Where two women could make more Oscar history
You may remember that Chloé Zhao made history twice over at the Academy Awards in April, becoming the first woman of color to win the director prize and just the second woman ever to earn that prestigious Oscar. Zhao won for directing “Nomadland,” joining Kathryn Bigelow, who prevailed for the 2008 war drama “The Hurt Locker.”
That’s two women in 93 years, a track record that looks ... well, it looks awful, but when compared to the film academy’s history in recognizing women cinematographers, it’s downright progressive. Only one female director of photography has ever been nominated for an Oscar — Rachel Morrison for Dee Rees’ sprawling 2017 drama “Mudbound.” (Morrison merited consideration the next year for “Black Panther” too.)
So it’s noteworthy that we could be looking at another bit of history this year, with a female director and cinematographer from the same film nominated — filmmaker Jane Campion and director of photography Ari Wegner from “The Power of the Dog.” I noted after the Telluride Film Festival that I could see Campion winning her second Oscar (she won the original screenplay award for 1993’s “The Piano”), a thought that has solidified now that the remaining movies have screened. Might Wegner join her? Let’s take an early look at the two races.
Jane Campion, “The Power of the Dog”
Paul Thomas Anderson, “Licorice Pizza”
Denis Villeneuve, “Dune”
Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast”
Steven Spielberg, “West Side Story”
Next up: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, “Drive My Car”; Joel Coen, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”; Reinaldo Marcus Green, “King Richard”; Guillermo del Toro, “Nightmare Alley”
In the mix: Siân Heder, “CODA”; Adam McKay, “Don’t Look Up”; Maggie Gyllenhaal, “The Lost Daughter”; Pedro Almodóvar, “Parallel Mothers”
This year, there will again be a fixed number of 10 best picture nominees, which means there will be at least five different ways people can spin the “did this movie direct itself?” lament after nominations are announced.
Why at least five? Because directors branch voters have shown a willingness to be more adventurous with their choices than their counterparts across the academy, nominating Danish director Thomas Vinterberg at the last Oscars for the moving dark comedy “Another Round” and Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski in 2019 for the resonant love story “Cold War.” Those two films were nominated for international feature but failed to make the best picture cut.
That scenario could be replayed this year with Hamaguchi and his acclaimed, enthralling drama “Drive My Car.” I have complete faith that if enough academy members saw this movie, it would be nominated for best picture. It is a masterpiece. But it also runs a minute shy of three hours, which makes me doubt that a sufficient number of voters will watch it and, just as important, view it without interruption in order for the film to fully cast its spell.
I hope to be proved wrong.
Who would Hamaguchi bump? Not Campion, of course. Villeneuve will get love and respect for making a BIG blockbuster movie not beholden to brands and marketing research. Anderson should get enough votes from the academy’s dominant L.A. contingent, who will groove to a laid-back tale set in a bygone San Fernando Valley with plenty of nods to the movie industry. (Will “Licorice Pizza” top Jon Peters’ ballot?)
So ... maybe Spielberg gets left off? He didn’t earn a nomination for either “Bridge of Spies” or “The Post,” best picture nominees. Branagh has directed a couple of dozen movies — good, bad and somewhere in between — over the last 30-plus years. He picked up a nomination for his first effort, the 1989 Shakespeare adaptation “Henry V.” I’d think he’d be on the shakiest ground of the likely nominees, but Film Twitter needs something to gripe about on nominations morning and a nomination for Branagh is probably it.
Greig Fraser, “Dune”
Bruno Delbonnel, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”
Ari Wegner, “The Power of the Dog”
Janusz Kaminski, “West Side Story”
Dan Laustsen, “Nightmare Alley”
Next up: Haris Zambarloukos, “Belfast”; Claire Mathon, “Spencer”
In the mix: Eduard Grau, “Passing,” Robbie Ryan, “C’mon C’mon”; Michael Bauman and Paul Thomas Anderson, “Licorice Pizza”; Robert Yeoman, “The French Dispatch”; Andrew Droz Palermo, “The Green Knight”; Linus Sandgren, “No Time to Die”
Three of the nominees I have as likely would be paired with their directors. And it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Coen or Del Toro, Oscar-winning directors both, could earn nominations themselves. The “Nightmare Alley” reviews haven’t been particularly kind, but even its harshest critics laud its gorgeous, gleaming visual design.
As for five-time nominee Delbonnel and his stark, stunning work creating all those shadows in “Macbeth,” I’d venture he’s probably, finally, due for a win ... but the competition is too strong to proclaim that just yet.
Wegner, of course, is among the front-runners for her meticulous collaboration with Campion in creating “Dog’s” grand, dusty, sun-bleached world. She also shot the audacious “Zola,” so she’s had a pretty good year. Just 37, Wegner is a rising star.
Given the academy’s history in this category, it might be radical to suggest that two women earn nominations. But Mathon, following her stellar work on 2019’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (which was honored by the Los Angeles and New York film critics groups, as well as the National Society of Film Critics), deserves a place too. “Spencer” puts viewers in close proximity to Diana’s view of a claustrophobic fairy tale world turned upside down. For Mathon, it’s another distinct portrait of a lady, this one trapped, but not inclined to surrender.
From the Oscars to the Emmys.
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