Just under five months ago, this odyssey began as almost all other Oscar odysseys begin: with a dominant frontrunner jumping out of the gate amid the three-headed monster of the fall festival circuit. In La La Land’s case, it played all three. The fall circuit is the breeding ground for Best Picture winners, and it has become increasingly prominent in recent years – you have to go back five years to find a Best Picture winner that didn’t premiere on the fall circuit (in 2011, The Artist started its run in Cannes), and La La Land ticked off all three boxes, premiering at Venice and then playing Telluride and Toronto. Ever since, the season has revolved around Damien Chazelle’s film.
Hard to see any other story transpiring tomorrow morning, as the nominations for the 89th Academy Awards are announced, officially ushering in Phase Two of the season nearly five months after Phase One began. The question isn’t whether the film will figure prominently among the nominees, but how potent it is across the board. The all-time record for most nominations is 14, set by All About Eve and later tied by Titanic. That number is a legit possibility for La La, with Best Song and the Sound categories standing in its way. In Best Song, can the film manage to pull off two nominations in a single category? In the Sound categories, Mixing feels locked but Editing is more questionable. Basically, 12 nominations feels like an easy coast for the film, 13 is likely (I’m calling for two Best Song nods), and 14 not at all out of the question.
Another burning question that could shape the Phase Two narrative post-nomination announcement: who gets in for Best Director? Last week, the Directors Guild set the table by opting for Lion’s Garth Davis over Hacksaw Ridge’s Mel Gibson. It would seem that the Academy’s much smaller and more insular Directing Branch might be harsher terrain for Gibson to navigate than the 16,000-strong DGA, but he’s still in the mix. So is Martin Scorsese, apropos of really nothing else besides the fact that he’s Marty, and he’s revered by this group. Silence, by the way, is absolutely masterful, but it hasn’t played well with the guilds thus far, so if the Academy goes for it, it will be like 0-to-60 with no build-up. Hell or High Water’s David Mackenzie is a potential nominee as well – the film has performed very well across the guilds. The top four would appear to be Chazelle, Barry Jenkins, Kenneth Lonergan, and Denis Villeneuve, but I think only the first two are locked; if we are going by the logic that DGA usually matches four out the eventual five Oscar nominees, any of the others could potentially fall out…or not. The DGA five actually seems like a pretty logical group from an Academy perspective.
Best Actress is being vied for among the most crowded field we’ve seen in recent memory, and there’s bound to be at least one surprise. I suppose common logic would be that Isabelle Huppert could get wedged out, and that’s certainly possible. But I had a strange feeling come over me the other day: what if Natalie Portman is left off the Best Actress list? It would be a travesty, since it is a brilliant performance in a film whose nuances were nearly unmatched in 2016, but it strikes me as a very real possibility. Love for Jackie never reached a fever pitch, and what fervor there was died down by the time the film was released in early December. Most of the guilds ignored the film’s impeccable craft work, so it’s clearly not popular among industry folks – and, indeed, many are predicting Portman as the film’s only nomination…and yet we feel she is such a sure bet? It seems like a slippery slope to feel disengaged with a particular film, and therefore take for granted that its lead actress would be one of the chief Oscar contenders. And I’m certainly not so ballsy as to actually predict such a scenario, but in a category so overloaded with celebrated performances, something’s gotta give, and something will. I could see someone like Ruth Negga supplanting Portman…or, even more surprising, Taraji P. Henson. Consider it: Hidden Figures was already taking hold with the industry, and then its box-office skyrocketed in precise cohesion with the nomination voting period. It’s peaking at the right time, it’s an acting showcase, and those factors could result in a bonus nomination, especially in such a fluid and crowded Best Actress field.
Is such a scenario likely? Ultimately, no. It would take a perfect storm to result in a Portman snub. What I’m saying is that I see the clouds gathering – whether the storm materializes is another matter.
Across the board, what’s remarkable is how open many categories remain, even on the eve of the nominations. About 11 films fighting for anywhere from five to 10 Best Picture spots. As many as nine directors fighting over the five Best Director slots. Ditto nine Best Actress contenders. Eight Supporting Actor contenders. Seven Supporting Actress candidates. The only category that feels “closed” is Best Actor. Outside of that, there’s enough uncertainty to keep things interesting.
The Screenplay categories also seem uncertain, given the shifting of certain films from one category to the other. The AMPAS decision to move Moonlight from Original to Adapted leaves an opening in the former category for some unconventional contenders, from Zootopia to The Lobster to Toni Erdmann. On the flip side, the Adapted competition is now a little stiffer, but we wait to see if something oddball like Nocturnal Animals landing here, considering its surprising industry strength thus far.
Speaking of “oddball,” Deadpool remains a threat in multiple categories, if you can believe it, including Adapted Screenplay, Makeup and Hairstyling, and even Best Actor and Best Picture, if a post-Trump Academy really feels like running wild.
My final nomination predictions will be posted later today. After that, I’ll talk to you again in the morning, dark and early.