Wednesday, September 28, 2022

​Has Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar Moment Arrived?

By Zoe Rose Bryant 

They always say the third time’s the charm, but how about the ninth? Or the tenth? Or the eleventh? That’s where the rapturously acclaimed Paul Thomas Anderson will find himself at the 94th Academy Awards, as he could very likely contend as a producer, director, and writer, after eight former failed Oscar bids throughout his 25-year career. However, Anderson need not shed a tear about losses from the past, as his latest awards hopeful, “Licorice Pizza,” could very well be his golden ticket, especially if the first batch of rave reviews are any indication.

Currently standing at a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 90 on Metacritic at the time of this writing – “Licorice Pizza” is clearly primed to be one of the top critics’ darlings on the awards circuit this season, and such effusive acclaim is sure to catch the Academy’s attention as well. Already, the film is being positioned as a frontrunner in the Best Original Screenplay category for Anderson’s weird, whimsical, and endlessly witty writing. But what say his chances in Director? Or how about the film’s possibilities in Best Picture? Below, we break down Anderson’s history in each of the three categories cited above – Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original/Adapted Screenplay – and compare his work to that of the competition he will face at this year’s Oscars.

Best Picture
Despite making multiple movies that are now often hailed as “modern classics” (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “The Master,” to name a few), only two of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have been nominated for Best Picture – 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” and 2017’s “Phantom Thread,” with the latter serving as a significant “Oscar nomination morning shock” when its inclusion was announced. Still, the fact that “Phantom Thread” was able to come from behind and find its way into the final line-up is all the evidence we need to see of Anderson’s incredible pull with the Academy. 

At first glance, the fact that only two of Anderson’s eight former films received a Best Picture nomination might be cause for concern for “Licorice Pizza.” Still, there are a few advantages it possesses that make us think it’s firmly in this year’s top ten. For starters, there are the tremendous reviews. As of this writing, “Licorice Pizza” sits behind “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” “Summer of Soul,” and “Rocks” as the fourth most acclaimed film of 2021, according to Metacritic, and “Quo Vadis, Aida?” and “Rocks” aren’t eligible for the Oscars this year, which means “Licorice Pizza” is the most acclaimed narrative feature of this Oscar-qualifying period so far. Now, the Academy does overlook numerous critical darlings every year, but “Licorice Pizza” isn’t some underseen indie that’s going to be lost in the shuffle – it’s the hotly anticipated ninth feature from an eight-time Oscar nominee and one that is being hailed as his most accessible effort yet.

That last point is another feather in “Licorice Pizza’s” cap. For years, Anderson has combated criticisms that his movies are too cold or “emotionally impenetrable” (concerns that plagued the campaign for “The Master,” for instance). However, “Licorice Pizza” is without a doubt Anderson’s most unabashedly sincere and sentimental story yet, centering on the endlessly endearing relationship between Cooper Hoffman’s Gary Valentine and Alana Haim’s Alana Kane that engages viewers from the first frame to the last. Specific questions have been raised about the age gap between the two characters – with Alana being a 25-year-old lost soul and Gary being a 15-year-old high school student – but their infatuation with one another is as innocuous as they come (something Anderson himself has recently attested to). So, it’s hard to imagine the age gap being much of an issue given how honorably it is handled and how all-consuming their chemistry is on screen.

Though many people agree that “Licorice Pizza” is likely a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination, does it have a chance to contend for the win? Right now, that category looks to be a battle between Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” and the Will Smith-led “King Richard,” with Jane Campion’s critically lauded “The Power of the Dog” also in the hunt. However, there is a world where “Licorice Pizza” can be the late-breaker that shakes up this race. Not only does it have the critics in its corner, but it’s also a contender that’s almost impossible to imagine receiving the ire of voters the way some nominees have in the past. It’s inoffensive and enjoyable entertainment that will likely be one of the most loved titles in the line-up, which always helps. Additionally, other late-breakers have disadvantages dragging them down. Is “Nightmare Alley” going to be too “genre-y” for the Academy? Can “West Side Story” set itself apart from the award-winning original? And will “Don’t Look Up’s” less-than-subtle satire alienate some in AMPAS?

With all that being said, to truly challenge “Belfast,” “King Richard,” and “The Power of the Dog,” “Licorice Pizza” needs to find some wins elsewhere. It’s already a strong contender in Best Original Screenplay, but unless it’s pulling a “Spotlight,” it might need another trophy to seal the deal. Best Director can seem hopeful, but there are already three nearly-locked nominees ahead of him that he would have to unseat (Kenneth Branagh, Jane Campion, and Denis Villeneuve) to come out on top. There’s also a solid chance that Alana Haim ascends in the Best Actress race, but she is unlikely to topple Kristen Stewart or Nicole Kidman even if she notches a nomination. Does that mean its other likeliest win is Bradley Cooper in Best Supporting Actor? Who isn’t even a sure thing for a nomination?

Touted as the frontrunner before the season even started, Cooper fell in some pundits’ rankings after “Licorice Pizza” was seen, and it was revealed that his time in the film clocks in at around ten minutes, comprised of two and a half scenes total. Is it out of the realm of imagination for him to contend in the Best Supporting Actor category? No, not at all – just three years ago, Sam Elliott and Sam Rockwell earned Oscar nominations for 8:45 and 9:51 minutes of screen time, respectively. However, a win might be more out-of-reach – considering he’ll be competing with stars of the Best Picture frontrunner, “Belfast,” Jamie Dornan and Ciarán Hinds and the scene-stealing former Oscar-winner Jared Leto in “House of Gucci” – but Cooper has that ‘overdue’ shine surrounding him, and nearly every review has given him a shoutout for being the film’s brightest star, no matter how short his screen time is. Should he prevail, and “Licorice Pizza” also pick up Best Original Screenplay, that would give the picture a healthy package of wins. This path is similar to other recent Best Picture winners, “12 Years a Slave,” “Moonlight,” and “Green Book,” who championed Best Picture with a Picture, Supporting Actor or Supporting Actress, and Screenplay combo.

Best Director
Cinephiles have been campaigning for Paul Thomas Anderson to win a Best Director Oscar practically since he first hit the scene. He indeed came close with his first nomination in 2007 for “There Will Be Blood,” where he was arguably the runner-up to Joel and Ethan Coen for “No Country for Old Men.” A decade later, he shocked Oscar watchers worldwide when he landed a directing nomination for “Phantom Thread,” despite receiving no recognition elsewhere that season. Though he didn’t stand a chance at the win then – with Guillermo del Toro having swept every ceremony for “The Shape of Water” – it was a sign that the directors’ branch had an evident admiration for the auteur, which bodes well for his chances this year.

Though “Licorice Pizza” isn’t as formally precise as a picture like “There Will Be Blood” or “Phantom Thread,” Anderson’s direction is no less dynamic here, with plenty of standout sequences and masterfully mesmerizing tracking shots that will likely earn him praise and plaudits with plenty of awards bodies. And, given how strong a contender “Licorice Pizza” looks to be overall, it is hard to see the directors’ branch overlooking the opportunity to recognize one of their favorites this year. A win, however, might be harder to come by. At this juncture, Kenneth Branagh is out front for Best Picture favorite “Belfast,” followed closely by Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog“) and Denis Villeneuve (“Dune“). Should “Belfast” stumble when it comes to closing the deal on its Best Picture dreams, it’s easy to see Branagh falling short too. Still, given that that has yet to transpire – with the indie holding steady since its successful showings at both Telluride and TIFF – we think a Best Director win might be a bridge too far for Anderson this year, especially with two other promising contenders ahead of him looking to take Branagh’s place. However, Anderson’s admirers need not worry, as we think his hopes are higher in another category.

Best Original Screenplay
As much as fans adore Anderson’s direction, it’s impossible to overstate how successful a storyteller the man is, writing scripts that often defy conventional genre categorization and gifting us with characters unlike any other seen in cinema. This success is seen in his impressive four writing Oscar nominations to date, with two coming in this same category (“Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”) and two coming in the Adapted category (“There Will Be Blood” and “Inherent Vice“). Though “Licorice Pizza” undoubtedly has a looser structure than some of Anderson’s more carefully crafted chronicles, it’s still yet another staggeringly unique creation; complete with delightfully engaging dialogue, thrilling tangents, and complex, captivating characters who eschew our expectations and evolve beyond our initial perception of them. Gary Valentine and Alana Kane may just be ‘normal people,’ but they’re marvelously multidimensional, and though some of that is due to the powerhouse performances from Hoffman and Haim, it all starts on the page.

When surveying the season so far, it seems like “Belfast” may be currently out front in Best Original Screenplay. After all, it is the Best Picture frontrunner. But that might not be the case when all is said and done. For starters, if “Belfast” only picks up trophies in the other 2-3 categories, it’s leading (Director, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress), that would be a healthy enough package of wins to warrant a Best Picture victory still. Furthermore, if the Academy takes a ‘spread the love’ approach to dole out this year’s awards, they could take the chance to finally anoint a long-underrecognized artist as an official Oscar winner – especially for a film that is largely agreed upon as one of his (if not the) best instead of giving Branagh what would be his third Oscar of the evening. Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” and Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” are also competitors to consider – especially the former, which is generating buzz for its painful parallels to today’s sociopolitical climate – but since both of those writers have already won their Oscars, is there an urge to award them again? 

Additionally, the thing that slightly sets Anderson apart from these two and Branagh is that he fits in very well with the ‘cool kids’ club’ trend that has manifested in the Best Original Screenplay category as of late. Look at a few of the winners from the last decade – Quentin Tarantino for “Django Unchained,” Spike Jonze for “Her,” Alejandro González Iñárritu for “Birdman,” Jordan Peele for “Get Out,” Bong Joon-ho for “Parasite,” Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman.” Many of these films were some of the buzziest and most bold contenders of their respective awards seasons. Even if they didn’t win elsewhere (as was the case for “Her,” “Get Out,” and “Promising Young Woman“), their overwhelming originality allowed them to prevail in this category – particularly when there was an impetus to recognize the singular auteur’s voice as well. It’s far from a done deal, but, at the moment, the odds are certainly in Anderson’s favor in Best Original Screenplay.

What do you think? In which category do you think Anderson has the best chances to win an Oscar? Could he come away from the 94th Academy Awards with multiple Oscars? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on Twitter account!

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

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

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