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What in the world is going on with the Oscars?
The 94th Academy Awards will air on ABC Sunday night, returning to their usual home at Hollywood's storied Dolby Theatre after last year's pandemic-driven, scaled-down detour to downtown Los Angeles's Union Station – yet another sign of restoring some "normalcy" after two-plus years of COVID-19 restrictions. The telecast will be hosted by a trio of actress-comedians: Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes.
But there's been nothing normal about this year's Oscar season, which has been rife with head-shaking and hand-wringing over various tweaks the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences (AMPAS) has made for the 2022 edition, ostensibly to reverse course – or at least stop the bleeding – after years of dwindling ratings.
To be clear, it's not that the Academy hasn't dealt with controversies in recent years. See consecutive bouts of #OscarsSoWhite blowback and its very short-lived ratings ploy to add a category for "Best Popular Film." But the kerfuffles this year have been coming at us faster than the sandworms on Arrakis in Dune.
First, there were the COVID protocols. On Feb. 9, The Hollywood Reporter raised some ire with its story that the Academy would not require vaccinations for its guests, going against the tide of every other major awards show in town. A week later, the Academy modified its stance, revealing vaccinations would be required for nominees and guests, but not performers and presenters (most of whom still sit in the crowd, by the way), which makes even less sense than a general "no vaccinations required" policy. (The protocols were tightened slightly again this week after an uptick in cases around last week's BAFTA Awards.)
On Feb. 14, the Academy announced "Oscars Fan Favorite" – an initiative reminiscent of its "Best Popular Film" mulligan to highlight the 2021 movie that receive the most online fan votes and social media hashtags. With a Best Picture lineup that includes the films Belfast, CODA, Don't Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, The Power of the Dog, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley and West Side Story, it's a gimmick clearly designed to make room in the telecast for a movie that actually made money at the box office. And you probably wouldn't be too far off-base if you think its brain trust had one mega-movie in mind, December's record-shattering Spider-Man: No Way Home, in its creation. There was a brief period of time when pundits even thought No Way Home would be the rare comic book movie, up there with Black Panther and Joker, to be recognized by the arthouse-minded Academy in its top race. That didn't happen.
Presenting your #OscarsFanFavorite leaderboard. Continue casting your vote by:
1. Tweeting your favorite film from 2021 with the hashtag #OscarsFanFavorite
2. OR by voting on https://t.co/dadD2i7Cy0
Voting closes on Thursday, March 3rd. pic.twitter.com/dqAOqFEXSy
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) February 28, 2022
But the "fan favorite" brain trust likely miscalculated that by opening up an online poll, the honor won't necessarily go to the Best Popular Film, it will go to the movie with the most ardent, most hardcore Twitter army. And that fanbase is easily devotees of Zack Snyder's Justice League, a fanbase so ardent and so hardcore they seemingly did the impossible by famously hashtagging his director's version of DC's slapdash, Joss Whedon-finished 2017 misfire into existence with the #ReleasetheSnyderCut movement. Of course, the Snyder Cut fan army revolted just as quickly upon discovering Justice League would not actually be eligible for the award because the four-hour cut is considered a re-release. Now, one of the heavy favorites to win is Snyder's other 2021 release, the modestly received Netflix zombie thriller Army of the Dead, a clear stand-in for Justice League. Other top contenders for the prize reportedly include Amazon Prime's Cinderella and the tiny limited release Minamata, because that's how many people still love its star, Johnny Depp.
The Academy saved its biggest controversy for last, though. On Feb. 22, the organization announced – in what is highly, highly likely a directive from ABC to shorten its ceremony, which usually runs over 3 hours – that the presentations of eight of its 23 awards would be pre-taped and not aired live. Those include some significant so-called "below-the-line" categories – Best Editing and Best Original Score – as well as Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design, Sound and the three shorts categories (Live Action, Animated and Documentary).
The blowback was quick, loud and clear. Pundits (and Patton Oswalt) ripped into the decision on social media. Steven Spielberg condemned it, as did Guillermo del Toro. James Cameron and Jane Campion were among 70 prominent filmmakers to issue a letter to the Academy urging them to reconsider. Best Actress frontrunner Jessica Chastain vowed to skip the red carpet in protest. Some Academy members, including previous Oscar nominees in the sound categories, Tom Fleischman and Peter Kurland, resigned from the organization. The sound editors who attending, meanwhile, are reportedly planning a silent protest by wearing the guild badges upside down. There's also speculation that all winners are being encouraged to join in a wider silent protest by accepting their Oscars upside down.
NONE of these categories are being televised? You're giving in to short-term ratings panic and forgetting what The Oscars are all about.
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) February 23, 2022
Definitely keep chasing viewers who don't like the Oscars by alienating viewers who do like the Oscars, you brilliant brilliant minds.
— Joe Reid (@joereid) February 22, 2022
On one hand, it’s hard to blame ABC and the Academy for attempting to broaden the Oscars' audience. Ratings have been plummeting for years. In 2010, the telecast had over 40 million viewers. A year ago, viewers fell from 23.6 million viewers in 2020 to a mere 9.8 million in 2021. You could argue that because the box office was closed for much of 2020, the year's limited film offerings played into that steep decline, with artier titles like Nomadland, The Father, Mank and Minari dominating the nominations and wins. But that's been the direction the scale of Oscar films has been leaning in years, at least since movies like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Departed won Best Picture in 2003 and 2006, respectively. This year, not a single one of the Best Picture nominees ranked in the top 10 highest-grossing movies of the year, with the fragmenting effect of streaming services simultaneously giving their films large pay-wall platforms and limiting their broader reach.
Things have gotten so dire that there's a prevalent sense within the industry the Oscars will be forced off its broadcast network and onto a streaming partner in the near future. The Academy, for now, is a prisoner of ABC's demands.
But there have to be smarter ways to save the Oscars that don't also alienate its core audience, the types of cinephiles that obsess over it for months out of the year (guilty).
So what will be seen at the Oscars Sunday? After rumors that the Academy was chasing Spidey stars and Young Hollywood power couple Tom Holland and Zendaya to co-host, telecast producer Will Packer (Girls Trip, Ride Along) recruited a trio of very funny women for emcee duties: Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes. It's hard to say if they'll help ratings any, but they should make the show entertaining – far more entertaining than last year’s cold sober affair (Glenn Close's dance to "Da Butt" a rare highlight).
It's hard to imagine a full-on Hollywood roast, as Ricky Gervais made his brand while hosting the suddenly irrelevant Golden Globes. Hall has said they'll "poke fun" at the industry, while Schumer said she wants to "take the piss" out of the audience. Schumer also said on The Drew Barrymore Show that she wanted to find a way to have Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky "satellite in or make a tape or something, just because there are so many eyes on the Oscars." While at first that seemed unlikely, what with Zelensky currently on the frontline of defending his country from a Russian invasion, the New York Post reported this weekend that Zelensky was in talks with the Academy to appear. Count actor Sean Penn among those who really, really want to see it happen: The Mystic River and Milk winner has vowed "to smelt" his Oscars in public if it doesn't.
The musical performances are more exciting than usual, thank God. Four of the five Best Original Song nominees will be included with bold-faced names Beyoncé and Billie Eilish among the artists. Queen Bey is reportedly set to perform her King Richard power anthem "Be Alive" via satellite from tennis courts in Compton in a nod to where the film's subjects, Venus and Serena Williams, first honed their craft. It could even open the show. Eilish, meanwhile, will perform her James Bond theme song "No Time to Die" alongside brother and musical partner Finneas O'Connell. The one nominated song you won't hear will be Van Morrison’s "Down to Joy" from Belfast; though there was early speculation that the Oscars' bizarre COVID policy for presenters and performers was kowtowing to the "Brown Eyed Girl" vax skeptic, the Academy has cited his tour schedule for his absence. In one of the smartest decisions the producers have made (hey, credit where credit’s due), they've also added an 11th-hour performance of the Encanto sensation "We Don't Talk About Bruno" despite the fact that the song isn't nominated. (Disney submitted "Dos Oruguitas" instead, well before "Bruno" exploded, so look for "Oruguitas" to win with a major assist from "Bruno").
The presenters are a mix of mostly logical choices… and not so much. There's Jamie Lee Curtis, Tiffany Haddish, Anthony Hopkins, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lady Gaga, Daniel Kaluuya, Mila Kunis (who will no doubt make an emotional plea for her native Ukraine), Bill Murray, Lupita Nyong'o, Elliot Page, and the Williams sisters. John Travolta and Uma Thurman are both listed, so expect a Pulp Fiction reunion. Same for Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes and Rosie Perez, who will no doubt hit the stage together on the actual 30th anniversary of White Men Can't Jump. But then there's also… DJ Khaled, Tony Hawk, Kelly Slater and Shaun White? That last bunch gives off blatant "How do you do, fellow kids?" energy, but at least it's not as desperate as the reveal that Academy has also invited Instagram influencers to the ceremony to capture content for their Reels.
Tony Hawk, Kelly Slater, Shaun White…. What is going on with the Oscar presenters this year pic.twitter.com/1c149bn9EO
— Kyle Buchanan (@kylebuchanan) March 21, 2022
And here Rachel Zegler couldn't even get a ticket for the show. The West Side Story star made headlines earlier this week when she replied to an Instagram commenter that she couldn't swing an invite to the ceremony, despite headlining a Best Picture nominee that racked up seven total noms. Reports indicated Disney didn't include Zegler because they didn’t want to interfere with the production schedule of its live-action Snow White movie the actress is currently filming in London; if true, it's another bad look for the Mouse House in a month full of them. The Academy, however, ultimately invited Zegler to present.
Oh yeah, then of course there are the actual awards.
As much as cinephiles look forward to the Oscars every year, they're almost overwhelmingly predictable at this point. That's what happens when Hollywood's Super Bowl follows three months of predictive critics awards show, and more tellingly, all of the guilds. The ground swells and group-think winners fortify. It would be a shock if Will Smith doesn't claim his first Oscar in four tries for King Richard. Same for first-time nominees Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) and Troy Kotsur (CODA) in Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. Kotsur would be the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar, 35 years after his CODA co-star Marlee Matlin won for Children of a Lesser God. Jane Campion is a lock for directing The Power of the Dog (sorry, Sam Elliott), which would mark the first time women have won the award in consecutive years. There might be a little bit of drama in the Best Actress race, where Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) has emerged as the favorite after winning the SAG Award, but some pundits think it could be Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers). And there are still slivers of hope for all three remaining contenders, Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter) and Kristen Stewart (Spencer).
At least there's still a little bit of drama in Best Picture, too. While Campion's Netflix Western The Power of the Dog has been considered the frontrunner for nearly six months now, the Oscars are all about momentum, and CODA suddenly has all of it. Apple+'s Sundance sensation pulled off major coups in recent weeks, winning top prizes from both the Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild. The gorgeously filmed Power of the Dog is a stirring mediation on masculinity with a whopper of a climax, but Sian Heder's CODA – the irresistibly entertaining crowdpleaser about a musically talented child (Emilia Jones) of deaf adults (Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) – has been proving that voters are appreciating its feel-good vibes after two long dark years. (For the record, Packer has confirmed Best Picture will be presented as the night's final award after last year's deeply miscalculated decision to end with Best Actor… closing the night on an anti-climactic, extremely awkward note when the Oscar went to the MIA Anthony Hopkins over the late Chadwick Boseman.)
Either way, it's extremely likely Best Picture goes to a streamer for the first time. (Maybe the biggest threat for an upset? Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical Belfast, which would mark the first Best Picture win for Focus Features). A Best Picture loss would mark yet another stinging defeat for Netflix, which has poured mega-resources and money into awards lobbying in recent years and has already seen a few other one-time frontrunners (Roma, The Irishman, Mank) fail to get them past the finish line. A win for CODA would be historic for numerous reasons. It'd be the first Sundance movie ever to take Best Picture. It'd be the first film in 90 years to win Best Picture without nominations for Best Director and Best Editing or less than four nominations (it only earned three). And it would certainly do positive things for the representation of deaf actors in Hollywood.
How strong is CODA's momentum right now? Not only was a musical adaptation just announced, but its cast also visited the White House this week. Usually, that happens after a team wins a championship, but it might be a foregone conclusion at this point.
CODA has so much momentum team went to White House *before* they win the national championship pic.twitter.com/iSX0igwHNA
— Kevin Polowy (@djkevlar) March 23, 2022
Here are my predictions in all 23 categories:
Will win: CODA
Don’t be surprised by: The Power of the Dog
Dark horse: Belfast
Will win: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Dark horse: Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
Will win: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Don’t be surprised by: Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Dark horse: Olivia Colman or Nicole Kidman or Kristen Stewart
Will win: Will Smith, King Richard
Dark horse: Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick… Boom!
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Will win: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Dark horse: Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Will win: Troy Kotsur, CODA
Dark horse: Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Will win: Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Don’t be surprised by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Dark horse: Adam McKay and David Sirota, Don't Look Up
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Will win: Sian Heder, CODA
Don’t be surprised by: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Dark horse: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Will win: Encanto
Don’t be surprised by: Flee
Dark horse: The Mitchells vs the Machines
BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM
Will win: Drive My Car
Dark horse: The Worst Person in the World
Will win: Summer of Soul
Dark horse: Attica
Will win: Dune
Don’t be surprised by: The Power of the Dog
Dark horse: The Tragedy of Macbeth
Will win: Dune
Don’t be surprised by: King Richard or Tick, Tick… Boom!
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Will win: Dune
Dark horse: Spider-Man: No Way Home
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Will win: Nightmare Alley
Don’t be surprised by: Dune
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Will win: Cruella
Dark horse: Dune
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIR
Will win: The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Dark horse: Cruella
Will win: Dune
Dark horse: The Power of the Dog
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Will win: "Dos Oruguitas," Encanto
Don’t be surprised by: "No Time to Die," No Time to Die
Will win: Dune
Don’t be surprised by: West Side Story
Dark horse: No Time to Die
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
Will win: Please Hold
Don’t be surprised by: The Long Goodbye
Dark horse: Ala Kachuu: Take and Run
BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Will win: Robin Robin
Dark horse: Bestia
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Will win: Audible
Don’t be surprised by: The Queen of Basketball
Dark horse: Lead Me Home
The 94th Academy Awards air live Sunday, March 27 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC.
Story updated March 27.