Oscar Voter Reveals Her Brutally Honest Ballot: Meryl Streep "Like a Clown," 'La La Land' "Not Memorable," 'Arrival' "Just Sucked"

5:02 PM 2/21/2017

by Anonymous, as told to Scott Feinberg

An Academy voter makes her case for 'Hell or High Water' ("It will be remembered as a true American classic"), says Emma Stone wasn't "as wonderful as people are saying," and explains why Viola Davis is in the wrong category ("That really irks me").

Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot - Illustration by Kyle Metcalf - H 2017
Illustration by Kyle Metcalf

Each year around this time, I sit down with several Oscar voters who, under the warm cloak of anonymity, spill their true feelings about the current season's crop of contenders.

Not just what or whom they voted for, but exactly why and how they came to those decisions. It's not meant to be a scientific survey; it's just the candid, unsugarcoated opinions of a handful of members (out of 6,687) of the most important and powerful movie club in the world.

Below is an edited transcript of one such conversation, Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot #1, with a longtime female member of the 1,158-member actors branch who — this season, anyway — is not associated with any of the nominees. 

More: Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot #2 I Brutally Honest Ballot #3

  • Best Picture

    I hated Arrival — it just sucked. I didn't like Fences because they just filmed the play — I wanted to see the guy go into the jazz club and play his music, the girl who's having his baby, his kid on the football field. But I think Denzel [Washington, its producer/director/star] decided that every word of the script [by the late August Wilson] was so precious that he wasn't going to "mess" with it, and the movie suffered as a result. I loved the first half of Lion, but I felt like a different director and cinematographer made the second half. I thought Hidden Figures was wonderful — because it's a great story, not because it was especially hard to tell. It's almost like a glorified Movie of the Week. Moonlight and Hacksaw Ridge were really very good, but I don't think of them as a best picture. La La Land was tremendously enjoyable, but not all that deep or memorable. That left me with Manchester by the Sea and Hell or High Water, two compassionate movies that were incredibly well written, directed and acted. Hell or High Water isn't going to win, but it was my favorite, and it will be remembered as a true American classic.

    My vote 
    (1) Hell or High Water 
    (2) Manchester by the Sea 
    (3) La La Land 
    (4) Hacksaw Ridge 
    (5) Moonlight

  • Best Director

    Forget about Arrival [director Denis Villeneuve]. After that, it was tough. I decided not to go with Hacksaw Ridge, and not because of anything to do with Mel Gibson's personal problems — even though I'm Jewish. I think he's a different person now; he's a very talented director, and I wish him well. [Moonlight's] Barry Jenkins did a really good job, but the movie's three parts aren't as connected as they could have been. That left me with Manchester [Kenneth Lonergan] and La La Land [Damien Chazelle]. Damien is such a sweetheart; I loved what he did with Whiplash and this one, and he's probably going to win. But I voted for Lonergan, because it was harder to make everything click on that movie, and he really succeeded.

    My vote 
    Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)

  • Best Actor

    Denzel has played this role a million times before, and he got the Tony for it — I'm sure he was amazing onstage, but he didn't do anything unexpected on film. You've got to seem alive in the moment, and maybe if he'd gotten a really great director to direct him, that person would have nudged him to do that. [Hacksaw's] Andrew Garfield and [La La Land's] Ryan Gosling were very good, but not Oscar-level. [Manchester's] Casey Affleck had a role worthy of his brave acting, and he was absolutely wonderful. But I loved, loved, loved Viggo Mortensen's performance [in Captain Fantastic]. He is an actors' actor, and I voted for him. Unfortunately, it's probably the only vote he'll get.

    My vote 
    Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)

  • Best Actress

    I liked none of them. I thought Meryl [Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins] played it like a clown — she's cute and adorable, but this woman didn't matter to me in the end — but people are gaga over Meryl, and I think she solidified her nomination when she gave that speech at the Golden Globes. I don't think she would have gotten nominated without it. I hated Jackie so much — it was just shallow crap — so no Natalie Portman. [Elle's] Isabelle Huppert is an ice-cold actress, and I eliminated her because when you get attacked, beaten and raped, you're not the same person afterward, but she was, and I wanted to slap her to try to get a reaction out of her. The girl in La La Land [Emma Stone] is going to win because she's adorable and everybody loves her, but I don't think she was as wonderful as people are saying. That leaves me with Ruth Negga for Loving, who was fairly one-note, but engaging enough.

    My vote
    Ruth Negga (Loving)

  • Best Supporting Actor

    I thought [Lion's] Dev Patel and the kid from Manchester [Lucas Hedges] were really good, but not great. The guy from Moonlight [Mahershala Ali] was good, but I don't think his character was that developed — I mean, he's this great guy, and then all of a sudden he just disappears. I really liked Michael Shannon in a movie that I didn't like [Nocturnal Animals] — in fact, I voted to nominate him. But my heart is with Jeff Bridges, because I loved [Hell or High Water]. The acting was sheer perfection. Jeff makes it look easy but, boy, what he does is not easy.

    My vote 
    Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)

  • Best Supporting Actress

    I immediately ruled out [Fences'] Viola Davis — don't get me wrong, I love her and I think she's wonderful, but that's my protest vote. She should have been in the lead actress category, and when the studios put these actresses who are clearly the lead in the supporting category — like they did with [The Danish Girl's] Alicia Vikander last year, even though she had more lines than the guy [Eddie Redmayne] — that really irks me. Because it prevents real supporting actresses, like the waitress in Hell or High Water [Margaret Bowman], from getting nominated. Viola will probably win, but she belonged in the leading lady category. I love [Hidden Figures'] Octavia Spencer, but I felt the other two women in the film [Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae] were better. Nicole [Kidman in Lion] wasn't all that different from everything else I've seen her do. So, for me, it was between Michelle [Williams for Manchester], for a true supporting part, and the gal from Moonlight [Naomie Harris]. Both of them were wonderful, but the gal from Moonlight went to places that were harder to go to.

    My vote 
    Naomie Harris (Moonlight)

  • Best Adapted Screenplay

    As you know, I hated Arrival. The Lion script was uneven. I didn't really consider Fences because I don't think it was adapted. So it came down to Moonlight and Hidden Figures, and I just thought the story of Moonlight was more of a challenge to tell.

    My vote

  • Best Original Screenplay

    20th Century Women was cute, but it didn't fully work. The Lobster was interesting but a little bit weird for me. La La Land was very light. So I was torn between Manchester and Hell or High Water. [Manchester's] Lonergan is very bright and wrote a brilliant screenplay, but I have to go with Hell or High Water, even though it doesn't have a chance of winning.

    My vote
    Hell or High Water

  • Best Animated Feature

    I watched them all and liked several of them, but I loved The Red Turtle, which was the most profound of the group.

    My vote
    The Red Turtle
  • Best Documentary Feature

    I'm ruling out O.J. [Made in America] even though I still have an hour of it left to watch — maybe for younger people this is new stuff, but for me it's just reliving a part of the past I don't need to relive. I was disappointed with I Am Not Your Negro — I was really looking forward to learning more about James Baldwin's life, rather than his ideas (which I already knew), because when I first came to New York as a young actress, he was such an avant-garde playwright and fascinating guy. Three-quarters of Ava DuVernay's movie [13th] was wonderful, but the last quarter was so preachy that I felt like I was hit over the head, which was a turnoff. They did a really good job with Fire at Sea, except I hated that little kid in it — killing birds and cutting up cacti and all of that. I voted for Life, Animated because I thought it was a positive story, how the parents took a massive challenge and made something of it.

    My vote
    Life, Animated
  • Best Foreign-Language Film

    I hated the German movie [Toni Erdmann] so much because it was so shticky — Germans are not funny! The only part of the whole movie where I laughed was when she couldn't get out of her tight dress and just ripped it off and went around naked. I hear Jack Nicholson is going to be in a remake, and he might make it funny. The other four were beautifully done, so it was hard. The Australian one [Tanna] was gorgeously photographed. Land of Mine really captured the horrors of war. The Salesman will probably win because there will be a big protest vote about [writer-director Asghar Farhadi] not being able to get into this country [because of Trump's travel ban, now under a stay]. But my heart was with [Sweden's] A Man Called Ove. There's something life-affirming about that movie.

    My vote
    A Man Called Ove

  • Best Cinematography

    Arrival is definitely out. Silence had beautiful photography, but I hated that movie so much, with all the Christian stuff beating me over the head — I mean, c’mon, Marty [Scorsese, its director]! Moonlight and the first half of Lion had some impressive stuff. But I voted for La La Land — the cinematography really elevated the movie.

    My vote 
    La La Land

  • Best Costume Design

    The costumes in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Florence Foster Jenkins and Jackie were really good, but I didn’t like the movies. I liked La La Land, but I don’t think the costumes had much to do with that — modern things aren’t that hard to design, although [Stone] looked great, I have to say. And while I didn’t love Allied, the costumes for Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard were the best thing about it. In fact, when they had one of those little parties for it, I went up to that British lady [Joanna Johnston] and told her that, and I don’t think she knew how to respond. Me and my big mouth. (Laughs.)

    My vote

  • Best Film Editing

    This was a really strong category this year. [John Gilbert] did a great job with Hacksaw Ridge, but Hell or High Water was my favorite film, so I’m gonna stick with it here.

    My vote
    Hell or High Water

  • Best Makeup & Hairstyling

    I didn’t like Suicide Squad very much. The Star Trek [Beyond] DVD they sent me stopped halfway through — something was wrong with it — so I called them and asked them to send me another, but they never did, so that eliminated them! The funny thing is I probably would have voted for them. Again, I liked A Man Called Ove — the whole movie — so that’s the one.

    My vote
    A Man Called Ove

  • Best Original Score

    I really listened to each of them. La La Land’s was very sweet and stood out to me the most.

    My vote
    La La Land

  • Best Original Song

    I’m not crazy about any of them — you don’t really remember them like you remember songs like “The Way We Were” even years later — but I’ll vote for the Sting one [“The Empty Chair,” for which Sting is nominated with J. Ralph].

    My vote
    "The Empty Chair" (Jim: The James Foley Story)

  • Best Production Design

    Arrival was the first to go. Then Hail, Caesar! and Passengers — just mediocre movies. So it was between La La Land and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I’m sure La La Land will win, but I went with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them because I thought the production value on that movie was really wonderful, even though I wasn’t knocked out by the movie itself.

    My vote
    Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

  • Best Sound Editing & Best Sound Mixing

    These are the categories I have a really hard time with — it would be easier if they just had a “best sound” category, but as it is I’m really totally confused and prefer to just stay out of it.

    My vote for both

  • Best Visual Effects

    I like the effects in Rogue One, but I voted for The Jungle Book because I thought that one, with the animals and everything, was absolutely stunning.

    My vote
    The Jungle Book

  • Best Animated Short

    The two that I liked the best were Piper, which is so adorable, and the one with the cigarettes where that crazy guy goes to China [Pear Cider and Cigarettes], which I voted for because it is very intriguing and different.

    My vote
    Pearl Cider and Cigarettes

  • Best Documentary Short

    The one about the immigrants coming across the ocean [4.1 Miles] is no different than what you see on the news. What bothered me about Joe’s Violin is he said he was a Holocaust survivor, but he wasn’t — his mother and brothers were, but he was sent to Siberian gulags — and that made me doubt everything else about the story. The two about Syria [Watani: My Homeland and The White Helmets] were very well done — I almost voted for White Helmets. But I thought Extremis was the most human and least contrived.

    My vote

  • Best Live-Action Short

    I thought Timecode was good, but it was more of an intellectual exercise, so I went with my heart: I preferred the one about the woman and the bike and the train [La Femme et le TGV] because I thought there was something really humane about that one. She grew from that experience and it had a really positive message.

    My vote
    La Femme et le TGV