Gold statues

ASU film professor anticipates some drama at this year's Oscars

By

Marshall Terrill

The 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony will offer a bit of everything: epic films, indies with heart, female directors, black best actor nominees, a Pakistani-American screenwriter, Meryl Streep (obviously), and undoubtedly lots of dramatic lectures about social justice.

Nominations for the March 4 award show were announced Tuesday with “The Shape of Water,” a low-budget fantasy, leading the Oscar race with 13 nominations. But the real drama taking center stage that night may have nothing to do with films, said Guillermo Reyes, a professor with ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre. ASU Now spoke to Reyes — who is a playwright and author and teaches a class called “The Oscars” — about the nominations.

Man in red shirt with arms crossed
Guillermo Reyes

Question: In an effort to counteract the lack of diversity evidenced by #oscarssowhite, the Academy expanded its membership to include more young people, women and people of color. Do you think that demo shift had an effect on today’s nominations?

Answer: Apparently it did. The previous Academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, went out of her way to recruit a more diverse new round of voters. It takes years sometimes to change the overall character of the voters. The old Hollywood, in a way, is still being represented, but the new crowd that comes in every year seems to be young and diverse. I think it's having an effect in today’s voting. We had two nominees (Denzel Washington and Daniel Kaluuya) for best actor who are African-American. It feels like it’s going in the right direction.

The changing nature of the Academy voters is crucial for allowing more opportunities for work to be seen and recognized. Yes, the Academy’s attempts at diversifying seem to be working.

Q: Let’s immediately address “The Shape of Water.” It received 13 nominations, one fewer than the record for the most Academy Awards nominations in history. Are those strong indications that it will sweep the Oscars this year?

A: It’s certainly a leading contender because it’s been nominated for all the right things. Certainly it has good momentum. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was doing well in the previous awards shows, but it was not nominated for best director. To me, that’s a sign of weakness despite the fact that Martin McDonagh is a very strong director. ("Billboards" is nominated for best original screenplay.) “The Shape of Water” appears to be the film to watch and the leading contender.

Q: Do you believe that James Franco was not nominated for best actor because of the recent allegations against him for sexual harassment?

A: This is a year in which the #MeToo movement has had a powerful effect throughout the culture, not just the Oscars. It’s possible the allegations may have alienated the actors' branch, the ones who make the nominations. I have not seen his film, “The Disaster Artist,” but friends who have seen it have said they think it’s an entertaining film, amusing, but didn’t think James Franco was deserving of a best actor nomination. Or it could be they found other people's performances stronger. It’s also difficult for comedic performances to get nominated. It could be a combination of many factors. Certainly, it could not have helped him to have those recent allegations surface at this time.

Q: Women were shut out of best director category, as noted by actress Natalie Portman, at the Golden Globes. With Greta Gerwig’s nomination for “Lady Bird” do you think there was a conscious or unconscious push by the academy to include a female in this category?

A: It’s hard to say because the directors' branch is heavily dominated by men and they’re the ones who make these nominations. I believe her nomination speaks to the strength of her film. After all, “Lady Bird” has won various critics' awards. It’s possible the branch had gender in the back of their minds, but I do believe Greta Gerwig is very deserving of the nomination. It’s a great achievement considering there have only been five women directors nominated in the show’s 90-year history. It’s a fascinating year.

Q: I was surprised to see Denzel Washington nominated for “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” given that it fizzled at the box office and there’s been little buzz on his performance leading up to the Oscars. What do you make of that?

A: Denzel Washington is a well-known figure in the industry and even though “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” may not have done that well, he is a star with name recognition and those types of actors tend to get noticed, just like Meryl Streep. Because she’s such a strong actress and presence, it’s hard for her not to get nominated. An actor with strong credentials can sometimes sneak in and take a nomination that certainly could have gone to another actor.

But I’m also happy to see a very young actor like Timothée Chalamet being nominated as well as Daniel Kaluuya, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. I think it’s nice to have a combination of older and up-and-coming actors in the mix. Those are all good factors.

Q: What are your Oscar predictions for the four big acting nominations, director and best picture?

A: It looks like without a doubt “The Shape of Water” is the strongest candidate for best picture. It also looks good for Guillermo Del Toro as best director. In terms of acting, it seems to be Gary Oldman’s year for best actor in “The Darkest Hour.” Frances McDormand seems to have the momentum for best actress in “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri” given her win at the Screen Actors Guild awards on Sunday. There certainly is a chance for someone like Saoirse Ronan to sneak in a victory, but I think it’s going in Frances McDormand’s direction. Best supporting actress is fairly predictable this year with Allison Janney for “I, Tonya.” Sam Rockwell seems to be the strongest contender for best supporting actor in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Q: What else is noteworthy about today’s nominations?

A: “Dunkirk” did very well in the technical categories, so that makes this a pretty strong contender to pick up some awards this year. For some reason that film has been shut out of the award season. It’s a potential dark horse and it was good to see Christopher Nolan nominated for best director and “Dunkirk” for best picture. He’s a very powerful director. I also like seeing Jordan Peele, along with Greta Gerwig, getting nominated. They are basically newcomers as directors and were nominated. This helps them get established in Hollywood and gives them the attention they deserve. I was also surprised to see Armie Hammer get shut out for “Call Me By Your Name” as best supporting actor, but the film is getting some good recognition even though it doesn’t appear to be a leading contender.

Q: Do you think the #MeToo movement will take center stage at this year’s awards like it did with the Golden Globes?

A: The show may not go out of its way to push it, but there may be some jokes. It might appear too heavy-handed given that this issue is fairly hard for Hollywood to deal with given that producer Harvey Weinstein and some major stars like Kevin Spacey are culprits and are being shunned.

It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out this year … Casey Affleck, who was already controversial last year in regard to sexual harassment allegations, and how he has to present the award for best actress. Some people were collecting signatures to have him banned from the ceremony, but I believe that fizzled out. It’ll be interesting to see how he behaves and how others behave toward him. If you recall last year, there were some people like Brie Larson who stood there and did not applaud his victory. I’m curious if other actors will do that this year. If Frances McDormand wins, will she hug him, kiss him, acknowledge him? Those are things I’ll be looking for.