As we draw closer to the 88th Oscar telecast, a very visible dark cloud has nestled over the motion picture academy in what many are calling a divisive year of contention. It is a scenario made all the more prominent by the very public outcry made by members in the voting body, who have called for a boycott of the ceremony because of a distinct lack of diversity in the actor’s playing field – namely, a shortlist that includes no black actors. Spike Lee, one of the more vocal members, refuses to participate or watch. Others have suggested that Chris Rock, who is assigned hosting duties, to resign from participating. And with various other members of the debate lending support – or opposition – to the cause, the prevalent feeling is that all the attention of possible winners has been absorbed by the politics of the scenario, creating distinct divides that have both escalated the issue and opened old wounds.
Many have asked in earnest about my views on the subject. Do I think the diversity of the nominee field is a problem? I think there is validity to the argument, especially now. We are in a time of social advancement, and one where it can be disheartening to see only certain faces acknowledged in the sweep of professional recognition. But I also think that to hold one’s feet to the fire in addressing those concerns, the blame has to be shared amongst more industry contributors. The Academy Awards is a popularity contest that still holds some level of prestige in the minds of eager talents, but it’s also a relative snapshot of what a year in movies has symbolized – sometimes for the better, and certainly sometimes for the worst. For every voice that gets raised about the limitations on minorities for gold statues, others fall silent when it comes to acknowledging the narrowed focus of movie studio executives, who are the great contributors to this paralyzing divide. And when the awards handout draws to a climax and their world returns to a routine, the discussion often gets placed on hold until it can get drudged up at the next opportunity, usually in another instance where films about other cultures get overlooked in the awards circuit.
I think this is a detriment to dealing with the source of the problem, which does not begin as much with a voting body as it does a Hollywood that still sees films about blacks – or women and homosexuals, if you want to broaden the argument – as risky moves in the money game. Where that philosophy began, however, does not always reflect how it has become. One of the greatest financial successes of 2016 was “Straight Outta Compton,” featuring a predominantly black cast. Other notable forays that stood out this past year: “Concussion” starring Will Smith, “Beasts of No Nation” with Idris Elba and “Creed” starring Michael B. Jordan. But their prominence is dwarfed by a feeling behind the scenes that audiences are more eager to flock to material they see as “universal,” which loosely translates to simple-minded, action-packed and thoughtless. Jordan in particular gave one of the most sincere performances of the year, but wound up with no recognition for the same reason that such movies have become such afterthoughts: because no one is willing to campaign for the material beyond marginal impulses.
I have seen this attitude persist across years of debate. It has affected a great number of stories told in front of the camera, and certainly trivialized the mainstream moviegoeing experience. What is to become of the voice of change? The Academy is, rightfully, doing its part. A recent probe of the voting body revealed striking anomalies in who participates in the awards decisions, many of whom have not had active roles in the industry for several decades. Their findings fueled an impulse to revise and expand the criteria for who is involved, suggesting waves of change are already underway. And that’s comforting to know as we move steadily into the world of new and exciting filmmakers who have long seen past these boundaries; it alludes to the possibility of old traditions finally falling in sync with the ways of the world, at least more consistently.
But will the arguments persist, as they should, beyond that? Will we see the primary vocalists of the industry push to challenge the perceptions of investors and producers? Or will the experience of going to the movies continue to dwell under the same blasé standard of more of the same, effectively limiting the opportunities for the Academy to offer up accolades to something more challenging? In order for us to be fair and consistent with recognizing minorities, we need to ensure that their films are not minor experiences in themselves, and the only way to do that is to broaden the acknowledgment that audiences consist of more than simple people interested primarily in “white” premises.
The show, nonetheless, goes on. Below is an assessment of how this year’s contenders in all of the major categories should pan out. For all the swirling stigma associated with the limits on diversity, though, many of this year’s selections are hardly inferior, and they represent a year of filmmaking that did contain some notable edge. Those that will walk away with honors will be, for the most part, apropos selections; others still may swing in the favor of prominent upsets. And perhaps most fittingly, nearly all of them will be able to share in moments with filmmakers, actors and technicians that remain elusive wonders: the notion of being honored by one’s peers in a setting that celebrates their culture.
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
Observations: When it comes to citing statistics, the best picture race most years had favored the film that carries the most nominations. For all intents and purposes, that would mean either “Mad Max: Fury Road” or “The Revenant” – each of which hold eight and twelve nods, respectively – are the frontrunners of this race. But not so fast: in the most recent decade, there have only been four instances when the leading nominee won the top prize (“Birdman,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Hurt Locker” and “No Country for Old Men”). What this anomaly suggests is that the consistency of wins has been upset by continued changes in the voting patterns, especially since Academy members now vote for one amongst 8 to 10 nominees instead of 5 (which had been the tradition up to 2009).
Couple this with the fact that the momentum from critic’s circles and industry awards has swung back and forth between three or four top contenders up till the last minute, and what you have is one of the most widely shaky contests of the recent past. That thought is, perhaps, fueled further by the fact that the Academy, under immense scrutiny for the lack of minority representation, may be inclined to think more in terms of “hot button” topics when it comes to passing out the biggest trophy. That sort of mentality hasn’t been as obvious since “Crash” beat out “Brokeback Mountain” 10 years ago, but it is persistent enough to linger as a thought: what if their incentive is to think more in terms of social ramifications? Wouldn’t that mean “Spotlight,” the earliest of those front-runners, stands a better odd of going home with the honor?
The possibility is there, and it’s a possibility that is sobering in this moment of guesswork. The other two films, as immense as they are, seem distant in comparison. “Mad Max: Fury Road” will likely sweep many of the technical categories, and “The Revenant” will topple contenders in other major categories like Director and Actor. I do not, alas, think this voting body is capable of giving the film more than two of the top prizes, especially when its subject matter is marginal in comparison to that of “Spotlight,” which contains defining statements that indict two of the biggest institutions in the world: the press and organized religion. One of the other key omens is that Inarritu’s film lost the Producer’s Guild award to “The Big Short,” which undermines the case for its victory further.
In a year where protesters demand that the voters be more socially aware, they will respond by giving the big prize to a little movie about shocking injustice.
ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
Observations: In a year that saw a plethora of challenging and perceptive performances from men, Leonardo DiCaprio has emerged an early victor in the race for Oscar gold. There is little doubt in that likelihood; after he won both the Golden Globe and the Screen Actor’s Guild award for his harrowing performance in “The Revenant,” this win has all but been a guarantee for him, especially considering how rigorous the role was on-set (and voters love an actor who can transform just as literally as figuratively). Of course, the fact that he has yet to win an Academy Award after repeat nominations in the recent years doesn’t hurt the cause; the feeling is that his time has been due for many ceremonies, and several voices believe this is the role that will send him into that limelight. I join the ranks of those estimators.
Prediction: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Observations: Jennifer Lawrence, a previous winner of the Best Actress award for “Silver Linings Playbook,” has had good success in David O. Russel’s films over the years, but “Joy” carries none of the prestige – or the critical power – of either that film or “American Hustle”; this will hurt her odds. Saoirse Ronan was nominated years ago for her small role in “Atonement” but has yet to develop the kind of monumental presence that the Academy demands of its victors. And Charlotte Rampling, while a seasoned vet, has two factors working against her: 1) she was in a movie that has gone relatively unnoticed; and 2) her rebuttal in the argument about Oscar diversity this year soured the perception of voters, who are not likely to invite yet another star up on stage if the possibility is there to get political.
That leaves Cate Blanchett and Brie Larson, both of whom have been lauded for their dramatic turns in relatively sobering human dramas. The virtue for Blanchett is that she is well favored in the eyes of her peers, and has won two Oscars already for great performances. But in this dynamic era where wins often translate to future pass-overs, this is not going to favor her. Couple that with the fact that “Carol” itself has not been pushed hard for awards consideration, and Brie Larson – who has already sewn up most of the industry awards – seems like the likely candidate.
Prediction: Brie Larson, Room
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Observations: While some of the more notable performances by supporting actors – namely, Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation” – went without recognition this year, those that stand in the final selection of nominees do have their merits. Chief among them is Mark Ruffalo, whose turn as the eager reporter in “Spotlight” was fearless and riveting at all the right moments (though the sublime work of his co-star Michael Keaton went unnoticed). Tom Hardy, meanwhile, transcended the very essence of his own personality to play a ruthless fur tradesman opposite DiCaprio, and surely that must weigh heavily on the minds of voters as well.
But what weighs heavier, I suspect, is honoring the careers of veterans, especially those emerging from critical dormancy. In that respect, Sylvester Stallone’s comeback has been all the buzz of the awards circuit since “Creed” first landed, and with the exception of the Screen Actors Guild awards, that momentum has persisted. Come Sunday, expect his seventh foray into the world of Rocky Balboa to yield gold.
Prediction: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Observations: Let’s acknowledge the Tarantino phenomenon. Two performances from Christoph Waltz in his recent films went on to claim victory in the span of a mere three years; was that a sign of Waltz’s ability, or of his director? If the latter, then Jennifer Jason Leigh’s work in “The Hateful Eight” strikes a similar pulse, and with the added benefit of being seen as a comeback for her own spotty career, it’s not hard to see why she wound up as a nominee here. But when the question of the Academy’s prejudice runs rampant, will those factors matter when the role you play is such a blatant racist?
Of all the acting categories, here is the one possessing the fewest sure bets. Rachel McAdams is certainly good in “Spotlight,” and Rooney Mara’s performance in “Carol” contains some level of intricacy, but they are generally dwindled by lackluster Oscar campaigns. Kate Winslet, a previous winner, was in a movie that was not as well received. But Alicia Vikander? She carries the distinction of being in another one of the hot button topic films of 2015 (albeit a minor one, comparatively), and giving a performance in it that is heartbreaking and fearlessly understated. “The Danish Girl” certainly deserves to win something, and here is the clearest possibility for it to take home an honor.
Prediction: Alicia Vikander, Room
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Observations: The Director’s Guild continues to be the most consistent of prophecies when it comes to aligning with winners of the Academy Award, and this year should be no different. Inarritu won both awards last year for his “Birdman,” and if he repeats this year for “The Revenant,” it will be the first time in half a century that a filmmaker has one back-to-back directing honors. The lone possible upset would be George Miller, whose “Mad Max: Fury Road” was a triumphant return to form. But will his prestige be enough to outweigh the prowess of the front-runner? I doubt it, though stranger things have happened.
Prediction: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant
WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)
The Big Short
Observations: For an opportunity to honor a Best Picture nominee that has little chance of winning bigger accolades, this is where both “The Big Short” and “The Martian” are favored for a win. While the latter has certainly been present in the mind of most audiences (and voters) since it came out last fall, the Producer’s Guild win for the former gives it, I think, a distinct edge.
Prediction: The Big Short
WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)
Bridge of Spies
Straight Outta Compton
Observations: In a year with consistently above average original screenplays, “Spotlight” emerges as a diamond in a boat of spectacular gemstones; written from the perspective of a complicated world of investigative journalism, it possesses all the quintessential characteristics of an urgent story, and one with a level of intricacy that is as fascinating as it is intelligent. But the script for “Straight Outta Compton” might prevail, too, especially considering that it is the film’s sole nomination in a year where the pressure is on to acknowledge more diverse selections. I still give Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy’s the slight edge, but hey, don’t be too surprised if you see an upset here either.
ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: Inside Out
CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Revenant
COSTUME DESIGN: The Danish Girl
DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE): Amy
DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT): A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
FILM EDITING: Mad Max: Fury Road
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Son of Saul
MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: Mad Max: Fury Road
MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE): The Hateful Eight
MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG): “Writing’s On The Wall,” Spectre
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Mad Max: Fury Road
SHORT FILM (ANIMATED): We Can’t Live without Cosmos
SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION): Shok
SOUND EDITING: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
SOUND MIXING: Mad Max: Fury Road
VISUAL EFFECTS: Mad Max: Fury Road
Written by DAVID KEYES