Telluride: Can 'Marriage Story' Follow in the Footsteps of 'Kramer vs. Kramer' at the Oscars?

Noah Baumbach and Adam Driver’s fourth collaboration is one of Netflix's two best picture Oscar hopefuls this season.
Telluride Film Festival
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in 'Marriage Story'

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, one of Netflix's two best picture Oscar hopefuls this season, along with Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, had its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on Saturday night, unspooling before a packed Palm Theatre buzzing with anticipation after strong notices out of Venice, where the film had its world premiere earlier in the week.

The buzz is merited: the film, a 21st century version of Kramer vs. Kramer, Robert Benton's classic film about divorce that won the best picture, director, actor, supporting actress and original screenplay Oscars exactly 40 years ago, is right up there with 2005's The Squid and the Whale as Baumbach's most mature and polished work, beautifully written and directed. It rings true because it is transparently based largely on Baumbach's own marriage to and divorce from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, while also drawing upon the experiences of its two stars.

Which brings us to Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who play the showbiz couple — parents of a young boy, as with Kramer — at the center of this story, which is very sad, but palatable thanks to moments of great levity and humor. The script does a fine job in allowing both performers to make strong and believable arguments for their positions, and the actors make the audience care about both of them. The general consensus, with which I agree and believe most Academy members will, too, is that neither has ever been better.

Driver, in particular, gives a breakthrough performance in his fourth collaboration with Baumbach, just a year after giving a performance in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman that brought him his first Oscar nomination, and in the same year in which he garnered his first Tony nomination for Burn This. Sporting a Baumbach-style haircut, he deftly walks a tightrope in any number of scenes, whether in a blowup fight with his estranged wife or during a mishap with a knife or, most notably, while beautifully and heartbreakingly singing the entirety of "Being Alive" from Stephen Sondheim's Company, a scene that reminds me of Carey Mulligan's "New York, New York" from Shame, and evoked that rarest of reactions, mid-movie applause.

In terms of the Oscar race, it's still very early, but I would be shocked if nominations are not accorded to leads Driver and Johansson (the latter has never been nominated before), and very surprised if noms do not also come for the film and Baumbach's directing and original screenplay. Also very possible are noms for small but very colorful supporting turns by beloved vets Alan Alda and Laura Dern as the lawyers respectively representing the two principal characters in their divorce proceedings; Randy Newman's original score, which also tugs at the heartstrings; and probably several other areas, as well.

The screening was preceded by a Telluride tribute to Driver at which Martin Scorsese, who directed the actor in 2017's Silence, surprised him by coming out from the wings to present him with his medallion, and told the audience that Driver is "one of the finest, if not the finest, [actor] of his generation."