A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit
The calendar has turned to February, and that means the final stretch of this six-month awards season has begun — as if you couldn’t guess by the flurry of activity heating things up just as the outside temperature in many places is all about the big winter freeze. This weekend things really are jumping in terms of those sometimes-predictive guild awards shows. Tonight, the ACE Eddies hand out hardware for the best edited film and TV shows. Saturday is a free-for-all with the Art Directors Guild, the Annie Awards for animated contenders, Sundance giving a preview perhaps of next year handing out the best-of-fest honors and the really big event of the weekend, the DGA Awards, which have failed only seven times since their inception in 1948 to correctly predict the eventual directing Oscar winner.
Roma’s Alfonso Cuarón is heavily favored to win with the first foreign language film to take the Directors Guild’s top prize, and it will be presented by another of the “three amigos”, Guillermo del Toro — who conveniently won this award last year for The Shape of Water. Should it happen, and it would be a major upset if it didn’t at this point — the DGA winner will have been one of those “three amigos” (the other being back-to-back winner Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárittu) five times in the past six years. when Cuarón kicked off this remarkable streak winning for 2013’s Gravity. (Damien Chazelle for La La Land was the only interloper to break up this Mexican stranglehold on the prize.) And of course, all of them went on to continue the same streak at the Oscars, and there is no reason to think this particular feat won’t repeat there too.
Thanks to online balloting, voting for the DGA honors is still continuing through today. This also is almost certain to be a ceremony where Bradley Cooper finally gets to make an acceptance speech, as he is heavily favored to win the First Time Feature Director award for A Star Is Born. He likely will get two speeches since nominees for the main prize also get to accept their Medallion commemorating that achievement (he’s up for that as well).
Meanwhile. heading up north, as usual this time of year, is a boatload of Oscar nominees who will be appearing on panels and at tributes at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The five Oscar-nominated directors did their thing last night, but there will be panels with writers, producers, and women — nine female nominees, with Roma supporting actress nominee just added, will be front and center at the Lobero on Sunday morning for that sure-to-be compelling panel — taking center stage along with various career tributes and SBIFF awards to the likes of Glenn Close, Rami Malek, Melissa McCarthy, and Viggo Mortensen, I will be hosting the latter on Saturday afternoon at the historic Arlington Theatre and I can tell you the footage we will be showing is spectacular.
After all this flurry of activity, every one of these nominees will be back bright and early Monday at the Beverly Hilton for the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon where they all climb risers to get their class picture taken. If tradition holds we will get our first taste of what the Oscar show is going to look like, and maybe finally confirmation by the Academy that the no-host bar at the Dolby will also extend to the stage this year. The Academy has been mum and producer Donna Gigliotti and co-producer Glenn Weiss have spoken nary a word so far. The org finally confirmed yesterday that Jennifer Hudson would be performing “I’ll Fight” from RBG, and all five songs will be sung live, obviously a move to tamp down rumors last week that only two of the five nominated songs (from Black Panther and A Star Is Born) would actually be on the show.
Usually the producer takes the stage at this annual lunch to, at the very least, tell the gathered nominees to keep their acceptance speeches short and sincere. Maybe even we will get word on which categories the Academy will be presenting during commercial breaks and then rolled in later into the show in edited fashion, a move the AMPAS Board of Governors is instituting for the first time this year. I am hearing through whatever grapevine I am plugged into that there will be only four selected for this inaugural year, with others (mostly crafts and shorts) rotating in subsequent years. AMPAS President John Bailey, the first prez ever to ascend from the Cinematographers branch, told me a while back that he had an editor do a mockup of what it would look like and said it actually was better. We will see if Cinematography turns out to be one of those getting this treatment. Bailey told me at the time he wasn’t opposed to doing that to set an example. Finally later on Monday it will be the AARP Movies For Grownups Awards where, since Oscar also seems to favor “movies for grownups”, there will be a lot of these same faces we will be seeing all over Southern California this weekend. Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine is getting the Life Achievement Award which should be fun.
CASTING DIRECTORS GET THEIR CLOSEUP BUT NOT AT THE OSCARS
Actually one awards-giving group got a head start on all of this on Thursday night at the Hilton where honors were handed out for the 34th Annual Casting Society Of America’s Artios Awards. I had never been to this one in all the years I have been chronicling this scene so I decided to go, if for no other reason being that I hadn’t been to an awards banquet at the Beverly Hilton (my home away from home this time of year) in about a week and I missed the waiters. This is one show that wasn’t necessarily predictive of where Oscar might be heading, since despite lots of calls for one, the casting directors have yet to get their own category at the Academy Awards even though they have been trying for three decades and now have an equal place now on the Board of Governors. Actually many of them do have an Oscar vote but the best they have been able to get for their profession was finally an Honorary Oscar a couple of years ago for veteran Lynn Stalmaster. Nevertheless the six winners in the film categories generally followed suit with other guilds as Best Picture nominees Green Book, BlackKklansman Vice (beating A Star Is Born among others in the big budget drama category even though it has competed in comedy at other shows),and Black Panther all won in their respective categories. The waaaaay underrated indie gem The Kindergarten Teacher with Maggie Gyllenhaal proved a winner here for Netflix at the rare ceremony this season where their Roma didn’t rate even a nomination or mention from the stage. Crazy Rich Asians, perhaps THE casting success of the year was also a winner in a comedy category.
Much of the talk, on stage and in the room, was about the fact that they can’t convince the Academy to create a Casting Director category. It came up during the presentation of the Honorary Artios Award to CSA founders Mike Fenton, Joe Reich, and Al Onorato. “We started trying 30 years ago to get a category at the Oscars, and now here 30 years later we still don’t have one. All I can say is wait until next year,” said the ever-hopeful Fenton. Another recipient was a bit more succinct: “We deserve the credit and directors should really stop taking all the credit,” in what sounded like a declaration of war since it is believed, at least by many in the room last night, that the DGA and directors branch of the Academy don’t want to share the word, “director”. This is not to say there weren’t a lot of heartfelt thank-yous from the stage to filmmakers they admire and work closely with day in and day out. Still one upset casting director at my table pointed to past DGA president Taylor Hackford who has consistently argued against an Oscar category, as he did in the 2013 documentary Casting By opining that they don’t merit Oscar recognition because “they don’t direct anything”. It is not a matter of semantics said the CAS member (and one of the night’s nominees) at my table because historically they worked hard to earn the name “casting directors”.
In terms of participation on stage Ryan Murphy, presenting the Hoyt Bowers Award to Ulrich/Dawson/Kritzer Casting (preceded by a great musical performance from Glee stars Darren Criss and Amber Riley who they discovered for the show), and Jean- Marc Vallee presenting Lynn Stalmaster Career Achievement Award to Laura Dern, were really the only name director presenters among a sea of grateful actor presenters who each told a story about their experience with those who practice this too-often neglected craft. That touch added to the three hour running time of the L.A. edition of the CAS show (which also happened in NYC) and includes a whopping 30 categories in film, TV, NY and LA Theatrical etc. Still it was a breezy affair, even if by the late hour when it got to the film awards, and more than half the tables had emptied out causing winner Francine Maisler to crack, “it’s so nice to be up here when everyone has already left”.
Too bad for those people because they missed a great acceptance speech from Dern who thanked the casting directors profusely for supporting a career that started at age 11, and for providing a vast diversity of roles to play. “I get to pay tribute to the people who not only championed me, in addition to a few filmmakers that I became so blessed to have find me, and to pay tribute to people I know who defined the career I longed to have, and it’s a miracle that you all shaped this kind of opportunity to play such diverse, complicated, old, messy, hilarious, broken, angry, disturbed, lovely, kind, awful, delicious women,” she said adding that early in her career she was a “protected child” in this industry by casting directors even at the risk of their own career, who looked after her when she was sometimes in “inappropriate rooms” and placed in hotel rooms where she should not have been. Big applause from the room on that. The evening was fun and nicely hosted by Paul Scheer and Diane Raphael who did the expected in-jokes that would be appreciated by this crowd such as casting director lingo to auditioning actors: “let us know if you have any tattoos or if you’re cool doing nude”, and “Do you know how many SAG cards are being used to cut up lines of coke tonight?”
WRITERS HIT THE FINAL DRAFT
Meanwhile Tuesday night the 14th annual Final Draft screenwriting awards were handed out at the Paramount Studios Theatre (yet another ceremony I attended for the first time) and it was a breezy affair, handing out honors to “New Voices” in TV to Starz’ Vida creator Tanya Saracho, and in film to Sorry To Bother You writer/director Boots Riley. Thelma And Louise Oscar winning screenwriter and Nashville TV Series creator Callie Khouri was the recipient of the Hall Of Fame Award. It is the first of the seasonal writing awards shows, with USC Scripter honors coming next weekend, and WGA the following Sunday. You can tell it was a writers ceremony by the way, because the speeches were sooooo well written. Accepting her New Voice in TV for the powerful Vida, Saracho pulled no punches about what it means to be a Latina in this industry. “I accidentally landed on this town, Hollywood with a capital ‘H’ where you have to fight not just for your artistry, but to be counted in the fullness of your identity where that becomes a Fight with a capital ‘F’ every single day, like being in battle. But how can you not feel like being in battle?” she asked. “I am a Sagittarius and see everything on the macro. On the macro, as people Latinas are being erased. We never were counted in the first place. Look at the landscape. We make up 20% of this country and you can count on the fingers of this hand the number of Latina –themed shows on television right now. Our narrative is discounted from the larger narrative of this country. We don’t count. I don’t know why. Right now we are fighting the big battle as they try to dismiss us, ignore us, cage us. On the micro, as an artist in this town, you start dragging that shit with you, into business dealings, in the constant explanation of your identity, and in the cultural defense of your work and your story. Not because you want to, that just is how it was set up, that’s just how it is,” she said.
Accepting his award from Sorry to Bother You co-stars Terry Crews and Armie Hammer Riley, a veteran rapper and music industry figure, talked about how his acclaimed first screenplay came about. “I was sitting in a hotel room on Hollywood Boulevard after doing a show and thinking this has got to be the time to get my story out, so I downloaded Final Draft. I just had the first scene, that’s all I had. I think I probably had other starts throughout the years where I sat and wrote it in a notebook, but I started typing it and a few lines down I was like, ‘oh shit, this looks like a script!’ I mean it really looked like a script. I was like I’m writing a script,” he said in what could have been a commercial for the writing software Final Draft provides.
Khouri, on the other hand, accepted her Hall Of Fame honor (from veteran Warner Bros executive Courtenay Valenti) by explaining how the apparent hate crime and attack on Jussie Smollett that day changed the scope of her speech. “I was going to talk about fraud and how prevalent it is these days, and how I am recognized for writing when every time that happens I think it is probably part of an elaborate sting to weed out me from the real writers. I would be most qualified to write about how to avoid writing or I think I have become proficient while avoiding writing. I can do so many things so much better than I can write because everything is easier. I was going to talk about that, and about just how hard it is,” she said before turning serious. “And then I read today about Jussie Smollette and I just decided I would talk about what this real job is and our responsibility as storytellers. What is our job in times like this? What is our responsibility? We have important work to do right now that cannot be stressed enough. We have to help each other understand how connected we are. We have to help each other through these absurd times. We are seeing in 2019 things that wouldn’t have looked out of place in 1939, and that’s a failure of our society. And so we have to keep telling these stories, “she said to big applause from the room packed with writers who know exactly what these honorees were saying. Before the show Khouri told me her next job is the long-awaited Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, who she describes as the perfect casting choice. Randy and Jason Sklar did a nice job hosting, landing some good lines, and the evening also included awards to Feature and TV Grand Prize winners Jeff Cassidy and Myles Reid, winners of Final Draft’s Big Break Screenwriting Contest.
NETFLIX SALUTES ITS NOMINEES
Ted Sarandos and wife Nicole threw a party at their home Saturday night saluting all the Netflix nominees at various awards shows this season, including of course the Oscars where the streamer landed a hearty 15 nominations including 10 for their first Best Picture contender, Roma. In his brief speech listing all the various achievements in both TV and movies, Sarandos turned stand- up comic for a moment, perhaps trying out to be host for this year’s Oscar show? “It is a pretty unusual year. When else in history do you have Mary Poppins vigorously campaigning against Lady Gaga?” he asked. Actually Netflix has one of those Best Song nominees against those two films with “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. There were grumblings about the rumors that song, along with two other nominees wouldn’t be performed on the Oscarcast. One Netflix executive said they had indeed talked to Gigliotti and another Academy official about it and said it was clear this was a road they were thinking about possibly travelling. It is apparent the backlash thankfully did the idea in and now all five songs will be performed. As Sarandos read off the long list of various nominations and wins Netflix has received this season, I couldn’t help but think a glaring omission was one of Ed Harris’ career best performances in Kodachrome which the streamer picked up out of Toronto 2017 and ran in April. One of that film’s producers Shawn Levy, who has Stranger Things and other content with Netflix lamented with me that they didn’t campaign the movie, and thus Harris’s extraordinary work was lost in the shuffle, which is really a shame. It could have been, and should have been, a 16th nomination under the Netflix banner this year. At the party I got to catch up again with Quincy Jones, whose documentary Quincy is on Netflix (it won a Critics Choice Award). He was saying that come next week he will be up for his 80th (!) Grammy Award (with 27 wins) for Best Music Film for that documentary. Wow.
‘BLACK PANTHER’ FOR FREE
Finally, celebrating Black History Month which starts today, Disney has decided to give away its Best Picture nominee, Black Panther. Well, not exactly, but the studio has teamed up with AMC Theatres who are offering 250 locations with two shows a day at each for free showings of the film in the theatrical format it was meant to be seen. It starts today for a week, just as Black History Month kicks off. “‘Black Panther’ is groundbreaking for many reasons, including the rich diversity of voices behind its success,” said a statement from Robert A. Iger, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, The Walt Disney Company. “The story also showcases the power of knowledge to change the world for the better, and the importance of ensuring everyone has access to it. We’re proud to provide thousands of free screenings of ‘Black Panther’ in hopes it will continue to inspire audiences, and to support UNCF (United Negro College Fund) with a $1.5 million grant to make the dream of higher education a reality for more students.” Not to be outdone in the philanthropy phase of Best Picture campaigns, Netflix is promising a portion from every ticket purchased in the month of February for Roma to be donated to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Yes, it is still in some theatres despite having been streaming well over a month on Netflix. How about also donating per Netflix viewer there too? At any rate it is good to see some cash going to worthy causes this Oscar season.
By the way, getting back to Black Panther, I was at the premiere of hilarious, but definitely not Oscar worthy comedy What Men Want on Monday night when I ran into writer/director Christopher McQuarrie whose most recent Mission Impossible: Fallout was in my opinion easily the best action film this year, and certainly the best stunt-driven movie, so I asked him how can it be that Black Panther beat it for Outstanding Stunt Ensemble at the SAG awards the night before. I missed that one since I predicted M:I-Fallout for the win. “I know, but I think the key word was ‘ensemble’. They probably looked at it and decided it was just Tom (Cruise) doing all the stunts in our movie,” he said, a good point since Cruise had done so much publicity about performing so many of the stunts himself. I congratulated McQuarrie for signing on to do two more MI movies with Cruise. “They actually came to me and asked if I would do one more, but I upped the ante for them and said I would do two,” signaling good news for fans. He told me he is off on a location tour for the next one very shortly even though the script hasn’t been written yet. “That is how we do these films. We start by finding the locations we want to shoot in, and then I write to fit those.”
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