Notes On The Season: Willem Dafoe On Why He Likes Dying; Remaking Best Picture Winners; Guess Who’s Not Coming To Oscar’s Lunch

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit

You know you are in the crux of Oscar season when you find yourself driving down the coast on a Thursday afternoon to host one of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s many, many awards-related events. That’s what I did when I hit the road to moderate the fest’s Cinema Vanguard Award tribute to Willem Dafoe, who landed this hot spot in the midst of final campaigning for his Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Florida Project. 


It was a swell night in which a very relaxed and entertaining Dafoe recounted the many highs (one literally, in the pot-smoking scene from Platoon) and lows (getting fired off his first film, the notorious flop Heaven’s Gate — well maybe that too was a high). The nice-sized Arlington Theatre crowd was enthusiastic and spirited throughout our 90-minute interview, even though tragic fires and mudslides have ravaged this community in recent weeks. But the 101 opened just in time, and the sun was shining on SBIFF, which was determined to go on for the sake of an iconic town trying to pull itself back together. The fest runs through February 10.

This was the first of Santa Barbara’s annual tributes, which draw numerous Oscar nominees, all (un)cannily chosen by SBIFF honcho Roger Durling before nominations are announced. Dafoe was a no-brainer, proven by the visual gag I employed when I rolled out a scroll of 11 IMDb pages listing the endless numbers of awards and nominations Dafoe has received in his career — especially this year, where he has racked up a leading 24 wins from critics groups as well as that third Oscar nom. That in most years might make him a slam dunk to finally take the prize, but Sam Rockwell (another upcoming tributee at SBIFF) in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri swept in and took the Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and SAG honors, making him also a fierce threat to win in March.

There’s also the factor that Three Billboards is a Best Picture nominee, while Florida Project — in which Dafoe knocks it out of the park playing a patient, likable but firm Orlando motel manager who has to deal with a bunch of little kids — is only in the game for its supporting actor, which might mean it won’t be seen as widely. Here’s hoping that voters check it out. I asked Dafoe if he knew the other nominees, and he told a charming story about growing up in Wisconsin and once asking a friend to get him a signed autographed photo of Christopher Plummer — who, at 88, nominated this year as well — something he had never done before. Asked if Plummer knows this, he smiled and said, “I’m going to tell him.” Dafoe’s first two nominations, also in supporting actor, came as Sgt. Elias in Platoon (1986) and as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire – which, as I pointed out to him, still makes him the only actor ever nominated for playing a vampire.


We talked about the huge number of death scenes he has played over the years, including, of course, Platoon and the famous crucifixion scene in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant and controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. I don’t think any actor has died as many times as Dafoe. “I guess they just don’t like me,” he joked. I tried to get him re-create that arms-in-the-air Platoon death scene to no avail, but later on he did stand up to vividly demonstrate dying on the cross in Last Temptation. Dafoe has died so much onscreen that he even reminded me the animated Rat he voiced in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox also passes away.

We didn’t make him watch that scene, but we did show him as Gill, the black fish in Finding Nemo, and Green Goblin in Spider-Man. Dafoe is not one of those actors who is repulsed when you show clips of his work. He watched intently through all of them, including an opening montage that demonstrates his incredible range.

I recall a few years ago sitting there at the Arlington with Mickey Rourke, and every time we would go to clips, he got up and walked backstage, unable to watch himself onscreen. During one segment he actually forgot to return, leaving me alone to beg, “Mickey, come back.” In addition to all the tributes this week, SBIFF has several panels this weekend including producers, writers, and the annual women’s panel on Sunday, which ought to be especially lively this year.


With just three weeks to go before final Oscar voting starts, consultants are looking for every opportunity for their nominees to be seen and heard, and SBIFF is just one of them. Even this weekend’s Super Bowl is not intimidating the process, as I know of one Best Picture nominee who will be doing a screening/Q&A just about the same time the Philadelphia Eagles are cruising toward their upset victory over the Patriots. And no sooner will Super Bowl fever subside then the Academy throws its annual Oscar nominees lunch on Monday at the Beverly Hilton — after directors clear out from Saturday night’s all-important DGA Awards, where someone is going to get some serious Oscar momentum going into that lunch, if the past is any indication at least.


The Academy noted today that more than 175 nominees have RSVP’d to the must-be-seen-at lunch event. Among the 20 acting nominees, though, Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Christopher Plummer, Woody Harrelson and Lesley Manville are expected to be AWOL unless plans change. Guess Dafoe will have to find some other place to thank Plummer for that autographed photo! Deadline will be there to cover all the excitement as Oscar show producers beg the nominees not to thank a long list of agents should they be victorious on March 4.

For a film music freak like me, though, it is another event the Academy announced Thursday that I am definitely jonesing for. “The Oscar Concert” will be a one-night-only celebration of film music during Oscar week in honor of the 90th Academy Awards, set for  February 28 at Disney Hall in conjunction with the LA Phil. It will feature a suite of all the nominated scores (Three Billboards, Shape of Water, Stars Wars: The Last Jedi, Phantom Thread, Dunkirk) as well as a walk through the past covering different sounds of music: home, the chase, fear, love and courage in addition to selections from Michael Giacchino’s Up. Academy music governors Giacchino, Laura Karpman and Charles Bernstein are curating the evening, which will be led by conductor Thomas Wilkins and special guest Terence Blanchard, along with others TBA. Of course, the music will all be accompanied by clips as well. Can’t wait.



And speaking of music, I am a little wary of Steven Spielberg’s plans to remake — or re-imagine, as these things often are called — the Oscar-winning musical West Side Story. It definitely is something Spielberg has kicked around for years, especially since the one genre he has never tackled in his legendary career as a director is musicals. But a casting call went out last week from casting director Cindy Tolan officially looking for a new Maria, Tony, Bernardo and Anita (what about Riff?) with the stipulation they must all speak Spanish, so it looks like a go.

Will this be a subtitled West Side Story as the most recent, somewhat flawed major revival on Broadway attempted to do by substituting Spanish for English lyrics in some of the songs? Kevin McCollum, who was a producer of that show, reportedly is involved here as well. Spielberg’s Lincoln and Munich screenwriter Tony Kushner is doing this adaptation of the iconic updating of Romeo and Juliet set among the gangs of 1950s New York City — or, in the case of the 1961 Robert Wise-Jerome Robbins film version, the early ’60s. That version, the only film rendering to date, was nominated for 11 Oscars and won 10, making it the all-time winningest musical in Oscar history. Robbins shared the Best Director Oscar with Wise and won a special Oscar for his choreography, ironic since there were troubles on the production and he left before it finished shooting.


It is a bold move for Spielberg to step into the hallowed ground of West Side, which started out on Broadway in 1957 from Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. I’m wondering what Sondheim thinks. Barbra Streisand finally had gotten his blessing to do a new Gypsy for the screen, only to have it consistently fall apart before it could get rolling. This one looks like it is happening — it is Spielberg, after all — but remaking Oscar’s Best Pictures is very rare. The 1959 11-time winner Ben-Hur had a misguided redo a couple of years ago that fell on its ass, but then that Oscar champ itself was a remake of the 1925 silent. Jackie Chan did a very loose remake of 1956 winner Around the World in 80 Days with Pierce Brosnan, but you wouldn’t recognize it. Disney and Ice Cube have just announced a hip-hop version of 1968 winner Oliver. Will this new West Side version be a contemporary update? Time will tell, but I am not a fan of fiddling with classics, and West Side Story is unquestionably one, even if its two leads, Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, did not do their own singing.

Since Spielberg’s current film The Post was my No. 1 pick this year, and his Bridge of Spies my favorite in 2015, I think he’s at the top of his game, so I hope for the best. It’s intriguing, to say the least, but it is hard to imagine anyone opening the Best Picture envelope once again on Oscar night and hearing the words: “and the Oscar goes to West Side Story.” But wouldn’t that be something.

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