6 Oscar Season Narratives That Could Shape the Race This Year

Welcome to the new In Contention

With summer doldrums in the rear view, In Contention has found a new home just in time for the annual Oscar season…and not a moment too soon. A number of fall film releases sit primed for reveals at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals over the next several weeks, kicking off the race to the 88th Academy Awards.

As ever, a number of the season’s hopefuls will live and die by the narratives conjured in their wake. Because as we know — and I can’t imagine this notion is all that controversial  — an Oscar race is as much about the stories told off-screen as it is about the stories told onscreen.

Here are a few such stories to keep an eye on as we wade into the deep end of the year. Don’t be surprised if a number of them are revisited at length in this space over the next six months.

Focus on the zeitgeist
Long a best picture bridesmaid, Universal arthouse division Focus Features will release a pair of films this year steeped in current social concerns. Premiering in Venice, Tom Hooper’s Lili Elbe biopic “The Danish Girl” comes at a time when luminaries like Caitlyn Jenner and TV series like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent” are keeping transgender issues at the fore. Meanwhile, Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette” — directed, produced and written by women — will surely stir up the gender equality discussion a year after Patricia Arquette made it the focal point of her Oscar acceptance speech (and, intriguingly, just as Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid really catches its stride).

Biopics and their discontents
Senators against “Zero Dark Thirty,” LBJ’s camp against “Selma,” gossip columnists against “A Beautiful Mind” — any time historical dramas are in play, takedowns on the grounds of questionable “truthiness” (to steal a phrase from Stephen Colbert) are like clockwork. This pattern has really taken off in recent years, with films like “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Argo” and “Lincoln” each weathering hit-piece cycles. This year will bring dramas centered on electronics pioneer Steve Jobs (“Steve Jobs”), Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger (“Black Mass”), NSA leaker Edward Snowden (“Snowden”), high-wire artist Philippe Petit (“The Walk”), aforementioned transgender trailblazer Lili Elbe (“The Danish Girl”), frontiersman Hugh Glass (“The Revenant”), country music star Hank Williams (“I Saw the Light”) and Cold War-era attorney James B. Donovan (“Bridge of Spies”), among others. Who will duck and dive the inevitable blows, and who will catch one on the chin? (No joke: Someone floated a smear of documentary subject Malala Yousafzai to me recently. It could get ugly.)

Return of the Jedi
Nearly 40 years ago, George Lucas’ “Star Wars” netted 10 Oscar nominations, won six competitive trophies and picked up a special achievement award. The franchise saw varied success in below-the-line categories after that, but along the way, a number of childhood fans not only chased their dreams as filmmakers, many of them became Academy members. The quality of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is yet to be seen, but it will be interesting to see how this new trip to a galaxy far, far away will be received. Will it capture the industry’s imagination once again (with extra room to navigate in an expanded best picture field), or will it merely feel like product cranked out by a corporate giant to feed the theme park beast? A first-ever December release for the series puts it right in the thick of the season, adding to the intrigue.

Keaton back in the saddle
One of the best narratives of last year was Michael Keaton’s career revival in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s best picture winner “Birdman.” He was this close to best actor glory but fell short on Oscar night, leaving many to wonder if he would ever get back to the dance again. Well, pave the way. A number of players will return to the race this year (Eddie Redmayne among them, who beat out Keaton last year), but few if any will have voters potentially looking to make it up to them so soon. In Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” Keaton — who also starred in box office smash “Minions” and will play McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc in “The Founder” next year — gets the juicy role of a principled newspaper editor wrangling a landmark story with his team. That could make serious waves in a supporting actor category that is often a playground for seasoned vets. (One such vet, Jason Robards, won for a similar role in 1976’s “All the President’s Men.”)

Veteran stars on the march
Speaking of veterans, there are a number of seasoned actors dotting the landscape of the acting races this year. “Youth” brings a bottled but strong performance from two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine and also features a fiery cameo from Jane Fonda that could score attention. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay kicked off their “45 Years” journey with acting prizes at the Berlin Film Festival in February. Blythe Danner’s “I’ll See You In My Dreams” performance was the first major contender to arrive on voters’ doorsteps in the form of an Oscar screener last week. That film debuted at Sundance along with “Grandma,” which features Lily Tomlin’s most raved work in years. Ian McKellen in “Mr. Holmes,” Maggie Smith in “The Lady in the Van,” Helen Mirren in “Woman in Gold” and “Trumbo” — the list is long and, happily, rather dominated by women.

A lack of color…again
And finally, this one will simply be an annual narrative until it’s not. When you look out over the landscape of possible contenders this year, the lack of stories centered on — or simply films starring — people of color is once again disheartening. This point will be particularly embossed a year after “Selma” failed to land key nominations in the directing and acting races and an #OscarsSoWhite hashtag took off on social media. “Fruitvale Station” helmer Ryan Coogler is back with what looks like a gripping take on the “Rocky” universe in “Creed” (starring Michael B. Jordan), Will Smith will have a great opportunity in Sony’s NFL drama “Concussion,” Samuel L. Jackson will be front and center in a Quentin Tarantino joint once again, F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton” made a name for itself at the box office and, thankfully, the Academy finally reached out to Spike Lee for an Honorary Oscar this year. But the very fact that examples can be so tidily contained only emphasizes the issue. Of course, at the end of the day, all of this is merely symptomatic; the Oscars reflect the industry. Change needs to happen long before voters put pencil to paper.

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