A column chronicling events and conversations on the awards circuit.
“It feels just like old times,” one awards voter told me at one of the many live events taking place all over town even as the pandemic still rages. The ‘old times’ to which he was referring is what seems like the now ancient 2019 Oscar season which came in just under the wire before the world shut down.
After basically operating the traditional awards season out of our caves last year with a fairly dreary and meh lineup of films and zoom Q&As we could only watch at home, this season is increasingly edging back to the heated campaign of old despite Omicron and Delta variants and all the doomsayers. The quality of the movies may be helping too. “This year there are just so many good movies out there. I am still catching up. We can’t wait to see West Side Story. We are going to go to a theatre and pay for it,” director Guillermo del Toro told me Wednesday night before he hit the stage for a Q&A for his own movie Nightmare Alley which opens next week.
It does seem from my vantage point that in covering the season I am once again in my car going to something every single day and/or night. Of course the motion picture and television industry were early adopters in the new ways of keeping everyone safe as production resumed, and that has bled over to every event. It is now de rigueur to require vax proof and/or Covid tests and health questionnaires before you are allowed to attend any of these glad-handing soirees, screenings, Q&As, lunches, dinners, awards events etc., etc.
TAKING THE TEMPERATURE OF THE RACE
At Spago on Wednesday guests were routed through a side room for Rapid Antigen tests (unless you already did one in the previous 48 hours), a sterile looking environment that appeared more like something you would find in a hospital than a five star restaurant being used for a press luncheon MGM held for their Respect contender where star Jennifer Hudson and director Liesl Tommy hopping from table to table timed to each new course. It is the way of the world now and, at least in L.A., I haven’t run into any anti-vax and mask wearing objectors screaming about their personal liberties. Unlike some of those in D.C. Hollywood seems more interested in racking up the votes for Oscar rather than any political office.
Following the gingerly return of the festival circuit earlier in the season, big packed premieres are back too, Being the Ricardos at the now often-used Geffen Theatre at the new Academy Museum on Monday, West Side Story at El Capitan on Tuesday being the latest. Even Holiday parties are making a comeback. Showtime did one Wednesday night (rapid tests were required) at David Neven’s home. MGM’s Mike DeLuca and Pamela Abdy are hosting a big studio-branded celebration next Monday, and Disney TV/Nat Geo joins the merry fray in Century City the next night.
The lively Critics Choice Association’s fourth annual Celebration of Black Cinema and Television held court as the first big live awards gathering on Monday at the newly billion dollar refurbished Fairmont Century Plaza hotel that drew a capacity crowd to honor the likes of Halle Berry (with a highly emotional acceptance), Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Anthony Anderson (with Mama Doris in tow), Jennifer Hudson, and Will Smith (beamed in from his Emancipation film location) among many others. The swanky and squeaky clean hotel looks to crush nearby pre-pandemic king of awards banquets Beverly Hilton for this kind of event (which also included a post-party with many attendees line-dancing the night away). The actual televised January 9 Critics Choice Awards happen there as well, followed the next week by the Academy’s must-be-seen-at Governors Awards on the 15th (crossing town from the Hollywood and Highland ballroom it has always used), plus many others lining up including PGA awards etc.
IN PERSON Q&As COME ROARING BACK
The traditional standard of many an award season, the Q&A, has been moving from pandemic-era virtual to fully in-person lately. They are happening constantly. I moderated one for Ricardos with seven actors from the cast at the massive TCL Chinese Imax on Saturday where star Nicole Kidman got a roaring standing ovation upon introduction after the nearly full screening in the 1000 person venue. And at the last minute I was called upon Wednesday eve for that Nightmare Alley AMPAS/BAFTA screening after announced moderator Rian Johnson couldn’t make it. When del Toro, co-writer (and his bride of 6 months) Kim Morgan, composer Nathan Johnson, and star/producer Bradley Cooper took the stage at the Fine Arts theatre in Beverly Hills the lights went on to show a complete capacity crowd of 400 clearly warming to the Oscar winner’s latest where he assured the crowd “no chickens were harmed in the making of this film”. And just about nightly (I’m not kidding) some distributor or studio is hosting a screening/reception at the Ross House, a regular home in a residential Hollywood neighborhood that has a private screening/mixing theatre which is rented out, along with the kitchen/living room/patio for FYC events. The Ross family must be making a fortune with this L.A. awards circuit go-to venue.
Even smaller indie movies from much earlier in the year are jumping in hoping to be reheated for some attention. Last night a packed audience of AMPAS members turned up to see Nicolas Cage’s acclaimed performance in Pig which premiered at Cannes, with Cage, co-star Alex Wolff (who said he loves his movie so much he even attended this with food poisoning plaguing him), and filmmakers Michael Sarnoski and Vanessa Block on hand. NEON, which knows a thing or two about how to woo voters after shepherding Parasite to the 2019 Best Picture Oscar, also provided a pre and post reception bookending the screening and Q&A which took place at another new venue, the Sunset Strip’s Edition Hotel with a comfy theatre and big screen for these purposes. NEON’s Tom Quinn was among those hobnobbing and hoping to generate talk. It is Cage’s best performance in years. Look soon for an upcoming Actor’s Side episode I taped with him yesterday.
At that Spago Respect luncheon, director Tommy who is somewhat perplexed by the whole idea of campaigning in general (she comes from the New York theatre) perhaps summed it up best for the litany of contenders out there this year. “I am good friends with Rahda Blank and she missed all of this last year when the pandemic took hold after Sundance,” she said of the current revived in-person awards journey the acclaimed director of The 40 Year Old Version missed completely during lockdown. “It was all virtual for that group, but for me at least it seems I am on a plane now almost weekly between New York and L.A.”
PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON ON SAVING MOVIES
Speaking of contenders, I did a recent Zoom conversation with Paul Thomas Anderson whose latest film Licorice Pizza is making waves in more ways than one. Already it has been named Best Picture and Best Director by the National Board of Review, taken the Best Screenplay prize for Anderson from the New York Film Critics Circle, and this week was named as one of the ten films on AFI’s prestigious list of Top Movies of 2021. Oscar buzz is getting louder, but Anderson is no stranger to awards and already has 8 Academy Award nominations to his credit including for such disparate films as There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice, Magnolia, and The Phantom Thread. Licorice Pizza may be his lightest yet in tone, but it is no less brilliant as it focuses on the off-the-wall relationship between a 15 year old wunderkind kid and a 20-something girl (NBR breakout stars winners Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim) who becomes the object of his pursuit. It is pretty wild and opens wide on Christmas Day.
However beyond the merits, which are considerable, of Licorice Pizza itself Anderson is contributing mightily to a cause near and dear to all of us movie theatre lovers who are rooting for the full-fledged return of pure theatrical exhibition and the moviegoing experience after the devastating Covid shutdown of the industry and its slow roll back. Following four-walling the historic Village Westwood theatre for three weeks of industry screenings in November MGM and UAR, which is releasing the film, have platformed it at the single screen iconic Village which in its heyday of the 60’s and 70’s was the exclusive cinema home for box office sensations that ran and ran for months before going out to citywide releases (it also opened on three other screens in NY). It was quite common before the industry changed its ways and went all multiplex on us, and especially before streaming became part of the game plan for so many films that seemingly disappear into the “larder” of the algorithm. Proving that you can revisit past practices and apply them to the right kind of movie, Anderson championed the idea that what once worked can work again. Thus when Licorice Pizza opened its commercial run on November 26th in a good old fashioned 70mm film print (they blew it up from 35mm) it became the highest grossing film at the Village in a quarter century and set records with numbers certainly not seen for limited releases in the Covid era.
“You have no idea how it warms my heart hearing you talk about it because it has been something we have been talking about in endless meetings, and just how to do this and how to pull this off in this day and age. To see what happened with people really coming out and turning out to support a film in that way at this beautiful, beautiful theatre, you’re right, it is innovative, but not even remotely innovative,” Anderson told me in explaining it’s all part of the industry’s lineage and DNA. The filmmaker wasn’t born until 1970 but is clearly a student of the lost art of finely tuned motion picture exhibition. “It is just a huge step backwards. It is really just reaching into the past and asking, ‘what if we just had one place where we could really make it work, get people to pay the money, pay the parking and to put on a show and made it really worth their while?’ It’s been incredible to see the response. I couldn’t have hoped for more. I remember looking at old ads for The Exorcist back around ’74 and it played in two theatres in Los Angeles for a year — The National and the Fine Arts and it still grossed a hundred million dollars, one of the highest grossing films of all time. Oh and by the way I saw that at one point the ads said ‘it must end soon at the National because Chinatown was the film that was coming in behind it!”
Anderson is holding the torch for more successes like his new film that also champion the classic exclusive theatrical experience. “The absence right now of the (Hollywood) Arclight and Cinerama Dome and whatever other cities there are in the country, it just speaks to the preservation of our older cinema houses, keeping them alive, keeping them fed with good films and good presentations, because if you do that they will come and they will support it and there’s a way to do this that keeps that theatrical experience alive, the proper theatrical experience,” he said. “I am not talking about the experience of the 25-Plex. I am talking about single screen cinema houses that are our history that we must preserve and feed. There is just no question about it. That is what we have to do.”