Notes On The Season: New York Contenders Come Out; Branagh Sneaks Shakespeare Into Race; Bertolucci’s Memorable Oscar Night

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

The Big Apple, where I am this week, has put itself at the center of the awardsverse in the past few days as three early groups try to put their mark on the race and act as influencers. But for Deadline the really big event is happening all day Saturday as we launch the first ever Deadline’s The Contenders New York at the DGA Theatre, where an impressive group of stars and filmmakers will gather to discuss and show previews of their Oscar-worthy work in front an invited audience of NY Academy and key guild members. Starting off at 10 a.m. with Rob Marshall and the cast of Mary Poppins Returns, and wrapping at 4 p.m. with Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek, we will present New Yorkers with their own taste of what Deadline already has done this season in London, and for the eighth consecutive year in Los Angeles.

It is like one-stop shopping for voters, and the lineup also includes the likes of Brad Bird, Peter Hedges and Lucas Hedges, Peter Farrelly, Paul Schrader, Ethan Hawke, Jonah Hill, Bradley Cooper, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Matthew Heineman, Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Tamara Jenkins Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan, Barry Jenkins, Regina King and cast of If Beale Street Could Talk, Marielle Heller, Debra Granik, Alessandro Nivola, Brady Corbet, Amandla Stenberg, Russell Hornsby, and Spike Lee plus BlacKkKlansman cast members Adam Driver and John David Washington in addition to many, many others. With so many of this year’s Oscar hopefuls being New York-centric, it promises to be an especially great day here in the city that never sleeps.

Speaking of Spike Lee and NYC, Focus Features is also launching a big push for his Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner with a Retrospective at The Metrograph here that starts today with Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues introduced by Ernest Dickerson, Bamboozled, and then BlacKkKlansman (which also begins a re-release at the Fine Arts in L.A. today) introduced by Spike Lee on Sunday, while Monday will have his Oscar-nominated docu 4 Little Girls and Inside Man. Finally, on December 5 will be Summer of Sam. There is a lot to choose from in the four decades-plus that Lee has been making movies, and if you ask me his latest is certainly one of his greatest. Although he got an Honorary Oscar more recently, and a student Academy Award at the beginning of his career, it is hard to believe none of his films, including Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X ever got a Best Picture or Director nomination. Maybe that can change this year with BlacKkKlansman, one of his most urgent and vital works.


Although the center of the Oscar race certainly is on the West Coast, the East Coast is particularly aggressive early on in trying to be influential and make itself heard. Monday’s Gotham Awards ceremony, Tuesday’s National Board of Review announcement, and yesterday’s New York Film Critics Circle picks seemingly were tripping over one another this week in trying to get attention as the race for gold begins in earnest with actual awards being handed out. Oscar campaign consultants are the ones most interested in this game taking place a full month before the official film eligibility year ends and when we start getting pronouncements of Best this and Best that. None of these groups has had a particularly impressive record of matching eventual Oscar winners in the past decade, though they do serve a purpose in bringing attention to certain films and performances and can be advertised to Oscar voters in hope they might move their screener closer to the top of the heap. Or, in the case of NYFCC surprise out-of-left-field Best Actress winner Regina Hall’s Support the Girls, get the distributor to send a DVD to the Academy’s Actors branch post haste. So, Magnolia Pictures, why not support the first black woman to win Best Actress in NYFCC’s 83-year history, with a visible Oscar campaign (she also has an Indie Spirit Lead Actress nomination). This is where these critics groups can be of use.

As I pointed out in a piece earlier this week, it is the televised precursor group shows including the Golden Globes, SAG, and Critics’ Choice Awards (the latter being Oscar predictive almost 100% down the line last year), along with guilds including DGA, PGA and WGA that are the most influential, if anyone can be called that. We will see where they all land as their nominations are revealed within the next two weeks. NYFCC actually only matched Oscar last year in the animated feature category with Coco, but its key choice of Roma for three awards including Best Picture and Director for Alfonso Cuarón (even cinematography!) is certainly a boost for Netflix’s attempts to position the black-and-white Spanish-language film with mostly non-pros as a major behemoth in the race. Their recognition of performances by King, Ethan Hawke and Richard E. Grant (deserving all) can’t hurt as their campaigns move westward. The National Board of Review may be a somewhat more mysterious organization, but it always draws attention, and I have a feeling its big winners Green Book (Best Picture and Actor Viggo Mortensen) and A Star Is Born (Director Bradley Cooper, Supporting Actor Sam Elliott, Actress Lady Gaga) will be heard from big-time (along with Roma) as we move further into the season. Many of this week’s early winners are on tap to appear at Deadline’s Contenders event Saturday. And hey, it is always nice to be first if nothing else, isn’t it?


Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse were among names heard on the early lists of critics’ faves this week, and of course they all come complete with their own action toys. But one unexpected name also surfaced as I received not one, but two packages containing the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Action Figure in connection with the Magnolia documentary RBG (which won an NBR prize in the category). Regina Hall aside, this is one girl Magnolia Pictures is supporting heavily as the film became their top grosser ever. I understand the RBG doll has completely sold out (maybe Magnolia bought them all up for the campaign) but, if so, it is a well-deserved honor for the SCOTUS Justice. Unfortunately stodgy AMPAS rules prevent the distributor from sending RBG dolls to Oscar voters, but I have to say that along with my Cold War cocktail set and Martini shaker it is my favorite trinket of the season so far.

Not to be outdone Netflix continues their onslaught of mailings of DVD screeners, CDs, Sheet Music, and books – – lots of books. Awards voters (not you, AMPAS, sorry) got large, book-bound scripts for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, 22 July, and Roma this week along with their screeners. The latter didn’t stop there though as there also were slick Roma picture brochures, and a huge coffee table book with many photos that fold out into widescreen visions of Roma. The book (including its yellow outer box cover) is so heavy I am thinking of taking it to the gym to work out with it instead of weights. It is a stunner. You certainly can’t say Netflix is holding back on this campaign. A screening Tuesday night at the DGA Theatre here in New York drew numerous Oscar voters including Anne Hathaway and Bette Midler to name two. The streamer is having another on Monday night at the Motion Picture Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills followed by a Spago reception with its two main female stars.

The film also opened last week in theatres in L.A. and New York to sellout crowds but curiously didn’t play Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday of this week before reopening yesterday at the same venues (despite earlier newspaper ads saying AMPAS and Guild members could only use their card Monday thru Thursday). A little side note: AMPAS rules clearly state a film must play seven consecutive days with at least three shows a day in order to qualify for the Oscars. Rest assured Roma will be qualifying, but this is an interesting strategy I haven’t seen before in campaigns. The most common thing is to open a film to qualify for a week in LA and NY and then re-open it tied to possible nominations in the New Year. Sony Classics employs that a lot and will be doing it in December for Stan & Ollie on December 28th and All Is True on December 21st.


Speaking of the latter film, All Is True, Sony Pictures Classics has made that movie about William Shakespeare’s final years this season’s true stealth Oscar entry. SPC’s Michael Barker told me it was made secretly for the most part and no one was very aware that director and star Kenneth Branagh was even shooting it, despite the fact of its starry cast including Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench. Branagh, a Sir himself, plays Shakespeare in the film which begins the a fire destroying the Globe Theatre in the middle of the opening night of his play which was then called “All Is True”. He never wrote another, and the film is based on fact and conjecture about his final years as he returns to his family life that involved an illiterate wife (Dench absolutely superb as usual) and two scandal-ridden daughters. Branagh came into L.A. earlier in the week for a quick three day visit that included a screening at WME, and a SAG screening that drew two massive standing ovations for the man who certainly knows his way around all things Shakespearean and has toyed with the idea of playing him for years. The SAG reaction is not surprising since this is an acting showcase if ever there was one.

During another SRO screening on Tuesday night for my Deadline-sponsored KCET Cinema Series, Branagh explained he has been obsessed with the Bard since taking his backpack and tent and sleeping out right near Stratford-upon-Avon. He also revealed that his first encounter with the great playwright actually had everything to do with the 60’s TV series Dr. Kildare. When he was growing up in the UK, he and his family saw a TV play (Hallmark Hall Of Fame in the U.S.) of Hamlet starring Richard Chamberlain. “It was this special show we watched that starred Dr. Kildare, who actually was Richard Chamberlain then known for playing a TV doctor. He was actually quite good and that is what I recall as my first real encounter with Shakespeare,” he told me in explaining where the spark for this part of his distinguished career has come from.

Branagh also said the excellent cinematography for much of All Is True was done with real candlelight. In the exquisite scene between McKellen as Earl of Southampton and Branagh’s Shakespeare it is used to great effect. I told him I think the only other director who tried this technique might have been Stanley Kubrick who insisted on natural candle light for scenes in his 1975 epic, Barry Lyndon. “We were worried we might be shooting the darkest movie ever made, but it worked out,” he laughed when I caught up with him at the WME screening. In the midst of all this he has been directing Disney’s Artemis Fowl for summer release, and prepping his return to Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot with Death on the Nile set to start shooting early in the New Year for Fox. Branagh, by the way, has a unique distinction in Oscar lore having been nominated five times in five different categories: Actor, Director, Supporting Actor, Screenplay and Live Action Short. He is just one away from tying George Clooney and Walt Disney as the only other to have been nominated in six different categories. Alfonso Cuaron could do it this year for just one film — you guessed it — Roma in which he could land noms as Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography and Editing. A sixth nom for Roma could come for Foreign Language Film, and although he would pick up the prize should it win, the actual nomination is in the name of the originating country, in this case Mexico.


Finally I cannot let the death this week of the great, great Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci go by without recounting my one and only experience with the man who made such seminal movies as The Conformist (one of my great moviegoing experiences ever), 1900, the ever-and still – controversial Last Tango In Paris, and of course his masterpiece of masterpieces, The Last Emperor. It was in connection with that movie that I met Bertolucci, and it was probably an encounter that neither of us would soon forget (at least I didn’t).

In 1988 I was working as the film producer for Entertainment Tonight, and every year I would be in charge of making sure we got what we needed on Oscar night. That year The Last Emperor was the big winner, taking nine wins out of nine nominations including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay, the latter two winning Oscars for Bertolucci himself. It was my task to get the winners to come to our cameras for post -win one-on-one interviews after they have completed the usual photo stops and press conferences backstage. Usually the set up at that time was all the network morning shows, CNN, and ET. PR reps would take winners from one to the other which were placed backstage for these purposes. My bosses however decided we just had to be special this time, so they found what appeared to be a broom closet on the other side of the Shrine Auditorium where the ceremony was being held downtown and turned it into a lavish interview set. The only problem was it was so far away none of the winners (including Michael Douglas and Cher) would come over there with me, other than Supporting Actress champ Olympia Dukakis who we had been following all day and it was previously set up to get a button for our piece (she was great, taking off her heels and trekking over there). BUT Bernardo Bertolucci, mensch that he was, with an Oscar in each hand did save my job that evening and agreed to do it. There was only one problem. I got so nervous that I actually forgot the path thru the now empty Shrine Theatre and somehow (don’t ask) wound up locked outside in the middle of Jefferson Blvd, just me and the night’s big winner, assuring him “there has just got to be an entrance out here that will get us back there, I swear!” Finally we found an entrance and I dragged him into the transformed broom closet for an Oscar night interview I have never forgotten. Thank you Bernardo Bertolucci, not only for a lifetime of film, but also for being so kind on a night that felt like a lifetime for this hapless producer.

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