Notes On The Season: Oscar Ballots Live! Voting Starts But Is Anybody Watching These Movies?; Plus Mads Mikkelsen’s Spirited Best Actor Bid

Pete Hammond
·18 min read

A column chronicling events and conversations on the awards circuit

Voting for nominations for the 93rd annual Academy Awards finally starts today. And you thought this day would never come, right?

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In the longest season in the modern history of Oscar campaigning, we have now completed six months since the traditional start of the season with the fall film festivals at Venice/Toronto/Telluride — however non-traditional those early September pandemic-affected festivals themselves turned out to be. But with Covid still on the loose, these Oscars are going to be very different and aren’t even taking place until their latest date ever, Sunday April 25, at the Dolby Theatre and “other locations” to be announced later according to the Academy.

That means eight months for contenders endlessly talking about their wares instead of the usual six, which is a real long haul in and of itself. Oy. At the end of the season in which he ultimately took the Best Actor Oscar, Gary Oldman wearily told me, “I just want my life back.” Indeed.

Actually in a normal year, and the way it had originally been dated, we would have been done with this thing by now. The Oscars would have already happened last Sunday and I could move on to the Emmys, but instead the Movie Academy gave up that date fearing it would be too early in this environment and that waiting until well into spring the possibility of a fairly normal ceremony might be possible. NOT! Instead, the Golden Globes took the Academy’s original February 28 date, and, well, you know what happened with all that. No need to rehash here.

Now with the game really heating up, the industry is in the groove they normally would be in January. The guilds are all in voting mode, with WGA already moving on to the finals, and PGA and DGA, as well as BAFTA, announcing their nominees at the beginning of next week. This Sunday we have the next big televised awards show, the Critics Choice Awards, on the CW. That voting is still going on today and the organization often seems to mirror the eventual Oscar outcome. We will see what happens there, though I heard from one awards consultant yesterday passionately asking me to consider his promising contender, and saying he was calling every one of the 400-plus members of Critics Choice to remind them it is on the ballot and a win could be a lightning rod for the film. Apparently I was Number 52. It’s getting intense, eh?

HAVE OSCAR VOTERS ACTUALLY WATCHED THESE MOVIES?

Meanwhile, there are bigger questions about just how engaged AMPAS voters are this year. Many we talk with, or have information from others who are talking with their fellow members, are indicating a significant number of the 9,362 eligible voters just haven’t seen all that much yet, even with a digital screening room available to them with some 223 of the 366 movies applying to be Best Picture (where as previously reported here they must pay $12,500 minimum to be on the site) that have met the Academy’s relaxed rules during this extended 14-month contest. Take it with a grain of salt when you have an all-inclusive list with such titles as Horse Girl, The Real Exorcist, and We Are Little Zombies — not exactly Oscar worthy I’d guess, but maybe that’s just me. Nevertheless that is a pretty big number, but daunting when you scroll through the list and discover you not only haven’t seen most of them, but that you haven’t even heard of most of them. One voter was clearly frustrated (“too many titles, too many problems navigating the app, etc.) to the point of feeling they just can’t vote this year. And that is not an isolated comment that I have heard.

A veteran Producers Branch member, past executive producer of a Best Picture winner, expressed the same thoughts: “It’s overwhelming, just too many choices, too many distractions at home, etc.” He indicated that when he sits down to watch a contender he finds instead he becomes riveted to the news, or an older film that pops up on his TV and never gets to the film he felt he should watch as an Academy voter. He’s seen The Trial of the Chicago 7, is trying to get to Promising Young Woman and more, but is way behind. And this in a year when we are largely confined to home. The voter says going out to a screening, appointment viewing, was much more pressing and effective in past years. A key Oscar consultant is predicting the lowest turnout in years, at least for Phase One voting that begins today.

Imagine next year when not even DVD screeners will be allowed for AMPAS members. Maybe this is why one member told me she got a personal call from an AMPAS staffer this morning reminding her voting was open and then going on about how important it was. This is following up on several emails since February 25 reminding voters their time was narrowing to watch the movies, including one yesterday warning, “You have only a couple of days to finish watching the films,” as well as yet another today. Good luck with that.

THE BATTLE FOR BEST PICTURE

Interestingly, the movie that made the biggest splash earlier this year, Warner Bros’ Tenet from leading theatrical exhibition advocate Christopher Nolan, shortlisted in Music and Special Visual Effects categories so far, has been conspicuous by its absence on the AMPAS site, or in the pile of DVDs Warners sent for other movies it is vigorously campaigning like Judas and the Black Messiah, The Little Things and The Way Back. Maybe Nolan is holding out for AMPAS members to still see it in a theater, like I did when Orange County Imax screens were still open a few months ago. The movie is finally opening in the big formats in New York City today, so maybe some voters can trek to a multiplex, closed for a solid year in the Big Apple, and see it the way it was meant to be seen. It is well worth it.

Not that it will likely matter: This Oscar race has clearly been laid out for voters for quite a while. All you have to do is look at the incessant ads proclaiming “BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR.” It seems every movie has one of those quotes (well maybe not Horse Girl but…). The New York Times proclaims BEST PICTURE for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Awards Daily has it for Mank. US Weekly says it is Promising Young Woman. Rolling Stone disagrees, it is Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Collider says Da 5 Bloods in those Netflix ads. Deadline is even featured in ads for The Trial of the Chicago 7 loudly trumpeting BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR. It seems every film out there though has been able to call themselves that including Nomadland, Soul, One Night In Miami, Minari, News of the World and on and on. Even with the aforementioned Nomadland sucking up much of the oxygen on the critics circuit, this seems like a fairly fluid race so far.

STAR SUPPORT

A longtime popular campaign tactic is to get endorsements in any way possible from prominent Academy members. Or get them to “host” a screening (not easy in this virtual season) or even moderate a Q&A — like Cher did this week for her Mamma Mia! granddaughter Amanda Seyfried, a presumed frontrunner for Supporting Actress who saw her heat cool when SAG snubbed her and she lost the Globe to surprise upstart Jodie Foster. So, it’s Cher to the rescue to make sure a well-deserved supporting nomination for Seyfried’s role in Mank as golden era star Marion Davies is back on track for the Oscars. A little endorsement from beyond by Davies herself also might not hurt.

Many others have been doing Q&A duties too, like Rob Lowe and Jay Leno on upcoming screenings for Chicago 7. Numerous filmmakers have been offering up moderating services for Promising Young Woman. Helen Mirren, Stephen Daldry and Todd Haynes turned up to host screenings for Ammonite’s Kate Winslet. Cate Blanchett did the same thing for Elisabeth Moss in Shirley. Ben Affleck showed up for Kevin MacDonald for The Mauritanian, while Matt Damon moderated a screening with Affleck for the latter’s The Way Back. The list this year is never-ending. Oprah Winfrey is doing an FYC for Ma Rainey’s Viola Davis this weekend, and previously had done one for The United States Vs. Billie Holliday. Former President Barack Obama has even got into the act interviewing filmmakers of the shortlisted documentary Crip Camp, which his production company Higher Ground had a hand in making.

In an innovative twist on the usual in-person Q&As, PR reps for STXfilms’ The Mauritanian brought its Golden Globe-nominated star Tahar Rahim together with an intimate group of about 25 Oscar voters just this morning on a Zoom call I moderated to talk about making the film. It turned out to be a great way of engaging AMPAS members and directly making them a part of the conversation, and my guess based on the enthusiasm exhibited probably will lead to votes because of this perfectly timed event.

HOLLYWOOD BOWS DOWN TO SOPHIA LOREN

Penelope Cruz, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal are among those who have come out for 86-year-old icon Sophia Loren and her acting return in The Life Ahead. A few weeks ago I reported Frank Langella offered unsolicited glowing praise for Loren in an Actor’s Side episode taping that just ran Wednesday, and it led to a meeting the streamer set up for the two veteran stars to talk to each other for a Deadline piece today. Netflix also has been sending around quotes from other notables including no less than Barbra Streisand.

“Sophia was one of the first legendary movie stars I met when I first moved to California and we’ve remained friends ever since,” Streisand said. “In addition to the many wonderful acting roles she’s given us, I’ve always been impressed by how she’s remained so true to herself, keeping her values intact as an artist and as a mother. It’s wonderful how she and her son had a chance to work together on this film. Although she’s long been recognized for her great beauty, Sophia made a brave choice with The Life Ahead where she’s seen in a less glamorous role, but one where her inner beauty still shines through.”

My favorite has to be Vanessa Redgrave who simply offers, “La Signora Assoluta makes us all go boom-di-di boom di-di- boom boom boom!” For your consideration di-di boom!

IS WILL FERRELL GOING TO BE SINGING AT THE OSCARS?

Incidentally, Loren just won the AARP Best Actress award yesterday over stiff competition, and that came just a day before her fellow Academy members start filling out their ballots — the great majority of them certainly ripe also for AARP membership status. The awards circuit is all about offering up virtual editions of kudos handouts instead of the usual liquor-heavy banquets. This week, the second annual Society of Composers and Lyricists had its second annual awards show — this time virtually. I went to the first one last year and it was lots of fun, also clearly an Oscar indicator right out of the gate since many of the SCL membership crosses over with the Academy’s Music Branch which are now in the process of nominating five finalists for both Best Original Music Score and Best Song.

If they follow SCL then it is good news for Will Ferrell fans as the song he croons in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, “Husavik My Home Town,” took top honors for Best Song, while Disney/Pixar’s Soul took the Score prize for a studio film; that, on top of its Globes win last weekend, makes it a clear frontrunner. And a big shout-out to Lolita Ritmanis whose gorgeous symphonic score for the Latvian International Film entry Blizzard of Souls took SCL honors for Best Score from an independent film. She is the only female composer shortlisted for the Oscar Original Score award this year, the same category won last year at both SCL and the Oscars by Hildur Guðnadóttir for Joker, repping a historic female win there in the male-dominated Oscar category.

FINAL DRAFT WRITES A SCENARIO FOR AWARDS SEASON

Also this week was one of my favorite precursor ceremonies, the Final Draft Awards, which offer well deserved honors for writers in both TV and movies as selected by the board of Final Draft, the screenwriting software that has such an impact for those who pursue that career. And shout-out to the organization for accomplishing it all in a tight and entertaining 45-minute virtual presentation including presenter and winner acceptance speeches.

Winners included Storyteller for TV to Steve McQueen for Amazon’s Small Axe, and for movies Sofia Coppola for Apple’s On the Rocks. The New Voice award for TV went to Ramy’s Ramy Youssef, and New Voice for Film went to Rahda Blank for Netflix’s The Forty Year Old Version. All made inspiring speeches, and longtime Coppola friend and legendary screenwriter Paul Schrader had an especially memorable introduction for Coppola in presenting her award. Interestingly, all the winners came from streamers this year, a sign of the times. And that also included the biggest honor of the event, the first-ever Zeitgeist Award honoring “a writer whose work speaks powerfully to the culture and what’s going on in the world right now.” Aaron Sorkin took it (his second career honor from Final Draft) for the Netflix/Paramount film The Trial of the Chicago 7, a movie that certainly has hit the “zeitgeist” in uncannily mirroring the things threatening our democracy now some 50 years after the true events of his film took place.

His speech echoed that. “This is the first Zeitgeist Award, but I think it would be fraudulent for me to take full credit for being in touch with the zeitgeist. Since The Trial of the Chicago 7 was released I’ve been asked many times if I changed the film to mirror events in our country and I did not. The events in our country changed to mirror the film. We thought the film was pretty relevant when we were making it last winter and we didn’t need it to get more relevant, but it did. Protesters in Minneapolis, Portland, Kenosha, Washington D.C., were met with riot clubs and tear gas and then, incredibly on January 6th, the President of the United States did exactly what the Chicago 7 were on trial for doing. I always wanted The Trial of the Chicago 7 to be about today and not 1968, I just had no idea how much about today it would end up being. The zeitgeist crashed into us. Thank you again to everyone at Final Draft for the terrific recognition,” Sorkin said.

Actually proving that his film has drifted out of the entertainment pages and shows and into the real world of news: Just last night, he and one of his stars, Sasha Baron Cohen, appeared with Lawrence O’Donnell on his MSNBC show The Last Word in which they talked about the increasing relevance of it on a day the FBI and security agencies had warned about extremist groups planning another attack and riot on the U.S. Capitol.

HAVING ANOTHER ROUND WITH MADS MIKKELSEN

Finally, it was my pleasure to recently talk with the great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, the international star who is getting some awards buzz for Another Round, Denmark’s official shortlisted entry for Best International Film. The movie chronicles four high school teachers who decide to experiment and find out if a theory of having a constant level of alcohol in your blood is really good for you. The film seems a cinch to land one of the five International Film nominations, and recently swept the European Film Awards including a Best Actor prize for Mikkelsen. It represents a reteaming for the actor with director Thomas Vinterberg after their previous collaboration, 2012’s The Hunt, brought Mikkelsen the Best Actor prize at Cannes. This film was scheduled to debut at Cannes as well, but we all know what happened with that festival because of Covid, so instead it hit the fall fest circuit and instantly won praise.

Mikkelsen himself is a long-shot contender to land a Best Actor nomination which would be his first, but don’t count him out. Remember when Oscar winner Marion Cotillard pulled off another unexpected nomination in 2015 for Belgium’s under-the-radar Two Days, One Night? The Academy’s strong global push for new members since then has made foreign language performances even more possible, and Mikkelsen is overdue for recognition. Certainly he is no stranger to Hollywood having starred in a number of successful franchises including the Bond film Casino Royale, Star Wars: Rogue One, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, and as Hannibal Lecter in the NBC TV series Hannibal.

When I recently caught up with him in London he was shooting yet another big franchise title after joining the cast of the third Fantastic Beasts film when Johnny Depp dropped out. Another Round represents the fourth Danish film he has starred in to become the country’s official entry, and all three were nominated.

“Yeah. I’m not the lucky charm, and they all lost. So, let the fourth be the charm,” he laughed when I brought it up. “Yeah. I’ve tried it a few times, and it’s been super exciting, and I was there all three times. Unfortunately, this year, not, if we get that far, but that might just be the lucky part of it. That we stay away, and we will go all the way. We’re very humbled, and we are so pleased that the world has embraced this film because it’s obviously, on the surface, it’s a very Danish film, but it seems to appeal to a lot of different cultures and nations as well.”

In terms of the unique storyline, he says he doesn’t want to infer the film actually encourages drinking, just that it is quite different in bringing up another side of it. “We all know the dangers of drinking, but at the same time, we didn’t want to be moralizing of the film. There actually have been a lot of films that have told us what the dangers are, and they’ve been beautiful, a lot of them, but we didn’t want to go down in that rabbit hole. We wanted to also praise it. Wanted to see both sides of the coin, and as all good films, the theme of alcohol is just the kick-starter to tell the story about life, and I think that’s what’s appealing to the rest of the world as well,” he said.

But was he nervous about this film coming out in the middle of a pandemic, where actually many people have turned to the bottle for various reasons? “The pandemic, obviously, came as a surprise. We shot the film and the country shut down, the world shut down, and once it finally came out, we were a little nervous for a lot of reasons,” Mikkelsen says. “One of them was the pandemic, and also, obviously, the theme and how we are luring youngsters in to use it as a means to get past your nerves, and we would, like, wind up in a backlash, right, because was it provoking what we saw in these youngsters, you know, dancing and kissing each other. Drinking from the same bottle. But it had the exact opposite reaction. It turned out that nobody was really interested in watching a film about the Covid situation. They wanted to see the film about how life used to be just half a year ago, right? So, that was lucky, but we were a little nervous about it.”

For Mikkelsen, the drinking aspects are not what the movie is really all about. “Well, I think it’s a film about embracing life. What troubled me mostly for my character, he’s a man who finds who finds himself standing on the platform, and the train has left him. It’s not something he’s completely aware of, but in a very early scene, I think, 10 minutes into the film, it dawns on him at a dinner party, and he feels pity for himself. He has a smaller breakdown, which is kind of a brave move to do after 10 minutes, and he realizes that, no, he’s not accomplished anything in his past, and he’s just jealous of the future. He simply forgot to live in the present, and I think there is a moral. I think the film is technically about that. Embrace your present, rediscover your family, your life, your job. See what you got. Life is not that bad,” he said.

Life has not been bad at all for Mikkelsen. If the Oscar gods somehow smile down on him, and Another Round, come March 15, life may even get a little better.

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