There is no higher honor in the movie industry than the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. The periodically handed-out prize, which seeks to acknowledge the contributions of a person “whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production,” has been awarded 39 times since it was established in 1937. It has been given to 40 men in that time, and zero women. Eight years have passed since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governors gave one to Francis Ford Coppola. In August 2017 — also known in Hollywood as “several centuries ago” — the Deadline columnist Michael Cieply suggested a revival of the award and offered five potential recipients: the respected and feared producer Scott Rudin, billionaire financier Arnon Milchan, 90-year-old arthouse lion Arthur Cohn, Lucasfilm and Star Wars majordomo Kathleen Kennedy (who would be the first woman to receive the honor), and … Harvey Weinstein. Cieply wrote the following:
Although career honors might pain his industry rivals, Harvey Weinstein is as close to the Thalberg mode — which blurred the lines between executive and producing functions — as any living filmmaker. And it’s hard to quarrel with a record that includes Lion, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained and Carol, all released since the last Thalberg Award was given.
Cieply shouldn’t be castigated for an inability to foresee how cringeworthy that paragraph would seem just seven weeks later, when The New York Times kicked off a round of reporting on the wide-ranging allegations of sexual assault against Weinstein by dozens of women across decades. But it does underscore how quickly the conversation in Hollywood has changed in recent years. From the Chris Rock–hosted #OscarsSoWhite ceremony in February 2016 to Moonlight’s stunning and nearly bungled Best Picture win a year later, from a sweeping shift in the composition of the Academy’s voting body in that time to a swell of allegations against actors including James Franco presently competing for awards, the machine that publicly prizes movies, lifting them into an imaginary firmament, has been under extraordinary duress. William Goldman’s axiom “Nobody knows anything” has been flipped on its ear — we all know a lot more than we did a scant few years ago, for better and worse. Now there’s a new and bigger question in need of an axiom: What do we do with all this information?
For many years, Hollywood debate lay in frivolous ideas, like Is Chris Pine a Movie Star? or How in the World Did Crash Win Best Picture? The Oscars have long been an event where words like “snub,” “lock,” and even “travesty” are tossed around without care. That’s over now. There’s never been less certitude than now — locks will be resigned to doors going forward. If the Academy were to hand out a Thalberg this year — and it has not announced plans to do so — it would immediately become a political act, and not in the way that Oscar campaigns require politicking. It would signal a choice to reward not just work, but behavior, too.
With dipping box office and a torrent of consumable distractions arriving on dozens of platforms, it’s been decades since actual movies owned so little real estate in the country’s imagination. But for months, the inner workings and fraught histories of the movie industry have been the most examined space in all of popular culture. Every morning we wake up and plunge down into the content mines in search of unanswerable questions like, “Can we enjoy art in spite of the artist?” The conversation around movies has never been louder and, in some respects, more urgent. And while the ratings for the Oscars have shrunk in recent years, there is still just one place where more than 30 million Americans tune in to see what Hollywood thinks of itself.
So there will be awards. And on March 4, there will likely be an air of generational and aesthetic divide — this won’t be the first time scrappy personal stories go head-to-head with historical reenactments told on a grand scale. But it feels in sharper relief than ever before. Was Moonlight a fluke or the sign of a new paradigm? Does a down-the-middle Oscar standard like The Post stand a chance in this new world? Is Get Out a horror movie? Is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tone-deaf? Can a movie about fish sex transcend that reductive descriptive? Let’s check back on Tuesday, when the nominations are announced. Until then, here’s where I think we’re headed with 11 of the major races.
Call Me by Your Name
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The five films nominated by the Directors Guild of America are almost always represented in this category, and this year that quintet — Three Billboards, Get Out, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, and Dunkirk — feel particularly firm in this race. The remaining three are the bellwethers: Steven Spielberg’s The Post, with its timely execution and old-school mien; the sensual coming-of-age indie Call Me by Your Name, the lowest-grossing film of the bunch; and I, Tonya, which has drawn criticism for its tonal choices but is well regarded among the actors branch. There are 17 different groups that vote for the Oscars — actors are by far the biggest.
The Wild Card: The Florida Project
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Best Director loves a twist. Remember Benh Zeitlin, the 30-year-old director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, who was nominated over Ben Affleck, whose Argo went on to win Best Picture in 2013? Zeitlin hasn’t made another movie since, while Affleck has been through what feels like 17 cycles of fame since then. This year’s twist will be … no twist? If Sean Baker’s The Florida Project resonates more than I’m betting, he could be an insurgent. But I’m feeling chalk.
The Wild Card: Steven Spielberg (This is the first time Spielberg has been a “wild card.”)
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
James Franco, The Disaster Artist
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
This is perhaps the dullest race with the fewest genuine contenders. I count eight total, with two — Tom Hanks in The Post and Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, ESQ. — as placeholders for beloved actors doing less than their best work. Whether enough voters have seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread could determine not only whether Day-Lewis is nominated, but whether he can swoop in to become just the second actor, after Katharine Hepburn, to win four Academy Awards. The perilous state of Franco’s public profile, Chalamet’s and Kaluuya’s “he’s just getting started” standing, and the modest enthusiasm for the movie in which Oldman gives his It’s Time performance could mean something wonky happens here.
The Wild Card: Jake Gyllenhaal, Stronger
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post
I have a deeply uninteresting opinion, and it is that Meryl Streep is incredibly good in The Post. She is the center and soul of the movie. I apologize for the banality. Streep has been nominated for an Oscar eight times this century. She is the Patriots. And yet she is the nominee who is most vulnerable to getting pushed out here, in part because of a somewhat muted reception to The Post.
The Wild Card: Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
This race will come down to Metcalf and Janney in a Battle of Moms, but my heart breaks for Lesley Manville, Tiffany Haddish, and Hong Chau, all of whom I thought gave more challenging, memorable, and hilarious performances than the five likely nominees.
The Wild Card: Hong Chau, Downsizing
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The best supporting performance I saw in 2017 was Jason Mitchell in Mudbound, but he’s hardly on the radar here. Whether or not they go for Plummer — who won this award six years ago for his performance in Beginners — may signal the kind of political thinking the Academy will employ in the aftermath of Kevin Spacey’s deletion from All the Money in the World. But this is and has been Sam Rockwell’s statue to lose, and that brings a political valence of its own.
The Wild Card: Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name
Best Original Screenplay
Get Out, Jordan Peele
I, Tonya, Steven Rogers
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh
Again, if I, Tonya resonates in the way I think it might, and reflects the way the Writers Guild has voted, it could wedge in with these four much-celebrated contenders. If not, look for The Big Sick to grab a second nomination. (This either/or may also play out in the Best Picture category, where Amazon has already proved a strong campaigner.)
The Wild Card: The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
Best Adapted Screenplay
Call Me by Your Name, James Ivory
The Disaster Artist, Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter
Logan, Scott Frank, James Mangold, and Michael Green
Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin
Mudbound, Virgil Williams and Dee Rees
As comic-book movies increasingly take their place at the center of the movie business — six of the 11 highest-grossing movies of 2017 were superhero stories — the genre has struggled to establish itself in a single major category. Heath Ledger’s Supporting Actor win for The Dark Knight in 2009 remains the sole major category victory this century. Logan isn’t likely to change that, but a nomination here is the kind of subtle generational acknowledgment that could lead to, say, a significant awards rollout for Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel in 2019.
The Wild Card: Wonder, Jack Thorne, Steve Conrad, and Stephen Chbosky
Best Documentary Feature
City of Ghosts
Last Men in Aleppo
This is always a difficult category to nail down, and particularly this year given the absence of arts-centric crowd pleasers like 20 Feet From Stardom or Searching for Sugar Man. The closest is probably Brett Morgen’s dazzling Jane, about the famed primatologist Jane Goodall, but that is a story of a fiercely independent woman forging her own path, doubters be damned. So maybe we can infer a change in the way the Academy votes here, too.
The Wild Card: Chasing Coral
Best Foreign Language Film
A Fantastic Woman
In the Fade
We saw what happened last time Ruben Östlund failed to garner a nomination.
It’d be nice to see Palme d’Or–winning The Square recognized here, but if it’s not, at least we can count on some staged viral content.
The Wild Card: The Insult
Best Animated Feature
The Lego Batman Movie
Mary and the Witch’s Flower
I know I said we should do away with the term “lock,” but I’m breaking my vow: Coco is the lockiest lock imaginable. Please respect The Boss Baby at this time.
The Wild Card: The Boss Baby