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People started talking about the Oscars earlier this year than most, thanks to the critical and commercial successes of Disney’s Black Panther and Paramount’s A Quiet Place, as well as the doc features Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, from Focus, and RBG, from Magnolia. It may now be time to include another title in the discussion, as well: the A24 horror flick Hereditary.
Hereditary marks the feature directorial debut of 31-year-old Ari Aster and stars Australian veteran Toni Collette as the matriarch of a family that faces a bizarre series of events after the death of her own mother. The film, which premiered at Sundance in January and also screened at March’s SXSW Film Festival en route to a June 8 opening in 2,200 theaters, has proven divisive. Critics have championed it (it’s at 91 percent on RottenTomatoes.com) and moviegoers have shown up for it (it grossed $28.1 million domestically in its first two weeks in theaters following the biggest-ever opening weekend for an A24 release). But many ticketbuyers have left it confused and unsatisfied (hence its D+ CinemaScore grade), not least because of its open-to-interpretation ending.
Where are Academy members likely to land on the spectrum of reactions? That’s a tough question to answer. Collette’s performance, which admirers consider the best of her decades-long career, certainly appears to stand a better chance of being nominated than any other aspect of the film, but everything is obviously largely dependent on what the rest of the year brings.
The Academy has, over the past half-century dating back at least to Rosemary’s Baby, been fairly receptive to strong female performances in horror films. Over the last 30 years, specifically, best actress winners have included Kathy Bates for Misery, Jodie Foster for The Silence of the Lambs, Natalie Portman for Black Swan and Brie Larson for Room, while nominations have gone to Ellen Burstyn for Requiem for a Dream, Rooney Mara for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl, all of which feature at least some horror elements.
A24 has handled several offbeat films over the last few years. The distributor helped guide Room and Ex Machina not only to noms, but wins; but they couldn’t get anywhere with the somewhat harder-to-penetrate Under the Skin.
It’s important to remember, though, that almost any Oscar history, save for the last two years’ worth, may not now provide much of a guide, since roughly one-fifth of the Academy’s current membership was invited to join in or after 2016, when the organization began making a huge push to diversify its ranks. (Hundreds more will be invited to join the group next week.) Consequently, there are now more members who are young, people of color and based outside of the U.S. than ever before, and that could render totally moot our traditional ideas of what is and isn’t “Oscar-friendly” fare. Indeed, we are coming off a year in which the Academy embraced genre films as never before — a monster movie, The Shape of Water, won best picture, while a horror-satire, Get Out, probably came closer than any other film to beating it.
Many have cited Get Out as justification for predicting that the Academy will embrace Hereditary, too, but there are some major differences between the two films that make me skeptical: Get Out drew a huge number of people to theaters and almost everybody who saw it was able to understand it. That wasn’t the case with another horror movie that was released last year, Mother! — which, despite being released by Paramount, having a social message and starring Jennifer Lawrence, landed an F CinemaScore and no noms. And that’s not the case with Hereditary, either.
Collette, however, may be respected and popular enough to land a nom anyway. Some will recall that 19 years ago, even with “the old Academy” still in place, she landed a best supporting actress Oscar nom for a different horror film directed by a young filmmaker, The Sixth Sense (which, it must be noted, also landed a best picture nom). I would also keep an eye on supporting actress Ann Dowd, for her portrayal a woman who tries to help Collette’s character with her grief; Dowd is certainly having a moment (she won an Emmy for the TV drama series The Handmaid’s Tale last year), and Ruth Gordon won a best supporting actress Oscar for a similarly juicy role. Hereditary must also be regarded as a possibility in the best production design category — Collette’s character is a miniaturist, and the miniatures showcased in the film are every bit as impressive as her performance.
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