Last night, Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures), Chloé Zhao’s tone poem to displacement in the United States, won the Producers Guild of America (PGA) award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures. This was seen by many as a big hurdle for the film to definitely separate itself from the pack to become the sole frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar but PGA and Oscar have had a tumultuous relationship over the years with a few examples of major upsets.
At just 32 years old, the PGA is the slightly older sibling to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in terms of handing out awards. The PGA and the Oscars have agree 19 out of 32 times, a rather paltry 59%. We’ve seen wild picks like The Crying Game, Moulin Rouge! and Little Miss Sunshine and then winners that seemed destined for Best Picture only to lose in the final leg like Brokeback Mountain, The Aviator and La La Land. So it’s fair to say that there’s room for an upset to Nomadland‘s path down the road, but what would it be?
Although the PGA uses the same preferential ballot process as Oscar’s Best Picture, they’ve hit a few bumps in the second half of the last decade as a strong predictor. That may be due in part to the Academy’s more adventurous increase in membership with the PGA’s has made no such effort. When they picked La La Land, Oscar picked Moonlight. When they picked 1917, Oscar picked Parasite. BAFTA too. In last year’s case, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and BAFTA also went with 1917‘s Sam Mendes, who was upset by Parasite‘s Bong Joon-ho at the Academy Awards.
This year, Zhao is the clear and overwhelming frontrunner both for the DGA and the Best Director Oscar, securing her a spot in history as only the second woman ever to win and the first non-white female winner in 93 years of the Academy Awards. That should bolster her film’s chances, a film that represents moving on in an empathetic way. While this awards season is exceptional in almost every way, every season truly is. Every season is a bubble unto its own and, in my estimation, awards seasons that fall on presidential election years have another microscope to be seen under. If you look at the path La La Land was on in 2016 – it seemed Hillary Clinton was going to sail to victory against Donald Trump…until she didn’t – I think voters did a gut check. With little to celebrate, from the standpoint of ‘liberal’ Hollywood, voters opted out of the candy-colored musical romance and instead went for Moonlight, a serious, gay, Black, coming of age drama, marking the first time in history that a film with an all-Black led cast had ever won, as well as a specifically LGBTQ main narrative. So if there’s a split, who would it be and why and did the 2020 election, which marked a rebuke of tyranny and a return to empathy, alter how some voters see the Best Picture race?
Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) is the only Best Picture nominee to hit every film precursor this season: the industry honors – PGA, SAG, BAFTA and the non-industry precursors – Golden Globe and Critics Choice. The film details the before, during and aftermath of the riots in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic convention and was a film long in development, originally with Steven Spielberg at the helm. After decades of languishing in limbo, Sorkin was tasked to direct and the film and it’s mantra, “The whole world is watching!” became a timely and timeless reminder as the United States was in the middle of the biggest civil rights movement in decades, the Black Lives Matter movement, to highlight and combat the brutality and murder of innocent Black citizens by police. Trial‘s October 2020 release was hoping to capitalize on a feeling of urgency in the US but has ended up much of an also-ran or runner-up. Sorkin’s miss in Best Director at the Oscars, while not an impossible thing to overcome, seemingly sealed its fate when you add the Golden Globe and WGA losses. Can it be saved by the preferential ballot? Maybe. But don’t put all your chips there.
Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman went from what could have been an obscure indie revenge fantasy to a fully-fledged awards contender after its Christmas Day kickoff. Her feature directorial debut, Fennell’s screenplay won the Writers Guild of America (WGA) award, she’s a DGA and Best Director Oscar nominee and star Carey Mulligan is the Best Actress critics’ leader. That’s a tremendous amount of momentum as the film is a de facto representation of the #MeToo movement as it chronicles when and how women are listened to, believed and protected. While the word from Academy members, male and female, old and young, has been positive, will the film’s tone – darkly comic with flashes of intense serious drama – keep it from being able to shock? Probably, but it’s looking good for an Original Screenplay and Best Actress win, if Mulligan can secure SAG next month.
Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari explores the immigrant experience of a Korean family who transplants to rural Arkansas in the 1980s and gives us a vision of the American dream we rarely see anymore. Like Nomadland, Minari is a deeply empathetic film and a very personal one for Chung. It’s an exploration of hoping for a better life that America can provide without losing heritage, culture or history. The Yi family wants less to assimilate than they simply want to exist alongside. While the film struggled with the Golden Globes and BAFTA, it soared with SAG and Oscar nominations, making history in the process with Steven Yeun, the first Asian-American ever nominated in Best Actor. The film’s screenplay wasn’t eligible at WGA so we don’t know if it would have been able to upset Promising Young Woman (or Trial, for that matter) but it stands a good chance win the SAG cast award. Is that enough to leapfrog over contenders that have won elsewhere? It might not be but if you plant the seed, nurture it and watch it grow, it just might surprise.
April is going to be an onslaught of guild and industry awards with the Screen Actors Guild coming up next, on April 4, the Directors Guild on April 10 and BAFTA on April 11.