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Five reasons to watch the Oscars on Sunday

It seems the Oscars have snuck up on us a bit. With good reason, world and national events have swallowed up most of our attention this pandemic year. The Academy Awards were delayed two months, and now that they’re finally happening this Sunday, does anyone even care?

If you’re late to this Oscar season but wouldn’t mind a reason to check out this Sunday’s show, I’ve come up with the five most pressing questions that Oscar aficionados want answered.

1) What’s a virtual Academy Award Ceremony directed by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh going to look like?

Even making allowances for the typical over-the-top hype any Oscar show aims for, I expect this year’s ceremony to be unavoidably groundbreaking. After all, it is the first ever (and hopefully only) Pandemic Academy Awards. Director Soderbergh hopes to take the COVID-19 limitations and turn them into artistic strengths by making the ceremony feel more like a movie than a TV event. How he’s going to do that remains top secret, although he has revealed it’ll involve over-the-shoulder shots from the audience, high-resolution wide-screen formats, and live hits from not only Hollywood but London and Paris as well.

Normally, I’d dismiss this “like a movie” metaphor as rhetorical gimmickry, but in Soderbergh I trust. He has one of the most varied film catalogs, from indie darlings like Sex, Lies, and Videotapes and the four-hour Che, to mainstream juggernauts like the Ocean’s trilogy and Magic Mike, not to mention his Best Picture Oscar-winner Traffic, and his prescient and germane Contagion. A successful Oscar ceremony would be just the latest notch in his artistic belt.

2) Can the small, quiet, almost ruminative independent film Nomadland really win Best Picture, as it’s favored to do?

With the possible exception of Moonlight, I can’t think of a more unlikely Best Picture winner than Nomadland, except that it’s the odds-on-favorite to snag exactly that! Even more remarkably, if it wins Sunday night, it will have led the Oscar race wire to wire. That’s not to suggest it would be an unworthy winner. It’s just that it’s so low-key, so lacking in bombast or in flair, so free of attention-grabbing flourishes. Nomadland is a movie stripped down to its emotional core — a woman who hits the road to quietly grieve the loss of her husband and to take stock of her life in the midst of a serious economic downturn.

I keep expecting it to eventually fall to more traditional fare — the splashy Aaron-Sorkin movie The Trial of the Chicago 7, or the heart-warming Minari, or the punch-in-the-eye of A Promising Young Woman, but at each turn — the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice, the BAFTA’s, and the Independent Spirit Awards — Nomadland nabs Best Picture. (The only award it didn’t snag was the Screen Actors Guild Best Ensemble, primarily because Frances McDormand and David Strathairn were working mostly with non-professional actors.) Oscar voters sometimes like to buck the trend and that could still happen this time out, but I’m close to conceding. It’s Nomadland‘s to lose.

3) With four of the five Best Actress nominees evenly dividing up all the major awards this season, which one will finally prevail to take home the Oscar?

This is the most competitive acting race in recent memory. Frances McDormand (Nomadland) was the early front-runner for her impossible-to-improve-upon performance as a middle-aged woman on the move in a van. She has a BAFTA Best Actress win to show for it.

Then along came Viola Davis as the flamboyant and world-weary blues diva in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She’s practically unrecognizable as the “Mother of the Blues” and gives an intentionally “theatrical” performance. In some ways, it’s the polar opposite of McDormand’s internalized acting in Nomadland. Davis has a Screen Actors Guild Best Actress Award to show for it.

Next up was Carey Mulligan in A Promising Young Woman. She gives a ferocious performance as a woman who “acts” one way and then acts another way in this audacious feminist revenge-thriller. If McDormand’s acting is thoughtful and Davis’ is showy, Mulligan’s screams “contemporary,” the perfect embodiment of the Me Too movement. She has a Critics Choice and Independent Spirit Award for Best Actress to show for it.

Relatively late in the release game came Andra Day in The United States vs Billie Holiday. Much like Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, Day is primarily a singer who is asked to portray one of the greatest blues singers of all time. Her life is mostly a downward spiral relieved only by moments of artistic triumphs, and Day handles both aspects admirably, especially the singing. She adjusted her singing style to sound uncannily like Holiday, a feat in and of itself. The fact that Day does all of her singing gives her bragging rights at least over Davis whose singing was reportedly dubbed. She has a Best Actress Golden Globe to show for it.

The only nominee who hasn’t won a pre-Oscar Best Actress Award is Vanessa Kirby, primarily because her movie, Pieces of a Woman, is just not very good. But Kirby easily earns her nomination with the film’s single-take 30-minute opening during which her character endures a harrowingly realistic and relentless pregnancy crisis.

Except for Kirby, the Best Actress nominees all have the individual hardware to show off their success. A very good case could be made for each of them winning the crown jewel of acting awards. Personally, I’d vote for Viola Davis but I’m betting/guessing it’ll be Carey Mulligan.

4) Will there be a rare posthumous Oscar for Best Actor this year?

Only once has the Best Actor Oscar gone to someone who had passed away, to the great Peter Finch in Network. The equally great Chadwick Boseman is set to repeat Finch’s feat this year with his vivacious take on the ambitious young trumpeter in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The entertainment world and beyond mourned the unexpected death of Boseman who worked practically right up to his death. Having already played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and the Black Panther, Boseman capped off his short but packed career with two films this past year — Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey. When he succumbed to colon cancer last August at the age of 43, he was universally praised for both his talent and character. Despite fighting Stage 4 cancer, Boseman, a lifelong August Wilson fan, chose to squeeze in one last revelatory performance, a role unlike anything he’d done before.

Best Actor winner at the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild, Boseman is the heavy favorite to nab the Oscar too. A faint sign of trouble, he most recently lost the BAFTA to Anthony Hopkins in The Father and the Independent Spirit Award to Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal. Those last two awards could be explained away by the fact that BAFTA might easily prefer a British actor, and the Independent Spirit Awards might prefer the star of a film that feels more “indie.” So, sure, Boseman’s not invincible in this competition, but he’s darn close. Levee Forever!

5) Will there be an equally rare Best Director Oscar awarded to a woman this year?

One of the major embarrassments for the Academy Awards is its dismal record for diversity in the Best Director category. For instance, only one woman has ever won the award in its 93-year history — Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. But come Sunday night, there’s a better-than-good chance that that number will double.

First off, two women are nominated in this category — Chloe Zhao for Nomadland, and Emerald Fennell for A Promising Young Woman. These two nominations are especially remarkable given that only seven women have ever even been nominated for Best Director, in its, again, 93-year history. Even more remarkably, Zhao is the odds-on favorite to nab that Oscar, given that she has won just about everything in sight — the Golden Globe, the Critics Choice Award, the BAFTA award, the Independent Spirit Award, and the prestigious Directors Guild Award as well. An Academy Award for Directing would be one more stunning achievement for this Chinese-American woman who is also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Picture! Perhaps even more stunning, her next project is a Marvel Cinematic Universe entry called Eternals.

The Oscars air at 5 p.m. PST on ABC.

In addition to reviewing movies, Tom co-hosts the Tom and Curley Show weekdays from 3 – 7 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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