Notes On The Season: Oscar Race Defined In The Last Hour; Plus Catching Up With Contenders From A ‘King Richard’ Key Player To Dame Judi Dench

·16 min read

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

. - Credit: Deadline
. - Credit: Deadline

Deadline

More from Deadline

Well, this is what they call crunch time as Oscar ballots are, if not in the hands of, at least somewhere in the laptops of some 9,487 eligible voters. After an unprecedented single day in which a tsunami of important and possibly very predictive guild nominations were announced at the very same time voting for the 94th annual Academy Awards began — what is being called in political terms Super Thursday — I don’t think you can quite underestimate the impact on Academy voters who probably can’t help but notice the winnowing of the field we have been talking about for months now.

It looks more than ever like a wide-open race at this point. Critics groups, which dominated the space earlier in the season — basically alternating between Netflix’s The Power of the Dog and the three hour Japanese film Drive My Car for the lion’s share of their Best Picture picks — basically can move aside now that the majority of guilds have their nominees. their memberships definitely cross over big time with that of the Academy (save for the influx of new international members AMPAS has been welcoming in recent years) and usually are a much better signal of where the winds are blowing in terms of likely Oscar nominees we will be celebrating come early morning February 8.

.
.

The fact that your inbox likely was inundated with alerts about WGA, DGA, PGA, ACE, etc., on Thursday — and adding in previous announcements from SAG and other guilds — we have a good idea of what’s likely to rule with the Academy. And it isn’t necessarily what highbrow critics with darker and more austere tastes have tried to inject into a year that seems to be favoring more accessible feel better, if not feel good, films. Maybe it’s the effect of the endless pandemic. A season where Belfast gathered lots of early Oscar buzz, an audience favorite at just about every festival that also registered strongly with Academy members, at least those who I talk to, is at the end of Phase 1, and Kenneth Branagh’s film is the once and future leader with only BAFTA nominations on February 3 remaining among major signposts. Although no one film ran the board with the major guild nominations from WGA, DGA, PGA, SAG, ACE and ASC, Belfast is the one that came closest, only missing from the Writers Guild lineup and that is simply because it wasn’t eligible due to arcane guild rules. In fact, both it and The Power of the Dog were ineligible at WGA, and the irony is both are likely front-runners in their respective Oscar writing categories. So aside from that asterisk, Belfast is showing real strength across the guilds, including cinematography and editing, that are important for a big Oscar win, especially for a smaller film.

Andrew Garfield in “tick, tick…BOOM!” - Credit: Everett
Andrew Garfield in “tick, tick…BOOM!” - Credit: Everett

Everett

Power of the Dog has aced the field too, missing only SAG’s Outstanding Cast. That is something West Side Story also missed out on (along with surprising omissions from ACE and ASC). It was looking a little sketchy for Spielberg’s musical remake, but the trifecta of DGA, WGA and PGA put it squarely back in the top tier. The same is true for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza in all those categories, as well as Dune, which only was mentioned for its stunts team at SAG but has cleaned up everywhere else and is especially dominant in the crafts guilds, looking more and more to sweep below-the-line categories much like 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road did.

It gets a little more mixed after that group in terms of what is looking like our Oscar Best Picture lineup, but the producers of CODA have to be happy with their key SAG, PGA and WGA nominations, as well as Warner Bros’ King Richard. which also missed out on DGA but got noms from WGA, PGA and SAG Cast and Lead Actor for Will Smith to brag about. tick, tick…BOOM! with WGA and PGA nominations, a first-time director DGA nom for Lin-Manuel Miranda and a SAG nom for star Andrew Garfield, is showing far more strength that anyone expected earlier in the season before it blew the audience away at its Hollywood premiere in November.

“being the Ricardos” - Credit: Glen Wilson/Amazon
“being the Ricardos” - Credit: Glen Wilson/Amazon

Glen Wilson/Amazon

And don’t count out Don’t Look Up, which got major love from SAG, WGA and PGA, missing out on DGA. Super Thursday also was good to Amazon’s big hope, Being the Ricardos, which landed WGA and a somewhat surprising PGA nomination since it hadn’t been handicapped heavily the Best Picture race until now. When we add in its two lead acting SAG nominations, the film definitely is showing a pulse in the Best Picture race all of a sudden and, of course, is the kind of showbiz story Oscar voters love to snuggle up to.

On the other end of the equation, Searchlight’s Nightmare Alley and The French Dispatch were saved only by WGA nominations for both. They got little attention from SAG, DGA or PGA, an ominous sign especially for Nightmare Alley, whose only score in those key guilds was Supporting Actress for perennial Cate Blanchett. MGM’s adult-skewing box office success House of Gucci initally seemed to come roaring out in a leading position, with SAG voters clearly impressed with that cast but now nothing from the other major guilds to indicate any kind of Best Picture mojo. Japan’s critical darling Drive My Car at three hours seems a daunting assignment for the number of Oscar voters it needs to make the Best Picture cut. In other words it doesn’t appear to be another Parasite, but should it land a Best Picture nomination, it can thank the critics. One weary and wary Oscar voter said this week: “I guess I should try to watch Drive My Car, but I don’t know — I look at the link and the only thing you see is the title and the running time.”

“Drive My Car” - Credit: Sideshow; Janus Films
“Drive My Car” - Credit: Sideshow; Janus Films

Sideshow; Janus Films

And if there is to be success for the campaigns of box office behemoths Spider-Man: No Way Home and/or No Time to Die, the hugely popular and actually critically acclaimed “culminations” of a couple of iconic franchises, it looks like it would come exclusively from Oscar voters, who were the only group to get links to Spider-Man, a reason the film’s campaigners are holding up for its exclusion from the money-loving producers PGA lineup. It has become increasingly apparent that you have to provide screeners or at least links to play in this sandbox. No Time To Die, which impressively was shortlisted in five Oscar categories, has a final shot to make an impact at BAFTA, having been longlisted in the homeland there in 12 categories including Best Film, but what hasn’t? Well, Spider-Man, actually, which was ruled ineligible at BAFTA due to, wait for it, no screener access available on their digital site. Can James Bond and Spider-Man go where no Bond or Spidey has ever gone before? Does Oscar have a mind of its own, or does it follow the pack?

Spider-Man reunion with Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire
Spider-Man reunion with Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire

Sony clearly is making its play for Spidey strictly with Oscar voters, even blasting out to AMPAS members my half-hour interview with all three Spider-Men, Tom Holland, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, that got wide play this week. There is some precedent for late-breaking movies that missed out on guild and critics award love to ultimately find it with the Academy, so take heart Spidey — buuuuut not too much since there is not a lot of precedent for those oft-snobbish voters to embrace a comic book movie, even one as good as this one.

Interesting note passed on by Joey Berlin, President of the Critics Choice Association, who points out the PGA’s strong correlation with Oscar’s Best Picture nominations but also that of the Critics Choice Awards. He noted that CCA matched PGA this year on nine of 10 Best Picture noms, differing only with CCA going with Nightmare Alley where PGA instead proved they love Lucy and Being the Ricardos. The Critics Choice Awards and PGA are also unusually poised, due to Covid delays for both ceremonies, to have impact on final Oscar voting, which happens in the same zone as CCA’s March 13 show and PGA’s rescheduled shindig on March 19.

HOW REINALDO MARCUS GREEN GOT TO SERVE ‘KING RICHARD’

Ever wonder how fate can play a hand in Hollywood? Just ask Reinaldo Marcus Green, director of one of those surefire Best Picture contenders discussed above, and that would be King Richard. The Warner Bros film stars Will Smith, a front-runner to take the Oscar for Best Actor as Richard Williams, the father of the Williams sisters Venus and Serena, and of course a tennis dynasty like no other. So how did he get the gig when at the time he had made only one other feature film, Monsters and Men, which won the Special Jury Prize for Outstanding First Feature at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018? Well guess who just happened to be on that jury? Let’s just say it certainly turned out to be fortuitous for Green when he was on a list being considered for the King Richard job.

From left: “King Richard” producers Trevor White & Tim White and helmer Reinaldo Marcus Green - Credit: Warner Bros
From left: “King Richard” producers Trevor White & Tim White and helmer Reinaldo Marcus Green - Credit: Warner Bros

Warner Bros

“Look, I’m sure there’s probably a few different versions, and I’m sure that there were a few different lists of filmmakers, and I’m sure by virtue of a few people being busy, it came down to availability, and you know, apparently, at the time that they were making the movie I was on a short list of filmmakers,” he told me in a recent conversation. “Jada Pinkett Smith was on the jury of Sundance, and little did I know that she shared it with her husband, who had seen the film. So fast-forward a few years later; when they were looking for filmmakers, my name came up, and I, somehow, got a meeting with Warner Bros. to pitch on this script. I sort of pitched my version of the story, what I wanted to do the script, and that got me in the room with Will, and Will was the very next step, and when I walked in the room with Will, he said, ‘You know, Jada couldn’t stop talking about you for weeks after Sundance.'”

“King Richard” - Credit: Warner Bros
“King Richard” - Credit: Warner Bros

Warner Bros

Green bonded with Smith not only on what King Richard was all about but his own dad, who tried to push him into a baseball career. “We just started talking, just two guys talking about being fathers ourselves, talking about growing up an athlete. I grew up with a father very similar to Richard Williams, who thought he was raising a Major League Baseball player. My dad literally had us on the baseball diamond for the first third of my life. I played college ball, I had two Major League tryouts, I didn’t make it, but it wasn’t a 78-page plan (like Williams had) but a 178-page plan,” he laughed.

“I remember my dad used to sit in the outfield in the car, and I knew he was there because like if I hit a double or a homerun or something, he’d honk, or you know, if I struck out I’d hear a different honk. There was a different honk for good and a different honk for bad, so my dad would sit sort of like left center and this was just the way my dad was. He wouldn’t sit in the stands, he’d sit in the car, and you know he could see the whole field of play, and if I was playing in the outfield, he’d tell me to cheat, like, “Move 10 steps to the right,” “Your coach is not moving you,” “The ball is going to be hitting the gap.” Anyway, I say that to say I understand how parents sometimes can’t watch their kids, and it’s very difficult in those moments to watch them good or bad.”

Reinaldo Marcus Green - Credit: Courtesy of Chiabella James
Reinaldo Marcus Green - Credit: Courtesy of Chiabella James

Courtesy of Chiabella James

As for other sports movies that served as inspirations when Green was making this tennis story, he points to Moneyball for its construction; Searching for Bobby Fischer because as a chess match it had no commentary; and even Rocky, which broke the mold and didn’t end with the obligatory victory, but something a little different but just as inspirational. Green also points to other filmmakers who were big influences on him, including Spike Lee, who was one of his professors at NYU, and who he considers his mentor, even taking King Richard back to show Lee’s current students. “I went to NYU because of Spike Lee. You go there because of the alumni — Scorsese, the Cohens, you know, so many people. Cary Fukunaga, Dee Rees, there’s so many talented folks have come through. Chloe Zhao, Shaka King, the list goes on, but Spike was the reason I got into a lot of debt. I told him that maybe now I’ll be able to pay off this student loan. We’ll see, I’m working on it.”

Green is on the BAFTA longlist for directing, just won the AAFCA Breakthrough Director Award, and perhaps even could become among the handful of Black filmmakers to land a Best Director Oscar nomination.

DON’T FORGET JUDI-JUDI-JUDI

From left: Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Jude Hill and Judi Dench in “Belfast” - Credit: Everett
From left: Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Jude Hill and Judi Dench in “Belfast” - Credit: Everett

Everett

Like King Richard, Ken Branagh’s Belfast is on everyone’s shortlist to land key nominations, but the question has to be asked: Why not more awards attention this year for Dame Judi Dench, who so beautifully plays Granny right up to being the last, very moving image in the film. Let’s face it, Dame Judi always has been an awards magnet, especially Oscars, where she has been nominated seven times and won for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love which was one of those performances with precious little screen time that still managed to take an Oscar. When I first saw Belfast, I thought she would be a slam dunk for an eighth nomination, but though castmates Catriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, and Ciaran Hinds have been racking up nominations, Dench hasn’t quite as much as you might expect because she’s wonderful, as usual, in the role. One reason could be the 87-year-old star is back home in England and has not hit the campaign circuit with the rest — but please, should that matter? This is Judi friggin’ Dench. Things are looking up, though. She is nominated with her co-stars for Outstanding Cast at the SAG awards, on BAFTA’s longlist and this week, and was named Best Supporting Actress at the Australian Academy Awards. All I can say is she certainly deserves consideration, and I was so happy to be able to catch up with her via Zoom recently to talk about this movie, her Oscar history and a longtime collaboration over 12 films with Branagh.

Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench - Credit: BelfastLive
Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench - Credit: BelfastLive

BelfastLive

“It goes back a long way,” she said. “The first time we worked together was on the television adaptation of Ghosts, Ibsen’s Ghosts, and there was a scene where we had to sit around a table reacting to something that I had seen and it was rather tense, with Michael Gambon and Ken and I. And Ken and I went to pieces and completely lost it, lost our concentration, laughed, couldn’t control ourselves, and were both asked to leave the studio. They said, “Mr. Branagh, Ms. Dench, we don’t need you anymore. You can go and come back later for the scene.” So, it was a kind of bond that’s never been broken between Ken and I. He’s also a Sagittarian, which is what I am, and I think that’s got something to do with it as well. But I don’t know, he’s always been very, very different, Ken, in everything he does. His approach to things is different and very, very refreshing, and I just kind of understand a shorthand from him, I think, probably, and I hope he does for me.”

Branagh wanted her so badly for the role he showed up at her house with script in hand and read it to her. “Well, he knew that I can’t see anymore. I can’t see to read a script anymore and so, not only can I not read a script, but I have to have somebody teach me lines as well now. But it was the most perfect way to hear and to be associated, you know, to get my first association with Belfast that he should read his own story to me,” she said and then laughed. “But first I said, “I’m not old enough to play your grandmother!” But I definitely wanted to be part of it.”

“Belfast”
“Belfast”

Part of the joy of Belfast is its love for movies, and in fact Dench’s Granny goes to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the family in one scene, and she also has a beautifully delivered memory of seeing Ronald Colman in Lost Horizon. So I had to ask this certified movie star if she was a fan of movies growing up like the boy Buddy (played by Jude Hill based on Branagh’s own childhood) is. “No. I was only ever passionate about Shakespeare, and that’s the thing I’m really passionate about, and that’s something I learned about really early,” Dench said. “But I was taken to Bambi, where the baby deer sees its mother in a wood go up in flames. Then I was taken to Snow White, where that wicked person bit an apple and was very, very unkind to that little girl. And then I was taken to see Dumbo, where the mother is in a cage, or the baby is, and then divided and they’re all crying. So, I didn’t like movies much,” she laughed. Guess not, but she did offer this: “I fell in love with Claude Rains and thought he was the absolute last word. I just remember him at the top of the Duke of York steps and my heart burst.”

Dench - Credit: AMPAS
Dench - Credit: AMPAS

AMPAS

I had to ask about winning that Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, a roughly eitht-minutes-of-screen-time role of Queen Elizabeth I. Did she feel she deserved it for that of all her performances? “No, no, no, no, no, no, no — I was unbelievably shocked,” she said. Then I asked if there was indeed a favorite role. “I don’t like watching myself very much, but a favorite movie? I don’t know. Philomena. I enjoyed being in that very much.” I also tried asking her about her furry appearance in the notorious screen version of Cats, in which she played Old Deuteronomy. “Let it be. … I might just get up and flip my tail and walk off,” she said with a wink.

Finally a note on that unforgettable closeup of her that ends Belfast. How many takes was that, I ask? “I don’t know, but I would like to do more. I’d like to do that again and again and again, getting better and better, but there you are. The moment passes.”

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.