Upsets Looming For The Race? ‘Parasite’ On The Rise; The Return Of Oscar Legend Sacheen Littlefeather


A column chronicling events and conversations on the awards circuit.


Lots of questions this week as Christmas Day has come and gone and we are just six days away from Oscar ballots going live. Are there upsets looming in a year that has become wildly unpredictable as to which way the Oscar winds may be blowing? We will have a much better idea by the point that the two-week holiday break is officially over. In that time the Palm Springs International Film Festival will have handed out its ginormous trophies, AFI will have had its awards luncheon, and the Golden Globes will be history. Just one day after everyone is officially back at their desks (if they take the whole New Year’s weekend) those Oscar ballots will be due on January 7, and it is still a mystery just how many members will actually have caught up on all the films and what kind of turnout the Academy can create with its constant reminders to members.

Joaquin Phoenix in 'Joker'
Warner Bros.

One storied Oscar winning actress told me she was “blown away” by Parasite, and has seen The Joker twice just to see Joaquin Phoenix give what she considers to be one of the greatest, and in her words, inspiring performances she has ever witnessed. She still has to catch up however on a number of movies, including Marriage Story, which she says she has yet to see even once. A former Academy officer and veteran of several dozen movies emailed me to say, “just saw the best film by far. By far the best film. In every category!” He was referring to 1917. A Best Actor nominee from last year concurs and also mentioned that movie as the one that has impressed him the most. Another Oscar voter, who touts Ford v Ferrari as a personal favorite though told me he admires 1917 from a technical POV, but wanted more emotion.It finally opened in limited release on Christmas so now the public gets to weigh in as well, but Universal had those screeners for the Sam Mendes film out there as quickly as they could.

Walt Disney Studios

Surprisingly, so did Disney for their box office behemoth, Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, even sending to the Producers Guild and others before the film had officially opened on December 20, an unusual move for a blockbuster in danger of being pirated, and one that isn’t topping any pundits list of likely Best Picture nominees, but the PGA is known for bucking the trend and occasionally throwing a bone to the money makers. This week the Writers Guild got a digital copy in their inboxes. On Christmas Disney even took a full page ad in the LA Times (in between a bunch of Netflix ads) asking for consideration in Best Picture, perhaps sensing, or hoping, the Best Picture picture is still a little unsettled. However no Star Wars movie has achieved that feat since the first one in 1977, but Disney is praying what is being labeled as the last in the nine film series will buck the trend despite middling reviews. Avengers: Endgame is in the same yacht, big moneymakers for the Mouse House but longshots for Oscar. Disney’s best bets are the aforementioned Ford v Ferrari and Jojo Rabbit which they inherited in the Fox buy.


As for Netflix they are not leaving anything to chance, particularly in efforts for The Irishman, which would seem to be a safe bet for numerous nominations including Best Picture, but right now is a little shaky in the Best Actor category for title star Robert De Niro who failed to grab SAG or Golden Globe nominations for his performance. I have heard those snubs batted away by explaining SAG is already giving him the Life Achievement Award this year so no need for a Lead Actor nod, and that the HFPA still hasn’t gotten over De Niro jokingly suggesting during his Cecil B. DeMille acceptance speech in 2011 that some Globes voters could be “deported.” The only problem with the latter theory is he was actually Globe-nominated for his TV role in The Wizard Of Lies just two years ago. At any rate to further solidify De Niro support the streamer is launching an American Cinematheque series that starts with a 45-minute conversation between De Niro and his long time collaborator Martin Scorsese followed by an Irishman screening at the Egyptian. Then for the remainder of January they will have a matinee retrospective at the Aero Theatre called “The Films Of Marty And Bob,” featuring all eight of their previous films together, beginning with 1973’s Mean Streets. By the way, the Cinematheque is changing a steep $40 for general admission ($30 for members) just to get into the conversation on the 4th, the highest admission price I can ever recall them charging for anything. 

Eddie Murphy returns to 'Saturday Night Live'

The Best Actor race is easily the most competitive, thus the worry that De Niro’s terrific but low-key portrayal could get lost in the crowd. There are at least 10 viable nominees, but only five slots. I can see five worthy actors being left out in the cold with no nomination, when in another year they might have even won. Netflix alone could almost fill the category with De Niro, Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, and Eddie Murphy who after his acclaimed and highly rated return to host Saturday Night Live last weekend has renewed momentum in the race, one that could bring him his first-ever Leading Actor Oscar nomination for Dolemite Is My Name. He was nominated just once previously, in the supporting category for Dreamgirls in 2006, but lost to Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine. He won his only Golden Globe for that performance, and is a good bet to take a second career Globe win on January 5 in the Lead Actor Comedy or Musical category if he can get by another GG favorite, twelve-time nominee and three time winner Leonardo DiCaprio. The Globes are likely to be spread all over the place, but you can bet the farm that DiCaprio’s film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, takes Best Motion Picture Comedy or Musical, and his co-star Brad Pitt wins Best Supporting Actor. And could Netflix’s own The Two Popes upset their The Irishman in Best Motion Picture -Drama? The film, which received four nominations, might seem a long shot but talk to any Hollywood Foreign Press member and you will see how much they loved it. It reminds me of last year when they went their own way being an early adopter of Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, two films they also just loved. Don’t be surprised if the HFPA gets a little religion this year in what could be a shocker.


Adam Sandler in 'Uncut Gems'

The other day I was interviewing Adam Sandler at a Q&A in Century City for his latest film, Uncut Gems, and I asked him how it felt to be in a film that is winning him so much acclaim and awards recognition. “How does it feel? Uh, new,” he laughed, but as the New York diamond merchant in the Safdie Brothers indie hit, he has won the National Board Of Review Best Actor prize, several other nominations and critics awards, as well as a nomination for Best Actor at the Critics Choice Awards on January 12. The film has opened exceptionally well at the box office and that could help drive Oscar voter interest in checking it out despite Sandler’s omission at the Globes and SAG. Again it is an extremely crowded category to break into but there is already evidence of that happening for the Uncut Gems star. Sandler tells the story of getting a personal call from none other than three- time Best Actor winner Daniel Day Lewis who rang him up just to wax rhapsodic on Adam’s performance,the kind of high-wire acting tour de force other actors love. If enough of them do, then he could squeeze in, and alas squeeze the likes of De Niro or Murphy out. This is why Oscar consultants get ulcers.


Mandatory Credit: Photo by GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (10248244bq) Bong Joon-ho reacts after winning the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) for the movie 'Parasite' during the Closing Awards Ceremony of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, in Cannes, France, 25 May 2019. The Golden Palm winning movie will be screened after the closing ceremony. Closing Award Ceremony - 72nd Cannes Film Festival, France - 25 May 2019
Guillaume Horcajuelo/Shutterstock

The Cannes Film Festival has taken its hits over recent years in being a dangerous place to debut a potential Oscar Best Picture contender, just because May is awfully early to unveil your goods and the chance of getting a negative response is just too great to take. Only films like Spike Lee’s BlackKlansman, Paramount’s Rocketman, and this year’s potential Oscar juggernaut Once Upon A Time In Hollywood seem to be bucking the trend of waiting for the Fall Film Festivals instead, and that is only because all were summer releases making Cannes a natural stop as part of a worldwide publicity campaign. This year just might be different, and it could even make history. There is clearly a Parasite invading the Oscar race and based on numerous conversations I have been having lately, this South Korean worldwide hit just might have the stuff to become the first foreign language film to actually go all the way and win Best Picture. Not only would that be a first in Oscar history, it would also mark only the second time the winner of the Palme d’Or in Cannes matched Oscar’s Best Picture champ. The only other example was in 1955, the first year when both prizes existed at the same time and Marty won both. It has never happened since, even if it looked for a minute as if Roman Polanski’s Palme d’Or winning The Pianist was about to pull off a Best Pic upset against Chicago in 2002. Can Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, which opened in North America in October, finally do the trick? We will know in just a few weeks. At any rate the one great consistency of Cannes has been in influencing the eventual nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, now newly renamed Best International Film. This year no less than half of the shortlisted ten finalists to become one of the five eventual nominees first debuted in Cannes, and of course one of them is Parasite.


Christian Bale and Sacheen Littlefeather RNCI

For those who love dabbling in Oscar history like I do, the name Sacheen Littlefeather is indelibly planted in our heads. She of course became infamous as the young Native American woman Marlon Brando sent to the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony to get on stage and refuse his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather. Last month she won several honors, including the newly created Brando Award, for a short film about her life at the Red Nation International Film Festival’s 24th Annual Awards Ceremony, an event put on by the Red Nation Celebration Institute to shine a light on the kinds of achievements by American Indian and Indigenous voices that struggle to find attention in the mainstream media. Among others who attended were Hostiles director Scott Cooper and his star Christian Bale (they presented to their Native American consultant on the film). Littlefeather’s film is a 25 minute short called Sacheen: Breaking The Silence from writer/director Peter Spirer, and in it Littlefeather (birth name: Maria Cruz) provides an on-screen account of her involvement with Brando and how she came to command the attention of the world and the one billion viewers of the Academy Awards by delivering his message about the misrepresentation of Native Americans in Hollywood films. It is a compelling and moving account of her life, but focuses on the part of it that made this actress who had appeared in small roles in movies like Freebie And The Bean and The Trial Of Billy Jack an instant household name and answer to one of the great all-time Oscar trivia questions.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences gave permission for the footage of the ceremony and the film is a fascinating and detailed account of what happened from the moment she was invited to Brando’s for dinner all the way to the repercussions of her appearance on the Oscar stage, one that led to what she calls her “redlisting” in Hollywood films and eventually to a different kind of life in which she worked with Mother Theresa among others. She says she was accused of being a “Mexican actress” who wore a costume that night, among other indignities this Native American performer was falsely accused of. In the film she gives exacting detail regarding how it all came down. At dinner at his house Brando made her wait while he wrote an 8 page speech he expected her to read on stage, informing her she was not to touch the Oscar if the presenters (Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann) tried to hand it to her. Show producer Howard W. Koch confronted her beforehand and said she could not read the speech and had only 60 seconds or would be tossed out, so she eventually improvised it, giving Brando’s intentions. She talks about being booed by portions of the audience, and how the press treated her backstage. In one great segment, the film chronicles her actual meeting decades later at a book signing with Ullmann who is stunned when she reveals their one-time connection on the Oscars. Littlefeather, who says her favorite filmmaker has always been Ingmar Bergman, was obsessed in knowing what the great Swedish director thought about that night. Ullmann says he loved it.


The strange bedfellows Oscar history makes is what makes the show unique unto itself. Oscar and Littlefeather are inextricably tied together, and she is very eloquent in telling how.In the film the 73-year-old reveals she has been given a terminal fourth stage cancer diagnosis but chooses to live each day knowing she had done some good with her life, and in the case of the Oscars that was getting the message of treatment of Native Americans out to an audience that never would have heard it otherwise. The same goes for this film which is looking for distribution. Joanelle Romero is founder and CEO of RNCI is a member of AMPAS and is still the only Native American filmmaker to be shortlisted in the Documentary Short Branch for her 2000 film American Holocaust: When It’s All Over I’ll Still Be Indian. She will be showcasing 23 films at the Native Women In Film festival the week of the Oscars on Feb 5 and 6 in Beverly Hills, and Sacheen will be one of them. She is also hoping to get the Red Nation fest to be an Oscar-Qualifying festival where these movies will have a better chance of getting recognition, at least on shortlists, at the Academy Awards. Certainly AMPAS, which has only awarded two Oscars to Native Americans in its history to songwriter Buffy Sainte Marie for Best Song in 1983 and an Honorary Award this year to actor Wes Studi, should be interested considering their much talked-about push for diversity. Who knows? Maybe Sacheen Littlefeather has one more Oscar ceremony in her, this time accepting for herself.

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