On the opening day of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sent out an email blast announcing that it had shelved the unpopular popular-film Oscar it had announced for next year’s awards show — hopefully, forever.
By that point, though, the awards season was already in full swing, beginning a week earlier at the exact moment when Lady Gaga arrived at the Venice Film Festival on a boat, rocking stiletto pumps and a little black bustier dress, dangling her legs over the water, blowing kisses and carrying a red rose, which, yes, she stopped and smelled, because that’s what you do and, besides, she needed something to hold because her dog, Miss Asia, wasn’t available, as she only travels first class by airplane.
A couple days later, Gaga’s movie, “A Star Is Born,” premiered at the festival, and the sound heard cascading from the Sala Grande at the Palazzo del Cinema on the Venice Lido was the equivalent of the bugle call at Churchill Downs before the Kentucky Derby.
Let the word go forth.
Welcome to the Awards Season 2018: Revenge of the Popular Movies.
It has been six years since a film that grossed more than $100 million won the Oscar for best picture. And the year that “Argo” (“Argo”?) prevailed, five other best picture nominees — “Django Unchained,” “Les Misérables,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln” and “Silver Linings Playbook” — also crossed the $100-million mark and a sixth, “Zero Dark Thirty,” just barely missed.
We could be looking at a similar situation next year. “A Star Is Born,” Bradley Cooper’s soulful update of the often-told story of show business myth-making, has done knockout business since opening early last month and looks like an easy bet to gross more than $200 million.
Ryan Coogler’s transcendent superhero movie “Black Panther” took in $700 million in the U.S. and nearly as much worldwide, becoming a cultural event with its potent combination of spectacle and social relevancy. If it secures a nod, it would be the highest-grossing nominee in the decade since James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
There are two more titles opening this month that could fill theaters. “Widows,” Steve McQueen’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” has been generating gasps and cheers at industry screenings since premiering at the Toronto festival in September. It’s a heist-thriller sporting a fantastic ensemble of women, led by the incomparable Viola Davis. And, thanks to the superb screenplay written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, it’s also a pointed look at gender and economic inequalities in America. “Widows’” box office tracking is solid, and with the reviews and word-of-mouth, it could easily crack the $100-million threshold.
Then there’s “Green Book,” Peter Farrelly’s feel-good, tear-jerking, road-trip movie about a rude, resourceful hustler (Viggo Mortensen) hired to drive a cultured, black classical pianist (Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour through the Deep South in 1962. It’s a true story told in broad strokes, thoroughly old-fashioned, a flip on “Driving Miss Daisy” (a best picture winner) that will undoubtedly draw some fire for the way it handles race. (Octavia Spencer, one of the movie’s executive producers and someone who helped develop the script, would offer a differing opinion.)
Most people will be too preoccupied enjoying the terrific chemistry between Ali and Mortensen to register much in the way of complaints or resistance. “Green Book” is a crowd-pleaser of the first magnitude, winning the People’s Choice at the Toronto festival and producing a wave of enthusiasm that has forced Universal to add screening after screening for press, guild and academy members. Voters are filling theaters even when there’s no Q&A afterward — even when there’s no reception. Do you understand? Even without free food and alcohol, people are coming.
“Green Book” opens on Thanksgiving, and it’s exactly the kind of movie that families can go see together (some families still do this, right?) without anyone feeling too put out. Think “Hidden Figures” or “The Blind Side.” It’s the sleeping giant of this awards season.
For the film academy, a body concerned with both image and relevance, the potential inclusion of box office hits into the best picture field comes as welcome news. Earlier this year, the academy, however briefly, had toyed with the idea of adding a new Oscar category rewarding popular movies. It was a strange decision, one so hastily announced that no one involved could offer any sort of clarity as to what constituted a “popular” movie or why such a division was necessary when the academy had been honoring movies with mass appeal throughout its 90-year history. (Or have they already forgotten about the movie directed by the King of the World?)
Next year, there’s an opportunity to nominate movies like “Black Panther” and “A Star Is Born,” films that have produced the kind of passionate response that transcends popularity and crosses into the area of ownership. Audiences have opened their hearts to these films. I think Oscar voters will too.