Harlan Jacobson On the 95th Academy Awards

We're in the final hours of Oscar chatter which began about a year ago and ends with the 95th Academy Awards this Sunday night. Oscar handicapping usually starts just after the last one ends, but last year, we were consumed for weeks afterwards by The Slap.

I see a cosmic battle for control of the culture shaping up, where I'm is at South by Southwest in Austin this week, and where it all began for the strongest Oscar contender of the year.

I don’t like to predict the Oscars, there’s no percentage in it as my father used to say: if you lose you lose, and if you win you don’t win anything. The award itself comes so long after the year has ended and everyone else has given out everything, the show has gone from 45 million viewers to a third of that. It’s gotten so that when Warren Beatty announced the wrong winner a couple years ago, it was the only thing that saved the show. And tell me that wasn’t true last year when Will Smith whacked Chris Rock, giving Rock the moral high ground and a Netflix special that aired this week just in time for the Oscars. The Slap woke up a show in rigor mortis.

The Oscars are based at best on occasional merit and an army of lobbyists who go into overdrive starting in November when publicity campaigns undertaken by film companies map out the way to the Oscars way more carefully it appears than Vladimir Putin did to Kiev.

What they have in common is the publicity army throws money at the assault to make what they hope is more money for the client – the film, the company, the investors -- and just as importantly, though often discounted, because said client wants to be somebody, to be more than a contender, to be a winner, even better to be an Art winner. Even better than a Country winner.

The Academy governors flipped out this winter when British actress Andrea Riseborough, best known for her role in Birdman in 2014, masterfully gamed the high dollar driven publicity system after her major actress pals carefully skirted the rules about campaigning and worked the new girls email channels to get her nominated for best actress in To Leslie, for a good enough performance in a by now snore of a drug addict story.

Going into the early fall, the army of Oscar journalists were all jonesing for Tár and certainly Cate Blanchett as likely shoo-ins. There were fans for The Fablemans, which was called the Oscar favorite for about a Jurassic second. But the film is more personal than Universal, and the Spielberg curse is that his films are never the little engine that could, nor do they fit the social work criteria for winning an Oscar: needing a little help to make their way in the world. Like Coda last year.

Slowly but surely, Everything Everywhere All At Once has become the little multiverse mudder that has become the inside odds-on favorite in major categories. It has won top prizes across the spectrum—best film and direction by the two collaborating writer-directors, the two Daniels Kwan and Scheinert, then up and down the cast – Michelle Yeoh for Best Actress, the first Asian actress to be so nominated, both Jamie Lee Curtis and Stephanie Hsu for supporting actress, Ke Huy Quan, who parlayed his career evaporation after kid success as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984 (and as Data in The Goonies the next year) into a comeback story even more compelling than Brendan Fraser’s wonderful career resurrection, nominated as a 600-lb substitute teacher in The Whale.

What I am really watching this year is not the big versus the little picture battle, nor the race or gender inequities from the Academy’s slender to non-existent nominations, but the contest between classical storytelling vs the Gen Z narrative of overlapping storylines from the multiverse. That’s where the battle lines are drawn in our culture: old school tradition versus category busting fluidity.

Think of the classical All Quiet on the Western Front, The Banshees of Inisherin and Tár on the one side of the real contenders for Best Film this year – we can leave out Top Gun: Maverick, for instance -- versus Everything Everywhere All At Once, parachuting in from the Multiverse, and now called simply EEAAO.

The narrative story lines of EEAAO are pure multiverse. Michelle Yeoh is Evelyn Wang, the tired owner of a laundromat in a dead marriage to a disenchanted husband, Wayne Wang, played by Ke Huy Quan. When she punches out the IRS auditor from hell, Jamie Lee Curtis, the Wangs take off in hot flight, while having to correct all the messes left hanging in parallel universes.

The grammar of universe jumps are second nature to some great part of the population under 40 weaned on X-Box.

EEAAO began its long march from nowhere to become the favorite with film critic groups voting back in December everywhere—you name it: Washington DC, the Sans Diego and Francisco, Boston, Utah, Toronto, St Louis, Oklahoma, the Online film critics, Online Female film critics, how about North Texas, N. Dakota and the LA critics, the Greater Western NY, and finally the Golden Globes, the Broadcast Film Critics and the Critics Choice Awards, and the British BAFTAS. It swept the Indie Spirit Awards.

Then came voting by the crafts after the new year, the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, most recently the sweeping of the performance awards at the Screen Actors Guild.

In the past score of years the industry has woken up the next morning with the equivalent of a killer hangover for having given awards out to pictures they say no one has seen. Think No Country for Old Men in 2007, The Hurt Locker in 2009, The King’s Speech in 2010, the faux silent film,The Artist, in 2011, and the ones that really make them howl, Moonlight, in 2016, Parasite in 2019, Nomadland in 2020, the Covid Year the Oscars entered the digital universe, and the feelgood Hallmark-style sermon that was Coda last year.

Don’t get me wrong, some of those titles were my favorite films of their respective years – Moonlight over the infamously and wrongly announced LaLaLandThe Hurt Locker over Avatar, even the much lamented Nomadland, as they upheld the basic Oscar standard of quality of ambition over quantity of box-office, a standard by which Hollywood lived for decades. But I’m a regular guy, too, and bridled at Parasite—which I thought was a mess and also misunderstood for what it was: a parable of the fear that South Korea has about being invaded by their poorer cousins to the North -- wiping out any number of studio films I liked better: chiefly The Joker and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, maybe even the British import, 1917.

The studio vs. indie fight continues this Sunday night with the 95thAcademy Awards since 1928, where once again the big money films will get relegated to technical awards, and the indies will clean up.

It’s The Fabelmans, Avatar The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, and Elvis on the studio side of the Best Picture divide, and everything else on the indie side – the behemoth Netflix’s German language All Quiet on the Western Front, Tár with a performance by Cate Blanchett as a woman orchestra conductor who invented herself and has no apologies for her appetites, the political parable fight between two Irish friends a century ago, The Banshees of Inisherin, the Palme D’Or winning Triangle of Sadness about a shipwreck and the perennial betrayal of the lower classes amid a sea of vomit, and Women Talking, the Canadian led film directed by Sarah Polley from a novel about a female revolt built out at the level of the book of Exodus.

I will be watching the Oscar telecast from SXSW in the techopolis of Austin, where fittingly it all improbably began last year for the multiverse Everything Everywhere All at Once. I’m a Tár guy myself, because I think it is the culturally bravest and most accomplished classical narrative of the year (oh, there’s a ghostly thread running through it) that travels along a dramatic arc going back to Aeschylus. I was shaken by All Quiet on the Western Front’s timeless relevance, and can readily support a big win Sunday night. But should Everything Everywhere scoop up all the gold in the multiverse, it's telling us it’s time to move on. Next stop, AI?

And I’m HJ at the SXSW film festival, looking at movies, looking at the Oscars and you looking at you, kid.