Oscar race speeds up, now that striking actors are freed up

Oscar race speeds up, now that striking actors are freed up

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This year’s jumbled Oscars race, fractured by the now-ended Screen Actors Guild strike, began in slow-motion. The starting gun went off sometime in the summer, but only some actors (the ones in independent films that had interim agreements with SAG) got to leave their blocks. The others — many of the biggest names in the biz — were left on the sidelines, barred from promoting their films because of strike rules.

End of carousel

With the strike now settled, the past two weeks have marked an onslaught of actors campaigning as if they’re joining the race via slingshot, showing up on talk shows, doing magazine profiles galore, giving teary speeches at awards ceremonies (yes, those have already started) and generally making up for lost ground before the five-day voting window for nominations, between Jan. 11 and Jan. 16. Some appearances just look like the standard rounds any actor makes while promoting a movie that’s coming out, but they’re also designed to keep actors front of mind for awards. Veiled Oscar campaigning is more obvious when stars of acclaimed summer movies show up to Q&As just before Thanksgiving, such as Margot Robbie wearing feather-trimmed pink pajamas to a “Barbie” screening hosted by Warner Bros. earlier this month.

Beyond public appearances there’s also a ton of screenings and receptions where Academy members are invited to graze on food while getting selfies with Leonardo DiCaprio or Cillian Murphy. Those luncheons put actors face-to-face with voters, like politicians shaking hands at the Iowa State Fair — a dance that usually begins with fall film festivals in Telluride and Toronto each year, but is happening two months late this time around. “One-to-one is where I have always felt you can do the most good,” retired publicist Reid Rosefelt says. “If you can score a human connection, that helps in getting a vote — if the performance warrants it. If nothing else, people find out that the human being is nothing like the character they played.”

Rosefelt adds: “I am extremely uncomfortable about this process, because as a child I had an innocent belief that Academy Members just voted for who they thought was best. And they do. But it doesn’t hurt to have a few hundred thousand bucks behind you, and some people just don’t get that boost.”

But mainly, power-publicist Melody Korenbrot says, this period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a scramble to get movies seen and performances noticed. Golden Globe nominations will be announced Dec. 11, and because of strike-induced bottlenecking, screening rooms around New York and Los Angeles are triple-booked. “There’s a rush,” Korenbrot said. “And when we come back, those first two weeks of January are actually the most important, because people could have forgotten the films over the holiday and you want to remind them prior to seeing the ballots.”

As the stars themselves scramble, here’s how the races are shaping up.

Best actress

Oscars prognosticators gasped in September when Lily Gladstone, the beating heart of Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” submitted her performance to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for lead, rather than supporting, actress. The latter is a category she could have won in a walk, while the lead category is stacked. But it was a brilliant publicity move at a time when she couldn’t talk about the movie, prompting a monthlong debate among Oscar nerds leading up to the movie’s mid-October release — at a time when Gladstone was allowed to promote “The Unknown Country,” another film she’d made about Native Americans. Since the strike ended, she’s been using her platform to answer Native people’s criticisms of the film and to highlight her upbringing on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, while making a major career statement by going for the bigger trophy, even if she doesn’t win. “She’s got my vote,” Spike Lee told The Washington Post in October.

The actress in the strongest position, though, appears to be Emma Stone, who got rave reviews when “Poor Things,” her latest collaboration with “The Favourite” director Yorgos Lanthimos, debuted at the Venice and Telluride film festivals in September. It’s an attention-getting performance, as a woman resurrected from the dead who now wants to experience everything, in a movie she produced and is deeply invested in. Last month, while “Poor Things” played at the New York Film Festival, she was able to take the stage with Lanthimos to talk about a short film they did together — a nice loophole that reminded Academy members of their partnership. On Dec. 2, a week before “Poor Things” begins a limited theatrical release, Stone will host “Saturday Night Live” for the fifth time, a perfect way to demonstrate her broad talents while also joining the venerated Five-Timers Club.

Other contenders include Carey Mulligan, whose name is before Bradley Cooper’s in the end credits of “Maestro” because, as Anthony Lane writes, “this is her movie”; Margot Robbie in “Barbie,” who suffers from bias against, well, playing a doll; Annette Bening, who trained as a long-distance swimmer for a year for “Nyad,” but wasn’t allowed to promote it to adoring film festival audiences this fall; Greta Lee, whom Ann Hornaday called “revelatory” in “Past Lives” but who’s hampered by a small movie that opened in June; Sandra Hüller, the internationally revered German star of both “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest”; Fantasia Barrino, in “The Color Purple,” a holiday tear-jerker musical that isn’t out till Christmas and has left mixed reactions with the critics who’ve seen it; and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, star of Ava DuVernay’s criminally underhyped “Origin,” which won’t release wide until Jan. 19 — although its distributor Neon has cleverly leaked that it’s scored higher with test audiences than any other movie of theirs, including “Parasite.”

Best actor

This race feels primed for some big disappointments and big surprises. Cillian Murphy actually walked out of the London premiere of “Oppenheimer” in July when the SAG strike was called just as he and the rest of the cast sat down for the screening. But he’d already done a ton of promotion before that, and the Christopher Nolan film has made nearly $1 billion since. As the person who plays the title character and is in nearly every frame, he’s still been at the forefront of viewers’ minds, even without being present to make the campaign rounds. And he’s beginning his post-strike charm offensive — joking about how he spent the time off sitting around and eating cheese. “He’s in the best position because ‘Oppenheimer’s’ done so well and the response has been so positive,” said Eric Kohn, a former Indiewire reporter who’s now an executive at the multimedia studio Edgelord. “He’s so clearly identified with the strengths of that movie that it’s kind of hard to push past that for anyone else.”

Even a female Academy member who’s a giant fan of “Killers of the Flower Moon” (and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the voting process) said she’s backing Murphy over Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays dimwitted Ernest Burkhart, a complicated romantic lead who’s also a murderous cretin. “Cillian’s is the performance for me. I feel like Leo is doing the lower jaw as his performance,” the Academy member said. “That’s not a fair characterization, but I’m like, ‘Man, he’s really leaning into that jaw to portray how stupid the character is.’”

From there, the race gets far more interesting. Colman Domingo gives what Variety’s Peter Debruge calls a “career-defining performance” as gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in “Rustin,” but a film that many have said is “too conventional” may not get a best picture nomination, which means Domingo was really hurt by the pause in campaigning. His saving grace is that the film is on Netflix, which makes it more likely that lazy (um, busy) Academy members will see it.

Better positioned is Paul Giamatti, the perennially under-appreciated star of Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers,” which is shaping up to be a minor holiday hit. The strike was also kind to Jeffrey Wright, an extremely respected actor who gives a performance full of pathos and biting wit as a disgruntled author in “American Fiction,” the breakout film of the fall festivals (opening wide Dec. 22).

Then there’s Bradley Cooper, who got a reputation for prickliness while promoting “A Star Is Born.”

“The last time Bradley Cooper had to aggressively campaign as both actor and filmmaker, it didn’t work out so well because he was not good at playing that game,” says Kohn. “And I often find that people don’t evolve past that point at this stage of their careers. I would be surprised if he suddenly became a masterful Oscar campaigner.”

For potential dark horses, look to Andrew Scott in “All of Us Strangers,” and Nicolas Cage, who is getting some of the best reviews of his career for A24′s “Dream Scenario.” And, believe it or not, Zac Efron has entered the Oscars conversation for “The Iron Claw” — a physical transformation into Kevin Von Erich, the eldest of a tragedy-plagued quartet of Midwestern brothers who dominated professional wrestling in the 1970s and ’80s.

Best supporting actress

Oscar observers feel confident that Emily Blunt will get nominated for playing Kitty Oppenheimer in “Oppenheimer.” Like the rest of Nolan’s cast, she got a head start with promotion because the movie was the last to release just as the strike got declared, and post-strike she’s already making the rounds with Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. as one of the film’s core players. Her strike downtime was marred by video that surfaced of her calling a restaurant server “enormous,” but she issued a sincere apology and that moment seems to have passed.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph seems to be best positioned, with a meaty role as a grieving mother and cook at a boys’ boarding school in “The Holdovers.” The only issue, said Kohn, is that a lot of people don’t know who she is — even after they’ve gone to see the movie out of appreciation for Payne’s work. “She has to do the legwork to make up for the inability to expose her talent on the festival circuit when that window was open,” he added, “so you’re going to see some scrambling around those kinds of campaigns now.”

The door is open for plenty others: Danielle Brooks and Taraji P. Henson for “The Color Purple”; Jodie Foster for “Nyad”; Viola Davis for “Air”; and Hüller for “Anatomy of a Fall.”

Julianne Moore has a better chance of getting nominated in supporting for Todd Hayne’s “May December,” than Natalie Portman does in the lead category, but it’s hard to imagine one getting a nod and not the other. And don’t count out America Ferrera; that speech about how complicated it is to be a woman in “Barbie” is the most readymade Oscars clip of the season. If she gets a nod, it likely means that overall sentiment for the movie is even higher than predicted.

Best supporting actor

Ryan Gosling is definitely Kenough to run away with this whole thing. He’s only been nominated twice for lead actor, for 2006’s “Half Nelson” and 2017’s “La La Land,” and never won. “And now he gave this exciting, different performance playing with his type in a really inventive way,” said Kohn. “I think there’s a lot of appreciation for him even though the strike got in the way of wider promotional activities for that movie.” He sings, he dances, he’s been endlessly meme’d, and he also did all his pre-strike interviews in a Zen-like state of being one with Ken — and his anthem, “I’m Just Ken” will probably get nominated for best original song.

Since the moment the strike ended, Robert Downey Jr. has been on the trail, reminding voters his work as Louis Strauss in “Oppenheimer,” and how much he transformed his appearance and affect. If Gosling has a spoiler, the most likely candidate is Downey.

Others are rooting for Robert De Niro as villainous William Hale. The female Academy member says she’s supporting him as part of her overall lean toward “Flower Moon,” which was bolstered during the strike by Scorsese’s adorable TikToks with his daughter Francesca, like the one where she quizzes him on Gen Z slang.

But because this category has so many heavy hitters, there’s less room for surprises: Mark Ruffalo, who plays a promiscuous reprobate who can’t deal with a sexually empowered woman in “Poor Things,” is definitely in the mix, as is Willem Dafoe in that same film as a disfigured mad scientist/father figure. Two actors best known for their TV work are firmly in the running: Sterling K. Brown, who plays a newly-out adult sibling on a tear in “American Fiction,” and Holt McCallany as the terrifying patriarch of “The Iron Claw.” If the nominations of Anna Paquin, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Tatum O’Neal as kids can be seen as convincing precedent, there’s room for Milo Machado Graner, now 13, who plays the blind son of an accused murderer (Hüller) in “Anatomy of a Fall,” and could be the vehicle by which voters show their affection for that film. The most interesting surprise could come from Charles Melton, who looks like a movie star and feels like a discovery, having vaulted from TV’s “Riverdale” to a fascinating role in “May December” as a man who was seduced by a married woman (Moore) when he was in middle school and is now sending their kids off to college. Also, never underestimate the power of that movie being on Netflix. Any small movie is immensely helped if Academy members don’t have to leave their homes to see it.

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