‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ could win Best Documentary Feature Oscar for its funny, poignant approach to a father’s illness

One of the most devastating things to witness is the disappearance of a parent due to dementia or Alzheimer’s. The change generally begins slowly with confusion and forgetfulness. They may lose their way driving home from the store. They stop reading and may even become obsessed with a person or a TV series. And then their personality begins to change; they are quick to anger and cry in frustration. Soon, they can’t operate the phone or even know how to tell time. They have hallucinations and forget to eat. They just fade away.

Thanks to his daughter, documentarian Kristen Johnson (“Cameraperson”), Dick Johnson will never disappear. “Dick Johnson is Dead,” her love letter to her octogenarian widowed dad is a wildly imaginative, funny, poignant and haunting look at her coping with her father’s dementia by staging crazy and absurdist ways her father could die, including having an air conditioner fall out a window onto his head and a nasty tumble down the stairs. Don’t worry, she used body doubles for the stunts. Johnson even stages a mock funeral mass so her father can hear people’s loving comments about him. And the sweet, good-natured retired psychiatrist is a more-than-willing subject.

In her director’s statement about the film, Johnson explained, “When I started making ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’ in 2017, my incapacity to accept the possibility of my own father’s death was so great, I wished to make a film about his dying in order that he might live forever. It was always my wish that this film would resonate for all who grapple with feelings associated with the potential and inevitable loss of loved ones.”

The documentary premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January, earning a nomination for the documentary Grand Jury Prize and winning a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for innovation in non-fiction storytelling. Then Netflix released the documentary, which currently has a 100% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, in October.

The production recently received four Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards nominations including best documentary. And Johnson received an honor for most compelling living subject of a documentary. Needless to say, there is rather loud Oscar buzz surrounding the film. Most audiences and awards voters can relate to the subject of coping with the illness and mortality of a loved one, as evidenced by a wide range of past Oscar contenders like “Up” (2009), “The Descendants” (2011), “Amour” (2012) and “Little Women” (2019).

Dealing with that subject in an uplifting way might especially stand out to voters, who have given Oscars to feel-good documentaries like “March of the Penguins” (2005), “Man on Wire” (2008), “Undefeated” (2011) and “20 Feet from Stardom” (2013). And Netflix has done well in recent years, winning two of the last three Best Documentary Feature titles for “Icarus” (2017) and “American Factory” (2019).

As for Dick Johnson, as of this writing he’s still alive, though very ill and residing in a care facility in Bethesda, Maryland.

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