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Notes On The Season: Oscar Controversies; The Susan Lucci Of Music; Pelosi’s ‘Irishman’ Campaign Boost

Pete Hammond

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A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

With Monday’s Oscar nominations in the rear view mirror now, and the nominees lunch just a week away, this shortened season is getting shorter and shorter. In fact, it feels like it is moving like a freight train now with one guild show after another crowding for attention — including the ACE Eddies tonight, the often-predictive Producers Guild Saturday night, and SAG Awards on Sunday — and believe me it doesn’t slow down from there as we head to the wire.

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As I mentioned in my coverage of the Oscar nominations this also happens to be as wide open a race as you can possibly get at this point. There are genuinely realistic scenarios for any number of films to prevail, especially with the Academy’s unique voting system when it comes to Best Picture, where you must rank your choices in order from 1 to 9, a system that actually might favor your No. 2 vote with even more weight than your first choice. It is the battle to be the least disliked, and we will get a real burst of momentum for whichever film tops the PGA Awards tomorrow as that is the one guild that actually uses the exact same tabulating system as the Academy’s for Best Picture (the other 23 categories at the Oscars are straight up-and-down votes).

With a record-breaking four films (1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman, Joker) all with double-digit nominations including Director, the final vote that starts at 8 AM PT on January 30 could be so close that anything could happen. The fifth nominee in the directing category, Parasite, may be the most universally admired movie in the whole bunch based on voters I talk with and so, even with just six nominations and the oft-told fact that no foreign-language film has ever won Best Picture, its position as a heavily chosen No. 2 choice in addition to the No. 1 votes it gets puts it in a prime spot to be the spoiler. Or not. Who knows?

But as the newly christened Searchlight Pictures rep pleaded in a phone call Monday, don’t underestimate their Jojo Rabbit, after I pointed out it does not have a directing nomination. Staffers there combed through AMPAS archives to find past examples of movies that have won Best Picture without a corresponding nomination for its director. I thought about it a beat and realized you have to look no further than last year. Giving Searchlight a reason to hope, I mentioned the eerily similar track Jojo is on with 2018 Best Picture winner Green Book. Like the latter, Taika Waititi’s film has Best Picture, Screenplay, Acting and Editing nominations but no Directing. Both films did however get a DGA nod, and both won the much desired People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, a key early indicator of Oscar potential. Because of that also very key Editing nomination Jojo is, according to the signs pundits always look for, in a better situation to crash the party and pull off a shocking upset than the other Best Picture nominees that also were snubbed by the directors branch — including Little Women, Marriage Story and Ford v Ferrari (which is up for, and could win, Editing but lacks acting, writing and directing nods, making it the longest of shots to become the biggest upset in Oscar’s Best Picture race ever).

IS OSCAR REALLY A MALE CHAUVINIST PIG? NOT THIS YEAR, FOLKS

So with such an exciting Oscar contest looming, why are all the headlines and Internet chatter about the Academy getting slammed again on diversity and women, or the lack of each, in what is apparently the only category the Oscar-bashing media thinks exists, that being Best Director? A record 62 women were nominated this year, including a majority of directors in the Best Documentary Feature category, but the press, pundits and social critics only want to talk about who wasn’t nominated for Director, meaning Greta Gerwig, who became only the second woman ever (Kathryn Bigelow is the other) to direct two, count ’em two Best Picture nominees; in Gerwig’s case, those two happen to be the first two movies on which she ever had sole directing credit. Of course she is nominated for her adapted screenplay, but the media dismisses that as a consolation prize should she win (and I think she just might). I have news for them: creating a script from scratch is the most important aspect of filmmaking because there would be no film to make without one, so let’s stop calling that a consolation prize.

I was having lunch with a well-known producer (and actually a former Oscar show producer) this week, and he said the very fact we are astounded that there is no woman nominated for Best Director is an achievement in itself for progress in that regard. This conversation would never have even been conceivable in the great majority of Oscar’s 92 years, or even five years ago. He’s right. Our consciousness has been raised to a promising degree, but in terms of this year’s race it is just the way the cookie crumbles. Oscar breaks a lot of hearts, male and female. That is just the way it always is, and short of creating a committee with the power to change that (similar to what the Grammys did a few years ago to avoid looking out of touch with the real world, and what the Academy did in determining finalists for the now renamed International Film category) likely always will be when voting is done in secret by individuals.

The correct question being asked is which of those five male nominees — Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Todd Phillips, Bong Joon Ho, Sam Mendes — gets knocked out instead? Is there an egregious error with this bunch? This is a superb group of directing nominees and I can think of several other male helmers who could just as easily be in there too as well as women like Gerwig, Lulu Wang and Marielle Heller. It was a good year, but no question it would be great to see more women among them in the future. Expanding the category would be a way to start.

It seems a shame (and you can sue me if you don’t like it) that this group of Best Director Oscar contenders are being made to feel guilty just for being nominated. So let’s get positive and point out something that I have not seen written anywhere else: Each of these films also have women in key power positions including as Producer, a first in the history of the Best Director category. Scorsese has long been a champion in promoting women in areas where there weren’t many working, including his longtime association with film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and his Irishman producers Jane Rosenthal and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, the latter also a producer on Joker whom Phillips lobbied to get. Phillips also blindly hired a female composer, Hildur Guonadottir, a rare move considering the paltry percentage of female composers even working on this level. She’s been cleaning up on the awards circuit so far and is an Oscar nominee herself. Phillips had no idea when he approached her that it was a woman whose music he was so impressed with. She got it on merit and that’s the way ideally it should be.

Tarantino has also been a huge supporter of women on his films from his longtime producer and associate Shannon McIntosh to most of his department heads. Mendes shares producing credit, as he often does, with women including fellow 1917 Oscar nominees Pippa Harris and Jayne-Ann Tenggren, and for the first, now Oscar- and WGA- nominated screenplay he ever wrote hired a first-time screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns to share the credit. She is now an Oscar nominee too who, along with Gerwig, is the only female nominated for writing this year. There should be more of course but again, who gets knocked out? And then there is Bong, whose Parasite sports two producing Oscar nominations, one for him and one for his producer Kwak Sin Ae, who is among many women in key positions on his films.

So congratulations guys on not only your well-deserved Best Director nomination but for all each of you do in making sure women are getting the opportunities they also richly deserve, the only way real change in this industry and at the Oscars is going to happen.

IS THOMAS NEWMAN THE NEW SUSAN LUCCI OF THE OSCARS?

When I saw 1917 I thought immediately it had two Oscars in the bag for sure: Roger Deakins for Cinematography and Thomas Newman for Original Score. Both are superb and such major reasons for this film’s creative success. I would still say Deakins is a lock, but because of the equally fine and aforementioned score for Joker by Guonadottir, there is suddenly a real horse race going on for Score. She has been triumphing at one event or another lately from the the Society of Composers and Lyricists Awards to the Golden Globes to the Critics’ Choice, and all that means is Joker could be in the pole position to take this category. Newman has won at the largest number of critics groups around the country, but since the Globes momentum has been moving towards Guonadottir, who also won an Emmy this year for Chernobyl and is up for a Grammy too.

Very few women have ever won in the scoring categories at the Oscars and that could be added motivation as well for voters. However, only the film’s name appears on the ballot, not the composer’s, so a smart campaign can be important here. Both scores are highly deserving and really complex achievements, so telling how they were accomplished is very important.

It could also be noted that Newman has quietly become the Susan Lucci of the Oscars, a title that formerly belonged to Sound Mixer Kevin O’Connell, who finally won for Hacksaw Ridge on his 21st nomination. Newman’s time may have finally come: Newman, a member of the prodigious Newman musical dynasty and son of Alfred Newman, who died in 1970 but is still the all-time musical Oscar winner with nine Oscars (John Williams has more nominations but only five wins), received his whopping 15th nomination for 1917. He has been a familiar presence at Oscar ceremonies but has never connected with a film that made him a winner. He has been getting Oscar nominations for so long that ironically his first came in 1994 for Little Women, and now a quarter century later he finds he is in competition with the new version of Little Women and its lovely score by two-time winner Alexandre Desplat. That year he lost to Hans Zimmer for The Lion King (twice, since he was also nominated for The Shawshank Redemption (wouldn’t it have been ironic if the new version of Lion King made the cut here, but it didn’t).

His nominations since include Unstrung Heroes, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Finding Nemo, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Good German, WALL-E (including an Original Song nom for that as well), Skyfall, Saving Mr. Banks, Bridge of Spies and Passengers.

Due to the unique “one shot” structure of 1917, Mendes told me it was only with Newman’s scoring that any significant changes could be made to the film in post-production, and that is why it was doubly important to have someone like Newman on board. The two have been collaborators on every Mendes film except one. The other irony for Newman is that his competition this year also includes cousin Randy Newman, a past Oscar winner for the Newman family, who has nominations for Song for Toy Story 4 and Score for Marriage Story directly competing with Thomas. This is one of this year’s most interesting Oscar stories, and time will tell how it all turns out.

TRUMP’S IMPEACHMENT AND ‘THE IRISHMAN’ 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave a million bucks of free publicity to Martin Scorsese’s 10-time Oscar-nominated The Irishman on Thursday in signing the articles of President Donald Trump’s impeachment, and Netflix was anxious to pass it along in case we missed the reference. She linked Trump’s request to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favor” to the Scorsese film by suggesting it was coded mob talk. “Do me a favor?” she said in her speech on the House floor before signing off on the articles. “Do you paint houses too? What is this? Do me a favor?” In the movie, which is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, Al Pacino’s character Jimmy Hoffa tells hit man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), “I heard you paint houses.” That is mob-speak for doing a hit. I am sure that well-known Trump hater De Niro got a big kick out of this free plug, so to speak.

TAKING OUT THE TRASH WITH SAG

Finally, with the SAG Awards upon us Sunday, at least one member of the SAG Nominating Committee (a group of 2,500 randomly selected members who get the royal treatment each awards season in return for their votes) posted the mounds of campaign crap she is taking to the dumpster this weekend.

“As a member of the SAG nominating committee, I was shocked to receive approximately 30 pounds of propaganda in magazines and ads seeking my vote. I was also dismayed that movies were sent on disc rather than a truly disposable link. In an industry where many claim to care about the environment, this is a shameful, flagrant and unnecessary creation of trash and destruction of trees,” wrote Penny Woods in an email to Deadline. “Imagine, or calculate, how much that 30 pounds would become when multiplied by the numbers of industry votes being sought in all guilds and industries. How about the entertainment industry starts actually setting a good example to help save our environment?” She also notes the stack pictured does not include the additional trash of packaging.

No word on if any of this made a bit of difference in her votes, but she’s clearly casting one against the way Hollywood does business in its award seasons.

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