'The Awards Pundits' on 'The Big Short,' Oscar Narratives and Golden Globes Categories

The Big Short Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The Big Short Still - H 2015

This is the ninth installment of what will be an ongoing dialogue, throughout the awards season, between THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg and executive editor, features Stephen Galloway.

GALLOWAY Scott, imagine this: You’re an awards campaigner, lurching toward Thanksgiving, desperate to get away but forced to come up with schemes to promote your contender — and at a time when there are no clear frontrunners. How on earth do you break out from the pack?

FEINBERG Right now everyone’s throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Never in history have there been more campaign-driven breakfasts, lunches, dinners, brunches, receptions, cocktail parties, before parties, after parties, holiday parties, meet-and-greets, screenings, Q&As and the like —

GALLOWAY But they can only take a contender so far, right?

FEINBERG Right. The objective with them is to get voters and tastemakers just to have a movie on their radar so that hopefully they’ll see it. Then there’s the whole other matter of convincing them to vote for it.

GALLOWAY So the way you do that is… ?

FEINBERG Messaging. Think of an Oscar campaign like a political campaign. Why does your contender matter? And what’s the fierce urgency of voting for it? Few winners have won without a compelling narrative, and few of this year’s contenders have found one.

GALLOWAY That’s the problem. With one or two exceptions, I don’t think they will. There’s no 12 Years a Slave or Brokeback Mountain in the bunch, no movie with a visceral punch like those films, and no contender that seems to tap into an issue that’s so topical or compelling that it lifts that movie to victory. 12 Years led you look at slavery in a whole new light, and Brokeback made you feel for the plight of two gay men. Even Crash — whatever you think of the movie — really got under people’s skin because it addressed the latent racism that a lot of us feel is pervasive today, and maybe always has been. Unless one of this year’s movies can convince people that it has some profound social significance, the winner is going to be the one that skips that sort of argument altogether and over the next few weeks makes the best tactical and incremental steps on the way to the Dolby.

FEINBERG It’s all about how you frame the subject. So Straight Outta Compton isn’t a movie about people who sang “F—k the police”; it’s the story of how we wound up today, 25 years later, with massive tensions between white cops and young black men. The Martian isn’t about a futuristic astronaut separated from the people who love him; it’s a metaphor about Ridley Scott’s wish to be reunited with his late brother, Tony Scott. And the list goes on. And I think you’re wrong: Spotlight, for one, addresses a real contemporary issue — sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — that’s a very important subject.

GALLOWAY In that case, Spotlight — in addition to trotting out the real-life journalists it portrays — should get some victims of molestation out there with their stories so that people understand this is a movie of genuine consequence. Just like Suffragette should beg Gloria Steinem and other prominent feminists to hit the campaign trail and remind people that the problems the Pankhursts were tackling at the turn of the 20th century still affect hundreds of millions of woman around the world today — by the way, even here in Hollywood, where women still don’t get equal pay.

FEINBERG I have no doubt that plans for those sorts of things are already in motion.

GALLOWAY Two of the films that dealt with the most incendiary and topical subjects last year, racism and the war in Iraq — Selma and American Sniper — debuted at AFI Fest, around this time. That propelled them both to the big leagues in terms of the Oscar race. But I haven’t heard much buzz about the recent AFI Fest, which ended Wednesday. Does it still matter?

FEINBERG It matters a lot because, unlike other fests that precede it in the season, it happens in Los Angeles, where the vast majority of Academy members are based, meaning a lot of people are paying attention to how a film goes over.

GALLOWAY So what about the three movies that had their world premieres there — Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea; Adam McKay’s The Big Short; and Concussion, with Will Smith? Will they register in any major categories?

FEINBERG Certainly not By the Sea, which is way too self-indulgent and unexciting to appeal to voters. Concussion is purely a play for Smith, who’s been nominated twice before for playing real people (2001’s Ali and 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness) — and, with a believable Nigerian accent and that old familiar twinkle, will probably land a third nom for his portrayal of a medical examiner who took on the NFL. (The real-life doctor heaped praise on Smith's performance at a post-screening Q&A). The biggest wild card of the lot is The Big Short

GALLOWAY Which I haven’t yet seen. 

FEINBERG I enjoyed it. It’s an entertaining movie about an important subject, made by impressive people — but it’s not an easy sell. Its appeal may be undercut by the very things that make it fun (humorous cameos, the sensibility of its director, etc.). Its central characters are people who bet against and profited from the misery of many Americans — a reality that cannot be avoided. And, in spite of everything, many leave the movie still not clear about what caused the financial crisis in the first place. I could really see the Academy going either way with this one.

GALLOWAY I thought it might waltz in and steal this wide-open race — just as Million Dollar Baby did when it came out of nowhere and trounced The Aviator. But judging from your take and Todd McCarthy’s review for THR, that seems unlikely, right?

FEINBERG Its best chance at finding recognition may be at the Golden Globes, where it will be competing as a musical/comedy. As you know, campaigners generally prefer their film to compete on that side of things, rather than as a drama, because far fewer of the strongest contenders do.

GALLOWAY OK, now we’re talking! We’re back to these weird categorizations. For some reason, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has deemed that The Martian is a comedy. Now, it definitely has a sly humor. But a comedy?

FEINBERG The HFPA’s genre determinations for the Golden Globes are always controversial, and this year’s no exception. The Big Short elicits a lot of laughs and is directed by the guy who made Anchorman — so fine, it’s a musical/comedy. But The Martian, despite featuring a few funny lines — “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this” is a personal favorite — is harder to buy under that designation (one that will be shared by Trainwreck and Pitch Perfect 2), and yet that’s precisely the one it landed, by a one-vote margin.

GALLOWAY What about those other petitioners seeking to be classified as comedies? Regardless of whether they’re actually funny?

FEINBERG The HFPA approved Joy and rejected Trumbo. Meanwhile, kudos to Straight Outta Compton and Love & Mercy for not even trying to pull the old trick of escaping the drama race by claiming, just because they feature music, that they’re musicals.

GALLOWAY Does the HFPA also get into arbitrating the acting categories?

FEINBERG Unlike the Academy, yes they do. They rejected requests to consider The Danish Girl’s Alicia Vikander and Carol’s Rooney Mara in the supporting actress category —

GALLOWAY— which, hopefully, will force Focus and The Weinstein Co. to abandon efforts to convince Oscar voters that these major roles are really minor roles. What other surprises did they put forth?

FEINBERG Here’s one: the only member of The Hateful Eight’s ensemble competing as a lead will be Samuel L. Jackson. Meanwhile, all of Spotlight’s ensemble will contend as supporting players.

GALLOWAY Scott, as we head into tonight’s Governors Awards, which will be packed to the gills with contenders hoping to bump into Oscar voters, are there any we’ve overlooked, or ones in danger of being forgotten?

FEINBERG So many. Oscar Isaac and Vikander were brilliant in Ex Machina, but their work in that film is likely to be overshadowed by their roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Danish Girl, respectively — plus they’re both out of town working on other projects and unable to campaign, which puts them and the film at a disadvantage. Rachel Weisz, one of the most talented actresses around — and one of the elements I liked most about Youth — is competing in the same supporting category as her costar, Jane Fonda, who has a smaller but showier part, and there may only be room for one. And while Spotlight’s presumptive nominees, Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton, are terrific, I think Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci are right up there with them. There have been occasions when three people got nominated in one category for the same film; never four, though.

GALLOWAY I want to add Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back and Julie Walters in Brooklyn (a movie you love much more than I do), and also Jason Mitchell, who played Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton. I just loved these performances, and I know you did too, and it bugs the hell out of me that nobody seems to be talking about them.

FEINBERG We are! Now they just need to let us vote...