate’s true beliefs. Or, it could be used unscrupulously to secure as many votes as possible no matter the cost, which Harvey Weinstein was able to do better than anyone.

Parasite (2019) dir. Bong Joon-ho

Five popular narratives have been used to attain Oscar success. None of them are mutually exclusive as some special candidates have been lucky enough to have all of them in their arsenal. In this article, we’ll take a look at each of those five narratives and some past examples of them, most of which come from this century as Oscar campaigning has become more public. We’ll also look at this year’s candidates, and see which card they might have up their sleeve when it comes time to persuade voters.

Your Film Is a Political Statement

There’s the age-old quote that Washington is just Hollywood for ugly people. Well, the inverse of that is just as true as Hollywood, particularly during awards season, is Washington for beautiful people. The two coasts have never been more intertwined than they have this past decade, with films wearing their politics on their sleeve in an attempt to speak directly to voter’s beliefs.

Just last year, Aaron Sorkin made it a contractual requirement that The Trial of the Chicago 7 be released before the national election to capitalize the zeitgeist. Steven Spielberg did the same thing in 2018 by rapidly pushing The Post into production in March and releasing it in December, as he felt the film’s themes on freedom of the press were too timely to wait. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was caught in a myriad of controversies as politicians were rattled by its October 2012 release and its stance on the use of torture by the United States in their hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) dir. Kathryn Bigelow

However, it’s not just political cinema that has become politically charged. Sometimes, the politics surrounding a film have less to do with Washington, and more to do with the film industry as a whole. With the rise of streamers such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, there have been endless debates on the merits of digital distribution and the preservation of the theatrical experience. Just as he was beginning production on The Post, Spielberg helped secure a Best Picture win for Green Book over Netflix’s Roma, saying that “a vote for Green Book was a vote for cinema itself.”

The Post (2018) dir. Steven Spielberg

And there’s also the argument about how the Oscars should be a reflection of society. Crash won Best Picture in 2005 behind the narrative that it was “a story we needed right now.” #OscarsSoWhite filled the conversation in 2015 as no actors of color had been nominated in the four acting categories for two consecutive years. In 2016, Moonlight and La La Land harshly divided voters as Moonlight was seen as a film for the present and future, while La La Land was of the past. Black Panther reinvigorated that same conversation with its historic Best Picture nomination in 2018.

Black Panther (2018) dir. Ryan Coogler

Spielberg will be back this year to carry on his political streak with his remake of West Side Story bowing in December. In a time of white nationalism and xenophobia, his film will push the theme of cultural celebration, just as In the Heights did this summer.

Adam McKay’s Vice racked up seven nominations (including Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay) in 2018, and the filmmaker will be back again with another timely political dramedy in Don’t Look Up. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as astronomers tasked with warning people of an impending meteor, despite no one taking the threat seriously. Just as The Big Short tackled The Great Recession, Don’t Look Up has its sights set on the “fake news” epidemic and society’s inability to grapple with COVID-19.

Don't Look Up (2021) dir. Adam McKay

Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel will have to walk a fine line as it transports the Me Too movement to 14th century France as a woman claims she has been raped by her husband’s best friend. Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, & Nicole Holofcener wrote the screenplay, with Jodie Comer starring as Marguerite de Carrouges.

It’s Their Time to Shine

Just as the Academy tries to be a reflection of society, they also like to act as king and queen makers for Hollywood royalty. It makes for a truly cinematic moment when someone gets rewarded for the right film at the right time. Usually, the candidate is someone who has been building goodwill over some time and has cleared the unspoken qualifications to join the A-list club.

For directors, it often requires them to make an Academy-friendly movie after several “avant-garde” features. The Academy respected Joel & Ethan Coen over the years with nominations for the offbeat Fargo and O, Brother Where Art Thou?, but didn’t reward them until they made the more straightforward No Country for Old Men. The narrative works doubly when paired with personal stories that speak from the heart, such as Steven Spielberg with Schindler’s List and Alfonso Cuarón for Roma.

Roma (2018) dir. Alfonso Cuarón

Paolo Sorrentino will be playing this card with his newest feature, The Hand of God, which is based on his upbringing in Naples. Sorrentino won Best International Feature with 2013’s The Great Beauty, and it seems like the time is right for him to take the next step up. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast will be doing the same as the famed thespian retells his childhood adventures in the titular city.

Just like directors, actors look to seize the moment with a well-timed role that the Academy responds to. Willem Dafoe has been on the Oscars radar for a few years now with nominations for the little-seen The Florida Project and At Eternity’s Gate. It seems inevitable that he’ll be picking up a statuette sooner than later.

At Eternity's Gate (2018) dir. Julian Schnabel

In this year’s male acting race, it seems like it’s Will Smith’s time to shine with his turn in King Richard. Smith has been a box office star for decades with some critically acclaimed roles throughout. The narrative surrounding King Richard will largely focus on him getting his due. With Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep each winning their third Oscars in the past decade, Denzel Washington will be looking to get his third for his titular role in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (also starring McDormand).

A true character actor, Richard Jenkins has been building a steady stream of credentials over the past decade with an Emmy win for Olive Kitteridge and an Oscar nomination for The Shape of Water. He appears in The Humans this year with a meaty supporting role that seems primed to finally deliver him the gold. Peter Dinklage has won four Emmys for his role as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. His leading role in Joe Wright’s Cyrano might mark his welcome into the Oscars.

Cyrano (2021) dir. Joe Wright

Similar to Jenkins, Ann Dowd has been dominating the Emmys with The Handmaid’s Tale and The Leftovers, and her supporting turn in Mass seems like the perfect opportunity to welcome her to the movie circle. Kristen Stewart has worked tirelessly over the past decade to rid herself of the Twilight franchise by lending her talents to auteurs such as Olivier Assayas and Kelly Reichardt. This year she stars as Diana Spencer in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, which has been warmly received at the Venice Film Festival. An Oscar nomination for Stewart would fully absolve her of the past and welcome her into the public conversation of great actresses working today.

Spencer (2021) dir. Pablo Larraín

They’re Overdue

When the academy misses the opportunity to reward someone at the right time, the “overdue” factor begins to set in. The question of “how does this person not have an Oscar?” begins to occur more frequently as time goes on. Unfortunately, this narrative can make voters desperate as they vote for someone just so they will have an Oscar, even if the work might not be up to standards they have set.

Al Pacino had amassed seven nominations before he got his first win for Scent of a Woman in 1992. Geraldine Page also won on her eighth nomination for 1985’s The Trip to Bountiful, a whole thirty-two years since her first nomination. Glenn Close has been in this category for nearly twenty years as she looks to avoid overtaking Peter O’Toole as the most nominated actor without a win.

Leonardo DiCaprio was the king of this narrative during his highly public campaign for The Revenant. From major publications to memes, you couldn’t escape society’s pursuit to reward DiCaprio after so many missed opportunities.

The Departed (2006) dir. Martin Scorsese

DiCaprio’s frequent director Martin Scorsese found himself in this boat for nearly fifteen years as the question of when he would finally win started to set in around the time he lost Best Director for Goodfellas. The Academy desperately wanted to reward him for Gangs of New York and The Aviator, but couldn’t pull the trigger. When The Departed came around in 2006, voters pounced on the opportunity with wins for both Scorsese’s direction and the film itself.

This year sees another auteur looking to get his first win after so many nominations. Paul Thomas Anderson may finally get his due with Licorice Pizza after amassing eight career nominations for writing and directing. Like Scorsese, the Academy is ready to reward Anderson. Phantom Thread came close in 2018 with surprise nominations for Best Director and Best Picture. If Licorice Pizza is more in tune with the Academy’s sensibilities, look for Anderson to be a top contender in both the screenplay and directing categories.

Appearing in Licorice Pizza is Bradley Cooper, who has been nominated eight times across acting, writing, and producing. He will also appear in Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley this December, so the Academy will have two opportunities to reward him.

Kirsten Dunst’s nomination for Melancholia was unfairly ripped away from her by the controversy that surrounded Lars Von Trier’s Cannes comments. For a career filled with acclaimed roles, Dunst is still looking for her first nomination. The Academy could look to rectify that oversight with a nomination/win for her supporting work in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog.

The Power of the Dog (2021) dir. Jane Campion

They’re Making A Comeback

Hollywood likes nothing more than a good comeback story. Just like Rocky or Rudy, there’s an underdog charm to someone who had to overcome hardship to get where they are today. That hardship could be a personal matter, or it could be that person’s career fell on hard times for an extended period.

The Wrestler (2009) dir. Darren Aronofsky

Mickey Rourke personified this narrative in 2009 for The Wrestler as he returned to the limelight after nearly twenty years of subpar work. Christopher Walken won Best Supporting Actor on his first nomination for The Deer Hunter in 1978 and, like Rourke, his output over the next few decades was not up to people’s standards. So when he gave a great performance in Catch Me If You Can, the Oscars chomped at the bit to welcome him back to the circle. Nicole Kidman overcame her highly public divorce from Tom Cruise at the turn of the millennium and churned out critically acclaimed roles in Moulin Rouge! and The Hours, both of which she was nominated for, with the latter netting her the win. Her prolific work over the past few years may come to fruition as she portrays Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming biopic, Being the Ricardos.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) dir. Michael Showalter

While she hasn’t been in a drought similar to Rourke or Walken, Jessica Chastain hasn’t retained the Oscar success she initially received with her two early nominations in 2011 and 2012 for The Help and Zero Dark Thirty, respectively. Her upcoming role in The Eyes of Tammy Faye looks to be a good opportunity to bring her back into the Oscar conversation. Will Smith also received two Oscar nominations for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, respectively. He hasn’t had much critical success since, so he’ll be looking to make a strong comeback to the Oscar conversation with King Richard.

In the director’s chair, Kenneth Branagh could potentially have a huge comeback with Belfast. Of course, he was nominated for his supporting role in My Week with Marilyn, but it’s been since 1996’s Hamlet that Branagh directed an acclaimed film. Since winning Best Original Screenplay for The Piano, Jane Campion has received a string of mixed reviews and crafted a new home in television. She’s writing and directing her first feature in over a decade with Netflix’s The Power of the Dog.

Degree of Difficulty

Everyone knows that filmmaking is a challenging profession, but sometimes you have to remind people how challenging it was to make your movie. Maybe your film took forever to get off the ground like Black Panther, or the production was fraught with difficulties such as the living hell that was Apocalypse Now, or you attempted something unique such as the long takes in 1917. Campaigners often try to mask a degree of difficulty vote as one that is simply about the craft. This is done in an attempt to keep the face of narrative pure and free of the politicization that surrounds the rest of the crowd.

The Revenant (2015) dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

Alejandro González Iñárritu played this card perfectly and won back-to-back Best Director awards for the long takes in Birdman and survival of the cold in The Revenant. The same year Iñárritu picked up his second trophy, George Miller was in contention for venturing into the Namibian desert and coming out alive with Mad Max: Fury Road. Peter Jackson picked up Best Director in 2003 for his monumental work creating the sensation that is The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Ridley Scott was Golden Globe-nominated and came awfully close to an Oscar nomination after scrambled to salvage All the Money in the World once the allegations about Kevin Spacey surfaced. Along with writing, directing, and producing his remake of A Star Is Born in 2018, Bradley Cooper also changed his voice and learned to play the guitar.

Ray (2004) dir. Taylor Hackford

When it comes to acting, a performance in a biopic is the easiest way to harness this narrative. It’s much easier to judge an actor’s portrayal of a real person than it is to judge an original character. Every article and interview about Jamie Foxx in 2004 was about how he blinded himself and learned to play the piano for his portrayal of Ray Charles in the aptly titled Ray. Eddie Redmayne garnered mixed results as he won Best Leading Actor for The Theory of Everything and received strong backlash for his nomination in The Danish Girl.

A full-blown physical transformation is also a great way to get the Oscar conversation started. Christian Bale has epitomized this for nearly all of his nominations, from slimming down for The Fighter to ballooning up for American Hustle and Vice. The same year she co-starred with Bale in The Dark Knight Rises, Anne Hathaway won Oscar gold for losing weight, shaving her head, and singing live in Les Misérables. Charlize Theron looked unrecognizable as she played Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

Monster (2003) dir. Patty Jenkins

The obvious degree of difficulty narrative this year will be how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the production or release of a film. The Last Duel, Nightmare Alley, No Time to Die, The French Dispatch, and West Side Story are just some of the films that faced serious challenges to reach the finish line. But because so many films fit this mold, it won’t be as effective.

Similar to Les Misérables, Peter Dinklage and the cast of Cyrano sang live. Jessica Chastain has already started her campaign for The Eyes of Tammy Faye by sharing how the extensive makeup and prosthetics caused irreversible damage to her skin. Kristen Stewart had to overcome the British accent and inevitable comparisons to Emma Corrin’s portrayal of Diana Spencer on The Crown.

Dune (2021) dir. Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve has already taken on the challenge of adapting a legendary science fiction story with Blade Runner 2049. Now he’ll be tasked with setting up an unfamiliar universe in the epically scaled Dune. Ridley Scott has two large ensemble films in contention this year in The Last Duel and House of Gucci. The difficulty of mounting two films within a short period could be enough to swing votes his way.

Chloé Zhao at the 93rd Academy Awards in April 2o21.

There is a shameful thrill to Oscar season as months of releases, developments, and predictions all come together on one special night. Hollywood has crafted an industry out of awards campaigning, pouring millions of dollars to indirectly influence outcomes through glitz and glamour. It will be up to the audience and voters to see through the clutter and decide for themselves which films should be rewarded. And while it sometimes doesn't turn out that way, voters will have to keep in mind that this is a contest that rewards the best in the craft, not the best campaign.



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