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First, let’s address the elephant in the room.
After attending the Academy Awards ceremony at which the incorrect film was announced as best picture five years ago, I didn’t think I could ever see anything nearly as crazy on a subsequent Oscar night. I was wrong. During Sunday evening’s 94th Oscars, after hearing one too many jokes about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith — and perhaps specifically one too many from Chris Rock, who had previously made Pinkett Smith, his co-star in 2012’s Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, the butt of a joke during the aforementioned Envelopegate ceremony — Will Smith walked up onstage and “smacked the shit out of” Rock, as Rock himself immediately described it.
Sitting in the audience, just as when Envelopegate happened, I couldn’t believe that what I had just seen was real — perhaps Smith had actually just smacked the microphone as part of a bit to make it seem like he had smacked Rock? — until Smith took his seat again and twice screamed at Rock, at the top of his voice, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!” (In case you weren’t aware, the Academy and its longtime Oscars broadcasting partner ABC do not love words like “shit” and “fucking.”)
What made the whole thing particularly shocking is that Smith has been a model Hollywood citizen for decades and is actually famous for his discipline. Remember that as a young man, he literally stated that his goal was to become “the biggest movie star in the world,” figured out what he would have to do to become it and then did just that. And ever since, at least prior to Sunday night, he has carried that mantle — a burden that comes with being treated like public property and not infrequently having to turn the other cheek, if you’ll forgive the expression — with grace.
It is never right to resort to violence. It is never right to mock the appearance of someone’s spouse in front of the world, least of all when the physical feature being mocked is the result of a medical condition. Regardless of who you think was “right” or “wrong” in this situation, the bottom line is that nobody comes away from it looking good. And the whole thing is terribly sad because it took away from everything else that happened Sunday night — for Smith, who went on to collect a well-deserved best actor Oscar for his career-best performance in King Richard, but was unable to enjoy the moment; for the night’s other winners, whose achievements were overshadowed by drama; and for the Academy and ABC, which — via telecast producer Will Packer — put on a largely smooth show (setting aside the fact that a huge segment of the Academy’s membership and the film community came into the evening displeased that eight awards would be presented prior to the live broadcast, and angry at every nonessential thing that was included on the live broadcast instead of them).
Had the slap heard ’round the world not occurred, the night’s main headline would have been that Hollywood has officially entered a new era: a film from a streaming service — namely, Apple Original Films’ CODA — was voted the best picture Oscar for the first time, a result no less seismic, and in fact considerably more so, than a non-American film (namely, the British Hamlet) winning the best picture Oscar for the first time at the Oscars in 1949, and a non-English-language film (namely, the Korean-language Parasite) winning the best picture Oscar for the first time when the Oscars were last held at the Dolby in 2020.
What does it mean that “Hollywood,” which has always existed as a factory of movies for movie theaters, has now given its highest honor to a movie that barely played in any movie theaters at all? It’s too soon to say for sure, but make no mistake about it: A Rubicon has been crossed.
As recently as early December, I — like other pundits — regarded CODA as a “longer shot” to even land a best picture nomination, and I was looked at askance for including CODA star Emilia Jones on our Actress Roundtable and writer-director Sian Heder on our Writer Roundtable. So what changed between then and now?
I think two things happened.
First, Academy members began looking for a best picture alternative to The Power of the Dog — not, I think, because The Power of the Dog emanated from Netflix, but because the film never really connected with non-critics in the way that it connected with critics. Like the other artsy Netflix film that won best director but not best picture three years ago, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, The Power of the Dog is simply too cold and polarizing to play well on the preferential ballot that the Academy uses to determine the best picture winner.
And second, Academy members began catching up with CODA and falling in love with its moving story and the people behind it — one couldn’t help but root for them. The film’s best ensemble SAG Award win on Feb. 27 provided a visual of a winner other than The Power of the Dog, and many liked what they saw. By the time CODA won the top Producers Guild Award on March 19, in the middle of the final round of Oscar voting, CODA had it in the bag. And by Oscar night, virtually all of the hearing people at the ceremony knew and employed ASL applause — waving one’s fingers in the air — to cheer the film’s wins.
On Sunday, CODA and The Power of the Dog first came head-to-head early in the night when CODA’s Troy Kotsur won the best supporting actor prize over The Power of the Dog’s Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee. But I think most of us who study this stuff knew that the best picture race was over the minute that CODA beat The Power of the Dog to win the best adapted screenplay Oscar. If the screenplay of CODA could beat the screenplay of The Power of the Dog on a straight vote, the film CODA could surely beat the film The Power of the Dog on a preferential ballot.
What does CODA’s best picture win mean for the Oscar stats that guide pundits’ predictions each year? I think, above all, it means that we need to remember that the only stats that really matter, for as long as the Academy uses a preferential ballot to determine the best picture Oscar, are stats pertaining to other years in which the Academy used a preferential ballot, meaning the years before the 17th Oscars in 1945 and after the 81st Oscars in 2009.
You probably heard, heading into this year’s Oscars, that no film since 1932’s Grand Hotel had won best picture with fewer than four Oscar noms, and CODA had only three. It was tempting to read that as: “No film in 90 years has won best picture with fewer than four total nominations.” But what it really meant was that no film at the 11 Oscars ceremonies immediately following Grand Hotel or at the 12 Oscars ceremonies immediately preceding this one won with fewer than four total noms. A 23-year stretch was still daunting, but far less daunting than a 90-year stretch. And it ended up meaning nothing.
Additionally, CODA becomes only the sixth film to win best picture without a best director nomination (four of the five other examples came during years in which the preferential ballot was in place). And CODA is now the only film in the past 41 years — aside from Birdman, which was deliberately made to look like an unedited film — to win best picture without a best film editing nomination. Stats like those were probably always coincidental, not causal, even before the return of the preferential ballot, given that only the film editors branch and the directors branch select the nominees in their respective categories, but, we are now reminded, they are particularly meaningless in the era of the preferential ballot.
CODA did uphold a few “rules,” though. In the current era of the preferential ballot, meaning the past 12 years, no film that won the top prize of both the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild — The King’s Speech, Argo, Birdman and now CODA — has not gone on to win the best picture Oscar. (Keep in mind that the top Producers Guild Award is the only Oscar-precursor honor determined using the same sort of preferential ballot as the best picture Oscar.) It is certainly true that the Academy, in recent years, has become a much more international organization than it used to be, but it is still overwhelmingly American, and when the American-heavy SAG-AFTRA and PGA (not to mention the WGA) all agree on something, that should be taken seriously.
This turns out to have been one of the few seasons in which the SAG Awards’ best ensemble winner and all four of its individual acting winners — best actor Smith, best actress Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Kotsur (CODA) and best supporting actress Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) — went on to win Oscars. The same four actors won at the Critics Choice Awards, too, but the best picture Critics Choice Award went to The Power of the Dog, which was also the best film pick at the BAFTA Awards.
At the Oscars, Dune dominated the “below-the-line” awards, winning six of the 10 for which it was nominated (including four of the eight that were presented before the ceremony began airing live), CODA went three-for-three (picture, supporting actor and adapted screenplay), The Eyes of Tammy Faye went two-for-two (actress and makeup/hairstyling), The Power of the Dog went one-for-12 (it’s the first film since The Graduate 54 years ago to win only director), Belfast went one-for-seven (original screenplay), West Side Story went one-for-seven (supporting actress), Drive My Car went one-for-four (international feature), Encanto went one-for-three (animated feature), No Time to Die went one-for-three (original song), Cruella went one-for-two (costume design) and Summer of Soul went one-for-one (documentary feature). The winning shorts were The Windshield Wiper (animated short), The Queen of Basketball (documentary short) and The Long Goodbye (live-action short).
Meanwhile, films with multiple nominations that went home empty-handed were Don’t Look Up and Nightmare Alley (zero-for-four); Being the Ricardos, Flee, Licorice Pizza, The Lost Daughter and The Tragedy of Macbeth (zero-for-three); and Parallel Mothers, Tick, Tick … Boom! and The Worst Person in the World (zero-for-two).
The Apple Original Films awards team certainly deserves to celebrate. I don’t think that I or anyone else could have imagined, when I sat in the audience at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters for the unveiling of Apple’s original content plans on March 25, 2019, that Apple would have a best picture Oscar winner in just three years (an even faster rate-of-return than Open Road Films had with Spotlight a few years ago).
Apple’s best picture win undoubtedly makes Netflix’s best picture loss hurt all the more, and the whole night was probably pretty painful for Netflix — indeed, few could have imagined that Searchlight’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye would win more Oscars than all of Netflix’s 2021 titles combined. But I genuinely don’t think that Netflix’s awards team has anything to hang its head about. No matter how large its staff or resources, it can only play the hand it is dealt, and it has thus far been dealt, by and large, films that have limited appeal to the Academy. Nobody could have taken this set of films further.
Anyway, thus ends an oppressively long awards season, which felt even longer because of the stop-and-start nature of in-person activities as a result of the ongoing pandemic, as well as the fact that the Oscars were pushed all the way back to the end of March because of the Winter Olympics.
One can only hope that the ratings of the Oscars telecast will come up (last year’s was the lowest-rated in history), the duration of the season will come down (is an early February Oscars too much to ask for?) and that 2021’s onscreen achievements, rather than 2022’s onstage altercation, will be remembered longest.
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