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Oscar Voting Panic; Plus, ‘Poor Things’ Tries To Defy Expectations; Annette Bening, ‘American Fiction’ & More Tales From The Trail – Notes On The Season

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

“Happy first day of voting,” a publicist told me over the phone late Thursday afternoon while still pitching last-minute interviews before final Oscar ballots are due back on Tuesday. I didn’t realize the first day of voting was becoming like a national holiday and cause for celebration, but after nine months of talking about these movies and this race in one form or another, it probably is just that. Let the fireworks begin!

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NEBRASKA IS WATCHING YOU, OSCAR

It is a presidential election year, so inevitably someone has taken a poll on the popularity of the Oscars vs. the national election by surveying every state (these people need to get a life). At any rate, as CasinoReviews.net points out in its poll “Scorsese vs. Nolan outshines Trump vs. Haley” that only 12 states have more enthusiasm for the elections rather than Oscars (Ohio is the lone state with a 50-50 split interest). Wyoming, by 71% to 29%, is most interested in the presidential race, while on the other end of the scale, Nebraska is the most enthusiastic for Oscars by 74%-26%. (Maybe because Nebraska director Alexander Payne has a new film in the race this year?). Look for these kinds of useless polls to come out roaring in the next couple of weeks, all trying to cash in on Oscar fever (or something).

Oscar fans in Nebraska (Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources)
Oscar fans in Nebraska (Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources)

‘POOR THINGS’ RESETS VOTER EXPECTATIONS

I am always amused during what we call Phase Two of the season — the period between nominations being revealed and statuettes presented — as the films still standing make their final pitch, often with a new ad line. In 2010, campaigns for the three top contenders changed gears and got serious. For instance, Avatar started emphasizing its environmental credentials. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds lost the Nazi insignia in its ads and replaced it with a Star of David. The Hurt Locker ceased selling itself as an exciting war film and instead booked its filmmakers on panels with experts on the Middle East. Searchlight always has been the best at this. During its 2013 campaign for12 Years a Slave, it came up with a simple line to wrap up their message: “It’s Time.”

Among current campaigns driving their message is Focus Features’ The Holdovers, which is running a heavy TV-ad-driven buy with the closing thought, “Hold On to What Connects Us.” This year there are also ads in the trades and billboards all over L.A. for its fantastical comedy Poor Things, which have a large photo of Emma Stone’s character and slyly state “Defy Expectations.” It works on a couple of levels, but to voters who have read pundits’ overwhelming predictions, especially by intimating “don’t believe Oppenheimer has this thing wrapped up.”

Q&As GO TO LAST MINUTE

So the campaigns are still out there in full force, and so are the Q&As, which, for some films, American Fiction and Killers of the Flower Moon in particular — Apple is pouring considerable cash into print ads and constant TV advertising for the latter, the strategy that made it still the only streamer with a Best Picture Oscar — will be going throughout the weekend, even as the SAG, Indie Spirits and Producers Guild Awards are happening. It is batshit crazy time. In fact, on Wednesday I moderated my final Q&A of the very long season, this one for SAG with the cast of the aforementioned American Fiction at a packed screening at the WGA Theater for the film. Like many others, the film has had dozens of these all season. SAG voting doesn’t end until today, even as the show is on Saturday, so consultants, perhaps remembering Harvey’s (sorry) mantra that you have to chase every last possible vote, are doing just that.

‘American Fiction’ Q&A at the Writers Guild Theater in Los Angeles
‘American Fiction’ Q&A at the Writers Guild Theater in Los Angeles

At this final SAG Q&A, Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander, Jon Ortiz and Jeffrey Wright all seemed fresh as the first time I interviewed them all in the fall, when they left their own L.A. premiere and came over to my KCET Cinema Series in Westwood for a Q&A before heading back to the film’s reception. SAG could turn out to be an important night as though both Wright and Brown are up in their respective lead and supporting categories, but the whole ensemble is competing for Cast in a Motion Picture against heavy hitters including Oppenheimer , Barbie and Killers of the Flower Moon. That category is SAG’s version of Best Picture and, as often as not, has produced some interesting upsets that sent movies such as Parasite, CODA, and others on to Best Picture Oscar glory.

Remember just last year at SAG when both Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis stopped then-frontrunners Cate Blanchett and Angela Bassett in their tracks and carried it straight through to Oscar night? Anything can happen. By the way just to prove no one, even an actor in the heat of the Oscar race, is immune to Mother Nature, Wright got stuck on the mud-soaked Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and finally turned up about 25 minutes into the Q&A, which had to start without him. The audience didn’t seem to mind. All the actors stayed afterward for the horde of selfie-seekers who crowded the stage, and a good time was had by all.

It may have been my last Q&A, but both American Fiction writer-director Cord Jefferson and Wright are among participants in another one tonight in Beverly Hills, and yet another one at Vidiots in East L.A. on Monday night, right on the edge of voting closing the next day. And in between, the film will be all over the SAG, Spirits and PGA ceremonies during the weekend. (Who decided it was a good idea to have the Spirits starting at 2 p.m. in a tent at Santa Monica beach and the PGA Awards at the Dolby all the way over in Hollywood at 5 p.m.?) This group is busy.

AFRICAN AMERICAN CRITICS CELEBRATE YEAR’S BEST

After the SAG Q&A, the cast headed over to the African American Critics Association Awards dinner at the Beverly Wilshire, where their film won Best Comedy, Screenplay, Supporting Actor and Emerging Filmmaker awards in a night that also crowned Ava DuVernay’s Origin as Best Drama, Director and Lead Actress for Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, and The Color Purple in several categories including Best Musical. The latter’s co-star Colman Domingo won Lead Actor for Rustin and hit the stage several times during the course of the evening, always a fun one and very well attended. Best speech of the evening went to Rustin director George C. Wolfe, who quoted an old Russian proverb (or so he said) that stated, “You must support talented people because untalented people will make it on their own.” This was a room full of talented people getting the support they long have deserved. Jefferson told me he was still reeling from winning the Adapted Screenplay BAFTA Award over the weekend. “I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked,” he laughed as I reminded him he managed to beat four Englishmen on their home field.

SANTA BARBARA MISSES ANNETTE BENING

Speaking of Q&As, as we were, I was back at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last Friday, where I was scheduled to host the last tribute of the fest this year (I had done the first one for Bradley Cooper the week before, when he received Outstanding Performer or the Year for Maestro). It was to be the inaugural Arlington Award honoring Annette Bening, but alas a phone call early that morning informed me she had caught whatever is going around and the event would have to be canceled. It was a disappointment not just for me and Bening but the many festgoers who bought tickets for the 2,000-seat Arlington Theatre.

RELATED: Bradley Cooper & Pete Hammond At Santa Barbara Film Festival

Annette Bening in Nyad movie
Annette Bening in ‘Nyad’

It was going to be quite a night as Michael Douglas, her The American President co-star, already had flown into Santa Barbara with wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and was to present the award after the career conversation and many choice clips we were going to show from her remarkable career. That included all five of her Oscar-nominated roles (incredibly, she has never won), plus her current Best Actress nom for Nyad. Disappointingly, from what I hear, she also isn’t going to be 100% well enough to make Saturday’s SAG Awards where she is also nominated; she also missed her tributes from the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild and Costume Designers Guild this week. I talked to the festival’s artistic director Roger Durling and asked if I could include the opening reel they had prepared (excellently edited by Mike McGee) in this column since no one got to saw it that night. Check it out below as at least Notes on the Season gets to celebrate this amazing career:

NǍI NAI AND WÀI PÓ ARE READY FOR THEIR CLOSEUP, MR. DeMIILE

‘Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó'
‘Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó’

And finally, Best Documentary Short nominee Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó (Disney+/Hulu) from filmmaker Sean Wang offers up the feel-good moment of the week with the release of a video featuring the title stars in their ultimate senior moment: getting a fitting for their Oscar Night outfits. The short film is Wang’s love letter to his two aging grandmas who now live together in Northern California’s Bay Area, even sleeping in the same bed. Nǎi Nai is 96, and Wài Pó is 85. A year ago they were unassuming Taiwanese seniors, and now they are going to the Oscars. They even turned heads at last week’s Oscar nominees luncheon! But Nǎi Nai isn’t the oldest subject of an Oscar-nominated short: That distinction belongs to 101-year-old Grace Linn of rival docu short The ABCs of Book Banning, which you see free now on YouTube. She also is going to the Oscars

Meanwhile, Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó are being styled by Shirley Kurata with custom outfits from Rodarte. Take a look at how Disney is getting attention for this charming short with a short of its own showing how they plan to be red carpet ready. Watch below:

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