Monday, May 20, 2024

Assessing The Oscar Prospects For “Elvis”

By Zoe Rose Bryant 

Three years after Austin Butler was first cast in the leading role – fending off close competitors Miles Teller and Harry Styles – and a little over a year since the 15-month production (which paused for seven months during the COVID-19 pandemic) wrapped, Baz Luhrmann’s beautifully bombastic “Elvis” biopic has finally hit theaters. It’s already proving to be a smashing success with crowds and critics. Not only did the film debut at #1 at the domestic box office with the biggest opening for a non-franchise movie in the pandemic era, but it’s also rocking some of the strongest critical scores of Luhrmann’s career so far – its Rotten Tomatoes score sits at 78% Certified Fresh (just behind “Strictly Ballroom’s” 89%), while its Metascore is a solid 64 (also behind “Strictly Ballroom’s” 72, and neck-and-neck with “Moulin Rouge!’s” 66).

Likewise, mainstream audiences seem equally thrilled with the final product, with its A- CinemaScore representing the highest score a Luhrmann film has ever received (tied with “Romeo + Juliet” and “Australia” and above “Moulin Rouge!’s” B+ and “The Great Gatsby’s” B). Additionally, its 94% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.6 User Score on Metacritic are also career bests for Luhrmann. By almost every conceivable metric, “Elvis” is a huge hit and an old-fashioned Hollywood success story, bringing audiences out to the multiplex for a movie that isn’t part of the MCU and receiving some rave reviews along the way. In fact, when all is said and done, it could come close to being Luhrmann’s biggest hit overall at the box office. “The Great Gatsby” currently holds those records ($144 million domestic, $354 million worldwide), but “Elvis” would only have to pass “Moulin Rouge!” domestically ($57 million) and “Australia” worldwide ($215 million) to be runner-up. With its heat so far, we see no reason its momentum would slow down now.

Naturally, despite releasing in the dead of summer – not traditionally an “awards-friendly” season – “Elvis” is set to be a big awards player for Warner Bros. Even aside from the audience approval and critical commendation, biopics are the Academy’s bread-and-butter, and “Elvis” is about as good as they can get. And while Austin Butler’s dynamite lead performance has dominated most of the awards conversation around the film so far (more on that in a moment), “Elvis” is certainly no slouch in several other categories as well, especially below-the-line. But how high can its nomination haul be? How big can “Elvis” become this awards season? Below, we’ve set out to answer those questions by looking at its chances in every Oscar category at the 95th Academy Awards, surveying its strengths, and comparing it to the competition it will face.

Best Picture
Most people haven’t been taking “Elvis” too seriously as a Best Picture player so far, but there are reasons not to count it out completely. For starters, it’s bound to be Warner Bros.’s most significant awards player this year. Sure, they have “The Batman” (which will be a formidable competitor in the tech categories) and Olivia Wilde’s long-awaited “Booksmart” follow-up feature “Don’t Worry Darling” (which will likely play at the fall festivals, even though word around town indicates it’s more akin to a “Last Night in Soho” than a “Promising Young Woman“). Still, as far as films go that are “perfectly packaged” as awards players, “Elvis” is their best bet. Again, as stated above, it’s a biopic – a genre Oscar voters find impossible to ignore. Secondly, it’s anchored by a lead performance that will absolutely be in the awards conversation all year long, keeping the film in voters’ minds as well. Thirdly, it will earnestly contend in several below-the-line categories, expanding its support between the branches. And finally, it has the narrative of being a classic, adult-driven box office success that didn’t have to rely on a franchise formula to turn a profit.

However, it is true that, while “Elvis” has received mostly positive reviews so far, they aren’t necessarily the reviews that indicate that a film is going to pop into Best Picture – especially in a year where you’ll be going head-to-head with new films from Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Damien Chazelle, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and James Cameron. Sure, you could come back and say, “Well, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody‘ had much worse reviews, and that still got into Best Picture.” A fair point. But “Bohemian Rhapsody” was also an even bigger box office success than “Elvis” is set to be (it almost made $1 billion worldwide!), capturing the cultural zeitgeist to an unfathomable degree. It came out in November, where it established a place in the awards conversation at the top of the pack. Conversely, “Elvis” still has to contend with all the movies that will release in the remaining six months of the year.

With that being said, it’s not like movies that come out in the first half of the year can’t contend in Best Picture – they just have to be pretty damn undeniable to do so (this year’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is making a pretty convincing case for itself, as is “Top Gun: Maverick“). And, if we know one thing about how Warner Bros. campaigns, they’re going to go all-in on “Elvis,” especially since it’s all they’ve got (look at what they were able to do last year when they were splitting their campaigning power between “Dune” and “King Richard“). Lastly – and this is a topic we’ll revisit below – if Austin Butler proves to not only be a Best Actor nominee but a potential winner, that will boost “Elvis‘” Best Picture chances significantly, as, since 2010, every Best Actor winner has come from a film that was also nominated for Best Picture.

Best Director
Oh, Baz. Our beautiful, bombastic Baz. If you asked this writer, Luhrmann should already have an Oscar for directing 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!” (inexplicably, he wasn’t even nominated). However, I’m not sure “Elvis” will be the film to bring him back into the fold. For starters, as mentioned earlier, he and “Elvis” will have stiff competition from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Damien Chazelle, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and James Cameron. And additionally, though this writer has a special place in her heart for Luhrmann’s gloriously gonzo go-for-broke approach to directing – a style that is definitely on display in “Elvis” and exponentially enlivens what could’ve been a brutally bland biopic in another director’s hands – his sensibilities can be controversial and generate strong opinions both ways, which doesn’t always bode well for an Oscar bid. We’ll get him in there someday, but “Elvis” doesn’t seem to be the surest thing.

Best Actor
I imagine many of you scrolled down to read this section first, and I don’t blame you – by far and away, the very best thing about “Elvis” is undoubtedly Austin Butler’s pitch-perfect and revelatory portrayal of Elvis Presley. This is a role we’ve seen played far too many times before – whether by Kurt Russell and Michael Shannon in the movies or some washed-up impersonator in Vegas – but, somehow, Butler makes the part feel fresh again, seemingly channeling the spirit of “The King” himself in every scene he’s in (especially when he’s on stage). It’s no hyperbole to say that his performance is perhaps the single best of the year so far from an actor or actress, lead or supporting, and it’s hard to imagine all this widespread acclaim for him dissipating entirely by the end of the year – especially when he has such a strong narrative, not only centered around his all-consuming transformation, but also around stories about how he spent years preparing for the part ever since he was cast, found common ground with Elvis after discovering both of their mothers died when they were 23, and was hospitalized and bedridden for a week after “Elvis” wrapped.

There’s also just the fact that playing a famous musician in at least a decently received biopic bodes very well for your Oscar chances. Rami Malek won in 2018 for playing Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Renée Zellweger won the following year for playing Judy Garland in “Judy,” and Andra Day probably came darn close to winning the year after that for playing Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (the worst received film of this bunch, but that goes to show how “Oscar-baity” performances of famous musicians are). Hell, and if you go all the way back to 2004, you’ll find Jamie Foxx winning for playing Ray Charles in “Ray,” while Joaquin Phoenix was nominated in 2005 for playing Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” and Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress for playing his wife, June Carter. And then there’s also Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-winning performance as Édith Piaf in 2007’s “La Vie en Rose” And on and on and on.

Elvis” also comes during what has been a musical biopic “boom” following the blowout success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” at both the box office and the Oscars – with Butler seemingly hoping to follow in Malek’s footsteps and nab that statue as well – but there’s another cautionary tale here at play with a comparison to Taron Egerton in “Rocketman” lurking in the shadows (both “Rocketman” and “Elvis” did premiere at Cannes after all, and both released in the first half of the year, though “Elvis‘” June release is marginally better than “Rocketman’s” May release). And while Egerton received Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA nominations (he even won the Globe!), he was ultimately snubbed by the Oscars in the end, despite many finally being convinced to predict him for the nom. Is this the fate that awaits Butler as well?

At this juncture, my hunch is that Butler’s fate lies somewhere between Malek’s and Egerton’s. Let’s start with the latter. I feel that Butler is already a stronger contender than Egerton for several reasons, the first being that, your personal preference aside, Egerton never quite generated the euphoric and almost inescapable reactions and responses that Butler has – it’s truly astounding to see how quickly so many moviegoers and so much of the industry have rallied around Butler so quickly. Egerton’s performance was well-received for sure, but Butler’s has the “feel” of being in another league entirely. And that’s partially because of the next factor that puts him above Egerton: the backing of Warner Bros. The promotional campaign they’ve run for “Elvis” so far has been nothing short of extraordinary, and let’s face it; they’re far more well-versed at the awards game than Paramount (which distributed “Rocketman“). They will scorch the Earth with their support for Butler (they kind of already have), and at the very least, they will do all they can to get him that nom.

Why do I think he may not fully replicate Malek’s success? It comes down to a few factors – the first being “Elvis‘” release date. When I try to analyze Butler’s performance as objectively as possible, I believe he turns in Oscar-worthy work that checks many boxes of what voters look for in a Best Actor winner. Still, sustaining that blistering buzz for six more months will be tough. And that’s because of the second factor that prevents him from fully mirroring Malek: the upcoming competition. This is not a light year for Best Actor by any means, with Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”), Hugh Jackman (“The Son”), Colman Domingo (“Rustin”), and Leonardo freakin’ DiCaprio (“Killers of the Flower Moon”) still on the horizon. Not only will Butler have to sustain his current buzz until the end of the year, but he’ll have to do so against all of them.

That said, though, I think Butler has done enough so far – between his performance and initial campaigning – to prove that he deserves a nomination. If you throw him in with those four names I just mentioned, that makes for a pretty damn convincing quintet, and one I suspect we could see on Oscar nomination morning. At the moment, all he – and Warner Bros. – should focus on is getting that nomination, as it’s his biggest hurdle. If he does get in, we can discuss a win, pending how his competitors are received and what narratives they have to compete with him. But at this stage, I do believe he’s looking strong for Oscar inclusion at the very least, and as a “hot” young newcomer, that alone is what he should focus on first and foremost.

Best Supporting Actor
In direct opposition to the near-universal praise for Butler, Tom Hanks’ performance as Elvis’ insidious manager Col. Tom Parker has generated divisive reactions (to put it lightly), with some going so far as to say it’s the worst performance of his career. No matter where you fall on the Hanks debate (I’m somewhere in the middle), it’s not like performances largely seen as subpar haven’t ever been nominated for an Oscar (some would even say the aforementioned Malek falls into this category). However, Best Supporting Actor isn’t lacking compelling contenders that will probably be far better received (Paul Dano and Seth Rogan from Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons from “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Brad Pitt from “Babylon, etc. – all alongside the already seen Ke Huy Quan in “Everything Everywhere All at Once“), so I highly doubt that, even if “Elvis” becomes as big as it can possibly get, voters will feel such affinity for Hanks’ performance to nominate it. There’s always the possibility for a random SAG nomination – he is a big name, after all, turning in tremendously showy work – but I’d count him out for now.

Best Supporting Actress
Olivia DeJonge was just as much of an unknown as Austin Butler to mainstream audiences before taking on the role of Priscilla Presley (despite becoming a fantastic “Final Girl” in horror flicks “The Visit” and “Better Watch Out”), but she holds her own against Butler’s energetic Elvis and dutifully delivers when it comes to the film’s most crushing emotional beats. However, nearly all of the (positive) acting attention for “Elvis” seems to have centered around Butler so far, and Best Supporting Actress is yet another category at the 95th Academy Awards that is set to be incredibly crowded (“The Fabelmans'” Michelle Williams, “Killers of the Flower Moon’s” Lily Gladstone, “Women Talking’s” Jessie Buckley, “The Whale’s” Hong Chau and Sadie Sink, “The Son’s” Laura Dern and Vanessa Kirby, and so on). We’re not confident that DeJonge has enough material to go toe-to-toe with these titans. 

Best Original Screenplay
While “Elvis” sets itself apart from other biopics stylistically, thanks to Luhrmann’s delirious direction, the screenplay is where some take issue with the film, critiquing it for the same reasons almost every biopic is critiqued. “It’s a glorified Wikipedia article!” “It’s too long!” You know the drill. And, regardless of whether you agree or not, “Elvis” just isn’t really seen as a “screenplay contending” movie – it’s an acting play above all else. And when the category is going to have as much competition as it will this year (The Daniels’ “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s “The Fabelmans,” Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Bardo (or a False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths),” Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” etc.), a screenplay with this many critiques already won’t cut it.

Best Cinematography
Baz Luhrmann is known for making visually sumptuous movies, and “Elvis” is no exception, enveloping you in a glorious world of glitz and glamor from start to finish, with every event shot superbly by cinematographer Mandy Walker. Walker is best known for being the DP on films like “Mulan” and “Hidden Figures,” but she’s also worked with Luhrmann before on 2008’s “Australia,” which won her the Satellite Award for Best Cinematography. However, amongst the below-the-line categories, Best Cinematography doesn’t seem to be the one that most “Elvis” fans are buzziest about. It doesn’t help that Walker will have to face Roger Deakins (“Empire of Light”), Janusz Kamiński (“The Fabelmans”), Linus Sandgren (“Babylon”), Russell Carpenter (“Avatar: The Way of Water“), and Rodrigo Prieto (“Killers of the Flower Moon”), among many other big names and former Oscar winners and nominees, most likely leaving her on the outside looking in this year.

Best Costume Design
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Simply put, Catherine Martin is a living legend amongst costume designers. And not only that, but she’s a two-time Oscar winner as well, with both wins coming from when she’s worked with her husband Baz Luhrmann in the past (“Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby“) – and she was also nominated for his “Australia,” too. So, if you’re not seriously considering her for another Best Costume Design nomination (if not another win), fix that NOW. 

It’s not just her recreation of Elvis’ most iconic outfits that are ravishing, but her ability to craft colorful and captivating costumes for the entire cast throughout the near-three-hour running time of “Elvis,” putting together absorbing and period-appropriate attire for all as the film travels from the 1950s to the 1970s, never serving up any outfits that are less than sensationally stylish. She’ll have some competitors nipping at her heels (“Babylon’s” Oscar-winning Mary Zophres, “The Fabelmans'” Oscar-winning Mark Bridges, “Killers of the Flower Moon’s” Oscar-winning Sandy Powell), but I’m convinced that Martin’s work speaks for itself, and I think she is very likely to at least find a spot in the final five at this stage.

Best Film Editing
No matter whether you think the editing in “Elvis” is good or bad, I think we can all agree that it will have some of the most editing in any 2022 movie by the end of the year (“Everything Everywhere All at Once” aside). Watching the film, it seems absurd that a movie with that much editing could miss out on a Best Film Editing nomination. Still, the Editing branch is a tricky one to predict, as they’re fairly finicky with who they choose to give nominations out to – they’re too discerning to simply throw a nom to a film with “a lot of editing” if they don’t actually think it’s good editing, which means “Elvis‘” divisiveness could hurt it. Additionally, the “Best Film Editing” category often turns into a “which films are strongest in Best Picture” category, with big Best Picture players dominating the line-up, even if that means films with more notable and “obvious” editing are left on the outside looking in.

It also doesn’t help that “Elvis‘” editors – Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond – aren’t former Oscar nominees or “big names,” especially when they’ll be facing stiff competition from the Oscar-winning likes of Tom Cross (“Babylon”), Thelma Schoonmaker (“Killers of the Flower Moon”), and Lee Smith (“Empire of Light”). At the same time, “West Side Story’s” Sarah Broshar should prove to be a formidable contender for “The Fabelmans.” We shouldn’t count out the editing team of David Brenner, James Cameron, John Refoua, and Stephen E. Rivkin on “Avatar: The Way of Water” either. A Best Film Editing nomination would undoubtedly show that “Elvis” has more strength in the Academy than initially anticipated, but we’ve got a long way to go until a spot in the final five feels “secure.”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
To get a Best Makeup and Hairstyling nomination, you usually just have to have the most makeup and hairstyling, and that’s an area where “Elvis” absolutely excels. And we’re not just talking about Austin Butler’s transfixing transformation into Elvis Presley, but also the outstanding work done on Olivia DeJonge to make her the spitting image of Priscilla, with the hair and makeup team transporting Butler and DeJonge as Elvis and Priscilla through the 1950s to the 1970s with painstaking precision and style to spare.

The more distracting work done on Tom Hanks may detract from the hair and makeup department’s awards campaign, but, in all honesty, it’s no more “overdone” or “over-the-top” than Jared Leto’s makeup in “House of Gucci.” That team still got a nomination last year (the film’s only Oscar nom, to be exact). And though “Elvis” will have to fend off other prosthetic-centric campaigns from “The Whale” and “The Batman,” we feel it’ll still be above films like “Babylon” and “The Fabelmans” with more makeup-based work to show off (as this branch favors prosthetics and “transformations”), and with five slots in the final line-up, “Elvis” has more than enough impressive hair and makeup work to be worthy of inclusion here.

Best Production Design
Catherine Martin strikes again! Not only does Martin serve as “Elvis‘” costume designer, but she’s also Baz Luhrmann’s production design partner as well, earning her first Oscar nomination for 1996’s “Romeo + Juliet” and subsequently winning in this category for “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby” – the same films she won Best Costume Design for. Martin, along with set decorator Beverley Dunn, turns in eye-popping and pristine production design here, crafting colorful carnivals and concert venues from the 1950s to the 1970s and serving as one of the primary overseers of the overall aesthetic for “Elvis,” making her partially responsible for how visually resplendent the final product is.

Will she be unchallenged in this category? Of course not. “Babylon’s” Florencia Martin and Anthony Carlino will transport us back to 1920s Hollywood, “The Fabelmans'” Rick Carter and Karen O’Hara will recreate Steven Spielberg’s childhood, and “Killers of the Flower Moon’s” Jack Fisk and Adam Willis will work to make that Oklahoman odyssey feel as authentic as possible, while “Avatar: The Way of Water” is also not to be counted out here, given that its predecessor won this award. However, Martin is a former winner and a “big name,” turning in reliably ravishing work, and we feel that the branch won’t forget her, even with six months to go. No one is a “sure thing” yet, but don’t doubt Martin’s might.

Best Sound
It’s harder than ever to crack into Best Sound ever since Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing (the latter of which formerly favored musicals) combined into one category, leaving only five spots up for grabs. And this is going to be a tough year (are you tired of me saying that yet?), with blockbusters “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water,” and “The Batman” all featuring nomination-worthy work, and prestige pictures “Babylon” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” potentially possessing subversive sound design too.

However, “Elvis” should still absolutely be at the center of the conversation here. Between the way sound shifts from the 1950s to the 1970s, the way instruments are inventively integrated into Elvis’ live performances, and the way Austin Butler’s voice is blended with Elvis as the film goes on, there’s no shortage of stellar sound editing and mixing to show off here. We suspect that the sound branch will surely take note, with many finding a place to fit “Elvis” into the final five when all is said and done (hell, “Bohemian Rhapsody” won Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing three years ago, and the work here is even more intricate).

If you were to ask this pundit what categories to predict “Elvis” in for the 95th Academy Awards this far out, I’d divide its possible nominations into four categories.

Most Likely:

  • Best Actor
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Makeup and Hairstyling
  • Best Production Design
  • Best Sound

On the Cusp:

  • Best Film Editing

Less Likely, But Not Impossible:

  • Best Picture

Not Going to Happen:

  • Best Director
  • Best Supporting Actor
  • Best Supporting Actress
  • Best Original Screenplay
  • Best Cinematography

And, as always, remember that a lot can – and will – change between now and December, and nothing is set in stone at the end of June (for better or for worse). Still, “Elvis” has established that it’s got the goods in several categories. As its critical and commercial success continues to spread, it will simultaneously continue to bolster its Oscar campaign, most obviously for Austin Butler’s phenomenal lead performance, which remains its most robust awards bet. Until we see more movies this season, we can’t be “sure” of anything, but the one thing we do know for sure is that Warner Bros. will be busy “taking care of business” until Oscar night.

How do you think Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” will perform with the Academy? What nominations do you see it receiving? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Zoe and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @ZoeRoseBryant

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Zoe Rose Bryant
Zoe Rose Bryant
Writes for AwardsWatch & Loud & Clear Reviews. Omaha based film critic & Awards Season pundit.

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