Toronto: 'The Two Popes,' Potential Audience Award Winner, Sets Its Oscar Categories (Exclusive)

Jonathan Pryce, who plays Pope Francis, will be pushed as a lead actor, and Anthony Hopkins, who plays Pope Benedict XVI, will be pushed as a supporting actor.
Courtesy of TIFF
Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in 'The Two Popes'

Heading in to the Telluride Film Festival last week, the prevailing sense of pundits was that Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story (which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Aug. 29) and Martin Scorsese's The Irishman (which will open the New York Film Festival on Sept. 27) were Netflix's only films with serious best picture Oscar prospects.

But, as I expressed to reps of the streamer after seeing City of God helmer Fernando Meirelles' The Two Popes, in which Jonathan Pryce plays Pope Francis (the Pope since 2013) and Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict XVI (the one who in 2013 became the first Pope in 719 years to voluntarily abdicate the papacy), I think they have a third — one that could conceivably go even further than the others, not least at this week's Toronto International Film Festival, where it strikes me as a potential winner of the Audience Award (the same prize that Green Book won last year en route to a best picture Oscar).

One outstanding question regarding The Two Popes was how its two stars would be promoted for Academy Award consideration — both as lead actors or one as lead and one as supporting. The Hollywood Reporter can now exclusively report that a final decision has just been made: Pryce will be pushed as a lead actor, whereas Hopkins will be pushed as a supporting actor. (Pryce has never been Oscar-nominated, though he has been great in everything from 1985's Brazil through 2018's The Wife; and Hopkins, who has been Oscar-nominated four times, won 28 years ago for The Silence of the Lambs.)

While some will raise their eyebrows at this positioning, arguing that even the film's title puts the two parts on equal footing, the reality is that the story is told mostly from the perspective of Pryce's Jorge Mario Bergoglio-turned-Pope Francis, including in flashbacks to his youth, and he has more screen time.

Moreover, placing both men in the best actor race would have almost guaranteed that at least one of them would miss out on recognition — only 12 films have ever produced multiple best actor Oscar nominees, none in the last 34 years. They each will still face stiff competition: Pryce has to go up against the likes of Marriage Story's Adam Driver, Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood's Leonardo DiCaprio, Joker's Joaquin Phoenix, The Irishman's Robert De Niro, Pain and Glory's Antonio Banderas, Dolemite Is My Name's Eddie Murphy, Ford v. Ferrari's Matt Damon and Rocket Man's Taron Egerton, whereas Hopkins will be up against Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's Brad Pitt, The Irishman's Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, Ford v. Ferrari's Christian Bale, The Lighthouse's Willem Dafoe, The Laundromat's Gary Oldman and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood's Tom Hanks.

But I suspect that The Two Popes and its stars will more than hold their own this season. In fact, the sky is the limit for a film that tells a remarkable story (there are two living Popes who couldn't be more different but have come to like each other) in a crowd-pleasing way (to my amazement, I had a smile on my face from start to finish — its end-credits sequence seals the deal — and laughed frequently). It actually reminds me quite a lot of The King's Speech, taking viewers behind the scenes of a place they've never seen and humanizing historical figures, warts and all. And, as we were reminded last year with the surprising run of Green Book from Toronto all the way to the Dolby, during dark times, sometimes people like their "important" movies to come with a smile and a laugh.

Finally, how's this for a fun fact: the last two, and three of the last five, best actor Oscar winners — The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne, Darkest Hour's Gary Oldman and Bohemian Rhapsody's Rami Malek — won for their work in films written by Anthony McCarten, who, you guessed it, wrote The Two Popes.