Why ‘The Power of the Dog’ still has a big advantage in the Oscar race

Over the past week or two we’ve seen a bit of wavering in this year’s highly competitive Best Picture race as one front-runner or another misses out on a nomination or award and loses support from its most fervent backers. In the case of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” for instance, the film is still considered the favorite for Best Picture among the Gold Derby odds-makers, but movies like “CODA” have been getting more recent support — from the SAG Awards specifically. Although 13 Experts are still backing Campion’s movie, eight others are picking one of three other rivals. That’s especially interesting since 20 out of 21 Experts have Campion winning Best Director, so why is there less confidence in “Power of the Dog” taking Best Picture as well?

September was a long time ago, but “Power of the Dog” was already considered the front-runner back then almost as soon as it was seen at its various festival premieres — Venice, Telluride, and then Toronto, where it came in second place for the People’s Choice Award. The fact that “Belfast” won that prestigious award seemed to give it an edge to unseat “Dog” as the front-runner, but that hasn’t materialized in the awards results so far.

The recent SAG Awards ensemble win for “CODA” (over “Belfast,” while “Dog” wasn’t nominated) and the fact that Ariana DeBose (from “West Side Story”) and Troy Kotsur (from “CODA”) won in supporting categories against “Dog’s” Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee surely contribute to that wavering around whether “Power” is still the front-runner, but should they be?

The thing we have to remember is that “Power of the Dog” still has the most Oscar nominations (12) and that shows support across the board, not just in the acting branch (where it got four nominations compared to the two for “Belfast” and one for “CODA”). The academy is made up of industry professionals in many different areas of filmmaking. There are directors (who didn’t nominate “CODA” director Sian Heder), as well as many other crafts and artisans in the below-the-line categories who recognized the work of Campion’s cinematographer Ari Wegner, editor Peter Sciberras, production designer Grant Major and set decorator Amber Richards, and the sound team of Richard Flynn, Robert Mackenzie, and Tara Webb. Major is the only one of those who was previously nominated for an Oscar, so it’s not like there’s some form of favoritism among peers in their respective chapters for those specific individuals. (“Dog” even surpassed my own expectations for its ability to garner Oscars in the below-the-line categories.)

In fact, “Power of the Dog” got in at the Oscars even where the corresponding guild, specifically the Art Directors Guild, did not nominate it. By comparison, “CODA” only received three Oscar nominations and none in the crafts. “Belfast” did get Sound and Original Song nominations, as well as the Directing bid for Kenneth Branagh, but that’s it. “Dune” is clearly going to be the below-the-line juggernaut, but without any acting or even a directing nomination (sorry, Denis!), does it have enough support to truly overcome “Dog”?

There’s a prestige to Campion’s film, partially since it’s based on a book vs. “CODA” (based on a French film), “West Side Story” (already adapted into a beloved but very similar Oscar-winning movie musical 60 years ago), and even “Belfast” (based on Branagh’s own childhood); past Best Picture champs like “No Country for Old Men,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight,” and “Nomadland” were also taken from books. Beyond that, there’s something to be said about the academy wanting to honor Campion for her overall filmmaking prowess after only giving her an Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Piano.”

This might be another year where we’ll have to keep a close eye on who BAFTA picks in some of the more contentious categories. They snubbed Dunst, but they nominated the same three male actors from “Dog” as the academy did. It’s interesting to note that BAFTA also didn’t nominate “Dog” for Editing, Production Design, or Sound, while the Oscars did. So if “Dog” can win the top BAFTA, perhaps it will be an even stronger favorite at the Oscars.

Either way, “The Power of the Dog” still has a lot going for it against its competition, so on Oscar night in three weeks, those who have backed Campion from the beginning may well be justified.

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