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Oscars 2019: Preview by Jim Schembri

Jim Schembri

WHO SHALL WIN, WHO SHOULD WIN, WHO WAS SNUBBED – AND WHO WILL WATCH?

In what is likely to be the latest in a chain of recent  Oscar trainwrecks – remember the Ann Hathaway/James Franco mess of 2011? Or the Moonlight/La La Land best picture mix up in 2017? – this year’s soiree finds itself perfectly positioned to make precisely the type of history the Oscar telecast doesn’t need.

According to the all-important American TV ratings, Oscar’s connection with the public has been growing ever more tenuous over the last five years. It hit a high in 2014 when affable host Ellen DeGeneres helped it draw a century-high of 43.7 million people.

In dire contrast, last year saw the ceremony’s viewership wilt to a record low of 26.5 million.

And guess what? This year’s ceremony is on track to be even lower than that. Why?

Broadly speaking, it’s because the Oscars appears to be in a deep state of confusion, if not cold panic, about its relevance to the public, which is arguably losing respect for the institution.

First off we have the idiotic first-time situation that the show will be “hostless”, meaning there won’t be a central figure providing the show with
a throughline, as is tradition.

It was going to be comedian/actor Kevin Hart, one of the hardest working young talents in Hollywood right now. Hart had long dreamed of landing this gig and was deliriously excited.

Shortly after he was announced, however, things quickly went off the rails for Hart when a comedy tweet he made a decade earlier that some argued was “homophobic” suddenly came to light.

The politically correct brigades took to their usual online platforms and pushed this issue hard with the Academy, causing a huge head of steam and endless arguments about Hart’s sudden unsuitability. (Tellingly, none of this was raised when Hart was merely in contention for the gig.)

This naturally created a huge backlash arguing that Hart had apologised several times for the tweet, that it was a long time ago, that he was joking and that he was being treated very unfairly. Couldn’t they just be a bit sensible and let him do the job?

But, no. Hart’s widely seen videos in which he explained that he was a changed man, a better man from 10 years ago held no sway. With the pressure building, Hart honourably withdrew.

Oddly, Hart was not replaced – a huge mistake suggesting the Academy had no damage control strategy in place.

So the “hostless” status of the show serves as a huge flashing neon arrow to the whole sorry Kevin Hart incident that many see as a clear example of a good person getting pushed around and unfairly penalised for a minor infraction. It could cause a lot of resentment against the Oscars, especially from Hart’s enormous fanbase. Why should they watch a show that so disrespected their hero?

The academy also fumbled a proposed change to the show’s format involving the decision not to air the awards for cinematography, editing and make-up & hair in order to make the show shorter. (They’d be handed out during ads.)

Objections to this were immediate, including from such high-profile people as Spike Lee, Damien Chazelle, Spike Jonze, Ang Lee, Martin Scorsese, Russell Crowe, Guillermo del Toro, Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino.

Probably the best and most concise response came from actor Seth Rogen who tweeted: “What better way to celebrate achievements in film than to not publicly honor the people’s who’s job it is to literally film things.”

Under the pressure of a strongly worded-letter signed by scores of artists, the Academy reversed its decision.

Still, the fact that it has made the move in the first place – and without consultation – underlined something the letter clearly stated: that Oscar was losing its way.

“When the recognition of those responsible for the creation of outstanding cinema is being diminished by the very institution whose purpose it is to protect it, then we are no longer upholding the spirit of the Academy’s promise to celebrate film as a collaborative art form.”

On top of all this is the on-going issue of how so many nominated films are arthouse films. Indeed, the field leader with 10 nominations, Alfonso Cuaron’s masterful Roma has only had very limited release. Other contenders, such as The Wife and The Favourite also had relatively small audiences. (In Hollywood terms, that means less than $100 million.)

The inclusion of Black Panther for Best Film seems a clumsy sop to popularism, as was the academy’s attempt to introduce a Most Popular film category, which was so venomously opposed it was dropped.

The impression all this creates is of a withering institution that has become aimless and arguably spineless. Thus, the prospect of yet another ratings slump.

Then again, ladies and gentlemen, it’s possible the likelihood of a hostless train wreck could draw a crowd.

How will the show work? Will it work? Will there be Kevin Hart jokes? Will there be any jokes? Will anyone dare reference the state the Oscars
are in?

And with the prevalence last year of grandstanding at the Oscars podium – where “thank yous” gave way to social messaging and virtue signalling – what shall occur this year?

Perhaps it’ll be for the wrong reasons but, despite everything, it could actually be quite fun.

Anyhow, let’s take a quick run-through of all the major nominations and suss out who’s likely to win, who should win, who shouldn’t and why.

Best Lead Actor
In a normal year Christian Bale would take it for Vice, given how totally he inhabited the role of Dick Cheney. But this is not a normal year, it is the year of Bohemian Rhapsody, the film that reminded the world how much they love and miss Freddie Mercury.

Thus tables will be upended when Rami Malek takes the doorstop for his loving portrayal of the Queen lead singer. All hail. Other nominees: Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born (did a great job as a washed out star with a drinking problem); Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate (very convincing as the tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh); Viggo Mortensen, Green Book (his third nomination; his day shall come, and this gutsy performance
signals just how close that day is).

Best Lead Actress
Based on impact alone Yalitza Aparicio, an untrained actor, should get it for Roma, but it will be veteran Glenn Close who shall receive it for The Wife as a defacto Lifetime achievement award, having been nominated some seven times since 1982’s The World According to Garp.

Other nominees: Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born (a terrific performance, her chances cursed by an unusually strong field); Olivia Colman, The Favourite; Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (again stretching her impressive dramatic muscles.)

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali will take it for Green Book but kudos to Richard E. Grant for essentially turning a reprise of his Withnail & I wino into an Oscar-worthy turn 30 years on in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Other nominees: Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman (impressive work in a punchy film); Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born (again proving he works best in an ensemble); Sam Rockwell, Vice (played quite a passable W.)

Best Supporting Actress:
Her sixth time around, Amy Adams will take it for Vice, not so much for her superb work as Mrs Dick Cheney, but as a belated Oscar for 2005’s Junebug. There, it’s been said.

Other nominees: Marina de Tavira, Roma; Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (probably the most overrated contender); Emma Stone, The Favourite; Rachel Weisz, The Favourite.

Best Director
It’s an odd field, this. If the Academy is going to allow up to 10 Best Film nominations then surely each director should automatically be nominated, yeah? Anyway, for the sheer love of cinema breathing through almost every frame, Alfonso Cuaron will take it for Roma. This pips Spike Lee whose BlacKkKlansman came close to being they type of great social message movie the Academy loves.

Other nominees: Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War (terrible director, boring film); Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite (self-consciously oddball director pushing too hard in a period film); Adam McKay, Vice (former comedy director takes on post-9/11 Bush-era politics).

Best Picture
A Star is Born is clearly the best choice here – even though director Bradley Cooper hasn’t been nominated, which is nuts given his masterful re-crafting of an old-Hollywood staple. But it is Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s reminiscence of life in the Mexico City of 1970, that is likely to take the honour for its understated style and sheer artistic sweep.

Other nominees: Black Panther (first comic book nomination, and a very long shot indeed); BlacKkKlansman & Green Book (both about racism in America, reflecting the Academy’s long tradition of recognising films dealing with social issues); Bohemian Rhapsody (which prompted the worldwide “We Love Freddie” movement); The Favourite; Vice.

Elsewhere
Best Adapted Screenplay must go to A Star Is Born for so beautifully updating a classic without losing the story’s central appeal;
Best Original Screenplay should go to Green Book for opening up this chapter of pre-Civil Rights America.

As wonderful as Ralph Breaks the Internet was it was trumped by the street-wise edge of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which will take Best Animated Feature. Incredibles 2 was fun but was just more of Pixar redoing earlier Pixar, this time with a 14-year delay.

Cinematography will go to Alfonso Cuaron for Roma, which will hopefully revive Hollywood’s love of long takes, if not for black and white film. A close runner up is Matthew Libatique for his stellar work on A Star is Born.

Free Solo will take Best Documentary Feature for giving armchair mountaineers vertigo without the need for 3D glasses.

As for Best Foreign Language Film, haven’t seen them all but surely Roma will win, even though it shouldn’t be there. A foreign language film that lands a best picture nomination should be excluded from this category, otherwise a win means it took out two best film awards, which is
silly. And a little greedy.

Film Editing should go to Bohemian Rhapsody for that remarkable final reel alone; Sound Editing and Sound Mixing will both go to First Man, a film oddly absent from the Best Picture category: Production Design will go to The Favourite.

For old time’s sake, Best Original Score should go to Mary Poppins Returns (and why not?); Best Original Song is an easy get for Gaga’s Shallow from A Star Is Born; Best Makeup and Hair has to go to Mary Queen of Scots for managing to make Margot Robbie look ugly, a bigger achievement than making Christian Bale look like Dick Cheney. Mary will also take Costume Design.

Best Visual Effects will go to Avengers: Infinity War though a more deserving winner would be Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, one of the best sci-fi fantasies of the year.

And finally, a note on diversity, an issue that really doesn’t need any more pushing.

The most nominated film, Roma, is Mexican, as is its director Alfonso Cuaron, who won best director for Gravity in 2014. Fellow Mexican Alejandro G. Inarritu won best director for The Revenant in 2016 and for Birdman in 2015.
Last year’s best director winner was Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water who is also Mexican.

Add to this, two terrific films about race – Green Book and BlaKkKlansman – up for best film, two black superhero films – Black Panther and Spiderman – up for best film and animated feature respectively, and a stronger than usual field of female acting nominees. Indeed, the notable snubbing of Charlize Theron for Tully and Claire Foy for First Man suggest these categories should be expanded when the talent pool demands.

Yes, there are heaps of problems facing Oscar at the moment, but reflecting the breadth of culture surely isn’t one of them.

The best changes occur organically and the ones we’re seeing in the range of Oscar films are, glad to say, mostly merit driven.

It’s time to stop with all the virtue signalling and PC babble and allow the art of cinema to take its course based on talent, ability and vision, not
politics.

Jim Schembri
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