Notes On The Season: The New Relevance Of ‘Chicago 7’, Oscar’s International Push & Billy Crystal’s Underdog Contender

Pete Hammond
·11 min read

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

A little less than four months to the Oscars. Are you counting the days, folks?

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You actually have to wonder how the astounding and constantly unfolding events in America and the world are going to impact Hollywood’s favorite guessing game: who will win at the Academy Awards? No less than 9-time Oscar show host Billy Crystal told me in a recent interview that he even feels kind of funny thinking about awards shows at a time like this, particularly with the pandemic raging worse than it ever has.

But he agrees it is best if the show does — and must – go on. I do wonder if all these cataclysmic events, though, might boost or reduce chances for certain movies to gain more traction than they might have. It seems like in interview after interview, movies contending for awards this season are suddenly viewed as prescient because the very nature of our lives changing in the past year has added new layers of meaning that might not have been there even when these movies were being made. Current hard times and lack of human connectiveness have made them relevant in ways not foreseen. I have had conversations about the relevancy in that regard of just about every movie in the running, from The Midnight Sky to The Croods: A New Age. We can read things into movies now that ten months ago, we never would have thought of.

But I have to say that for sheer timing, no movie could be more relevant right about now than Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, the true tale of a group of suspected insurrectionists accused of igniting a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Although this happened over half a century ago, the recent events in Washington D.C. this week give new urgency and credibility to Sorkin’s movie, perhaps making it the most unerringly relevant, and thereby important, film out there at the moment. It landed on my Deadline 10 Best List last week at number one, well before the Trump debacle on Wednesday, and now seems to have even more gravitas than I thought even then. We’ll see, as more awards voters check out the movies in the race and more earth-shattering events shake the nation how its awards fate evolves. The exceptional cast of the film will be receiving the inaugural Ensemble Award at Monday night’s Gotham Awards to kick off the kudos season in earnest.

Speaking of that show on Monday, it is going virtual in ways that these kinds of ceremonies are cooking up for a Covid-tainted year. I have actually been invited to sit at a nominee “table,” much like often happens during a normal awards season when all the precursor banquets take place in person. Only this table, bought and paid for, is virtual. And the Gothams are far from the only group going down this rabbit hole. I hear it is the new normal, at least this year. Can’t wait to see how all this plays out, but you have to give it to the movie industry for finding ways to keep making money. Now if only I could find a way to snag an invite for Universal’s virtual table for The Invisible Man at Sunday’s virtually televised Critics Choice Super Awards. This is going to be one weird season, folks.

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIR

Another sure sign the season has begun in earnest is January is turning into Contenders month for Deadline. Normally, we would have been done at this point with all our Contenders events in London, L.A., and New York. But in this extended season, with the Oscars happening at their latest date ever on April 25, 2021, we’re just getting rolling this weekend with two brand new back to back Contenders shindigs — virtually, of course. Saturday rings in the new Deadline Contenders International all-day soiree, spotlighting some top contenders for Oscar’s Best International Film prize, while Sunday brings us a compelling lineup of hopefuls for Best Documentary Feature. Then on the weekend of January 23/24, we will have the really big one, a two-day event celebrating Contenders for this year’s top movie awards.

By the way, our International lineup of films and filmmakers Saturday is perfectly timed, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences just today officially launched this year’s Foreign Language film Oscar competition. AMPAS sent committee volunteers their lists of movies to watch. With tweaked rules this year, voters have to watch a minimum 12 entries on the list they were sent (about 23 on each one to choose from) in order for their vote to count at all. And if you were wondering if the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has managed to put a dent in participation from around the globe, where theaters also have been closed in many spots, wonder no more.

Although it hasn’t yet been officially announced by the Academy, the lists I got hold of today number exactly 93 entries overall, the same amount in a non-Covid Oscars last year. All of the movies are now up in the Academy’s digital Screening Room for viewing. But the process of watching and voting is much tighter, as there is less than a month to get through all the films, and final voting for the first round runs Feb 1-5.

And though there are some very familiar world class filmmakers represented among the 93 films entered, this may be the least-buzzy list I have seen in some time in this category. In other words, it is anyone’s ballgame, no obvious front-runner at all. I suspect the cancellation of Cannes has something to do with that, somewhat depressing the field in terms of household names. Greece’s Venice Film Festival opening night film Apples, and Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish Cannes entry Another Round with Mads Mikkelsen, are among the handful of titles I recognized, along with Italy’s Notturno and Romania’s Collective, the latter two also competing for Documentary attention, too. Bulgaria’s The Father, Cambodia’s Fathers, and Senegal’s Nafi’s Father are there just to keep us confused, and actually none of them to be confused with the Anthony Hopkins drama The Father, which is also in the Oscar race this year, just not in this category. If you have volunteered, happy Father’s Day, Oscar voters. Maybe it will just be easier to check out Japan’s True Mothers instead.

UNDERDOGS

With a list of movies numbering close to 200 and counting on the Academy’s digital Screening Room, you will be excused if you can’t keep any of them straight. And believe me, with a bunch of movies set for January and February release that can also qualify this year, it is only going to balloon that much more. For a longshot, under-the-radar underdog, it is especially hard to get noticed. One movie trying to do just that from very early in 2020’s pre-lockdown period is The Last Full Measure, Roadside Attraction’s moving military story, a true one about the fight to get a Vietnam War hero a posthumous Congressional Medal Of Honor awarded more than three decades after he died saving the rest of his troop. With a very Oscar-y cast, including Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, William Hurt, and the late Peter Fonda in his final role, the movie is trying to gain whatever traction it can in a field where pundits seem to have forgotten it. The best way to bring a movie like this into the race is to start winning precursor awards, and the good news is the Air Force has come to the rescue.

The campaign consultants behind the film just sent this: “The Air Force Association (AFA) has named Roadside Attractions’ film ‘The Last Full Measure,’ written and directed by Todd Robison, as this year’s winner of the Gil Robb Wilson Award for the most outstanding contribution in the field of arts and letters.” It might not be a Golden Globe, but hey, it sounds impressive. Past winners include none other than Edward R. Murrow, Tom Brokaw, Tom Clancy, and Gary Sinese. The performances in the veteran cast, also including Sebastian Stan, Diane Ladd, and Bradley Whitford, are excellent all around, and producers are hopeful the actors branch particularly gets to see Hurt’s powerful work here. It is hard enough when you come out early in a normal year, but when you are released in the first couple of months of an Oscar year that lasts 14, not 12 months the mountain is even harder to climb.

BILLY CRYSTAL’S OSCAR HOPEFUL

And this brings me back to Billy Crystal. He got some of the best reviews of his career playing a small town alcoholic dermatologist who strikes up a friendship with a stand-up comedian in the fine dramedy, Standing Up Falling Down. Only problem is this movie barely got into theaters in early 2020 before they were shut down, and the film, which co-stars Ben Schwartz and is a debut directorial effort by Matt Ratner, is still trying to stand up and not fall down in the larder of movies on VOD and DVD for a little awards season rebirth. I recently talked to Crystal for a SAG nominating committee screening, virtually, of course, and he expressed his frustration. “These films need so much love. Everyone please tell somebody about it. The thing about this movie is we would be in the film festivals and it would win Best Screenplay award, it would win the First Time Director award. They were nice to me. They were nice to Ben. Everywhere we went. So it needs to be seen. It’s a powerful little picture. I’m grateful for the chance to talk about it with you,” he said, noting it is one of the first big film roles he has had since Parental Guidance a few years ago. It also represents Crystal’s dive into the sometimes chilly waters of indie filmmaking. In fact, he has returned to the directing and writing chair with another film he shot about a year ago called Here Today, with co-stars Tiffany Haddish, Sharon Stone, and Kevin Kline. Crystal is a big proponent of the moviegoing experience, and so he is holding it back until the vaccine takes hold and people want to line up again at multiplex.

“We shot it a year ago, about this time and I just finished post via Zoom, all on the internet. I had music sessions in a New York studio and I am watching here. The fact you can get it done is amazing. We color corrected here. We don’t know when it will come out. I have got my fingers crossed that we will get healthy and people will return to movie theaters because the screenings that we were able to have before all this hit were so great. The scores were great. People seemed to be really moved by it, and laughed hard, and it’s a very emotional picture as well,” he said. “I believe in theaters. Some of the greatest moments of my life have been in a dark room with strangers. Now the only way you get to see things, it just all feels like television, and I just want this to be seen in the movie theatres, so we are going to wait for the right situation. People worked tirelessly to get it right so why give it away right now? We are gonna wait and hopefully things will clear up where people can feel safe and go out to theaters.”

Crystal says nothing compares with the theatrical experience. “I think of the moments that we have had in movie theaters. I think of Jaws and the screams when it first attacks. I remember being at the Avco Embassy in Westwood with Alien, and when that thing came out of his stomach and shot across the room, people were just shattered, and they were shaking for minutes afterward. Or HUGE laughs, like the first time Rob (Reiner) screened When Harry Met Sally in Pasadena and we were sitting in the back together next to each other, and the fake orgasm scene happens and the audience just went berserk. They went berserk! Because no one had mentioned the word orgasm before outside of porno movies. Bogart never said, ‘Well, kid, we’ll always have orgasms,’ or Gable never said, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn about your orgasms.’ But the audience just went crazy. And when Rob’s mom (Estelle Reiner) says, ‘I’ll have what she’s having,’ they went berserk. And I realized at the end of the scene Rob and I are holding hands and we went, ‘Oh, my god!’ So that magic has got to come back to us, folks. It has just got to come back to us in a world where we have to help each other, where we are leaderless like this. We have got to protect each other.”

Billy Crystal, who has never been Oscar-nominated himself, by the way, thinks one of those ways will be going back to the movies.

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