This Week in Actual Oscars News
Each week, in this space, we’ll spend some time breaking down one Oscar contender of interest: why it’s in the running, what it might win, and what that all means. First up: Moonlight.
After premiering to raves at Telluride, and to further — and increasingly Oscar-tinted — raves at Toronto and New York, the (limited) theatrical release of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight finally arrived over the weekend. And with it came the clearing of two notable hurdles in the film’s path to awards contention.
The first hurdle was its gearshift from — at the risk of generalizing — “festival reactions” (“X is the most amazing movie I’ve ever seen, #first #first #first, #first #first #first, #first #first, do you like my sweater? It’s new”) to “theatrical reviews” (“X, out this week, is a good movie, do you like my sweater? It’s new”). Many buzzed-about films do not make this transition smoothly: Every year or so, it seems there is a new high-profile case of [don’t say drunk] breathless festival consensus turning sober and sour.
But Moonlight has now safely avoided such issues. New York Times critic A.O. Scott: “From first shot to last, Moonlight is about as beautiful a movie as you are ever likely to see.” The Ringer’s own K. Austin Collins: “[Moonlight is] essential — to the people it’s about, and to a history of art that has too rarely known how to render them human.” And effusive praise from The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal has followed. If anything, as it gains distance from its late-summer festival premiere, the momentum of Moonlight’s critical consensus is only getting stronger.
The second hurdle that Moonlight cleared was at the box office — and “cleared” might be an understatement. Per Deadline, Moonlight grossed $414,740 over the weekend in four theaters — which, at $103,685 per theater, leaves the film with the no. 1 average gross of 2016. (My handy low-end context tool for per-theater average is Sean Penn’s The Gunman, which “opened” in March of last year to $628 per theater.) (Here is a picture of Sean Penn in The Gunman. Here is a second picture of Sean Penn in The Gunman. Here is a third picture of Sean Penn in The Gunman.) Plenty of indie films open small to build buzz (and to boast a healthy per-screen average). Moonlight did the same — exceptionally well.
And though it’s hard to predict how those numbers will hold as the film begins its (presumably lengthy) expansion; and while it would be inaccurate to deem any review, however big, as “make-or-break” for a film’s Oscar hopes in 2016 — the critical and early commercial response to Moonlight has been, if nothing else, confirmation. We now know it isn’t just a festival darling, and it isn’t just a curiosity; it’s a really big deal. It’s only October, of course, but I think this much is already safe to say: Moonlight is here for the long haul.
The Oscars Collection Agency
“HUGH GRANT!? DO WE OWE HIM SOMETHING?” Those were the incredulous words of a Ringer staffer to me, a couple of weeks ago, upon seeing Hugh Grant’s name among the leading contenders for this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar. And on one hand: Maybe that reaction is a little rough. Grant’s performance — as Meryl Streep’s conflicted husband in the “fuck you, I’m singing” masterpiece Florence Foster Jenkins (real heads call it Flo Fo Jo) — is totally excellent. And his nomination — Gold Derby places him sixth, with 18–1 odds of a win — is hardly assured.
But on the other hand: Yeah, I get it. There really is something … off-putting, finally, about the idea of a Hugh Grant Oscar run. And it’s not even due to Grant himself. Instead: I think it’s that you see Hugh Grant’s name up there as an Oscar contender in 2016 … and you just know. You know why he’s there; and you know what the narrative will be; and you know that it will revolve around the single-most tired and meaningless cliché of any in our current Oscars vocabulary.
The concept of who is and isn’t “due” has become one of the driving principles behind the way that we award — and, as a result, discuss — the Oscars. Examples are famous and easy to come by: Martin Scorsese was “due” when he won the Best Director Oscar for The Departed in 2007. Julianne Moore was “due” when she won the Best Actress Oscar for Still Alice in 2015. And maybe most famously of all: Leonardo DiCaprio was “due” when he won the Best Actor Oscar for The Revenant in 2016. (You’ll note that these are all 21st-century nominations; being “due” isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s one that the internet has kicked into hyperdrive.)
It’s a strange way of thinking about an annual award: some unspoken marriage between “lifetime achievement” and “next in the queue.” And it’s strangely deflating, too: What’s the point in the Oscars — from year to year, as a prestige entity — if it’s been reduced to an exercise in “celebrities taking turns”? (Also, that’s called a Malibu juice bar.)
Mostly, though, it’s just a slippery slope. One of the greatest directors in history, getting an elusive Oscar at 64, for a Best Picture winner, in a year with no strong alternatives? Yeah, OK, of course, why not. I mean: It’s a bummer that Scorsese had to win for The Departed, and not, say, Goodfellas … but I get it. With a case like that, sure: A “career” Oscar makes sense enough. But Moore winning her “been great forever, and snubbed a bunch” Oscar for a movie that nobody really even … seemed to like? And DiCaprio winning his “before it’s too late!!!” Oscar … at fucking 41?
At a certain point, the notion of “being due” breaks down. Because — and with all due respect to Hugh Grant: If Hugh Grant is “due” for an Oscar … then isn’t everyone due? And if everyone’s due … then is anyone?
With this in mind, we’ve decided we’re setting the record straight — before any of the year’s emerging “due” narratives have a chance to spin out of control. We’ve plucked three names from each acting category — some front-runners and some wild cards. And for each name, we’re going to compare the success they’ve had over the years with the success they’ve deserved. And we’re going to find out, once and for all, which of this year’s acting contenders the Oscars actually, truly owe.
Let’s keep the math simple: Each nomination counts as one point; each win counts as five. We’ll then subtract what they’re owed from what they’ve been given — and figure out each actor’s final balance.
Today, the Statue Monger settles all family business. This is Oscars Debt Collection.
Emma Stone — ‘La La Land’
HAS: One nomination (Best Supporting Actress for Birdman) — 1 point
DESERVES: One nomination (Best Supporting Actress for Birdman) — 1 point
FINAL BALANCE: Zero
NOTES: I’m not much of a Birdman person, but Stone’s performance gave us the “You mock Twitter” GIF — so her nomination can stay. My second instinct, when it came to Stone’s Oscar debts, was to give her a nod for 2010’s Easy A. She’s brilliant in it; it’s probably her one, bulletproof, “OK, yeah, this is a star” role to date. But a quick glance at the 2011 Actress nominees — one of the more loaded fields in recent memory — and it’s clear that won’t work:
No one here is droppable; there’s no room, and no nom. This year, Stone is the Best Actress front-runner — “It’s an appealing, knockout performance in a movie with more Best Picture heat than Jackie,” says Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan. And, not unlike Portman’s candidacy six years ago, there will definitely be some “coronation” vibes to Stone’s run — a sort of Career Oscar in reverse, imbued with the sense that she is someone we’ll “feel good about” giving a trophy to, say, 20 years down the road. But whatever happens in February, remember what we tabulated in October: It may be Emma Stone’s time … but that doesn’t mean Emma Stone’s due.
Natalie Portman — ‘Jackie’
HAS: One win (Best Actress for Black Swan) and one nomination (Best Supporting Actress for Closer) — 6 points
DESERVES: One win (Best Actress for Black Swan) and one nomination (Best Supporting Actress for Closer) — 6 points
FINAL BALANCE: ZERO
NOTES: Speaking of the 2011 Best Actress race — does Natalie Portman deserve to keep her win for Black Swan? I’m going to say … yes. But let’s also think of this exercise like instant replay in football: To overturn a call, the evidence has to be indisputable. And so, while I can make a great case for other 2011 Best Actress nominees, I can make a great one for Portman as well. There’s not enough here to overturn. Elsewhere: Closer has aged so poorly — but in a way that somehow makes it more iconic?
(2004 was INSANE. Hot dermatologists! Damien Rice’s career! Julia Roberts getting into photography, but not as a “phase,” and fuck you for suggesting it, our pictures are the chemical projections of our souls. Jude Law wearing glasses, exactly as a phase.) After Closer, though, I can’t find any Natalie Portman Oscar arguments left on the table. Garden State? V for Vendetta?—we start to scrape the bottom of the IMDb barrel pretty quickly. But I think we’re good here. One win, one nomination … the Oscars and Natalie Portman are even.
Annette Bening — ‘20th Century Women’
HAS: Four nominations (Best Supporting Actress for The Grifters; Best Actress for American Beauty, Being Julia, The Kids Are All Right) — 4 points
DESERVES: One win (Best Actress for American Beauty) and four nominations (Best Supporting Actress for The Grifters; Best Actress for The American President, Being Julia, The Kids Are All Right) — 9 points
NOTES: The Best Actress nom for The American President is obvious. (I’m dropping Streep for The Bridges of Madison County — she’ll live — from the ’96 field to make room.) As for American Beauty: I mean … no, yikes, it doesn’t hold up. It’s easily the Best Picture winner of the last 20 years that, watched today, plays most as camp. It’s — you know how people have mostly caught up by now and can at least recognize the plastic bag scene as embarrassing and cringeworthy and fake-deep? Yeah: It’s all like that. American Beauty is very bad. But at the same time: It’s something. And it’s Annette Bening’s something. And if anyone deserved to bank an Oscar for discovering the suburbs at the buzzer of the ’90s, well — why not her? Plus, just look at this field:
We’re giving Bening the win in 2000 — and driving the Oscars into her debt.
Casey Affleck — ‘Manchester by the Sea’
HAS: One nomination (Best Supporting Actor for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) — 1 point
DESERVES: Two nominations (Best Supporting Actor for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Best Actor for Gone Baby Gone) — 2 points
FINAL BALANCE: -1
NOTES: Affleck for Gone Baby Gone might not scream “Oscar snub” on first blush. But it’s strong work — a tour de force of pronouncing “cops,” and the rare performance given in a tracksuit jacket that stays with you. Most importantly, though: Johnny Depp got a 2008 nomination for Sweeney Todd — which means that literally anyone who appeared in front of a camera in 2007 technically got snubbed. (So, I think we can make room.) As for this year? Casey Affleck is the Best Actor front-runner — 9–5 on Gold Derby — and a lot of people are going to say he’s “due.” But a look at the data says otherwise: Lil’ Affleck and the Oscars are pretty much square.
Denzel Washington — ‘Fences’
HAS: Two wins (Best Supporting Actor for Glory; Best Actor for Training Day) and four nominations (Best Supporting Actor for Cry Freedom; Best Actor for Malcolm X, The Hurricane, Flight) — 14 points
DESERVES: Three wins (Best Supporting Actor for Glory; Best Actor for Malcolm X, Training Day) and seven nominations (Best Supporting Actor for Cry Freedom, Philadelphia; Best Actor for Mo’ Better Blues, He Got Game, The Hurricane, Inside Man, Flight) — 22 points
FINAL BALANCE: -8
NOTES: The Oscars’ debt to Denzel Washington is a great example of how the word “due,” as we apply it now, has become essentially meaningless. Washington has two Oscars: one for Glory in 1990, another for Training Day in 2002. And as a result, you can almost guarantee that, for the rest of his career, no one will ever call him “due” for an Oscar again. But ignore the wins, for a second, and instead focus on his snubs — because they tell a very different story. By my count, Denzel has been snubbed of four nominations: Mo’ Better Blues, Philadelphia, He Got Game, and Inside Man. And can we honestly take a look at the 1993 Best Actor field …
… and not agree that this is Denzel’s trophy — pretty easily — with a do-over? Which is to say that, for Fences this year, Denzel Washington may not be “due” for a Best Actor Oscar. But he’s due.
Brad Pitt — ‘Allied’
HAS: Three nominations (Best Supporting Actor for 12 Monkeys; Best Actor for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Moneyball) — 3 points
DESERVES: One win (Best Actor for Moneyball) and four nominations (Best Supporting Actor for Thelma & Louise, 12 Monkeys, Inglourious Basterds; Best Actor for Se7en) — 9 points
FINAL BALANCE: -6
NOTES: Brad Pitt can be a polarizing actor, and my choices here probably reflect that I like him more than most. But wherever you stand on Pitt, I think that we can all come together and agree on two things: (1) collectively taking Benjamin Button seriously was not our finest hour, and (2):
Brad Pitt should have won Best Actor for Moneyball … and it shouldn’t have been close. Which is weird: We don’t think of Brad Pitt as “due” for an Oscar, necessarily — but the next time he’s up for one, I imagine that people will start saying so. And they’ll be right.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Viola Davis — ‘Fences’
HAS: Two nominations (Best Supporting Actress for Doubt; Best Actress for The Help) — 2 points
DESERVES: One win (Best Actress for The Help) and four nominations (Best Supporting Actress for Doubt, Prisoners, Blackhat; Best Actress for The Help)— 9 points
FINAL BALANCE: -7
NOTES: More on Viola Davis — our almost and future Best Supporting Actress front-runner — at the end of the column. But yes: She’s due.
Michelle Williams — ‘Manchester by the Sea’
HAS: Three nominations (Best Supporting Actress for Brokeback Mountain; Best Actress for Blue Valentine, My Week With Marilyn) — 3 points
DESERVES: Five nominations (Best Supporting Actress for Brokeback Mountain; Best Actress for Dick, Blue Valentine, Take This Waltz, My Week With Marilyn) — 5 points
FINAL BALANCE: -2
NOTES: For the most part, Michelle Williams has been given a fair Oscars shake.
For the most part.
Nicole Kidman — ‘Lion’
HAS: One win (Best Actress for The Hours) and two nominations (Best Actress for Moulin Rouge!, Rabbit Hole) — 7 points
DESERVES: One win (Best Actress for The Hours) and seven nominations (Best Actress for To Die For, Eyes Wide Shut, Moulin Rouge!, Dogville, Birth, Rabbit Hole; Best Supporting Actress for The Paperboy) — 12 points
FINAL BALANCE: -5
NOTES: Nicole Kidman has one win, for The Hours, and that seems fair. But where the Oscars have whiffed — and fallen into debt — with her career is more on the fringes: all of those stranger, sleazier, “there’s a scene where she pees on Zac Efron”-er roles that she could have been nominated for.
Lion scarcely seems like it will qualify as Alt-Kidman — but it doesn’t matter how the debt gets paid. All that matters is that it gets paid.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Liam Neeson — ‘Silence’
HAS: One nomination (Best Actor for Schindler’s List) — 1 point
DESERVES: Three nominations (Best Actor for Schindler’s List, Taken, The Grey) — 3 points
FINAL BALANCE: -2
NOTES: Is it crazy that Liam Neeson — tough break, aging out of Lincoln — has only a single Oscar nomination? Well, if you stick to his “serious” (re: “Is this a fake Oscar bait trailer like in Tropic Thunder?”-core) early-to-middle period, not really. But if you accept the (RIGHT AND TRUE) premise that Neeson’s late-career action renaissance has been backed by some exceptional performances?
Then yeah, it’s pretty crazy that Liam Neeson only has the one. Let’s give him nods for Taken and The Grey — movies that (in contrast with his Jaume Collet-Serra trilogy) Neeson absolutely carries — and call it a day.
Mykelti Williamson — ‘Fences’
HAS: Zero nominations
DESERVES: Two wins (Best Supporting Actor for Forrest Gump, Heat) — 10 points
FINAL BALANCE: -10
NOTES: Now this is a debt. Friends: Mykelti Williamson should have BACK-TO-BACK Oscar wins. Not back-to-back nominations. Not one win and one nomination. Mykelti Williamson should have back-to-back Oscar wins, for Best Supporting Actor, for 1995 and 1996, for his work as Bubba Blue in Forrest Gump and Sergeant Drucker in Heat.
Here’s my rationale: In ’95, Martin Landau won for Ed Wood. How about Martin Landon’t? And it’s not even like Forrest Gump wasn’t represented in Best Supporting Actor. It was — but by Gary Sinise. Are you kidding me? Fuck Lieutenant Dan. Bubba is the best part of Forrest Gump. And as for ’96:
Top 5 performances in Heat:
5. Al Pacino
4. Ashley Judd
3. Val Kilmer
2. Robert De Niro
1. Mykelti Williamson
So, the next time you’re talking about awards season, and you decide to call someone “due”: first just try to think about how that someone stacks up to Mykelti Williamson — the only actor alive to whom we definitely don’t owe an Oscar. And that’s because we owe him two.
Hugh Grant — ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’
HAS: Zero nominations
DESERVES: One nomination (Best Actor for Four Weddings and a Funeral) — 1 point
FINAL BALANCE: -1
NOTES: Nah, we’re good.
Number of the Week: 9–2
The Oscars isn’t just a beauty pageant, or an awards show, or an excuse for an In Memoriam montage. It’s also a numbers game. So each week, we’ll be taking a look at one Oscars digit that speaks volumes. This week: Viola Davis, playing with house money.
This week’s number? 9–2. As in: 9–2 are Viola Davis’s updated odds to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (per Gold Derby), as of Monday morning. On Sunday morning, those odds were 28–1. Why the sudden jump? A story (confirmed by Gregory Ellwood of The Playlist) broke that Davis, for her much-anticipated performance as Rose in Denzel Washington’s Fences, would be opting out of this year’s all-timer Best Actress race — and into Best Supporting.
Here is front-runner Michelle Williams, taking the news in stride:
As an old Hollywood fixer once told me: It is better to have front-run and been disintegrated to a hallucinogenic pile of ash by Viola Davis’s publicist hitting “send” on an email about the SAG Awards, than to have never run at all.