Notes On The Season: Race Heats Up As ‘First Man’ Shoots For The Moon And Oprah Falls For ‘Black Panther’
A column chronicling events and conversations on the awards circuit
Even though Christmas is almost upon us , Hanukkah is in the rear view mirror, and 2019 is right around the corner, we can’t say that has stopped the major studios from trying to compete with the likes of Netflix
and other entities for a stake in this year’s Oscar race. Wednesday night, Universal spared no expense in throwing a party in Beverly Hills at Mastro’s Steakhouse honoring their Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man, the intimate epic space drama thought to be a major contender since debuting at the trio of Fall Festival launch pads in Venice, Telluride and Toronto.
However it had stalled with critics groups, Golden Globes (other than a couple of mentions for Claire Foy and Justin Hurwitz’s soaring score), and even the much desired AFI list of top American produced movies of the year. I mean, how much more American can you get than this story of man’s first moon landing? Fortunately, the Broadcast Film Critics Choice Awards (an eerily Oscar prescient group, of which I am a member) came to the rescue and offered up 10 major nominations in every key category, giving back a shot of adrenaline in Universal’s campaign for the film, which was a box office disappointment despite critical acclaim for the Damien Chazelle drama (currently a strong 88% fresh).
Buzz at the packed party full of Oscar voters pointed to an unfortunate and unfounded controversy about omitting a shot of Armstrong planting a flag on the moon (there were several other flag shots in the sequence, however), and that the film lacked emotion. Both counts are completely wrong. Screenwriter Josh Singer told me he does think the media coverage of the bogus flag controversy had an impact on box office, particularly in the midwest.
UNIVERSAL TAKES TWO GIANT LEAPS INTO OSCAR RACE
As for the film lacking emotion, well, Armstrong was a stoic and straight ahead figure. But it is precisely because Singer’s excellent script, Chazelle’s remarkable direction. and Ryan Gosling’s (also at the party) pitch-perfect portrayal underplay the intense emotions of the story that some think the movie wasn’t overt enough.
At the party, I met Armstrong’s real son, Mark, and asked him about one particular scene in which his father has to tell his two sons that there is a chance he might not be coming back from the moon expedition.
It is heartbreaking to watch. I held back tears for this impossible moment any father might have to face with their family. “It absolutely happened that way and my brother and I told that story to Josh (Singer), and it was something no one knew about before, ” he said, adding that it was surreal knowing they would be able to watch their father walk on the moon by watching television.
“After that dinner, we just basically said ‘OK, goodbye, we will see you in four weeks,’ essentially like seeing your father off on a business trip. Gosling deserves a lot of credit for playing this as real, and subtle as he does. So does co-star and Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominee Claire Foy as the tough and caring wife of Armstrong, insisting he tell his kids the truth of what was then a mission with an unknown outcome.
Chazelle has been working non-stop on this film, his first since becoming the youngest director to win an Oscar for La La Land, to the point that he told me he finally got a chance to take his honeymoon with wife Olivia Hamilton. They just returned from Japan, having actually been married a year ago. Studio heads Ron Meyer, Donna Langley, and Jeff Shell all showed their support for First Man by hosting this party for press, guild, and AMPAS voters.
Meyer and Shell wanted to know what movies I liked best this year, but I had to tell them to check Deadline on Dec 27th and 31st for my annual video countdown of my ten best list. Universal not only has First
Man in contention this season, but also the sleeper word of mouth hit, Green Book, which keeps hanging in at the box office each week with comparatively minimal drops and will go much wider next month after Oscar nominations and Golden Globes, where it has five key nods, including Best Picture Comedy or Musical.
Last weekend, I moderated a screening with its director, Peter Farrelly, who hilariously told one story after another about the unlikely road that movie took to being made. Like so many other Oscar voters, Farrelly told me he was planning to watch a double feature that night to catch up on his pile of screeners, so he planned to catch If Beale Street Could Talk followed by Roma. Always good to check out the competition.
OPRAH JUMPS ON ‘BLACK PANTHER’ BANDWAGON
Meanwhile not to be outdone by its Valley neighbor, Disney is also taking bigger strides than ever in this year’s Oscar contest by pushing not only terrific December entry Mary Poppins Returns, but also their early
2018 blockbuster Black Panther, which they are hoping will be the first Marvel and Comic Book superhero movie ever nominated for Best Picture. It was released in February, not exactly prime time for Oscar contenders. But as Universal proved last year with Get Out, it is not impossible (just really, really rare) to get a Best Picture nomination for a film released that early in the year. In fact, I would be stunned, that even with two strikes against it (early release, superhero movie) if Black Panther was not nominated in Oscar’s marquee category. The Academy being the Academy, even disastrously tried to created a Best Popular Picture category in order to insure a Black Panther presence at the Academy Awards. Of course, that attempt fizzled, but Disney is putting everything out there to make sure their zeitgeist movie is given every chance at key nominations, including the one that really counts big. Perhaps that is why they threw a party (followed by Q&A and screening ) at the London Hotel in West Hollywood this week to keep the buzz going for Panther, a BP for BP (repeat it over and over – BP for BP) .
No one less than Disney’s big Kahuna Bob Iger turned up to greet no one less than Oprah Winfrey, who agreed to put that all-important Oprah endorsement on this film for a room mixed with AMPAS voters and press, as well as BP’s key players, including director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, producer Kevin Feige, and stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, and others. Disney’s Alan Horn was also in the room, to give you an idea how important this is to the Mouse House. But it was Oprah who stole the show and created a crush of humanity when she finally arrived. She kept it short and sweet and right on message. “I just wanted to say that when I saw Black Panther, I sent an email to my friend Bobby (Iger) – hi Bobby – and said ‘Just saw it. It’s worth every thing I have heard and more, a phenomenon in every way and on every level, makes me tear up to think that little black children will grow up with ‘Wakanda Forever’. It’s game changing. It’s pride-making. It’s dazzling. It’s phenomenal. That was my personal review, but I also know that throngs and throngs of so many people came, and came with their families, and then they went back and got more family members, and then they went back and told their co-workers and their friends because everybody recognized that something bigger than a movie was happening up on that screen…It was so affirming for everyone who saw it because you knew that it was bigger than this moment, that it was a cultural happening, and just to be in the theater was to be a part of all that,” she said, as she threw props to Iger’s leadership and for having “the good sense to hire Ryan Coogler”.
Iger followed Oprah (she wanted to go first he said) and introduced himself as “Bobby” Iger. He said the studio had asked him if he would host a screening of the movie, and also if he might ask Oprah to join him.
“I said I would give it a shot. I emailed Oprah and she responded within ten minutes. Oprah and I have known each other for 30 years, and I am one of the more fortunate people in the world to consider Oprah a true friend. But I guarantee you she did not say ‘yes’ that fast because of me or our friendship. She said ‘yes’ that fast because of what she thought of this film,” he said, before introducing many in the room and praising the film and Coogler. “Extraordinary talent always trumps experience. To Ryan Coogler and Black Panther.” By the way, I had a nice chat with Jordan, congratulating him on the one-two punch (so to speak) of Black Panther and Creed II, the latter already surpassing the first Creed at the box office. I asked the natural question, which is: if there will be yet another Creed movie in his future. He was affirmative. “Yes, why not? You have to wait a little while so people will want it. But I think we can definitely come back with another one,” he said. Good news for Michael B. Jordan fans, who is getting some Supporting Actor Oscar buzz for Panther. He recently completed another smaller movie than his 2018 output with Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson, in which he plays world-renowned Civil Rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson and his efforts to free a condemned death row prisoner. Warner Bros has it dated for January 17, 2020 on the MLK holiday weekend. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets an awards qualifying run as well. For the guy who came to prominence in Coogler’s Sundance sensation Fruitvale Station, Jordan knows the value of mixing it up. Among other Coogler regulars, there was Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson, who had just gotten word that his Black Panther score was shortlisted among the 15 finalists for Best Original Score at the Academy Awards, his first dance with Oscar, and he was understandably happy that day.
CRITICS HAVE THEIR SAY
Using this time of year to force themselves into the Hollywood consciousness, I have to say the endless parade of critics groups having their say this year feels like a longer list than ever. And that list is getting
more and more obscure. Yes, we have the big city groups from NY, LA, Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, London, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, etc. that have been doing these awards for the year’s “best” for decades. But now there are offshoot “online critics” groups for many of these cities and a large number of regional groups that have cropped up. Do you care to know what the Greater Western New York Critics Association voted for ? How about the Southeastern Film Critics Association? That one is not to be confused with the Southwestern Critics, or the South Florida Critics, or Detroit Film Critics, Indiana Film Critics or Kansas City Film Critics, or St. Louis Film Critics, Utah, San Diego, Phoenix, and on and on. In Texas alone we have the Houston Film Critics, North Texas Film Critics Association, And Dallas Ft. Worth Film Critics. I am waiting to hear from the Tyler Texas Film Critics Circle as we speak (well, no, I’m not).
How about the Nevada Film Critics, not to be confused with the Las Vegas Critics group? There is the African-American Film Critics Association and the Black Film Critics Awards (both chose the aforementioned Black Panther for their top prize). There is the Alliance Of Women Film Journalists. I am in the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the largest group of critics, and it’s national, so many of BFCA members also join their local groups, which may be one reason the winners and nominees of all these groups are so similar. This year’s critical darlings are Roma, The Favourite, First Reformed, BlacKkKlansman, etc. Somehow, Paddington 2 also keeps showing up on these lists, which leads me to think critics groups are like lemmings who just follow one another. Can there be enough of these critics groups to bestow awards on If Beale Street Could Talk? Or Cold War? I doubt you will find any arguments from Oscar campaigners about that question.
Have a great holiday.