Audience Heckling, Disney's Legacy, A Flood of Events: Oscar Voting Closes With a Bang (Analysis)

Julia Roberts on Late Show with David Letterman - H 2013
Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

Julia Roberts on Late Show with David Letterman - H 2013

By 5 p.m. PT tonight, all Oscar nomination ballots must be turned in to PricewaterhouseCoopers via either paper or e-ballot. Over the past week, I have been in communication with dozens of Academy members at events or over the phone and email. Some told me they turned in their ballots as soon as they got them on Dec. 27 or shortly thereafter, but many have said they wanted to wait until late in the voting period to do so in order to afford themselves an opportunity to screen more of the contenders.

A byproduct of waiting, of course, is that late-breaking news and events can also shape a voter's interest in what to see or think about a film or individual, and so it is with that in mind that I share three things that many in the film community are talking about as the clock runs out.

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1) Awards ceremony faux-pas

Many of the top contenders were in Gotham on Monday and/or Tuesday night for the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and the National Board of Review Awards, respectively, and both evenings produced strange moments that have received considerable media attention.

At the NYFCC Awards, 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen -- who is vying to become only the third black man ever nominated for the best director Oscar and the first to win it -- was accepting the best director prize in tears, following an eloquent and moving introduction by the legendary Harry Belafonte, when NYFCC member Armond White allegedly began heckling him from the back of the room. While nobody in the front of the room, including McQueen, heard what he was saying -- and White has denied that he heckled McQueen at all -- the ensuing storm of media coverage suggested that he said some extremely vulgar things. My sense is that Belafonte's and White's remarks both boosted 12 Years' already ample support. The former certainly impressed upon the Academy members in the room the significance of 12 Years a Slave and McQueen's accomplishment. (Belafonte received a standing ovation when he finished his remarks.) And the coverage of what White did or did not say has caused people to not only condemn him but stand up for the film even more than they otherwise might have.

The NBR incident was almost as strange. The legendary Meryl Streep, a best actress Oscar contender for August: Osage County, flew in to New York from L.A., where she is currently working, specifically to present her friend Emma Thompson, a best actress Oscar contender for Saving Mr. Banks, with a best actress prize -- but, in the course of doing so, suggested, at some length, that the film for which Thompson was being honored whitewashed the true and repugnant nature of what Walt Disney was actually like. According to Streep and some but not all historians, he was a sexist, racist, anti-Semite. (Interestingly enough, one of Streep's next films will be Into the Woods for -- wait for it -- Walt Disney Pictures.) Streep had the audience howling with many of her other remarks, which covered a wide array of topics (from Ezra Pound to Eminem), but the widespread assumption was that her riff on Disney must have made Thompson feel a little uncomfortable -- even if there was no sign of that in her acceptance speech that followed it. Today, THR reached out to all of the involved parties, but nobody wanted to comment about what had happened. Nevertheless, I think it's safe to assume that Walt Disney Pictures cannot be particularly happy about Streep's characterization of its founder or the insinuation, in a full room with no shortage of Academy members, that Saving Mr. Banks, which is in a dogfight for a best picture Oscar nomination, features an inaccurate portrayal of him.

2) Precursor Nominations

This week, two awards groups that have been dispensing honors longer than almost any group except the Academy -- both of which have strong track records of predicting Oscar nominees -- announced their nominations.

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On Tuesday, the Directors Guild of America, announced its nominees for the 66th DGA Awards in the category for best direction of a feature film. As was widely expected, spots went to Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron, 12 Years a Slave's Steve McQueen and American Hustle's David O. Russell. The remaining two spots were a slightly more open question, but Captain Phillips' Paul Greengrass and The Wolf of Wall Street's Martin Scorsese ended up prevailing over the likes of Nebraska's Alexander Payne, Blue Jasmine's Woody Allen and Inside Llewyn Davis' Ethan and Joel Coen. It should be understood, though, that the Academy is likely to swap out at least one of the DGA's picks for someone else. Over the past 65 years in which the DGA Award has been presented, it has proven to be the single most accurate predictor of the winners of the best director Oscar (their winners have differed only seven times) and the best picture Oscar (the film directed by the DGA winner has gone on to win the best picture Oscar on all but 13 occasions). But, when it comes to nominees, the two groups rarely overlap exactly. Perhaps this is because the DGA employs a weighted voting system whereas the Academy, in its best director category, employs a voting system that rewards passion even more than consensus. (This manifested itself last year when the roughly 15,000-member DGA and the directors branch of the Academy, which consisted of 371 members (or 6.34 percent of the full Academy) last year and consists of 377 members this year (or just 6.25 percent of the full Academy), reached very different conclusions about Argo's Ben Affleck. Affleck was nominated for the DGA Award -- and won it -- but he and fellow DGA nominees Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) were not even nominated by the Academy's directors branch, which replaced them with Amour's Michael Haneke, Beasts of the Southern Wild's Benh Zeitlin and Silver Linings Playbook's Russell. Zeitlin-like beneficiaries of the Academy's voting system this year could include Her's Spike Jonze or Fruitvale Station's Ryan Coogler.

On Wednesday the British Academy of Film and Television Arts announced its nominees for the 67th BAFTA Awards. Determined by 6,500 people, including many of the roughly 250 Academy members who are reportedly based in the U.K., it often predicts many of the Oscar nominations that follow in its wake. This year, Gravity had more nominations than any other film, with 11, but 12 Years a Slave was only one behind, which would seem to confirm those films' status as the top contenders, along with perhaps American Hustle, which scored noms in each of the four acting categories, something that has happened on only 14 times in Oscar history -- most recently last year when Silver Linings Playbook, another film by David O. Russell, became the first to do so in 31 years. It was also a very good day for Captain Phillips (with nine noms, including mentions in the film, director, lead actor, supporting actor and adapted screenplay categories) and the British drama Philomena (which scored noms for best film and best actress, with Judi Dench setting a new record for most BAFTA acting nominations with her 15th). It was a mixed day for The Wolf of Wall Street (director Martin Scorsese and lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio were both nominated but the film and supporting actor Jonah Hill were not), August: Osage County (lead actress Streep was not nominated but supporting actress Julia Roberts was) and Lee Daniels' The Butler (supporting actress Oprah Winfrey was included but the film's only other nom was for best makeup). And it was a bad day for Dallas Buyers Club (lead actor Matthew McConaughey and supporting actor Jared Leto were both snubbed but seem likely to rebound at the Oscars based on their other recognition this season) and All Is Lost lead actor Robert Redford (few get passed over by both SAG and BAFTA and still make it to the Oscars).

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3) Barrage of Pseudoevents

Distributors have left no stone unturned in the final days of the race's first phase. Efforts to get Oscar voters to watch contenders or think of them in the best possible light have come in many forms, all of which might be classified as "pseudoevents," to quote the late Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin -- in other words, events that exist solely to engender attention and/or publicity. These have come in a large variety of forms. There have been lunches -- Fox Searchlight held one for the women of 12 Years a Slave at New York's 21 Club; Paramount held one at Westside Tavern in Los Angeles for The Wolf of Wall Street's supporting actress Margot Robbie on the same day that it threw another at Michael's in New York for Nebraska and The Wolf of Wall Street at which Scorsese, DiCaprio, Hill, Bruce Dern, Will Forte and others mingled with Academy members like Richard Gere; Sharon Stone and Berry Gordy hosted one for The Weinstein Co.'s The Butler; David Fincher hosted one for Dallas Buyers Club's supporting actor Leto in Los Angeles and, in New York, Liza Minnelli hosted one for the film at The Monkey Room at which she told McConaughey , in front of a roomful of Academy members, "Honey, if you don't win the Academy Award, I'm giving you mine!" There have been teas -- Philomena's supporting actor Steve Coogan participated in one on each coast, joined in L.A. by the film's composer Alexandre Desplat and in New York by its director Stephen Frears. There have been special Q&As -- Scorsese conducted one with Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai following a screening of Wong's shortlisted foreign-language film The Grandmaster. There have been career retrospectives -- for Philomena's Frears at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. There have been Inside the Actors Studio tapings -- just weeks after Dern sat for a long Q&A with James Lipton, so did McConaughey. There has been a celebration of black cinema -- hosted by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, it featured performances by the black backup singers who are showcased in the shortlisted documentary feature 20 Feet From Stardom. And the list goes on. If one can conclude anything from all of this, it is, perhaps, that everyone, even and maybe especially Academy members, likes a free meal, especially in the company of the rich and famous. We may never know, though, if any of it actually made a difference, as far as the prospects of those being feted. 

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg