By Laurence Lerman / New York City
The media’s steady drumroll the past month will rise to a crescendo of cymbals this Sunday, March 27, with the presentation of the 94th Academy Awards (ABC-TV at 8 pm ET).
This year, the ceremony returns to Los Angeles’s Dolby Theater, where an estimated 2,500 attendees are expected to be present in person. This is a far cry from last year’s ceremony, which, due to Covid, was held in airy Union Station in Los Angeles, where the nominees and presenters mingled outside of the Art Deco-style terminal and rotated in and out of the venue over the course of the broadcast
But it’s still not the good old (pre-Covid) days yet in Hollywood. Nominees and guests must show proof of vaccination or a valid medical exemption, and two negative Covid-19 PCR tests. Presenters and performers will undergo what the Academy describes as “rigorous testing,” but will surprisingly not be required to be vaccinated. Audience members in the section closest to the stage will be seated further apart but not required to wear a face mask. However, masks will remain required in the mezzanine.
The Academy announced in mid-February that this year’s ceremony will be structured in three “acts,” with a different host presiding over each act as a “strategy to lure a broader audience and share the burden of guiding the telecast.” Performers Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes have been announced as the three hosts. This marks the first time since 2018 that the ceremony will have an assigned host (or hosts) and the first time in Oscar history that the show will be hosted by three women. (The last time the show had a trio of hosts was in 1987, when Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn and Paul Hogan did the honors.)
In an attempt to reverse what has been a substantial slide in the show’s ratings (which reached an all-time low last year), the Academy announced in February that eight of the less star-driven awards will be handed out in the hour before the live telecast begins. Video clips from the presentation of those awards—film editing, makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design, sound, documentary short subject, animated short and live-action short—will be incorporated into the live broadcast.
This decision sparked blowback from various guilds, industry groups and current nominees, including directors Steven Spielberg (West Side Story) and Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog). On March 9, more than 70 prominent film professionals—including Oscar winners James Cameron, John Williams, Kathleen Kennedy and Guillermo del Toro—issued a letter urging the Academy to reverse the plan, arguing that it would do “irreparable damage” to the Oscars’ reputation by relegating some nominees to “the status of second-class citizens.” But there has been no change to the new plan.
On March 17, ten days before the ceremony, the show’s first-time producer, Will Packer, talked to industry trade publication The Hollywood Reporter about his goals for the production of the broadcast, which is generally regarded as one of the more thankless annual live gigs in Hollywood.
“We have to make a show that is entertaining and appeals to a broad swath of the viewing public,” Packer said. “My approach is to bring everybody together around the idea of a love for cinema.”
“This is not a podcast,” Packer stressed. "It’s not a YouTube show. This is an entertainment proposition that a network has said, ‘We’re willing to pay X number of dollars to have it on our air, and in return for that, this is a very high-profile event that will attract a lot of eyeballs and we can sell ads.' As a producer, I understand the economic imperative of a show like this. It doesn’t mean that you don’t treat it with the reverence and the elegance that it has had. It just means you have to figure out a way to get as many people as possible to tune in and care about the show.”
Will juggling a trio of female hosts and cutting out the live presentation of a number of less glamourous awards do the trick? Tune in on Sunday to find out.
My Picks and Predictions
On the eve of the 94th Academy Awards. I’m ready to make my projections on the outstanding work that has hit theaters and streaming platforms over the past year as our country slowly clawed its way back from a pandemic and quarantine, while still grappling with politically charged movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, as well as a violent war that’s raging on the other side of the world.
As important as these changes and ongoing controversies may be, it’s vital not to let them cloud our perception of the movies, which is what the awards are all about. There were a number of fine ones in 2021, just as there are every year. And for me, it’s always a pleasure to play the game and predict the Awards’ Big Six for The Insider. Read on to see what I’m thinking.
CODA Don’t Look Up
Drive My Car
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
What would I like to win: The Power of the Dog
What will win: The Power of the Dog
Written and directed by New Zealand’s Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog will take home the top honor at the Academy Awards this year. Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel by the same name, Campion’s first film since 2009s Bright Star, her 2009 bio-pic on John Keats, is a unique and impassioned Western psychological drama.
With an excellent cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smith-McPhee and superlative production credits, it offers a startling view of the lives of the era’s people of the frontier and the rich emotions they exhibit, celebrate and repress. That the film was richly shot on the rugged New Zealand landscape that perfectly stands in for early 20th century Montana makes it all the more worthy of the accolades it’s been earning and will continue to receive on Sunday night. With its tackling of such tricky themes as masculinity and sexuality in the West, it’s victory will also serve as a way of amending the 2006 loss of Brokeback Mountain in the Best Picture category to Paul Haggis’s overwrought race-fueled drama Crash, reappraisals of which have been far from flattering in recent years.
Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
Who would I like to win: Jane Campion
Who will win: Jane Campion
Campion has been directing feature films for more than 30 years and has forged a path forward for female directors, going back to 1993 when she became the first woman ever to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Piano, for which she also was Oscar-nominated. This year, Campion’s Best Director nomination makes her the first woman ever to be Oscar-nominated twice in the Directing category. She won the award for Original Screenplay for The Piano and this week, more than three decades later, the 67-year-old filmmaker will bring home the statuette for Directing. Only two women have won Best Director in the 93-year history of the Academy Awards—Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker and Chloe Zhao for last year’s Nomadland. That means Campion’s victory this year will make it female winners two years in a row. Cool.
Actor in a Leading Role:
Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick…Boom!
Will Smith, King Richard
Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth
Who would I like to win: Benedict Cumberbatch
Who will win: Will Smith
There are a quintet of fine performers to choose from this year, but it’s going to come down to a photo finish between Benedict Cumberbatch and his marvelously modulated performance in The Power of the Dog and Will Smith’s incisive take on unyielding tennis superstar patriarch Richard Williams in King Richard.
Even with all the momentum The Power of the Dog has gathered in the Best Picture and Best Director categories, Will Smith is going to edge this one out. He’s already brought home the gold from the Critics’ Choice, BAFTA and SAG ceremonies, so at this point there’s no reason to think he’ll be derailed on Sunday. Smith has been making movies for 30 years now—many of them hugely successful—and the highly lauded King Richard will prove to be the time to acknowledge three decades of very fine work, 2019’s Gemini Man notwithstanding.
As for Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog gave him the opportunity to showcase his remarkable range, which will no doubt put him in the running for even more challenging and potentially rewarding roles in the years to come.
Actress in a Leading Role:
Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
Kristen Stewart, Spencer
Who would I like to win: Olivia Colman
Who will win: Jessica Chastain
The Best Actress category is the toughest one to call this year and it really feels like any one of the five nominees could win the Academy Award. Stewart represents a younger segment of the voting academy, the well-liked Cruz and Colman a more international one, Kidman is a five-time nominee thoroughbred who draws in the old guard, and Chastain finally enters viable contender status after a decade-plus of eyebrow-raising leading roles.
Chastain’s heartfelt performance as Tammy Lynn Baker shined through her facial prosthetics and snagged her both SAG and Critics Choice awards and that momentum will probably carry over to the Academy (which should have given her the Oscar for her outstanding turn in 2013’s Zero Dark Thirty).
I greatly enjoyed each of the nominated performances this year, and with predictions seeming to be all over the board, there aren’t any favorites or underdogs leaping out in this race. That said, I’m going to go with Olivia Colman, whose work in The Lost Daughter was filled with as much nuance and subtlety as strength and rich detail. Even the way her character licked an ice cream cone was magnificent!
Actor in a Supporting Role:
Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
Troy Kotsur, CODA
Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
Who would I like to win: Ciarán Hinds
Who will win: Troy Kotsur
I’m going to apply a mix of the usual Oscar analytics to this one. Jesses Plemons and Kodi Smith-McPhee of The Power of the Dog both turned into magnificent performances, but they will split the vote and cancel each other out. J.K. Simmons has already been taken home Supporting Actor honors with 2014’s Whiplash and his small role in Being the Ricardos doesn’t really warrant another walk to the podium.
That leaves Ciarán Hinds and Troy Kotsur, whose nominations are one of three and seven noms received by their films Belfast and CODA, respectively. Belfast will probably pick up a Best Original Screenplay nod for director/writer Kenneth Branagh and there’s a strong chance of Van Morrison’s “Down To Joy” for Best Original Song, but that’s where it will end. It's CODA’s Troy Kotsur, an actor on stage and screen for 20 years who has been deaf since birth, who will claim the prize in a movie that celebrates the strengths of the deaf community. Both Belfast and CODA are fine ensemble pieces and I’ve enjoyed Hinds for years (his Julius Caesar in HBO’s 2005 Rome is still the best Caesar I’ve ever seen), but Kotsur will be the sole representative for his film on the stage this year. It will also serve as a respectful acknowledgement of CODA co-star Marlee Matlin’s victory for Children of a Lesser God back in 1986.
Actress in a Supporting Role:
Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Judi Dench, Belfast
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard
Who would I like to win: Ariana DeBose
Who will win: Ariana DeBose
The wildly talented Ms. DeBose has already picked up BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards for Steven Spielberg’s take on the timeless musical West Side Story and she’ll surely do the same at the Oscars this weekend. DeBose’s Anita (the musical’s juiciest role) is an unstoppable, fiery force and DeBose ignites the film and holds everyone’s attention virtually every moment she’s on screen. Highly respected as a Broadway singer and dancer for years—and, my God, she certainly delivers that here—DeBose will be able to add “Academy Award-winning actress” to her growing list of accomplishments beginning Sunday night.
Of course, half the fun is hearing what YOU are thinking and your opinion of MY picks! So, please, leave a comment below and speak your mind. And while you’re at it, perhaps someone can explain to me how Ridley Scott’s magnificent The Last Duel didn’t pick up a single award! Not for its fine cast (Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Jodie Comer) or clever screenplay (Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener) or crackling editing (Claire Simpson) or sterling cinematography (Dariusz Wolski). Anyone out there have any theories?
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Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.