By Robert Dougherty
Oscar night is coming, and it is shaping up to be unlike any in a long time – but not for the reasons that come to mind.
After “Nomadland” took the PGA award and made almost everyone declare the Best Picture race was over, it is now tempting to say this will be the most boring Oscar night in years. Beyond Best Picture, there are only a couple of “above the line” categories in doubt, though both SAG and BAFTA may finally clear up Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress well before April 25th. Nonetheless, even if one or two major races actually come down to the wire, it doesn’t seem like many will be furious no matter how they turn out.
In that context, this will be the most different Oscar night in ages because, for the first time in years, there might be no outcome or winner to get angry about. But this is what happens in a rare year where Oscar season “villains” aren’t threatening to spoil the party.
Personal feelings may vary on the likes of “Nomadland,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Minari” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” on directors like Chloe Zhao, Emerald Fennell, and David Fincher, and on acting frontrunners like Chadwick Boseman, Riz Ahmed, Anthony Hopkins, Carey Mulligan, Frances McDormand, Andra Day, Daniel Kaluuya, Sacha Baron Cohen, Yuh-jung Youn, Maria Bakalova and Glenn Close. Yet unlike almost every year in recent memory, there aren’t a large number of people ready to cry foul if one of them wins.
More often than not lately, an Oscar season is defined by what is hated rather than what’s loved. Last year was a slight exception when “Parasite” completed its comeback over the favored but not hated “1917.” However, the likes of “Joker” – and “Jojo Rabbit” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” before they faded from the Best Picture race – still riled up enough outrage to make up for it. In that case, the big reason to be nervous was from the hope that “Parasite” could win after all, not from the potential fury over “1917” winning. It hardly compared to 2018 when the trifecta of “Green Book” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Vice” derailed the entire season, or to the loud complaints in several online corners when “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “La La Land” and “The Revenant” nearly won Best Picture the previous three years – or when “Birdman” did win in 2014.
This year “The Trial of the Chicago 7” seemed most poised to take Oscar villain status due to the always polarizing Aaron Sorkin, his perhaps sanitized version of the saga of the Chicago 7, and being a safe, middle of the road winner compared to the other frontrunners and other recent Best Picture winners. Yet unlike “Green Book,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “La La Land,” “The Revenant” and “Birdman,” this supposed frontrunner hasn’t won a big enough pre-Oscar prize to be seen as a real Oscar or Film Twitter threat – and unless it succeeds at SAG, it most likely never will. Barring a SAG Best Ensemble victory, the only thing for that film’s opponents to worry about on Oscar night is whether it can rally back for Best Original Screenplay over “Promising Young Woman” – another projected Oscar season villain in some circles that never came to pass.
On paper, there should be many opponents on both sides of the culture war against “Promising Young Woman” as well. Yet, for a movie with so many potential arguments against it, from its controversial ending to its potential triggering for real sexual assault survivors, none of them have stuck to this point. In fact, the biggest outrage about it has come from the infamous Variety review questioning Mulligan’s attractiveness for the role, not from the movie itself. Like with “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a wider backlash could have generated if “Promising Young Woman” had pulled off a PGA upset and became a genuinely massive threat. But without it, fewer people are stressing out one way or the other over its now remote Oscar night upset hopes.
If “Minari” finds a way to pull off an upset instead, the loudest backlash will likely come from the most hateful corners of fandom and Film Twitter. But none of those corners drowned out the far louder cheers from “Parasite’s” victory last year, and it’s doubtful they would gain any more traction this year. Regardless, that scenario will be irrelevant unless “Minari” wins Best Ensemble at SAG, in its last chance to stay in the Best Picture conversation.
As for the favorite and already presumed winner, the main reason most would root against “Nomadland” at this point is to drum up suspense, not to take the movie itself down. Even when potential avenues of backlash did rise, like its supposedly soft treatment of Amazon and whether Zhao was the right person to document nomad culture, they died out in virtually less than a day. If there was going to be a controversial issue or misstep that was worth turning on “Nomadland” for, it would have taken root long before now. As such, unless “The Trial of the Chicago 7” has any strength left, and unless something sticks against “Nomadland” or “Promising Young Woman” at the last possible minute, this will be a very rare Best Picture race where there’s nothing to really root against – not even on behalf of something they’re rooting for. We are close to the point where no matter what wins, most people by and large will be happy with it, which is an incredibly rare gift in this era.
In another virtual miracle by recent standards, the same can apply to the acting and directing races as well. The directing race has largely been written off since Zhao is pulling off the most dominant sweep of any major race in recent history. But even if she somehow loses, there would still be many cheers for Fennell or Lee Isaac Chung if one of them pulled the upset. A Fincher win for “Mank” would generate much more backlash for various reasons, though the symmetry of him doing to Zhao what Tom Hooper did to him ten years earlier would make some sense. Nonetheless, a Zhao loss now appears to be a possibility so remote; everyone is mainly preparing for her historic final coronation.
This is even a year so devoid of villains, Best Actor has been spared for once. It has been the most cursed category for several years running, with backlash for various reasons over victories by Joaquin Phoenix, Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, Casey Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Eddie Redmayne, and Matthew McConaughey. But this time around, it stands to serve as the final tribute to Chadwick Boseman or, barring that, a different kind of historic win for Ahmed or Hopkins. A Hopkins comeback may draw some outrage in a race that’s been primarily dominated by actors of color to this point. Nonetheless, the Academy would suffer far more significant blowback from those optics than the much more beloved Hopkins – whose biggest Oscar season crime lately was stealing a Supporting Actor nomination from either Song Kang or Willem Dafoe last year.
Best Actress could provide the most enormous stress of the night, at least for those pulling hardest for Mulligan, McDormand, or Day. But even for those who have their whole heart behind Mulligan – including some on this very site – they cannot be mad at the alternatives and vice versa. A Day victory for the critically panned “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” might not sit right with everyone. Still, there is no chance it would be torched as much as Malek’s win for playing a beloved singer in a critically panned movie two years ago. As for McDormand, there is no way her third Best Actress win would come under the same shadow that her second Best Actress win did for the far more divisive “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
Best Supporting Actor now looks like such a cakewalk for Daniel Kaluuya in “Judas And The Black Messiah” that Sacha Baron Cohen would become a villain automatically by winning anyway for his performance as Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Yet as those chances fade by the day, fewer people are freaking out about what could happen – which is more than what anyone can say about Best Supporting Actress. Suppose there’s an issue that’s generated anything close to the usual Oscar divisiveness. In that case, it is that of Close for the critically reviled “Hillbilly Elegy.” But whether one believes it should finally be her time to win no matter what, or that it really shouldn’t come for a movie or a part like this, even those who might groan loudest will likely take some small pleasure in seeing Close hold an Oscar at last. At the very least, the Academy and not Close would take most of the heat for such a decision.
If it comes down to Maria Bakalova vs. Youn Yuh-jung instead, things might get dicey. Bakalova would be the most broadly comic winner in almost 30 years, which may not sit well for those not in tune with the likes of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” or those who prefer the more dramatic pathos of Youn or “Minari.” Then again, Youn has a few mid-film lines and moments of her own that are almost as broad as anything from Bakalova, or even from Close’s more infamous “Mawmaw.” Depending on whether Bakalova or Youn sweep SAG and BAFTA, that race may finally be settled with enough time for everyone to breathe easier on Oscar night – whether from joy or resignation. In that scenario, it would be one final example of an Oscar season not only ending on a later night than usual but in a more relaxed atmosphere than usual.
Thanks to “Nomadland,” Zhao, Boseman, and Kaluuya, among others, the dominant narrative in the next month will be that the race is now dull and that this is why we need a shorter season and villains to root for or against again. But for those of us who don’t have newly rose-colored memories of the wars over “Joker,” “Green Book,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “La La Land,” Malek, Affleck, Sam Rockwell and many more, something less stressful isn’t the worst outcome. Plus, after a 2019 season where every acting race was settled months in advance, a 2020 season with just two acting locks by now doesn’t look so dull. In that regard, SAG may be more nail-biting than the Oscars – though since SAG is pre-taped this year, results could leak and ruin the suspense before April 4th for all we know. Yet, with just a few more weeks of peace, almost no one will wake up on the morning of April 25th ready to rant all night over at least one big Oscar winner or frontrunner – something we haven’t gotten to say for almost a decade.
What are your current Oscar predictions? Are you enjoying an Oscar season without a “villain” or any form of controversy this year? Check out the NBP Team’s predictions here and let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @robertdoc1984