A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.
Despite final balloting being halfway done (Oscar voters, you have until Tuesday at 5 PM PT), and campaigns still in high gear leaving no rock unturned and no opportunity to reach straggling voters untaken, much of the air in the room this week has been sucked up by the latest controversy to make this the most beaten-up Oscar broadcast in recent memory (and that is before it even happens). One source, who has been onsite at the Dolby, tells me the show itself is shaping up great, but wondered if the latest dust-up with cinematographers, editors, etc., complaining about being awarded Oscars during commercial breaks is more damaging than the various other controversies that have plagued the run-up to the 91st annual Academy Awards.
Happily, the Academy today reversed the decision and all four categories will be presented live with the others. This followed a meeting between ASC president Kees van Oostrum and key cinematographers with top Academy brass last night that I reported exclusively was happening in an interview with van Oostrum on Thursday afternoon. Today, I talked to van Oostrum as he said he was waiting with anticipation by the phone — and then again after Deadline broke news of the Academy’s reversal. He clearly was overjoyed with their success at that meeting.
“We won. This goes right back to what our mission was when we [the ASC] were founded in 1919, 100 years ago. It means so much — we are going out to celebrate,” he told me as he said he had to start returning a lot of phone calls.
To answer the question though, I would say probably this situation was the worst of all for AMPAS, but fortunately has been averted since so many heavy hitters from Martin Scorsese to Christopher Nolan to Quentin Tarantino to Brad Pitt to George Clooney and on and on put their names on an open letter hosted by the ASC that urged a reversal. I know they have promised a three-hour broadcast, but this “saving time” thing went too far.
The Academy only had to look at their own past. Famously, 14- time Oscar show producer Gil Cates tried to shorten the Oscar show in 2005 by coming up with a novel “experiment” that thankfully was never tried again. Using some categories like Documentary Feature, they lined up all the nominees on stage as if it were the end of the Miss America Pageant and then had the winner step forward for a speech when the envelope was opened. For some other shorts categories, they actually went into the audience where they had all the nominees sitting together and let the winner stand, accept their Oscar, and make their speech right there. Give Cates an ‘A’ for effort on that one, but general agreement was that it was kind of demeaning for those categories given this treatment.
Now on with the show, and hopefully it will be a good one, whether it comes in at three hours or not.
REGINA KING’S CLOSE CALL AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
Meanwhile this week, some of the nominees are making news outside of their nominated work. The simple, timely and powerful seven-minute Documentary Short Subject A Night at the Garden, about a shocking Nazi rally that took place with flag-waving Americans in Madison Square Garden in 1939, tried to run a 30-second ad on Sean Hannity’s right-wing Fox News show this week but Fox banned it. The idea was to reach Hannity’s conservative Donald Trump supporters with the line “It Can Happen Now,” rather than target more likely venues for Oscar voters who likely aren’t rabid Hannity fans. But they stirred it up and got some ink out of the censored ad anyway.
Also at Madison Square Garden, but in 2019, Supporting Actress contender Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) had a near-miss but not with Nazis. She was at the Knicks game Wednesday night when Philadelphia 76ers 7-footer Joel Embiid chased a loose ball by charging into the courtside crowd where King had a seat, narrowing missing a head-on (literally) collision with the star by skillfully, but barely, leaping over her. Later he says he “saved her life” with that move so that she can live another day and find out if she will take home an Oscar on February 24, And you thought only another Oscar nominee, Spike Lee, made news at Knicks games!
SPIKE LEE AND THE TWO WORDS HE WON’T SAY
In fact, appearing on The Daily Show on Tuesday night, Lee invoked the Knicks as a way of changing the subject and not answering host Trevor Noah’s query about the irony that Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is competing against Green Book this year, pointing out that 29 years ago Lee’s Do The Right Thing wasn’t even nominated for the Best Picture prize won by Driving Miss Daisy. Both the latter and Green Book have been compared since they each deal with a black and a white person in a car — though reversed in terms of who is driving who. Lee was very vocal about losing to Daisy, a movie he clearly didn’t admire, but he has kept his tongue this time, hence the Knicks reference.
He was similarly goaded on the same question by Lesley Stahl on CBS Sunday Morning last weekend but resisted the bait – sort of. “I had a talk with my wife and we’re not speaking about no other films, particularly that one,” he said. Stahl persisted: “If it wins you’re not gonna say a word?” Lee let off one of his big roaring laughs and added, “Now I didn’t say that!”
BTW, check out Mike Fleming’s piece on Deadline today about Ethel Kennedy and the Kennedy family’s reaction to Green Book. Some scenes, including one involving Robert Kennedy coming to the rescue of Don Shirley and Tony Lip when they landed in a Deep South jail cell, have been called into question by naysayers of the film as made up — clearly not the case in a movie proven to stay remarkably close to the truth of their beautiful friendship against all odds. The actual audio tapes of Tony and Don (included in Fleming’s piece) put a lie to all of the negative talk from some corners in order to hurt the film’s chances (especially after winning the Golden Globe and Producers Guild Award), but isn’t this kind of low campaigning trying to twist the truth, and not just against Green Book, getting out of hand?
Ethel Kennedy’s quote was powerful: “The scene with Bobby calling in defense of Don Shirley when he was wrongfully jailed happened just like we see it in the film. I was not expecting him to come up in the movie, but I love that new generations get to see someone in office, standing up for the rights of others. I think Green Book shows that we have made progress. But, sadly, there is so much more to be done—and many of the same issues exist now as they were in the 1960s.”
WILL OSCAR FINALLY HONOR ITS MOST OVERLOOKED ICONS?
Last weekend, having a terrific conversation with Paul Schrader after a screening of First Reformed, the movie that incredibly represents his first ever Oscar nomination (he’s up for Original Screenplay) also made me think of Spike Lee, Glenn Close, and Caleb Deschanel, all overdue and deserving veterans who have yet to win a competitive Oscar but each of whom have a chance this year to rectify that egregious oversight.
Lee, it has been widely reiterated by Focus Features , distributor of BlacKkKlansman, has never been nominated before for Best Director, and that is in a career of over 40 years that actually started with a win of a Student Academy Award. He previously was nominated only twice, for the aforementioned script of 1989’s Do The Right Thing and the 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls. In 2016, trying to make up for this oversight, the Academy awarded him an Honorary Oscar. This year he may get to even win one or two since he has three personal chances with Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Directing nominations.
Deschanel, now a six-time nominee for Cinematography (to be presented LIVE, thank god) was not expecting a nod for the German foreign-language contender Never Look Away, but showing the respect to this veteran lenser his fellow cinematographers gave him one for this exquisitely shot movie. Wouldn’t it be a great moment if he finally won? Ironically, the “favorite” in the category is actually a director, Alfonso Cuarón, who is trying to become the first helmer to ever win in this category (he lost last weekend at ASC to Cold War, also an Oscar nominee). Deschanel’s past nominations since 1983 include The Right Stuff, The Natural, Fly Away Home, The Patriot and The Passion of the Christ. Amazingly he wasn’t even nominated for 1979’s The Black Stallion, easily one of the most beautiful films ever shot.
Then there is Close, now with her very richly deserved seventh nomination for The Wife at age 71. If she loses, she will become the biggest actress loser in Oscar history, as well as the biggest living loser. By the way, one of those seven nods came for The Natural, in which Deschanel’s gorgeous photography bathed her in almost angelic golden sunlight in a particularly famous scene. Fortunately, oddsmakers have Close the favorite now having won Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, and SAG precursor awards, so perhaps she will get that long-deserved win this time. She’s waited as long as Deschanel in terms of when they received their first nomination, with hers coming a year earlier than his, in 1982 for The World According to Garp.
WHY PAUL SCHRADER IS CONFUSED
Finally in the long overdue category comes Schrader, never nominated for the likes Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, American Gigolo, Raging Bull or any other number of scripts he has penned. Now with First Reformed, which he also directed, Oscar voters have a chance to make it up to him instead of waiting until next year to give him an Honorary Oscar. The odds are more daunting since his nomination reps the only one for his film and it is competing against four heavyweight Best Picture nominees that have 33 nominations between them.
Schrader has a good attitude about it all, as he demonstrated when I asked him what it means to be finally recognized by the Academy. “To be honest I never thought that much about it. I remember saying to Marty once, when Scorsese was very interested in getting an Oscar. I said, ‘Marty if an Oscar is your priority, you need a new priority.’ Look at the films over history that have won that Oscar. Is that really the club that you aspire to? You build a career determined not to be judged by your awards from others. And then something like this happens and you get very confused,” he laughed. Maybe it is finally Schrader’s time? He might answer that query by something he said that same day in response to a question about the future of our planet. “Anyone who’s optimistic isn’t paying attention”. Academy members, pay attention to these long-deserving icons.
MAYBE IT’S TIME FOR ‘A STAR IS BORN’?
Speaking of “Maybe It’s Time,” that is the new ad slogan for Warner Bros’ Oscar campaign for A Star Is Born, revealed just as ballots went out Tuesday. Quoting the lyrics from one of the songs in the film, with lyrics like “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” the studio shortened it to “Maybe It’s Time” which instantly reminded me of Fox Searchlight’s final campaign slogan for 12 Years a Slave which simply said “It’s Time.” Of course, that movie didn’t have a cool song sung by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga to remind you of “the feelings” you felt watching the movie, as the Star Is Born braintrust hopes this phrase does.
So far it has been a tough run for the movie, once considered the front-runner on the awards circuit, but at least Cooper finally got to a stage to accept an award in London last Sunday, a BAFTA he shared for — you guessed it — the film’s music. No previous A Star Is Born movie has ever won Best Picture, and only the current incarnation and the first in 1937 were even nominated in the category. “Maybe It’s Time” indeed. There is always hope.
OSCAR’S BROTHER/ SISTER ACTS
Check out the PBS broadcast tonight of this year’s AARP Movies for Grownups Awards which were taped February 4 at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. I was there and it actually was a lot of fun with winners being those adult movies that often get overlooked by Hollywood except during awards season. As reported by Deadline at the time, big winners included Green Book, Viggo Mortensen, Glenn Close, Spike Lee, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Mary Poppins Returns, Roma, Bohemian Rhapsody, If Beale Street Could Talk and more. Martin Short made a great host welcoming everyone to the “Olden Globes” and landing lines like, “I’m here to share the benefits of reverse mortgages,” and “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and when it’s over there won’t be a dry seat in the house.”
The indomitable Shirley MacLaine was the more-than-deserving recipient of the Career Achievement Award — and what a career. She in particular fits right in with a historical Oscar fact just sent to me by Academy Award-winning producer Bruce Cohen, who is also a past Oscar show producer (aren’t you glad you aren’t this year, Bruce?) MacLaine and brother Warren Beatty are one of only three brother-sister combinations to both have Oscars, a short list that also includes Ethel and Lionel Barrymore and Norma and Douglas Shearer (the latter not as well known but winner of seven Oscars including five for sound and two for special effects – he was even nominated for The Wizard of Oz among his 14 additional nominations).
But could a fourth brother-sister combo be added to this exclusive group this year? Should Bruce Cohen’s sister Julie Cohen win for Best Documentary Feature for RBG (where she is nominated with co-director and producer Betsy West), the Cohen siblings will be the latest getting that rare distinction. “So we’d be in pretty awesome company,” said proud brother Bruce. That’s for sure.
Interestingly, there have been 12 examples of two brothers winning from the Coens to the Shermans to the Afflecks and many more, but still only one pair of sisters — that would be Olivia DeHavilland and Joan Fontaine.