By Pamela Zoslov
I have never had a real movie fan’s interest in the Academy Awards, the 89th edition of which takes place Sunday, February 26. The awards often have little to do with quality, and the legendary “Academy” — consisting of a motley group of of entertainment luminaries, non-luminaries, has-beens and hangers-on, many of whom confess they don’t watch many of the nominated films — doesn’t inspire confidence. But the event is a gambler’s dream; if the endless, and often mindless broadcast doesn’t hold your interest, having money, or even a gentleman’s bet, riding on your choices often will.
The politics of the Oscars is also occasionally interesting, as with Marlon Brando’s notorious refusal of his Best Actor Oscar in 1973 (with a speech by Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather), and last year’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and movement, which may have inspired this year’s increased number of nominations of African-American films, filmmakers and performers.
The main throwdown this year is between La La Land (14 nominations) and Moonlight (eight). (Arrival also got eight nominations, but it’s probably a longshot). The racial politics of the matchup is obvious. La La Land is a Damien Chazelle’s musical fantasy about “dreamers” in L.A trying to make it in show biz and protect “pure” jazz from the encroachment of “impure” musical influences, like salsa — a problem perceived only by Damien Chazelle. Chazelle, who is only 32, has a peculiar fondness for whitewash. Wasn’t that the title of his previous film? No, it was Whiplash, which was also ostensibly about jazz, the music created by and perfected by black Americans. In telling the story of an aspiring jazz drummer, Chazelle idealized the playing of white drummers: Buddy Rich, not Elvin Jones or Max Roach. It’s a strange, ahistorical and racially insensitive point of view.
An establishment favorite, La La Land is a singing-and-dancing musical featuring non-singers and non-dancers. I find Emma Stone’s breathy Sprechgesang on the film’s two Oscar-nominated songs unbearable, though many people find her untutored vocalizing charming. Ryan Gosling’s singing is even worse. Given its mainstream sentimental appeal, the hunger for old-fashioned musicals and the outlandish number of nominations, my money is on La La Land to win Best Picture.
Some thoughts about the other nominees: I liked Fences, Denzel Washington’s adaptation of the August Wilson play. Unlike many critics, I thought it was fine that Washington chose to stick closely to the play rather than “open it up,” a process that often looks forced. Hidden Figures is an inspiring movie, despite its artificially created white savior, but not Best Picture material. Unlike many people, I wasn’t a big fan of Manchester by the Sea, which I thought contrived. I did not see Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge or Hell or High Water, though I’ve heard the latter is great. I loved Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and while it was not perfect, I would love to see the Best Picture award go to this small, emotional film about growing up poor, black, and gay in a tough Miami neighborhood. I think the film will win awards, but maybe not the big one.
(Disclaimer: I have seen only five of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture, and the predictions below are hunches, and should be considered extremely unreliable.)
I didn’t see Ryan Gosling in La La Land, but I find him only occasionally interesting. I liked him as the drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson a decade ago and as the comically inept private eye in The Nice Guys. Denzel Washington is an actor’s actor, who gave a muscular performance in Fences. I did not see Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, so can’t comment. Viggo Mortensen is an interesting nominee for Captain Fantastic, and he was good in that rather implausible movie, but who saw it? Casey Affleck has been considered a favorite for his tragic New England handyman in Manchester by the Sea, because people other than me seem to like his brand of minimalist acting (pretty much the opposite of Denzel Washington’s stage-honed classical style). However, Affleck has a dark history of sexual abuse accusations, and because he isn’t Donald Trump, that may hurt him. Denzel Washington, then, is the safe choice, but it still may be Affleck, because Academy voters often don’t watch the movies, or dislike them for irrational reasons (Fences, too stagy).
I don’t imagine it will be Meryl Streep for her cartoonish portrayal of off-key diva Florence Foster Jenkins (as well as for her anti-Trump speechifying at the Golden Globes). I enjoyed the movie (link) for Stephen Frears’ jaunty direction and Hugh Grant’s suave performance, but I thought Streep was miscast and exaggerated. I would have preferred to see a good older English actress portray the sweetly delusional Jenkins. It will definitely not be Isabelle Huppert for the rape-is-such-a-bother Elle, or Natalie Portman for her breathy, little-girl-in-Mommy’s-shoes Jackie Kennedy drag show. The Academy may not want to reward Streep yet again, so it’s between Ruth Negga, for her quiet portrayal of Mildred Loving, the African-American woman who fought for interracial marriage equality in the ’60s, and Emma Stone in the ubiquitous La La Land. Stone may be the sentimental favorite, and Negga’s performance too subtle (I wish her co-star Joel Edgerton had been nominated as well). I’m guessing it will be Stone, mostly because I hope it isn’t.
Best Supporting Actor
Here’s a category that’s notoriously unpredictable. Hollywood veteran Jeff Bridges would be an interesting choice for Hell or High Water, but he has won before (Best Actor award for Crazy Heart) and isn’t “owed” I’m going with the excellent Mahershala Ali for his compassionate drug dealer in Moonlight. (Ali had a great year, also appearing in Hidden Figures).
Best Supporting Actress
In this category, we have a contest between two of cinema’s greatest weepers, Viola Davis in Fences and Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea. I’m not being snarky; these two can really emote onscreen. They’re also excellent actresses, as are Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures (though why Spencer and not either of the film’s other two stars?) and the superb British-born Naomie Harris, who played the drug-addicted mom in Moonlight. I might like to see Harris get this one, but I have a sense it will be Davis, whose third Oscar nomination this is.
I have no idea, but since people are so ga-ga for La La, I am going to guess Damien Chazelle for reviving, yet again, the Hollywood musical and making everyone believe in dreams (or at least a whiter shade of jazz). It could also be Ken Lonergan for the weepy Manchester. I’d like to see it go to Barry Jenkins for Moonlight.
Best Documentary Feature
Another tough call. Three nominated films focus on the black American experience, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro and the leviathan O.J.: Made in America. If measured by size O.J. (more than seven hours long, actually a miniseries) would get it. I saw only that one (very compelling) and I Am Not Your Negro, which used the writings of James Baldwin to reflect on race (flawed, but interesting). Given that Hollywood people are voting, I think it could very well go to Life, Animated, the documentary about an autistic young man who learned to communicate through animated Disney characters.
Best Foreign Language Film
If Hannes Holm’s humane, audience-pleasing A Man Called Ove (Sweden) is not the winner, I will be surprised.