Oscars: Breaking Down the Top Five Categories

When it comes to which categories engender the most excitement and buzz, acting, directing, writing, cinematography and song and are the stuff of which Oscar dreams — and anxieties — are made of. Following are analyses on each category:

Actress: In the lead and supporting actress categories, the lack of ethnic and cultural diversity in the Oscars race has been a heated topic of conversation in recent years. The #OscarsSoWhite movement delivered a justified punch to the collective film biz gut, demanding Hollywood do a better job of representing minority women in its big-screen roles. Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American performer to win an Oscar, triumphing for her supporting turn in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” but it wasn’t until 2002 that Halle Berry took home the lead actress award for her lead role in “Monster’s Ball.” Since then such actresses as Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer, Lupita Nyong’o and Viola Davis have made their awards mark in the supporting categories. This year, Mary J. Blige (“Mudbound”) and Spencer (“The Shape of Water”) are vying for the supporting actress trophy. But it’s not enough that every few years the Academy recognizes an actress of color. Minority women need to be regularly, and prominently, featured in big-screen roles, in films across all genres, so that the reality of the global human experience is fairly and accurately depicted in mainstream cinema. Of course none of this is to dismiss the work of Allison Janney, considered a favorite in the supporting category for her dazzling work in “I, Tonya,” having already won the Golden Globe and SAG awards. Janney plays one of four mother characters nominated — Blige, Laurie Metcalf and Frances McDormand all fill feisty maternal roles. And they are all gritty, meaty and compellingly flesh-out parts, something the film biz so desperately needs.

Actor: Diversity has likewise been a hot topic of conversation in the actor category, forcing the Academy to re-evaluate its shameful exclusion of minority actors. Sidney Poitier broke this barrier when he made history as the first black actor (and Bahamian) to win the lead actor Oscar for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field,” and in more recent years actors such as Denzel Washington and Mahershala Ali have gone on to win an Academy Award. But there’s another compelling story in this category — that of the veteran actors versus the freshman cohort.
Christopher Plummer made headlines when he replaced Kevin Spacey in “All the Money in the World,” turning in a performance so masterful it’s difficult to imagine anybody else (Spacey least of all) playing the role. So natural is Plummer on screen, jokes readily spread that the Canadian-born thesp should replace all accused sexual predators. Plummer, who, at 82 years old, became the oldest actor to ever win a competitive Oscar for his supporting turn in 2011’s “Beginners,” is now the oldest acting nominee at age 88. Gary Oldman, on the other hand, has one prior Oscar nomination to his credit, but has yet to win. Willem Dafoe (1) has two previous noms to his name and has also never taken home the golden prize. Oldman, who’s earned the Golden Globe, SAG and Critics’ Choice awards for his chameleon-like turn as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” is considered the current favorite in his category, but Dafoe is likewise due for recognition for a career that’s spanned some 30 years (and brought us the groundbreaking “Platoon”). Add in such seasoned actors as Daniel Day-Lewis, Richard Jenkins and Sam Rockwell, and there’s not a weak performance in thebunch.
And then there are the neophytes of this esteemed group — Timothée Chalamet and Daniel Kaluuya, both so exquisite in such wildly different roles in such dramatically different movies it seems unfair to even compare the two. Both actors bring such humanity, sensitivity and wisdom to their respective performances in “Call Me by Your Name” and “Get Out” that is far beyond their collective years. You want them both to win.

In Hollywood, cinematography has long been the terrain of the male gaze, with legendary lensers such as Sven Nykvist, Vilmos Zsigmond and Roger Deakins dominating the field. The British-born Deakins, nominated 14 times for his stunning and stark big-screen visuals (this time for “Blade Runner 2049”), has never won the coveted award. But there’s another story to track here, that of “Mudbound” director of photography Rachel Morrison (2), the first woman ever to be nominated in the category. Morrison, who began her career with such indie films as “Palo Alto,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Cake,” and most recently shot Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” brings a gauzy, ethereal esthetic to Dee Rees’ cinematic rendering of racism in the Deep South circa World War II.
Morrison’s nomination, planted fresh on the heels on the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, represents long- and much-needed change in the below-the-line craft, encouraging more women to pick up a camera and press record. Of course there is competition from Hoyte van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”), Bruno Delbonnel (“Darkest Hour” and Dan Laustsen (“The Shape of Water”).

Oscars Big 5 Categories
CREDIT: toby triumph for Variety

Both the original and adapted screenplay categories teem with tales focused on the lonely and the disenfranchised. The lead protagonists are pushed to the brink as they struggle to find footing in the world, a world that does not want them. The interpretation of art can often extend beyond intention, and these screenplays, while penned well before President Trump took office, resonate with the zeitgeist, in which so many people are penalized and punished for the color of their skin. Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani’s “The Big Sick” profiles a relationship torn asunder — for many reasons, but one of them a great cultural divide. In “Get Out,” WGA award winner Jordan Peele co-opts the horror film genre to create a creepy, dystopian suburbia in which racism and hatred thrives. In “Mudbound,” Dee Rees and Virgil Williams depict racism in America during the 1940s, a time period hewing all too close to hate crimes happening today. “Call Me by Your Name,” which won the WGA in the adapted category, and the semi-autobiographical “Lady Bird,” penned by Greta Gerwig (3), track the lives of teenagers wading through the murky, reedy waters of adolescence. “The Disaster Artist” is a humorous yet heartfelt look at the how the ultimate outsider finagles his way to film biz stardom.

“The Shape of Water” and “Logan” feature fantastical characters cast out from society, and in “Molly’s Game,” a champion skier whose Olympic career is derailed by injury uses her book smarts to helm a successful poker game ring. In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” a grief-stricken mother fights to preserve her murdered daughter’s memory while bringing justice to a town bent on forgetting the past.

Thus far, Guillermo del Toro, the wildly imaginative auteur behind “The Shape of Water,” has been the big winner, nabbing the brass ring from the Golden Globe, DGA, L.A. Film Critics and Critics’ Choice for director. But Christopher Nolan (4), the “Dunkirk” helmer recognized for his surreal, maverick filmmaking style, has also been touted as an artist well deserving of Oscar’s nod. And then there’s “Get Out,” a horror genre film Jordan Peele subversively dubbed a “documentary” due to the inherent ideological truth of its plot, a film that arguably represents the political and sociological zeitgeist more accurately than any other film in the category. On the flip side, it’s hard to imagine Paul Thomas Anderson walking away with the award for “Phantom Thread,” a wickedly sardonic statement on marriage (and mushrooms), but one that does not pack the same emotional punch as the other features. Of course, it would be wonderful, if unlikely, were Greta Gerwig, the lone female nominee, were to win, not only because the industry is experiencing a joyful wave of female empowerment via its #femalefilmmakerfriday social media campaign, but also because “Lady Bird” is a moving, smart, poignant portrayal of American adolescent life.

Song Writing
This is arguably the strongest category this Oscar season, where each song is not just solid in terms of complementing the films, but superb as standalone tracks that evoke as much emotion playing through your car radio as they do on the screen. Every songs strikes a differing chord, appeals to different tastes and represents various musical genres — from Mexican folk-inspired fare (“Remember Me” from “Coco”) to the retro, soul-stirring R&B/hip-hop mash-up of “Marshall’s “Stand Up for Something,” penned by Common and Diane Warren. “Mighty River” from “Mudbound,” written and sung by the film’s supporting actress nominee Mary J. Blige, is gorgeous and lush and matches the aesthetic of its cinematic counterpart, while “This Is Me” (“The Greatest Showman”) (5) conveys a Broadway-esque sensibility in its depiction of the oft-perverse and shame-accompanied circus life existence. The widely regarded favorite among indie music buffs this year is Sufjan Steven’s “Mystery of Love” from “Call Me by Your Name.” The song is thorny adolescence and first love wrapped up in plaintive, romantic strings and Steven’s mystical, magical, ethereal and hypnotic voice. When it comes to which tune will win, there’s a case for each song to be made.

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