Oscars: Academy Shakes Up the Race as ‘Shape of Water’ Takes Frontrunner Status

As ever, all eyes were on Tuesday’s Oscar nominations announcement for whatever surprises the motion picture Academy might have in store. Awards seasons tend to take a certain shape in the run-up to nominations that can feel unshakable, but there is always something.

This year’s “something” was Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” which came through in a major way with nominations for best picture, best director (bumping out perceived overall frontrunner “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and helmer Martin McDonagh) as well as best supporting actress (Lesley Manville), to go along with expected bids for lead actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), costume design and original score. Six nominations is a more-than-respectable haul for a film that appeared to get lost in the latter-year shuffle, despite having valiant champions.

And valiant champions is what it takes. Clearly there was a passionate core of support for the film, which stars Day-Lewis as a fashion designer in 1950s London. Rally that spirit and you can find purchase. Movies like “The Florida Project” and “I, Tonya” clearly failed to capitalize on their contingents, but “Phantom Thread” was a discovery for voters at the perfect time, in the thick of this year’s voting window.

There were nine best picture nominees in total and virtually all of them you could see coming. The biggest question mark was “Darkest Hour,” which hasn’t performed as well as expected in the guild and industry group circuit, but was obviously a favorite with the British Academy. There is enough crossover between BAFTA and the American Academy to give credence to the “British block,” and it came through for Joe Wright’s Winston Churchill study in the end. (The film landed six nominations.)

Academy brass is no doubt thrilled with the dollop of diversity in the acting categories, which ought to help fend off #OscarsSoWhite criticism this year. Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), Denzel Washington (“Roman J. Israel, Esq.”), Mary J. Blige (“Mudbound”) and Octavia Spencer (“The Shape of Water”) all picked up nominations. Meanwhile, Jordan Peele became the fifth black filmmaker ever nominated for best director. (Screen Actors Guild nominee Hong Chau, alas, was passed over for her performance in “Downsizing.”)

Speaking of fifths, Greta Gerwig became the fifth woman ever nominated by the Academy’s directors branch, another sigh of relief, particularly in the wake of a banner year for female filmmakers in the race. And while we’re on the subject of milestones, it’s worth reiterating Rachel Morrison’s history-making nomination for “Mudbound” (making her the first woman ever nominated for best cinematography). And an adapted screenplay nomination for “Logan” makes it the first superhero movie to ever be recognized for writing.

The biggest surprise outside of “Phantom Thread’s” tally had to be “The Disaster Artist” star James Franco coming up short in the best actor category. That’s an awkward moment dodged in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations that were leveled against Franco earlier this month. That story came with just two days left in the voting window, so it’s unlikely that it made a huge impact; perhaps Franco’s work was too much of a stunt to really register with the actors branch, ultimately.

Speaking of this season’s ongoing industry controversy, Christopher Plummer — who stepped in for disgraced actor Kevin Spacey on Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World” in the wake of sexual assault and harassment allegations leveled against the two-time Oscar winning actor — translated his 10-day, last-minute performance into an Oscar nomination. That’s just impressive, not least of all because it also makes Plummer, at 88, the oldest acting nominee ever.

Dustin Hoffman, also swept up in last year’s wave of allegations, was passed over all season long for “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).” That trend continued with the Academy.

Finally, it has to be counted as a shock that both “City of Ghosts” and “Jane,” easily the most laureled documentaries of the year, were left on the sidelines. That said, it’s nice to see director Steve James back in the Academy fold with “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”; it’s been 23 long years since his last nomination, for “Hoop Dreams.” And with foreign-language contender “In the Fade” winning top prizes at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards, Fatih Akin’s film was starting to look like the frontrunner in that category. But the film failed to score a nomination.

And now, of course, the pivot to phase two. There is plenty for the various campaigns to work with. “Get Out” will continue to be the diversity push for the year. “Lady Bird,” meanwhile, will tap into the ongoing gender equality conversation. For many, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” became the frontrunner with its SAG ensemble victory Sunday night, but the film’s lacking best-director nomination is now a red flag (though certainly not a deal-breaker; see Ben Affleck and “Argo”). So what can we expect going into the final stretch.

Anyone with eyes has to see that the best picture prize is Guillermo del Toro’s to lose. “The Shape of Water,” which won the Producers Guild award Saturday night, pulled in a whopping 13 Oscar nominations, one shy of the all-time record tied by “La La Land” last year. Only 12 films in history have amassed that amount of support from the Academy. “Gone with the Wind,” “From Here to Eternity,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” are just a few examples. That’s esteemed company.

“Dunkirk” could be stiffer competition than expected; eight nominations makes it the second-most recognized film of the year, and the only other robust contender throughout the categories. But “Get Out” and “Lady Bird” could perform well on the preferential ballot.

Indeed, it ain’t over until the envelope is bungled. So get ready for a wild and wonderful close to one of the most exciting Oscar races in living memory.

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