Luckily for Tom Kitt, he was in his dorm room when opportunity knocked. A lovely young woman made him a desperate offer to work on the music for the annual campus show premiering just days later. Though he was an economics major, he said “yes.” The experience generated a new dream for his life which, over the past 20 years, has been realized. Still, Kitt has often wondered about the other life he might have led, the other Tom he might have become, if he hadn’t been inside that dorm room—thoughts that would inspire If/Then, his latest collaboration with lyricist-librettist Brian Yorkey.
Their musical about a supremely cautious woman, Elizabeth (Idina Menzel), audaciously leaps over traditional story structures. In the opening number, the character considers the probable outcomes of a simple choice: to help a friend (Anthony Rapp) gather signatures to protest a housing development or listen to music with her new neighbor (LaChanze). The show then magically lets her give each option a shot by splitting her in two, as Liz and Beth, and the proceeding parallel narrative shows how big and small choices like Liz’s agreeing to take the phone number of a handsome war vet (James Snyder), or Beth’s taking a phone call from an old friend (Jerry Dixon), significantly alter the life and personality of each.
Liz and Beth may share an initial resistance to risk, but Kitt and Yorkey embrace it. Like their previous collaboration, Next to Normal, which earned the pair the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, If/Then is a wholly original musical in an era of movie adaptations, revues, and bio-sicals. I sat down with Kitt in early June, when If/Then’s cast album was released, to discuss the choices and serendipities that have shaped his life and work.
If/Then is built on the seemingly random events in someone’s life where everything changes. Can you share the details of your big turning point?
I was at Columbia University. The annual Varsity Show, which is all about campus life, was set to perform on Alumni Weekend. The composer had gone. By the way, he was Eric Garcetti, the new mayor of Los Angeles. So there was no music and this young woman, Rita, knocked on my door and asked if I could help. I was staying around to perform with my a cappella group and someone thought of me. I said if she had a tape of the show, I’d try. And that’s how it all happened for me. Rita became my wife, the mother of my three children, and she introduced me to Brian, who was the lyricist for the Varsity Show.
Had you been involved in theater before that?
Senior year in high school, I acted in Into the Woods, which blew my mind. Sondheim’s score is so gargantuan and beautiful and dramatic. And it’s all about going out into the world and starting to make it on your own, which struck home. So it was a very emotional thing to pour myself into. That, along with the experience of Cabaret when I was 16 at Interlocken, where I was studying classical piano. I had to gather myself after. I’m Jewish so the story struck a chord. To see musical theater do this exciting and moving thing was very visceral.
But what I really wanted to be was a singer-songwriter. That was a major reason to go to college in New York. That dream we all have of performing and an A&R guy just happens to be there. Like when Jon Landau [a music critic at the time] wrote, “I saw rock n’ roll’s future and it’s name is Bruce Springsteen.” Landau was in the same room as Springsteen and the rest is history. That’s an if/then moment which I wanted for myself. After graduating from Columbia, I put together the Tom Kitt Band and we got signed to a demo deal. We went to L.A. to record at Sony Studios with Thom Panunzio, who, coincidentally, worked on Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge of Town and Born to Run. But after a while, it became obvious to me: It just wasn’t happening.
But the theater part of my life was starting to take off. The two Varsity Shows with Brian had given me a new dream of writing for the theater. I liked creating songs with Brian for people other than myself. I liked affecting people the way I’d been affected.
What did you carry over from one field to the other? What did you have to do differently?
They each have their own forms. A pop song usually comes back to the same lyrics in the final chorus. In theater, the songs have to keep moving. On Next to Normal, Brian and I took two of the songs from my band, “I’m Alive” and “I’ve Been.” We reworked them to make sure whatever build the song had to have dramatically was there. And that’s not just about the lyrics. It can be orchestration. Arrangements. Performance. And there are songs where pop and theater meet. Look at Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” “Jungleland,” “Thunder Road.” The way they change, the way all the different sections come together—that’s theatrical. They get inside you so that you have an almost physical response. Paul Simon is another one. Billy Joel. Their songs are melodic and they build. They have real characters you can empathize with.
And then you orchestrated and arranged the adaptation of Green Day’s American Idiot, which was all about creating a piece where rock and theater meet.
The original album was conceived theatrically. It leaps out at you. Every chorus is rousing. Each song tells an individual story, but the entire album has a larger one. It’s dramatic and sweeping. And the emotional content is always there, no matter what form the songs take. Even when the chorus repeats in “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” the character needs to keep saying that.
You went back to the music world to do some arrangements on Green Day’s studio album 21st Century Breakdown. It seems that while Elizabeth in If/Then sees things as either/or, you lean toward and/also.
I think it’s important to get outside yourself whatever way you can. And it’s a real compliment when someone thinks I can bring a new element to their music. I just got to work with Billie Joe Armstrong again on These Paper Bullets at Yale Rep. And getting out of my comfort zone can be a wonderful way to come up with new ideas. The more open you can be to different styles or genres, the more you can be true to a character or a moment in the story. Next to Normal is known as a rock musical, but there are also waltzes, classical piano. A rule I try to live by is, “Don’t force the music on the musical.”
How did you figure out what style of music was right for If/Then?
I started with Elizabeth. She’s back in New York looking for her life to begin again, looking to make decisions that are going to put her on the right road, but constantly searching, as we all are. And I wanted the music to evoke that. I also wanted it to feel melodic and romantic and to feel like the city was rising up to meet her. And the other characters as well, expressing themselves in their own unique ways. When we first tried out in D.C., I wasn’t doing enough musically to differentiate between Liz and Beth. People were getting confused, so I created a theme for each. I didn’t want to say Liz is “classical” and Beth is “jazz.” They’re still basically the same person, especially when it begins, so the themes move in similar ways but have different tonalities.
I guess this is why there were just two Broadway musicals this season with original stories. You and Brian Yorkey don’t make it easy for yourselves.
We definitely set out to do something ambitious. We live in New York, where day-by-day random collisions and encounters and near-misses happen. It can be exhausting to think about, and then you don’t live your life. But how interesting to show theatrically how little tiny things don’t just affect you, but a whole group of people around you. We knew to tell that kind of story was going to take a lot of work, for the audience as well. What I hope is that the experience of it, even if you get lost along the way, you pick it back up.
It also helps that the show never feels like an intellectual exercise. There’s so much warmth, not just in the production, but from the audience. Many of them have seen these actors before working together or in pieces of yours.
The show was created to be written about the New York experience we’ve had, for our friends and with our friends. It’s like the Varsity Show at school, where we’d cast people we knew and create it for them. Our cast, every one of them has and will continue to headline their own shows, and I can’t tell you what it means that they’ve all taken on this ensemble piece. They make a room that’s astounding to be in. We’re just trying to write our voice and our passions and ideas. And hope that it translates.
As with Next to Normal, I get lots of emails from people who aren’t only supportive of the work, but share information about their lives and how the show makes them think. That’s why I do this. If I’d had Sondheim’s email or Kander and Ebb’s when I was seeing their shows, I’d have let them know what their work had lit inside of me.
Next to Normal famously changed a tremendous amount en route to Broadway, cutting the mental breakdown at Costco and the electro-shock act-one finale. What was the development process like with this one?
I brought the idea to Brian in 2007. In ’08, we gave the treatment to [producer] David Stone as his Next to Normal opening-night present. Brian says it was because we were broke. David asked, “What do you think about Idina?” He was looking for another project to do with her after Wicked. So we said, “Yes, that would be unbelievable; please make that happen.” And he did.
From the beginning, David had—it’s what makes him such a brilliant producer—the trajectory of the show, in terms of going out of town and coming to Broadway. And that was great because it gave us two deadlines to meet. But it was also nerve-wracking because there was a lot to try to get right with this kind of show. Brian and I are never afraid to throw things out and start again. Twenty-seven songs were dropped from this show. Twenty-seven. There are only 22 in the show. We threw out more than we’ve got.
What gave you the most trouble?
The launch was the biggest thing. Getting the device to work. That took us all the way through previews on Broadway. One of the first things we were taught at the BMI Musical Theatre workshop is to use the Four Questions from Jewish tradition. For this character, why is this night different from all the others? With a story that you’re not adapting, you can easily fall through a rabbit hole and get stuck. Sometimes you’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t want to be solved, so you have to try something else. But “You Learn to Live Without” was in the very first reading, as was “Here I Go,” as was “What the Fuck.”
With every show I work on I hope to get to that point where, when the pencil has to be put down, I don’t feel like picking it up again. Still, every show is a living, breathing thing and I’m open to going back. Last year, we did a concert version of High Fidelity at 54 Below and I did a lot of different things with the director, Leigh Silverman, that seemed to work really well. With Next to Normal, it’s out in the world and people are doing it their own way. It’ll be particularly interesting to see what people will do with If/Then. There are any number of ways you can tell this story.
You seem drawn to stories built around major turning points. American Idiot is to a large extent about turning 20 in the ‘90s; High Fidelity, turning 30; and now If/Then, turning 40 and realizing you’re a product of a lot of choices you’ve made, whether you even knew you were making them.
And the choices are getting bigger and bigger and there are more and more of them. I’m not on Twitter or Facebook because I don’t know how I’d manage it all. I have so many things that are pulling my energy, never mind trying to raise three kids and have a career in New York City. You can so easily feel drowned out. With If/Then, we wanted to show how you can so over-think everything today, it can paralyze you. You can make bad decisions and it’s a long road to get back, but if you look at it in a positive way, each day has the possibility for something beautiful. That’s a great thing to sing about.
At the end of the show, Beth sings, “You learn how to love the not-knowing, so here I go.” She chooses to take a chance. I love how Brian did that, because in the first act it’s Liz who sings “Here I Go.” She gets that much earlier. Look, we don’t know how anything’s going to turn out. But maybe if you go to the party, you’ll meet that person. If/then stories are part of this campaign we’re doing. On our website, people are volunteering their own if/then stories. There are so many: “I just happened to spill a drink on someone and now I’m married to them.”
So much of the show deals with issues of choice versus chance. With your family responsibilities and career ops, how do you balance planning where you want your life to go versus being open to taking things as they come?
It’s a combination of material I feel passionate about and things I feel I can lend my voice to. And people that I can’t turn down being in the room with. I feel very, very lucky. Looking ahead, it’s the same thing. Brian and I are working on an adaptation of Freaky Friday. Everyone our age lived that story from the child’s perspective. Now suddenly I have the parent’s POV. We’re also doing Magic Mike, which should be a blast, with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Steven Soderbergh and Channing Tatum. We’re doing a movie musical of Sweet Valley High with Diablo Cody. And I’m working with Alanis Morissette on an adaptation of Jagged Little Pill. Those songs are so emotional and visceral. Listening to it at midnight when it all got going, I could barely get off the couch.
Okay, finally, if you hadn’t been around when Rita knocked, how different might you be now? Who’s the Beth to your Elizabeth, the…
Tommy to my Tom? I was an economics major. My father had suggested, in addition to the music studies I was doing and the solo gigs and everything, I should have a major I could fall back on, just in case. He was signed to the Yankees in high school, but he had arm issues. He went back to business school and worked on anti-trust issues. So he knew from experience. I loved economics. It’s a people science. And it relates to a lot of what we do in If/Then. Elizabeth was an economist in an early draft before becoming an urban planner.
As I was getting ready to graduate, all my friends were applying for investment banking jobs. I thought, “I should do that too,” and I got an offer from Morgan Stanley to do public finance. In the Varsity Show Brian and I wrote that year, God and the Devil have a bet over whether your time at Columbia makes you sell out or follow your dreams. And I was living that. I thought, “If I go to Morgan Stanley, I’ll be giving up something very personal. But there’ll be tangible rewards and an exciting lifestyle. But then if I follow this other thing, maybe I’ll be broke or it won’t happen and then maybe it’ll be hard to get back into the financial world.” So I had my Thomas and Tommy moment: I called Morgan Stanley from spring break and said, “I have to turn down your generous offer.”
I want to lead with my heart. I want to do what I’ll never look back on with regret. I’d never look back at following my dream as a foolish decision. But if I’d chosen that road to Morgan Stanley, I’d probably have spent my life wondering, “What if…?”
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short
Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.
Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.
There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.
John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.
Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.
Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.
Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.
Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Could Win: In the Absence
Should Win: In the Absence
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short
It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.
If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.
Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.
Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.
So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.
Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.
But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.
Will Win: Brotherhood
Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window
Should Win: Brotherhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”
One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.
At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.
Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.
Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.
Will Win: Memorable
Could Win: Hair Love
Should Win: Memorable
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.
The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.
Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.
From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.
One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.
Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Could Win: 1917
Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature
Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.
Will Win: Toy Story 4
Could Win: Missing Link
Should Win: I Lost My Body
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor
Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.
We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.
On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.
Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.
Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.
Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.
When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.
Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.
Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.
Will Win: For Sama
Could Win: The Cave
Should Win: For Sama
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling
There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.
While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.
Will Win: Joker
Could Win: Judy
Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.
Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.
Will Win: Parasite
Could Win: Pain and Glory
Should Win: Parasite
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score
John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.
That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.
Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.
Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”
Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.
Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.
Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker
Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917
Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women