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The race to the 94th Oscars came into much clearer focus this week with the unveiling of the last two Oscar hopefuls that had yet to screen for pundits: Disney’s West Side Story on Monday — right on the heels of Stephen Sondheim’s passing on Friday — and Disney subsidiary Searchlight’s Nightmare Alley on Wednesday.
West Side Story, Steven Spielberg’s first foray into the musical genre, faced the high hurdle of inevitable comparisons with the classic 1961 West Side Story, which won best picture and nine other Oscars — and, to my shock, I believe it surmounted it. Indeed, as sacrilegious as it may sound, I and many others who caught the film at one of its first screenings — either in New York at Lincoln Center, appropriately enough, or, in my case, in L.A. on the Fox lot — came away feeling that the new version more than holds its own with the original.
This is the kind of movie that I think people will clamor to see in theaters upon its release on Dec. 10 — provided the omicron variant of COVID is better understood by then. The dancing in the original, choreographed by the legendary Jerome Robbins, is probably slightly superior, although the new version’s dancing is solid. The singing in the new version is better, not least because the performers on-screen actually do it (several of the original’s stars were dubbed). The newer one’s costumes, sets and camerawork are more impressive, as is its screenplay, which was elevated by the great Tony Kushner. It’s at least as moving as the original. And it just rings truer, with people of Latin descent, not Caucasians covered in mud-colored makeup, playing the Puerto Ricans, and — something that some will inevitably try to make controversial — with quite a bit of Spanish-language dialogue, chunks of which are not accompanied by English subtitles.
Here’s something that may surprise you: Both lead performances are better, too.
Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, is a 20-year-old first-time screen actress who is every bit as alluring as Natalie Wood, but — apologies for the understatement of the year — can actually sing. Wood’s performance probably would have been nominated for best actress had she not also appeared that same year in Splendor in the Grass, splitting her vote. As for Zegler, I can’t imagine that she won’t be nominated, and I think there’s a very real chance that she, like a handful of other irresistible newcomers before her, such as Roman Holiday’s Audrey Hepburn and Funny Girl’s Barbra Streisand, could actually win. She’s clearly a star.
Meanwhile, Ansel Elgort, the Tony to her Maria, certainly makes more of an impression in the part than Richard Beymer did — he plays it with the physicality of a young Brando — but he probably still faces an uphill climb in the lead actor category, primarily because it is jam-packed. It wouldn’t be the first time that an awards juggernaut left a leading performer behind (see: Titanic‘s Leonardo DiCaprio).
Both of the original West Side Story’s two acting wins came in the supporting races, with recognition for George Chakiris, who played Bernardo, and Rita Moreno, who played Anita. The performers who inhabit those roles in the new film, David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose, respectively, certainly stand a strong shot at nominations. But, interestingly enough, the supporting performers in the new film who seem to have popped the most are Mike Faist, a Tony-nominated alum of Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen who here plays Riff, and — wait for it — 89-year-old Moreno, who is back as a different character created specially for this version.
Moreno nearly steals the whole movie with one particularly moving song. Beatrice Straight (Network) and Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) won the supporting actress Oscar for less screen time and comparable work, and I suspect that voters may not be able to resist the opportunity to honor this beloved, trailblazing legend with another Oscar in the same category that she won 60 years ago for the same film.
Regardless, it seems likely to me that West Side Story will contend across the board, to the extent that it will probably be neck-and-neck with Dune for the most overall nominations. You can take to the bank noms for picture, director (Spielberg), actress (Zegler), supporting actress (Moreno and DeBose), adapted screenplay (Kushner), cinematography, production design, costume design, film editing and sound, and probably supporting actor (Faist and/or Alvarez) and makeup/hairstyling too.
That brings us to Nightmare Alley, another film following in the footsteps of a decades-old classic, although in this case one based more on the 1946 novel than on the 1947 film noir of the same name, the latter of which was poorly reviewed, flopped at the box office and wasn’t nominated for a single award but is now considered a classic. This one will almost surely find greater awards traction, given the Academy’s high regard for del Toro and increasing openness to genre fare, as demonstrated by voters’ response to his last film — The Shape of Water was nominated for 13 Oscars and del Toro personally took home producing and directing statuettes.
That being said, Nightmare Alley is set during the years of World War II in the underbelly of carnivals and centers on geeks, freaks and drunks, meaning it is decidedly less romantic or poetic than The Shape of Water.
Lead actor Bradley Cooper and supporting actress Cate Blanchett, as two conniving operators who wind up in each other’s orbit, are the two biggest individual standouts from a large and impressive cast that may well wind up with a best ensemble SAG nomination. (Past nominees David Strathairn and Richard Jenkins are also very good.) Their respective categories are jam-packed with worthy competitors, but they’re both time-honored favorites of the Academy’s actors branch, which determines the acting nominees, so things could really go either way for them. The same is true for the screenplay adaptation by del Toro and Kim Morgan, the film journalist he recently married.
At the end of the day, the very best outcome for Nightmare Alley would probably resemble the one for another period piece, Mank, last season: noms for picture, directing and screenplay; one lead performer and one supporting performer; and production design, cinematography, sound, original score, makeup/hairstyling and costume design. My hunch is that it will wind up with more noms than the 1947 Nightmare Alley but fewer than Mank.
The bottom line? As we head into December, I think the top-tier contenders for best picture are Disney’s West Side Story, Focus’ Belfast and Warners’ King Richard, each of which have widespread appeal and a lot of heart (essential ingredients for the preferential ballot). The next tier probably comprises Netflix’s The Power of the Dog, Warners’ Dune, Netflix’s Tick, Tick … Boom!, A24’s C’mon C’mon, Amazon’s Being the Ricardos and MGM/United Artists’ Licorice Pizza, which are each a bit more divisive but possess large blocs of very enthusiastic supporters. And, given that the Academy is returning to a guaranteed 10 best picture nominees this year, that means there is one slot remaining.
It could go to a poorly reviewed box office hit (MGM/United Artists’ House of Gucci); a Netflix movie which is flawed but star-studded enough to attract a lot of viewers (Don’t Look Up or The Harder They Fall); an indie darling (Netflix’s The Lost Daughter or Apple’s CODA, which both did very well at the Gotham Awards on Nov. 29); an international feature (Amazon’s A Hero, Netflix’s The Hand of God or Sony Classics’ Parallel Mothers); or even, for the first time, a documentary feature (Searchlight’s Summer of Soul or Neon/Participant’s Flee).
The directors branch tends to march to its own beat. Best picture crossover seems likely with West Side Story, Belfast and The Power of the Dog (veterans Spielberg, Kenneth Branagh and Jane Campion, respectively) but less so with King Richard, Tick, Tick … Boom! and Being the Ricardos (the less established Reinaldo Marcus Green, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Aaron Sorkin, respectively). And don’t discount Dune’s Denis Villeneuve, A Hero’s Asghar Farhadi, C’mon C’mon’s Mike Mills or Licorice Pizza’s Paul Thomas Anderson.
As for the acting races? At the moment, King Richard’s Will Smith remains the clear frontrunner for best actor, although Tick, Tick … Boom!’s Andrew Garfield should not be counted out. Spencer’s Kristen Stewart, the early best actress frontrunner for a great performance in a widely disliked movie, is facing an onslaught from this year’s Cinderella stories, West Side Story’s Zegler and Licorice Pizza’s Alana Haim, as well as several past winners, among them Parallel Mothers’ Penelope Cruz, Being the Ricardos’ Nicole Kidman, The Lost Daughter’s Olivia Colman and House of Gucci’s Lady Gaga. The supporting actor category is a total crapshoot, although it seems reasonable to assume that most of the nominees will hail from Belfast (Jamie Dornan and/or Ciarin Hinds), The Power of the Dog (Jesse Plemons and/or Kodi Smit-McPhee) and West Side Story (Faist and/or Alvarez) — but voters could also make room to give a 12-year-old his due (C’mon C’mon’s Woody Norman). And supporting actress will probably also be packed with scene-stealers from best pic contenders West Side Story (Moreno and/or DeBose), Belfast (Caitriona Balfe and/or Judi Dench), King Richard (Aunjanue Ellis and/or Saniyya Sidney) and The Power of the Dog (Kirsten Dunst).
It’s only the beginning of December, and the 94th Oscars aren’t until March 27, so a lot can still happen. But this is the lay of the land, as I see it, right now.
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