A month in the hype machine
Barry Hertz tracks the Oscar buzz from nomination to close of voting and offers his best prediction of which film will come out on top on Sunday
The Oscar race is a wild, unpredictable, endurance-testing marathon – a multimillion-dollar exercise in vanity, ego and, occasionally, art. From the moment nominations are announced to the glitzy ceremony itself, the fortunes of nominees can swing up, down and sideways, depending on everything from box-office numbers to shifting political winds, especially in 2017, the year of Donald Trump. Here, we track the Academy Awards conversation from Jan. 24 (the day nominations were announced) through Friday (three days after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences closed its polls) to offer our best prediction of which film will come out on top Sunday night.
WEEK OF JAN. 23
Jan. 24: Even before this year's nominees were announced, the La La Land backlash was dancing its way across the industry, high-kicking anyone who dared to profess a fondness for the film. In December, MTV News ran an essay with a headline that neatly summed up the dissenters: "Damien Chazelle's tribute to jazz music is a Trojan horse white-saviour film in tap shoes." Then Vulture warned that "La La Land is clueless about what's actually happening in jazz." No one seems to realize, though, that academy voters don't care, and have never cared, about jazz. (And the issue of race is an even thornier matter.)
Jan. 28: U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration ban takes effect – at least for a short while – throwing the world into general chaos, and, tangentially, affecting the awards race. Lion, for instance, which tells the tale of a refugee (of sorts) suddenly has more political urgency. Ditto Moonlight, which has nothing to do with Trump's politics but is about as progressive an antidote to the President's administration as can be imagined. And suddenly, the plight of the white men at the heart of Manchester by the Sea and La La Land seems less important to the cultural conversation.
Jan. 28: Not even the #woke-est think-piece or middling Saturday Night Live skit can stop the La La Land train from triumphing among the all-important industry guilds, whose members comprise a good portion of the academy's 7,000-plus membership. At the Producers Guild of America Awards, Chazelle's film takes top prize.
Jan. 29: Wait, hold that tune. The La La Land narrative gets a slight shift at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, as Hidden Figures captures the top prize, while Fences gets a serious boost thanks to a double SAG hit championing stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. But mostly all anyone wants to talk about is Winona Ryder's face as it experienced approximately 2,000 emotions at once during her co-star David Harbour's acceptance speech for Stranger Things.
WEEK OF JAN. 30
Feb. 1: Arrival's Denis Villeneuve is signed to direct a new adaptation of Dune. But it's unlikely the academy is stacked with Frank Herbert fans and the news does little to boost Arrival's best-picture buzz.
Feb. 3: La La Land steps back into the spotlight as the Directors Guild of America names Chazelle the top filmmaker of the year. (Only two DGA winners have failed to nab the best-director statuette at the Oscars.)
Feb. 3: Washington continues to charm on the campaign circuit, accepting the Maltin Modern Master Award at California's small but influential Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Fences remains a long shot for a best-picture statuette, but Washington increasingly looks as if he's a lock for best actor, especially as his nearest competitor, Manchester by the Sea's Casey Affleck, gets bogged down with headlines concerning his ugly legal past.
Feb. 5: The space race is officially on (and that joke is officially over, as of this sentence), with Hidden Figures surpassing La La Land to become the top-grossing best-picture nominee of the year ($119.5-million compared with $118.2-million; all figures U.S.). Although box-office popularity does not ensure Oscar success, it can't hurt, especially as the academy has long struggled to align its tastes with those of the movie-going public (in 2014, for instance, only one of its best-picture nominees grossed more than $100-million).
WEEK OF FEB. 6
Feb. 11: Washington delivers an electrifying speech at the NAACP Image Awards – "Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship. So, keep moving, keep learning, keep growing. See you at work" – all but cementing Fences' chances in the acting categories, although likely not the best-picture slot.
Feb. 12: In London, the BAFTAs largely fall in line with expectations, awarding La La Land best picture. Although the British do shake things up slightly in the acting categories, awarding Lion's Dev Patel a best-supporting-actor trophy over Moonlight's Mahershala Ali, the presumed frontrunner. (It should be noted, though, that unlike Ali, Patel is, well, British.) And lest anyone think winning across the pond is meaningless: The British Academy of Film and Television Arts has about 500 members who also belong to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
WEEK OF FEB. 13
Feb. 15: Hacksaw Ridge director and onetime Hollywood pariah Mel Gibson is rumoured to direct the sequel to Suicide Squad. Not that the news helps Hacksaw's chances in the race. If anything, it's indicative the industry feels Gibson is more suited to blowing things up – bodies, buildings, his personal life – than helming prestige dramas, and he'll have to make do with the honour of merely being nominated this year. Also of note: Someone out there thinks it's a good idea to make a sequel to Suicide Squad.
Feb. 15: Moonlight's Ali graces the cover of The Hollywood Reporter, one of the loudest industry declarations so far that the drama is the contender that cannot be ignored, La La Land absolutists be damned.
Feb. 15: In that same issue of The Hollywood Reporter, onetime basketball legend and THR columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar slams La La Land, focusing on its lack of black characters and its narrative weak spots: "Mia also sings this about her aunt: 'She lives in her liquor / And died with a flicker / I'll always remember the flame.' Sure, you'll remember the flame because you're too blinded by your own ambition to see the real moral: She died with a flicker because she was an alcoholic burnout!"
Feb. 19: The Times of London publishes a vicious, double-barrelled review by Camilla Long of Moonlight and Hidden Figures. But any chance the criticism might knock either film out of the best-picture race is dashed when readers notice that Long makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Feb. 19: Actor and filmmaker Mark Duplass (Cyrus, HBO's Togetherness) pens an open letter urging academy members to honour Moonlight as voting enters its final few days, calling the drama "his favourite film of the last 10 years."
Feb. 19: Moonlight gets another boost by landing the best-original-screenplay award from the Writers Guild of America. The only wrinkle: Moonlight is not an original screenplay, at least in the academy's eyes – it considers the fact that it's based on an unproduced play enough reason to place it in the "adapted" category. Arrival, meanwhile, gets a much-needed shot of awards-race adrenalin thanks to its WGA win for best adapted screenplay – although it will have to compete with, yes, Moonlight for that category at the Oscars.
Feb. 19: La La Land's soundtrack hits No. 10 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, up 33 per cent from the week before. The question is whether the academy is listening.
WEEK OF FEB. 20
Feb. 21: Oh, right, Hell or High Water is also nominated for best picture. Good for it. But let's put it this way: Online betting firm Ladbrokes has it at 150:1 odds of winning. (Although things looked similarly dire for the Patriots, and Trump …)
Feb. 21: A poll by movie-ticket site Fandango reveals average moviegoers would vote for Hidden Figures as the year's best picture, given the chance – although La La Land was the second choice, with a difference of one percentage point.
Feb. 22: As with everything in Hollywood, it pays to follow the money. History suggests the academy prefers its best-picture winners to be modestly profitable, but not out-and-out blockbusters (exceptions: The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Titanic and Gladiator – although each of those honours was arguably more about securing a particular filmmaker's legacy than anything to do with the movie's specific merits). Here, it's almost a dead heat between La La Land and Hidden Figures, with the former having earned $134-million domestically on a $30-million budget, and the latter raking in $144-million on a $25-million budget. Both are noteworthy surpluses that fit nicely with the academy's high, but not outrageously boastful, preferences. (The story takes a different turn when considering foreign grosses, though, with La La Land having earned about $180-million more overseas than Hidden Figures.)
Feb. 24: Despite all the twists, turns and surprising stamina of Hidden Figures, it appears that, just as was the buzz when it came out of the Toronto International Film Festival in September, La La Land is destined to take home the best-picture Oscar. But never discount the power of a twist ending.
The 89th Academy Awards will be broadcast live Sunday on CTV and ABC, at 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT.