Harlan Jacobson Previews The Oscars 2020

Ratings for the Oscars have fallen off a cliff in recent years, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has done everything but one to stop the slide: be first out of the gate. In the year of the plague when nothing was released in theaters, the Academy always after every other conceivable awards pageant, didn’t jump forward but instead catapulted backwards to the end of April, 2021. I began my life as a tumbling tumbleweed in 2020. The landscape whizzed by in a blur.

While the Academy wrings its hands over the quality dominance by indie and foreign films of mainstream categories at the expense of the big Hollywood shebang, it was always the smaller more ambitious films that the Academy prided itself on anyway. This crazy year of no-people, no shows, nohow means at the Oscars the expected brawl between West Side Story and In the Heights will just have to wait till next year. The magic may be gone for lots of reasons, not least timeliness, but this year the Oscars arrive DOA. We’ll see how the show does with its global virtual spin, Sunday night.

Let’s just spend a few moments in the two top acting categories, where I might point out that 5 of the 10 nominees are Brits. They know us all too well.

The Best Actress category is alive with parts about women who’ve gone rogue in the male world they throw off. The films nominated for these truly wonderful Female performances in 2020 made different use of period and storytelling genre to capture women now. I loved ‘em all in this category:

Viola Davis showing everyone who’s boss in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman, about the loss of a child in childbirth that sets off a complex embrace of sisterhood with midwife Molly Parker, class discomfort with husband Shia LaBoeuf, and psychological matricide with Ellyn Burstyn in another thankless role as a monster.

You couldn’t take your eyes off Andra Day as Billie Holiday in her first performance on film, Lee Daniels’ The US vs Billie Holiday. It’s Lee’s usual big reach to make a point, and the title summarizes that Lee’s concerns were larger than the character portrait itself:

Brit actress Carey Mulligan is nominated for her role as the female truth teller, Cassandra, in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. Mulligan simply immolates the screen as an avenging angel in a film that is the menacing granddaughter of the Brian DePalma social horror films of the 70s and 80s.

And finally nominated for her role in Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, a Trump era tour of American Depression, Frances McDormand is a middle class refugee and widow who cuts her ties to everything that’s rooted—house, family, expectations. Coen Bros. stalwart McDormand has made a career out of giving meta-performances, ones that comment satirically on her characters. Here she’s given the rare--for her--raw, in-the-moment performance of a lifetime.

I don’t know how the Academy doesn’t choose her. I don’t know how it doesn’t choose the others, though their films are not all equal. I don’t know how the Academy just doesn’t choose them all.

For Best Actor, Anthony Hopkins hits it on the nose as a man sliding into oblivion in The Father. It’s also the dominant theme coursing through the male cultural bloodstream: the ground continuing to shift under the feet of men. It’s such an interesting pastiche of male race and class discontents: Brit giant Gary Oldman as the failing Herman Mankiewicz wining one last old guy victory as a writer in David Fincher’s Mank, a film about the making of Citizen Kane I didn’t like much; Korean-born Steven Yeun, renewing the American dream as a Korean immigrant in Minari; South Carolina native Chadwick Boseman, pushing new jazz until he tragically dies onscreen and off in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The sleeper male performance of the year is Pakistani-British Riz Ahmed’s rock drummer, who stops hearing the music that’s his ticket in The Sound of Metal.

So here we are. Predictions are a waste: you guess which films will win but shouldn’t. In fact if you’re right, the award’s probably wrong, and if you’re wrong, it’s probably wronger. And you get nothing for it.

Nelson Algren, who wrote The Man with The Golden Arm, which got an Oscar nomination for Frank Sinatra in 1956, once advised “Never eat at a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a guy named Doc and don’t sleep with anyone sicker than you.” He could’ve added “And there’s no percentage in predicting the Oscars.”