Acclaimed twentieth century poet T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “April is the cruellest month.” It’s a statement that takes on new meaning in 2021, as a brutally long awards season finally draws to a close.
But while Eliot’s words came from his celebrated poem “The Waste Land,” my sentiments pertain to the acclaimed film “Nomadland.” The picture has swept most of the key prizes this year, starting with the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Awards and continuing with the Producers Guild and BAFTA Awards.
However, “Nomadland” might see on April 25 just how cruel the gold derby can be.
1. It’s most likely to be the consensus choice.
Most people consider “Nomadland” the Oscar frontrunner because of its success at the key precursor awards. We need to remember that in this era of the Best Picture preferential ballot, those coffee table trophies don’t always matter. Look at “The Revenant.” Look at “La La Land.” Look at “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Look at “Roma.” Look at “1917.” Those films won many (if not most) most of the major precursors, only to go down in defeat at the Academy Awards. The reason? While they might have had the most number one votes on the ballots, they lacked in number twos and threes. Other films with broader support slowly overtook them during the tabulation, resulting in some shocking victories. (Hello, “Moonlight.”) Getting back to this year, “Nomadland” seems bound to receive a healthy share of number ones. But is it really a popular number two choice? The film is proving to be divisive, with many moviegoers seriously underwhelmed by its slow pace and lack of a conventional plot. (Check out the audience reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.) While I’ve spoken to far fewer academy members than I have in past years (due to the pandemic,) I’ve encountered several who professed their fierce dislike for it. Meanwhile, “The Trial of the Chicago” 7 is that type of crowd pleaser that is generally appreciated by most. It’s been nominated at all of the major contests. It scored nominations in both acting and writing plus key technical categories. It seems like a popular number two choice on many of the Oscar ballots. With enough number twos and threes, “Chicago 7” could end up at number one.
2. It will perform strongly with the Actors Branch.
Actors make up the single largest branch in the academy, and their vote can often prove to be decisive. “Trial” boasts a most distinguished cast of thespians, including past and present Oscar nominees and winners. (Sacha Baron Cohen, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance.) Their dramatic performances help to carry the film, and carried the film to triumph at the recent SAG Awards. In most of the competitive Best Picture races in recent times, the SAG Ensemble champion defeated a film that lost or wasn’t even nominated. Consider “Birdman” over “Boyhood.” “Spotlight” over “The Revenant.” “Parasite” over “1917.” In other years, the film with the SAG Ensemble nom or at least some SAG recognition often overcame a film that lacked it. Think “12 Years a Slave” over “Gravity,” “Moonlight” over “La La Land” and “Green Book” over “Roma.” Even in the pre-preferential ballot era, notable Oscar upsets occurred when the film had first succeeded at SAG. Recall “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan” and “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain.” “Nomadland” is really just a single-actor showcase, and most of the featured players aren’t even professional actors. So if academy actors strongly favor “Trial,” we could witness it being named the Best Picture.
3. “Nomadland” is soft in tech support.
Sure, it received bids for both Cinematography and Film Editing. It’s conceivable that it could win one or even both of those. But “Nomadland” isn’t a traditional technical tour de force. And assuming that it underperforms with actors, it needs to really crush it with the technical branches. If you look at one recent instance of a SAG Ensemble-snubbed film that went on to win Best Picture, it was the masterfully crafted “The Shape of Water” – which managed to sink “Three Billboards.” The former was nominated by many more branches than the latter, and the strong tech support probably tilted the voting in its favor. Meanwhile, “Trial” matched “Nomadland” with both Cinematography and Editing noms. It also competes for Best Song. And though it wasn’t nominated in areas such as Costume or Production Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound or Score – “Trial” displays a solid proficiency in all of those aspects. That suggests that it could run even with “Nomadland” among the tech branches. And that technically makes it harder for “Nomadland” to take Best Picture.
4. “Trial” will do better with male voters.
I don’t wish to offend anyone with this observation. I’m just speaking the truth. And the truth is that despite the influx of new members in recent years, the academy is still dominated by men – and mostly older ones. Will a film about a destitute, middle-aged woman living in her dilapidated van truly appeal to them? We have to wonder. If you look at Oscar history, it’s actually been quite rare for films focusing on women to be rewarded with Best Picture. The ones that have in recent years usually featured men in strong supporting or co-leading roles (“Terms of Endearment,” “Out of Africa,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Million Dollar Baby”) or had larger casts overall (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Chicago,” “The Shaper of Water.”) So if history is any guide, a film like “Trial” with its large cast of male actors might have the edge over “Nomadland,” which is anchored by a solo female.
5. “Trial” plays better on a small screen.
The Oscars were once dominated by sweeping spectacles that looked grand and glorious in those old-fashioned auditoriums. There was everything from “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “An American in Paris” and “Lawrence of Arabia” to “The Godfather,” “Gandhi,” “Dances with Wolves” and “Titanic.” As screeners have become more prevalent, we have started to see smaller films more frequently prevail. And that may be because those pictures played so well at home. Just in the last decade, it seems like the more dialogue-driven (and TV-friendly) vehicle has prevailed over the more cinematographic (and big screen-appropriate) one more often than not. “Argo” over “Life of Pi.” “12 Years a Slave” over “Gravity.” “Spotlight” over “The Revenant.” “Moonlight” over “La La Land.” “Green Book” over “Roma.” “Parasite” over “1917.” In fact, only one movie in the last decade — 2014’s “Birdman” — has taken both the Picture and Cinematography Oscars. This past year, it’s fair to say that academy members have screened or streamed almost every Oscar contender in his or her home. And a courtroom drama like “The Trial of the Chicago 7” works well on a small screen. (One could argue that it’s almost like watching a television show.) The constant courtroom close-ups and perpetual prattling keep a viewer engaged. Whereas a slower and quieter film like “Nomadland” is better experienced in the cinema, where one can concentrate and contemplate its beauties and subtleties. Watching it at home gives way to more temptations and distractions: checking the iPhone, texting, Tweeting, snacking, etc. As silly as it may seem, that could significantly reduce the film’s impact. Therefore, Academy jurors might be more swayed by “The Trial of the Chicago 7” — rendering it with a most favorable verdict of Best Picture of the Year.
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