A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit
As usual the town, joined this particular year by the US government, has shut down for the week between Christmas and New Year’s day, and we can assume Oscar voters are busily watching screeners wherever they are for the break, from holiday destinations spanning A to Z (Aspen to Zihuatanejo, and, of course, Maui in between).
That doesn’t mean there has been any kind of similar break for awards campaigners, since the actual handing out of that precious golden hardware starts almost immediately after the ball drops in Times Square. Contenders have to race back for the big weekend activities, starting January 3 with the Palm Springs International Film Festival Gala (the ensemble cast of Mary Poppins Returns today became the last of this year’s honorees to be announced). And then it’s a big turnaround Friday morning to be in
Beverly Hills for my favorite and most prestigious AFI Awards Luncheon that day. And then, of course, all the parties and hoopla leading up to the Golden Globes on Sunday January 6. That is where this wide open and currently unpredictable race might get a little more definition, followed one Sunday later by the Critics Choice Awards, which correctly matched 17 main categories (of a shared 19) with Oscar’s eventual choices last year. In other words, sip that last Mai Tai or Margarita of 2018, because the minute 2019 hits, it is crazy time.
HOLIDAY VIEWING: ‘AQUAMAN’ OR ‘ROMA’?
I have to say it has been unusually quiet, even on the Oscar Watch front, with just a few q&a’s scattered throughout the week (Bohemian Rhapsody producer Graham King did one on the Fox lot last night, and tonight there is one with the cinematographer, as the studio is waging one of the more vibrant campaigns of the year and the film is gaining momentum). Perhaps the biggest event in terms of contenders this week is tonight’s opening of Lady Gaga’s Las Vegas residency at MGM Resorts Park Theater with her show “Lady Gaga Enigma + Jazz & Piano”, a hot ticket if ever there was one as a Vegas star is born. There will be 11 performances coming up, even before we hit the Oscar nominees lunch on February 4th, with, no doubt, a few voters catching the act. But, rest assured, she’s clear for all the key awards dates (Globes, Grammys, Oscars etc), as she is a strong prospect to hit all those stages and collect some nice little statues. I can’t think of anyone else who launched a long-term Vegas show in the middle of an Oscar run, but then, is there anyone like Gaga?
The swag deliveries to various voting groups have slowed to a crawl during the break, except, that is, for Netflix, which keeps it coming at a steady pace for Roma. This week in Roma swag brought a nice black pillow with the film’s name embossed in gold. I assume it is designed to relax your head as you stream the movie on their service.
Additionally came the invite to receive a limited edition Alfonso Cuaron-autographed poster, with the option of taking it rolled or framed (I will take it rolled). I am a seriously addicted poster collector, so happy to have any new additions — thanks, Netflix. Whether any of this stuff, a seasonal ritual, makes a difference as various groups sit down to vote is questionable. But it is all part of the game (except for the Academy, which fears swag of any kind – bah, humbug). A lot of it goes in the garage. My wife wouldn’t let me display my giant pink Okja stuffed pig (I actually got two!) from last year.
Deep-pocketed Netflix, it is safe to say, is setting an Oscar season record in terms of campaign spending for any subtitled foreign language film ever, with an overall buy of at least $10 million, which informed sources inside and outside of Netflix tell me is right in the ballpark. But at least one rival speculates might be twice that in the end. The TV ad buy alone is formidable, but it appears to be making an impact. A tentpole movie-loving trainer at my gym, whose favorites this year are Avengers: Infinity War, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and Aquaman, asked me today if he should see Roma, a movie in which the only superhero is the director’s childhood nanny. By the way, big props to Netflix and Cuaron for taking some of that cost, whatever it is, to make a 70MM film print of Roma. It will play at the Egyptian Theatre January 10 and 11 and I will be there. The opportunity to see a new black and white movie in that format and on film (to which digital is just a pretender – sue me) is rare, to say the least. How great that two of this year’s crop of shortlisted foreign language contenders – Amazon’s Cold War from Pawel Pawlikowski is the other – dared to do it in glorious b&w. Let’s hope it sparks a trend among English language films too, but don’t hold your breath.
RICHARD E. GRANT IN OSCAR “WONDERLAND”
The whirl of the season hasn’t gotten to Richard E. Grant, the 61-year-old veteran actor who is scooping up Supporting Actor prizes right and left for his sterling work opposite Melissa McCarthy as a couple of misfits trying to make it in an unforgiving New York City in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Grant says he watched Midnight Cowboy and The Odd Couple for inspiration, and it clearly worked. He won the New York Film Critics Award, numerous other critics group prizes, and is up for SAG, Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards so far as well. When I recently got on the phone with him, he was a bit overwhelmed by the awards season, as this is his first time in the fire. “I must sound like an old fart, but this has never happened to me in my life. Not before, not since, not anything. So, I’m going to ride it for as long as it lasts,” he laughed, saying the awards circuit has been amazing, even at this point in his career.
Other than a SAG award as part of the large ensemble cast of Gosford Park, this is the only single movie award attention he has ever really gotten (let’s not mention that Best Supporting Actor Razzie nomination for Hudson Hawk in 1991). “You see and get to meet people like Lady Gaga and Clint Eastwood. You meet people that even though I’ve been doing it so long, for as long as I have, my star-ometer or whatever you call it, I am as wide-eyed in Babylon as I felt when I was, you know, trying to be an actor when I was young. It never gets old because I think that there’s something about people that you’ve either newly admired or long admired that doesn’t go away. It’s not as if you are singularly unimpressed by anybody,” he says, asking if I have been unimpressed by anyone recently. He notes, though, it is hard to imagine himself being that kind of celebrity. “I kid you not. I met people that I was excited to meet and then had this sort of mirror image of what I was being to other people where people would say the same things to me and I thought you can’t be serious, but, you know, it’s just a bit like being in Alice in Wonderland. You can’t quite believe that you’re there,” he said, before recalling a life lesson from Princess Lea on the subject. “I know you’re supposed to be cynical and jaded and kind of go, ‘Yeah, well, whatever. There’s Oprah, there’s so and so’, but I’m not. I remember Carrie Fisher and I became friends when I met her 30 years ago doing L.A. Story here, and she saw me on a chat show when she was shooting a movie in England and tried to shame me afterwards by saying, ‘You know, I heard you talking about the people that you work for or the plans of having a photo with Julia Roberts, Sophia Loren, all these people’, and she said ‘You have to remember, you’re no longer a tourist, you’re one of the attractions’. It’s a great line, but (the thrill) hasn’t gone away. I think it’s who you are or you’re not. I’ve never been jaded about it because I think talent, no matter what age the person is, if they’re really talented, that is one of the sexiest things you can come across on the planet.”
Richard E. Grant better get used to it if the season keeps going for him the way it has so far.
On the otherwise pretty slow weekend before Christmas, I got the chance to have another memorable conversation with a contender, sitting down with Adam McKay for an AMPAS/Guild Q&A at The London Hotel,
and I just had to ask the burning question of the moment: Has Dick Cheney seen Vice yet? That, of course, is the film Annapurna opened wide on Christmas Day. What I would call a terrifying comedy, as it charts the political rise of Cheney from lowly Wyoming wannabe to the most powerful Vice President ever, really a shadow President to George W. Bush, and the architect of the Iraq War, among other things, a kind of real-life Dr. Strangelove, some might say. McKay, who won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for The Big Short, has a lot of things on his mind these days since his heyday as head writer of SNL and comedies with Will Ferrell like Anchorman, Talledega Nights, and Stepbrothers. He’s now written and directed Vice, a scathing satire about Cheney, and perhaps a foreshadowing of how we have gotten to the place we are now in this country and world.
Cheney, brilliantly played by Christian Bale, of course didn’t cooperate with the movie, and perhaps wasn’t even aware of it, however unlikely, but has he seen it? “Well, I want the word to go out, there will be two tickets waiting for him in Casper, Wyoming on me, ” said McKay. “There will be two tickets in Washington, DC on me, and there’ll be two tickets in Virginia outside McLean, where a lot of these people live, and just in case, I don’t know how he lives his life, there’ll also be two tickets in Las Vegas just in case he’s got a wild hair. He’s a tough SOB, man. He could take this movie right on the chin and not even blink. I guarantee you. The one who’s going to be pissed is (wife) Lynne (played by Amy Adams). Also the daughter, Liz, is going to be very pissed, because she’s kind of climbing the ladder of power right now in Washington, DC. She’s third in charge now in the House. So I don’t think Dick Cheney even blinks at this movie.”
I asked though if supporters of Cheney could actually look at Vice and say ‘Yeah , that is why I like the guy’? McKay had to think about it for a beat. “Interesting question. I mean, by the time he left office, he had the lowest approval rating ever recorded in the history of approval ratings. He was literally 13 percent. However, time is funny, because now we have the President we have, and everything has swung, and suddenly, there’s this weird nostalgia for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. So all their numbers have gone way up. I think, like, W. Bush is, like, 63 percent. I think Cheney is, like, 48 percent. So, you know, I think when your house is infested by bees and then the next week, your house catches fire, you miss the bees, and so I could run that metaphor about six different ways. I think when your house is filled with hyenas and then the next week, your house is filled with orangutans with lit road flares, you miss the hyenas. There’s four more coming. We’re going to go through every one,” he laughed, but added that even though this is a comedy (it’s got more Golden Globe nominations with six than any film this year, including Best Picture Musical or Comedy), in many ways it is no laughing matter.
“I’ll stop. I’ll stop there. But no, it’s very strange to live in a country where…and to get a little bit serious here, where, you know, our actions, or lack of actions… led to the deaths of nearly a million people, altered the global landscape, brought back torture, and then to see those same people praised in this day and age, there’s something doubly painful about that. We didn’t start making the movie because of that, but when that started happening, we realized we were making the right movie for the right time,” he said while giving a lot of credit to Annapurna for what he says is having the guts to back this kind of movie, a rarity these days.
In my review, I compared McKay to veteran movie satirists like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, not afraid to make something that might polarize audiences. Certainly Cheney was an unlikely subject for a movie
opening nationwide on Christmas Day. “It just feels like we’re in a time where reality, and history, and facts are all up for a tremendous amount of debate, if not assault, and I think it was important for us to understand this story of how this guy came to power, this shadowy bureaucratic figure, and how he changed the course of history, but it was also important to remind people that this is a much bigger story than today’s news cycle. I mean, we just walked in here, and we saw the craziest, like, lower third on CNN you’ve ever seen in your life. It was like, stock market collapsing, James Mattis is depressed, ISIS celebrates. Like, you know, monkeys have grabbed machine guns. It was the craziest freaking headline you’ve seen, and I think it’s very easy to just feel overwhelmed by this, but this is a story that has been brewing for 40 or 50 years, and it’s the counterrevolution to FDR’s New Deal. It’s the counterrevolution to the Great Society, and it was planned. There was a lot of money put into it, regardless of your political persuasion. It’s a fact, and you see this guy, Dick Cheney, in the middle of it.”
Until the next Notes On The Season, try to look on the bright side and have a Happy New Year.