By Laurence Lerman / New York City
When The Insider’s editor asked me to put together a comprehensive bio to go along with my Academy Awards cover story, she urged me to “write long.” Considering this week’s subject matter and the understanding that most people would have an arguable opinion on it, before offering up my opinion, I figured that it wouldn't hurt for me to go back to the beginning.
I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when I was 13 years old and that’s all it took. Cary Grant fleeing a crop duster, cliffhanging on Mount Rushmore and spending the night in a Pullman coach with Hitchcock blonde Eva Marie Saint—what’s not to like? “Cary Grant gets into a lot of trouble but he still looks sharp,” I scribbled as part of a written review, my first official piece of film journalism, read only by my parents (with whom I had watched the film on WPIX the night before), and perhaps my Aunt Cynthia, who really dug Hitchcock.
An auspicious beginning for my career in, around and about the film industry.
Even though I had written movie reviews for my college weekly and Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call newspaper during my senior year, I didn’t do that much writing at my first job at MGM/UA, where I worked in sales for the non-theatrical department, a not-so-fancy way of describing the division that handled film rentals to colleges, libraries, film clubs and likewise organizations. (I did, however, get to pen some pitch lines for the company’s frequent mailers--“Get Bonded” was one of my gems for a 007 catalogue promotion.)
It was while I was working for the lauded New York-based independent studio Kino International, where I helped launch the home entertainment division, that I took a deeper dive into film journalism beyond simply movie reviews. The creation of pressbooks, production notes and VHS box copy for Kino’s line of new foreign language imports, older classics and independent features (Guy Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital and Julie Dash’s Daughter of the Dust were biggies) was a particularly satisfying part of my day-to-day. I especially like my extended interviews with filmmakers, communicating their knowledge and experience of their craft to cinephiles who wanted to know all about it.
Those responsibilities grew when I became a Senior Editor at Video Business Magazine, a Variety sister publication and the leading trade weekly for the home entertainment industry. For some 15 years, I edited a weekly review and interview column on the newest releases, overseeing a group of stringers and deciding what and who warranted everyone’s attention each week. At approximately ten reviews per week, or 500 a year (or 7,500 over 15 years!), along with regular interviews, there was never any difficulty in finding films to write about (though, admittedly, there weren’t nearly as many then as there are today).
As for the interviews, I’ve conducted dozens of them with filmmakers over the past two decades, among them Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee, Amy Heckerling, Walter Hill, Quentin Tarantino, Werner Herzog, James Cameron, Oliver Stone, Peter Bogdanovich, John Landis, Katherine Bigelow, Paul Mazursky, Adrian Lyne, Dario Argento, Abel Ferrara and Jean-Jacques Beineix.
I’ve sat down with even more actors over that time—hundreds, I’d say—but overall, they didn’t make the impression on me that the filmmakers did. Understand that I don’t have any complaints about chatting with the likes of Meryl Streep (for One True Thing) or Ethan Hawke (The Hottest State) or Rosario Dawson (Zookeeper) or Ted Danson (TV’s Damages). And I’ll admit I loved being on the receiving end of a sexy smile from actresses like Reese Witherspoon (How Do You Know) and Churchill’s Miranda Richardson (oh, that was a good one!). But I’ve always received less-rehearsed answers, snappier repartee and ultimately better interviews with the filmmakers themselves. Tales of on-set hijinks and fan encounters and the like from actors are great for talk show segments and gossip mags and YouTube grabs, but I’d rather hear John Landis talking about how an L.A. theater chain owner didn’t want The Blues Brothers playing in his theaters because “it would attract too many Black people,” or James Cameron admitting he was fearful that he would “forever be helming the juggernaut that is Titanic” or Clint Eastwood reminding me that the Sturges he learned the most from was John, not Preston. Herzog praising musicians, Bertolucci admitting to film “fetishism,” Argento kvetching about his films’ poor theatrical exposure in New York, Stone suggesting we “smoke a lot of joints” before getting down to the nitty-gritty of Natural Born Killers...many of these conversations–some unexpectedly formal and others comfortably casual, but nearly all informative–have stuck with me for years.
Writing pressbooks and production notes for new films and even more reissued classics, dozens of them, continues for me to this day for such companies as Sony, Music Box Films, MPI Entertainment, Cohen Media and Sterling Productions. And as films continue to be issued in an assortment of updated configurations, from DVD to Blu-ray to 4K Ultra HD and beyond, my work reintroduces me to such greats as Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts, Claude Berri’s The Two of Us, the early Merchant Ivory productions Shakespeare Walla, Maurice and Heat and Dust and many others.
The mechanics of what I do have changed over the past year, particularly for the new films. Gone are the days of watching films at pre-release gatherings and in screening rooms or at press events in Jamaica (One Love: The Bob Marley All-Star Tribute), London (Cats the Musical), Puerto Rico (2 Fast 2 Furious), San Francisco’s Industrial Light & Magic facility (Van Helsing—remember that one?) or even while fly fishing in Manchester, Vermont (A River Runs Through It). Today, it’s all about screening links sent directly to me via email. Junkets have also turned virtual, with accompanying face-to-face interviews conducted via Skype or Zoom.
As the editor-in-chief of DiscDish (www.discdish.com), the popular Blu-ray, DVD and film website, and the cofounder, co-host and curator of FilmShul (www.filmshul.com), an interactive online series about Hollywood and the Jewish American experience (The Heartbreak Kid, anyone?), I’ve been working from home for more than a decade, so getting it all done without leaving my home office remains business as usual for me. That said, I dearly miss physical press events and all the pleasantness, immediacy and plain old human interaction that go along with them. (I even sort of miss the mini-spectacle of a half-dozen iPad-toting publicists frantically running around on the brink of some kind of crisis.)
But even as the ways that films are distributed and the manner in which we watch them continue to change(more on that below), for the better and for the worse, more than ever, the movies keep on coming, along with their makers who are still eager to talk about them.
The 2021 Academy Awards
Predicting the victors in the annual Oscar race remains one of America’s favorite parlor games, a legacy that will continue unabated with the broadcast of the 93rd Academy Awards this Sunday, April 25.
The 2020 awards were unaffected by the coronavirus, the show being mounted in early February prior to the national shutdown. But the pandemic has since taken its toll on the Oscars, with this year's broadcast marking the longest ever run-up to an Academy Awards ceremony—it will be 13 months and two weeks since the statuettes were presented last year.
This year’s Oscars telecast is shaping up to be the least traditional one we may ever see. The show will be based not at the Awards’ usual Dolby Theatre, but rather at L.A.s gorgeous and grand Union Station, with the nominees and presenters mingling outside of the Art Deco-flavored terminal and rotating in and out of the venue over the course of the broadcast. The traditional red carpet and guest list will be significantly downsized, and though the majority of nominees are expected to attend the ceremony in person, there will be major media hubs in London and Paris allowing those in Europe who are unable to travel due to restrictions to be on the show. Their “appearances” will be broadcast via top-of-the-line satellite hookups rather than Zoom, which has been utilized regularly in other award shows over the past year with twitchy results.
The delayed live ceremony takes place just a couple of weeks after California opened up vaccinations to everyone over the age of 16. It’s being assembled with an eye on an ever-changing list of production requirements and safety protocols, making it akin to putting together a moving jigsaw puzzle with a central image that won’t be clear until it’s finished.
“It’s not going to be like anything that's been done before," said filmmaker Steve Soderbergh, one of the show’s co-producers (and the director of Contagion, the 2011 Hollywood film that’s most identified with the pandemic) at a virtual press conference on April 16. “This is the working definition of trying to build an airplane while it’s in the air.”
This year's show is the topper to a year that saw a shutdown of the nation’s movie theaters last March, the slow regional reopening of a number of them six months later, up to last month's committed move to opening the majority of theaters across the country. Of course, this comes with audience size restrictions and mask mandates in place as safety requirements.
Studios big and small and the people who work for them have suffered through consolidations, layoffs and firings this past year (alongside most of the nation’s media industries), but that hasn’t affected their output as much as you might think, particularly in terms of eligibility for the Oscars. According to Variety, in February, the Academy released a list of 366 feature films from 2020 in contention, up from the 344 submitted in 2019 and 347 in 2018. In fact, 2020 marks the highest total of films submitted for consideration since the 374 entries for the 1970 awards.
Theaters played a very small part in this year’s rollout of films. In the year of a global pandemic and ensuing quarantine, streaming movies became the norm. with a handful of 2020's most Oscar-nominated films premiering on streaming services, All were seen—and can still be seen—on streaming services, a format that has quickly been embraced by consumers and, a little more reluctantly, the film industry. What the industry does love about the subscription-based business model of streamers is the confusion it creates for the press and public when they try to translate it into dollars, figures that Hollywood likes to fudge on its own.
So here we are on the eve of the 93rd Academy Awards, ready to make some predictions on the outstanding work that streamed before us during the year of a pandemic, a quarantine, a rash of political protests including the Black Lives Matter campaign, and a violent insurrection in our nation’s Capitol. And then there are the Academy’s changing eligibility rules and the growing influence of the #MeToo and diversity movements on audiences who are more susceptible than ever to the media’s trumpeting of its own perceptions.
Take it all away and the movies remain, and there were a lot of great ones in 2020, as there are every year. (I’ve always thought the proclamation that “such-and-such year was a horrible one for movies,” made by a segment of viewers every year, was ridiculous. There are hundreds of movies out there—find some good ones.)
I’m game to play this year, and this is what I’m thinking in terms of the Awards' Big Six and how I think the diversifying membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will approach them.
Picks & Predictions
Best Picture The Father Judas and the Black Messiah Mank Minari Nomadland Promising Young Woman Sound of Metal The Trial of the Chicago 7
What would I like to win: Mank What will win: Nomadland
Films about Hollywood are always hit or miss. The movies in that thriving sub-genre which tend to soar are the ones whose narratives and insights are abetted by a richness of style and superlative production values. That’s what distinguishes such films as Sunset Boulevard, Sullivan’s Travels, Singin’ in the Rain, S.O.B., The Player, Ed Wood, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood from the likes of Hooper and Sunset. In its celebration of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and the wacky town that birthed it, Mank embodies just that kind of winning formula—knowing, clever, affectionate and brimming with the kind of design and sophistication that one associates with director David Fincher. But 2021 will be the year of national self-reflection and humility and diversity and that equals Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, an outstanding film whose uniquely downplayed technique perfectly mirrors its message.
Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round
David Fincher, Mank
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
Who would I like to win: David Fincher
Who will win: Chloe Zhao
Fincher, a great American filmmaker—a great Hollywood filmmaker—established himself in the business in the early Eighties directing commercials and music videos (“Freedom 90” and “Vogue” are two of his dozens) before helming what was to be his first and least successful film, 1992’s underappreciated Alien 3. His filmmaking deftness and subsequent work have only grown stronger since, yielding two of the finest films of the past 15 years, Zodiac and The Social Network. That those films didn’t receive Academy recognition is disappointing, as is the feeling that the same fate awaits Mank and his sterling direction in 2021. It is the year of Chloe Zhao and her third feature, Nomadland, a timely and poetic portrait of a lesser-seen slice of America.
Actor in a Leading Role
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Gary Oldman, Mank
Steven Yeun, Minari
Who would I like to win: Riz Ahmed
Who will win: Chadwick Boseman
It’s been 13 years since Heath Ledger’s posthumous Supporting Actor win for his demented take on the Joker in The Dark Knight, and many more years since a deceased Peter Finch picked up Lead Actor honors for 1976’s Network. That said, the late Boseman wins this one hands-down. His sad passing came following a decade of outstanding work, including the biographical pics 42, Get on Up and Marshall and then topped by Black Panther, which basks in the rarefied air enjoyed by the highest grossing films of all time. By all accounts, Boseman was a very nice, very well-liked guy and, yes, he delivers a helluva performance as the hungry, troubled trumpeter Levee Green in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
As for the rest of the field, Hopkins and Oldman each have brought home the gold previously, and though he’s fine, Steve Yeun's restrained performance in the excellent Minari probably didn't resonate enough with voters. That leaves Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal. Ahmed’s performance as a hardcore drummer who suddenly loses his hearing is fresh, unpredictable, modulated and unexpectedly poignant, but it’s not going to happen this year.
Actress in a Leading Role
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Andra Day, United States vs. Billie Holiday
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Who would I like to win: Viola Davis
Who will win: Carey Mulligan
A tricky one to call, but the talented Carey Mulligan, who’s been working the media circuit fiercely in support of the film (which she exec produced) and her Award chances, is probably going pull this one out. That the darkly comic thriller Promising Young Woman is as effective a statement on the #MeToo movement as we’ve yet seen in the movies doesn’t hurt, either. Look for Promising’s writer/director Emerald Fennel, to snag a Best Original Screenplay award, as well.
But also keep in mind that Davis garnered Supporting Actress honors back in 2017 for Fences and now has a chance to take it to the next level in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, another August Wilson adaptation, alongside costar Boseman. Leading Actor and Actress awards going to performers in the same movie doesn’t happen that frequently—the most recent were Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt for 1997’s As Good as It Gets and, before that, Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster for The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. A win for the three-time Lead Actor nominee Davis, alongside with Boseman, could be the ticket in these diversity-challenged times where thoughts of the Black Lives Matter movement have also become part of the mix.
Finally, don’t underestimate the quiet groundswell of support beneath Nomadland’s Frances McDormand, a victory for whom would put her in the Three Timers’ club alongside Ingrid Bergman and Meryl Streep (who themselves are one Oscar away from Queen Katherine Hepburn and her four statuettes).
Actress in a Supporting Role
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Colman, The Father
Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari
Who would I like to win: Amanda Seyfried
Who will win: Yuh-Jung Youn
Amanda Seyfried has been working since her soap opera beginnings as a teenager, followed by a subsequent decade portraying dewy ingenues in Dear John, Letters to Juliet and the Mamma Mia! films, sprinkled with a few substantially more eyebrow-raising selections in recent years. (Remember Lovelace?) But the busy actress really raised her game and was so right-on with her portrayal of Mank’s Marion Davies—the wise-cracking, Brooklyn-born actress who herself played comical ingenues in the movies even as she openly lived as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress. Plus, I loved her reaction to Gary Oldman's Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz's greeting of “Miss Davies, your Flatbush is showing.”
Young Maria Bakalova is bright and out-there and shameless in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, but hers is a kind of novelty gig and Academy voters might be thinking the same. But Minari’s Yuh-Jung Youn is a veteran Korean actress whose career in film and television spans five decades in her home country. Hers is a stand-out character in a small ensemble movie that isn’t on track to snag many awards (though it was nominated for six and fits the bill as a progressive, diversity-embracing title) so she’ll serve as ambassador for the whole film. And Oscar loves a hard-working performer with a nice backstory.
And speaking of acting veterans, this year marks Glenn Close’s fourth nomination as a Supporting Actress—matching her four nods as a Lead Actress. Fine as she is, as always, I’d like to see her long-awaited first Oscar victory be for a less, er glaring role than her cranky Southern matriarch in Hillbilly Elegy. Maybe the upcoming Sunset Boulevard musical adaptation in a couple of years?
Actor in a Supporting Role
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Leslie Odom, Jr., One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
Who would I like to win: Sacha Baron Cohen
Who will win: Sacha Baron Cohen
I’m going to apply a mix of usual Oscar analytics on this one. Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield of Judas and the Black Messiah will split the vote and cancel each other out, with Boseman and possibly Davis of Ma Rainey filling any diversity obligations the Academy might be feeling. Ditto for One Night in Miami’s Odom, Jr., whose take on Sam Cooke was only one cog in an ensemble piece of four indispensable roles. And as respectable as Raci was in Sound of Metal, the movie’s trump card is Riz Ahmed, who appears in practically every scene.
That leaves Sacha Baron Cohen, whose nomination is one of six received by The Trial of the Chicago 7. Like my projected Supporting Actress winner Yuh-Jung Youn, Cohen is poised to be Chicago 7’s envoy, bringing home what could be one of the film’s few major awards. Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman is appropriately complex and frenzied and the freshness of that accomplishment—how are you at juggling Aaron Sorkin dialogue?—coupled with the lasting memory of his other notable work over the past two decades will be rewarded with Oscar attention this year.
So let me know what YOU are thinking about this year’s awards and my picks. Am I on it or am I nuts? It’s not a fun game unless I hear from you, so bring it on! And that means you too, Gwen, or else I’ll make you watch Zoey Deutch in Zombieland: Double Tap––my favorite performance of last year––for the ninth time.