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Sometimes good things really do come to those who wait.
During normal times, Oscar hopefuls must show their hands by the time the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Day. But, in light of the ongoing pandemic, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences extended this season’s submission deadline to Feb. 28. As a result, a handful of rumored hopefuls have still yet to be seen by the vast majority of voters or members of the public, leaving open the possibility of an unusually late-arriving contender upsetting the race.
On Friday, such a contender emerged — or at least became un-embargoed among the awards press — in the form of Malcolm & Marie, a Netflix drama written and directed by Sam Levinson and starring Zendaya (the Emmy-winning leading lady of Levinson’s HBO series Europhia) and John David Washington (Denzel’s son, who was heretofore seen in BlacKkKlansman and Tenet).
In the film, Washington and Zendaya are a couple living together somewhere near Hollywood. He plays a promising young director and she plays an actress still waiting for her break. Their relationship is tested after they return from the world premiere of a movie that he directed, which could make or break his career, and begin pushing each other’s buttons while waiting for the reviews to come in. It all starts because he forgot to include her in his thank-yous — in other words, he Chad Lowe‘d her — ahead of a movie that, it turns out, was inspired by her past struggles.
Malcolm & Marie was entirely conceived of, written, shot (with the oversight of health experts) and edited during the pandemic. And, following a screening of footage of it during September’s Toronto International Film Festival led to a bidding war amongst distributors, it sold to Netflix for a stunning $30 million.
In awards-specific terms, I suspect that was money well-spent. For though Malcolm & Marie may look a bit DIY — it was shot with a handheld camera in black-and-white and entirely in and around one well-ventilated house — it is top-of-the-line in every regard and really a 21st-century variation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, only this time focusing on just one fiery couple clashing late into one night instead of two.
Unlike Burton and Taylor, Washington and Zendaya are not a real-life couple (as far as I know) and are not playing characters meant to be older than their actual ages. But their performances are every bit as strong as those in the 1966 film, thanks in no small part to a smart and funny, if slightly overlong, script by Levinson.
Good luck finding a more impressively acted scene this season that the one that ends with Zendaya’s character delivering a mic-drop reveal, or better dialogue than Washington gets to deliver about “40 Legos and a Mule” (laugh-out-loud), other girls he has been with and “the mystery of art.”
Oh, and did I mention that the film is your average Academy member’s dream? Most will get a kick out of a very plausible evening shared by two people who work in the same wonderful, strange, competitive industry that they do. He rants about films, filmmakers and film criticism (“Not everything I do is ‘political’ because I’m black!”). She expresses the frustration of being ‘the +1’ of someone more successful in the same field. And one can see both sides.
I would be surprised if the film is not right in the mix for picture, director, actor, actress and original screenplay Oscar noms — maybe even cinematography and production design, too. It heralds the arrival of a new generation of top-tier talent both in front of the camera (Zendaya is just 24, while Washington is 36) and behind it (Levinson is 36, as well). And it’s exciting to behold.
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