A concept that comes up now and then during Oscar season is “frontrunner fatigue:” essentially, familiarity breeding contempt, or at least a degree of impatience. The idea is that if a certain film or a specific performance spends the majority of awards season as the favorite, constantly winning prizes in the lead-up to the Oscars, there’s a risk of people getting sick of it. Whatever passion it has runs out, giving way to a sense of resignation; detractors are emboldened and become more outspoken; voters seek alternatives, which various FYC campaigns are only too happy to provide. What once seemed inevitable is now thrown into a state of uncertainty, which is an exciting proposition for everybody.
Two supposed examples of frontrunner fatigue can be found in the 2021 Oscar season. “The Power Of The Dog” was a critical darling that became the Best Picture frontrunner upon its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Still, months of complaints about its languid pacing and perceived emotional austerity took its toll even as it racked up precursor awards. When the Oscar nominations came out, “The Power Of The Dog” earned twelve nominations. However, it only walked away with the Best Director award for Jane Campion on Oscar night; after striking out for the rest of the evening, the gesture felt almost grudging. In between the nominations and the ceremony, “CODA” pipped “The Power Of The Dog” at the finish line, and a narrative formed: a plucky, feel-good indie dramedy for the people struck a blow against some stodgy arthouse drama voters had been told to revere in the hectoring tones of a mother demanding a child eat their vegetables.
Elsewhere that season, there was Kristen Stewart, whose performance as Princess Diana in “Spencer” earned immediate Oscar buzz and a dominant critics’ group run. On paper, she was a heavy favorite for Best Actress and was seen as such even as her performance (and the film it anchored) proved to be intensely polarizing. Eventually, however, “Spencer’s” award season underperformance, as well as several competitors jockeying for position (including Nicole Kidman for “Being The Ricardos,” Lady Gaga for “House Of Gucci,” and eventual winner Jessica Chastain for “The Eyes Of Tammy Faye“), meant Stewart was far more vulnerable than she looked. Her eventual Oscar nomination, once pre-ordained, was as much a surprise as that season’s shocking SAG Awards snub that highlighted her vulnerability.
Now that the concept has been defined, it’s worth asking: does frontrunner fatigue actually exist? Well, yes and no. Insofar as it exists, it’s present in awards punditry more than the awards themselves. Punditry, after all, thrives in a dynamic, unpredictable environment with numerous possibilities and intriguing new developments. A stable, static race, with one clear favorite throughout, is much less interesting: compare the Best Actress free-for-all of 2020 to Renée Zellweger bulldozing a path to Oscar glory the previous year, and consider which race would make for a more intriguing podcast episode. In addition, there’s the tempting possibility of driving the conversation towards a favorite movie or away from a disliked one: the search for an alternative to “The Power Of The Dog” was particularly pundit-driven, with “Belfast,” “King Richard,” and “West Side Story” all being latched onto and discarded as possible crowd-pleasing winners before everyone hopped on “CODA’s” bandwagon.
But the evidence that any of this actually has an effect on voting is scant. Did “Everything Everywhere All At Once” experience frontrunner fatigue on its way to becoming the most-awarded film of all time? How about the aforementioned Renée Zellweger, whose eventual victory for “Judy” was greeted with a sort of resigned inevitability? It’s possible that being considered the frontrunner paints a target on one’s back (as with Kristen Stewart), but it’s more likely a confluence of other factors that get chalked up to “fatigue” post-hoc by people chattering online.
“Frontrunner fatigue” is already starting to set in among the Oscar commentariat. “Oppenheimer” has been in the driver’s seat for a Best Picture/Best Director combo victory (plus other prizes) ever since its release in July, and while it’s far less polarizing than “The Power Of The Dog,” there’s a sense of restlessness in the air all the same: “Barbie,” “Poor Things,” “The Holdovers,” and “American Fiction” are all being floated as possible dark horses to come up and challenge “Oppenheimer” for Best Picture. Other races could become similarly unsettled, if only in terms of the discourse. Some would argue that “frontrunner fatigue” is the only reason anyone aside from Bradley Cooper in “Maestro” is being predicted in Best Actor at all despite the overwhelming evidence suggesting the min-time Oscar-nominee will finally win his first Academy Award for his Leonard Bernstein biopic. For Best International Feature Film, expect people to start pitching Tran Anh Hung’s “The Taste Of Things” or J.A. Bayona’s “Society Of The Snow” as Academy-friendly alternatives to Jonathan Glazer’s experimental, horrifying “The Zone Of Interest” (though, if the latter receives a Best Picture nomination it’s pretty much all but assured the Best International Feature Film win). And after months of Robert Downey Jr. (“Oppenheimer“), Ryan Gosling (“Barbie“), and Robert De Niro (“Killers Of The Flower Moon“) as the prohibitive Best Supporting Actor frontrunners, watch out for newcomers like Dominic Sessa in “The Holdovers” or Charles Melton in “May December” to be positioned as a dark horse upset or multi-nominated veterans Mark Ruffalo or Willem Dafoe from “Poor Things.” But before you make a snap decision and change your predictions, always ask yourself what, if anything, has materially changed since you made them.
What are some Oscar contenders for this current awards season you believe are suffering from “frontrunner fatigue?” Do you think “frontrunner fatigue” is even a real concept? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account and check out their latest Oscar predictions here.
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