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The Best Theater of 2019

This was the year of playwrights saying what they mean.

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The Best Theater of 2019
Photo: Joan Marcus

This was the year of playwrights saying what they mean. Of writers like Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me) putting their own stories, or some version of themselves, right up there on the stage. Of writers like Stephen Adly Guirgis (Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven) and Donja R. Love (one in two) demanding that audiences take note, listen, and do something. Of writers like Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) and Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview) putting it all out there, all of it, and leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces and make sense of what they’ve seen.

Even if that brutal honesty made it all the way to Broadway, it didn’t permeate musicals with the same lucidity yet. The deadly parade of jukebox musicals continues, and most new scores, especially on Broadway, have also been dismayingly shallow. Much of the best—and most honest—theater in New York this season came from playwrights and directors of color, with texts both present and past (with powerful revivals of Ntozake Shange, Anna Deavere Smith, Lynn Nottage). Yet, despite the more diverse programming of the city’s leading nonprofits, there are the same number of new plays premiering in the 2019-2020 Broadway season by Tracy Letts, one individual person, as by playwrights of color (it’s just Jeremy O. Harris and Matthew Lopez). (The same goes for female playwrights as only Bess Wohl and Rona Munro have new plays premiering.)

If Slave Play’s appearance on super-safe, hit-me-baby-with-one-more-jukebox Broadway, in all that play’s harrowing, shocking glory, is the transformative, theatrical event of the year, the persistently white forecast for 2020’s biggest stages is a painful twist worthy of Harris. What’s most promising about New York theater is also what’s most frightening: As Harris himself told Playbill this year, “we’re also not doing the work of social justice if we pretend that there wasn’t a history of immediately erasing the hard work of putting women and people of color on stages—there’s always a renaissance and then it disappears.”

As this list of the best New York theatrical productions of 2019 suggests, it’s up to nonprofits like the Public Theater, the Signature Theatre, the Atlantic Theater Company, and Theatre for a New Audience to ensure that this renaissance leads to an extended enlightenment.


The American Tradition

The American Tradition (New Light Theater Project)

The other anachronistic “slave play” this year, The American Tradition largely slipped under the radar at the 13th Street Repertory Company, where it ran briefly in February. But Ray Yamanouchi’s biting play, staged with breathless momentum by Axel Avin Jr., was just as caustic and challenging, even if it lacked some of Slave Play’s haunting ambiguity. Surrounded by language dripping with satire, light-skinned Eleanor (Sydney Cole Alexander) disguises as a white man to get herself and her husband (Martin K. Lewis) to freedom. Without abandoning its Antebellum setting, The American Tradition makes some of the same deep cuts at 21st-century white wokeness that Slave Play does, with its send-up of an abolitionist who insists he doesn’t see color. Danie Steel’s seething performance as an enslaved woman forced to memorize a speech of praise for her master has especially stuck with me throughout this year. There’s room for more than one play in New York City about the relentless legacies of slavery, and The American Tradition continues that conversation with chaotic clarity.


Buried

Buried (New York Musical Festival)

Sometimes extraordinary things come in small packages. Buried, written a few years ago by undergraduates at the University of Sheffield, boasts a darkly gorgeous folk score and a charmingly creepy romance between two serial killers who give up their mutual habit of offing their blind dates once they find each other. It’s a bonkers Bonnie and Clyde-like premise, but Cordelia O’Driscoll’s haunting melodies (bolstered by Olivia Doust’s lovely orchestrations) transform psychopathy into sweet, wry romance. And it’s a nice surprise to encounter smart lyric writing, a collaboration here between O’Driscoll and Tom Williams. Let’s hope Buried, which had a five-performance run at the New York Musical Festival, doesn’t stay underground for long.


Choir Boy

Choir Boy (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

For Tarell Alvin McCraney, Broadway has been a long time coming. An Oscar winner for Moonlight and the author of the acclaimed Brother/Sister Plays, he’s also the chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama (from which Slave Play’s Jeremy O. Harris just graduated). But Choir Boy, in its at-last Broadway iteration, was an unsettling and playful examination of queerness at a historically black boarding school. Animated by wrenching and exuberant singing (arrangements from Jason Michael Webb) and exhilarating step routines (choreography from Camille A. Brown), Choir Boy may well have had the most effective musical moments of any play or musical this year, including a heartbreaking locker room chorale of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” But the story itself—anchored by Jeremy Pope’s defiantly beautiful central performance and Trip Cullman’s intense direction—paints a deeply compelling picture of what it takes to survive.


Coriolanus

Coriolanus (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)

After reading it a couple times and seeing one burdensome production outside New York last year, I’d all but written Coriolanus off as a Shakespeare play too philosophically knotty to be staged coherently or compellingly. I was proven wrong by Daniel Sullivan’s breathless, crystalline production. Jonathan Cake’s performance in the title role of a would-be consul of Rome who can’t hide his disdain for the common people made psychologically legible each of Coriolanus’s politically incomprehensible choices. Kate Burton made Coriolanus’s mother a ferocious powerhouse of a match for her firebrand son. And as the cunning tribunes, Jonathan Hadary and Enid Graham laid bare a hypocrisy that’s all too familiar: Even the politicians who claim to value the voices of the citizens are still manipulating the people they claim to serve every step of the way. One of four Public Theater productions on this list, Coriolanus’s insightful, incisive reifying is a perfect example of the Public’s grippingly relevant output.


Fairview

Fairview (Theatre for a New Audience)

Perhaps Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, shouldn’t count for a 2019 roundup, since it premiered at the Soho Rep in summer 2018 before transferring to Theatre for a New Audience with the same cast and creative team a year later. But every performance of Fairview—a play as much about the audience as the characters—is a different experience. What seems at first like an undemanding comedy about an African-American family morphs violently, first when we watch the opening scene again from the perspective of four white viewers and then when those white bodies invade the stage, enacting their fantasies of black existence. For the play’s final monologue, the white members of the audience are asked to switch places with the actors of color on stage, to feel themselves being watched and surveyed. In the months since Fairview, I’ve wondered whether participating in that physical act lets white audience members off the hook too easily, especially given how few people of color were left in the seats the night I saw the show: Have the tables really turned or only the angle of observation? But in its provoking structure and its thoughtful transgression of the norms of performing and being an audience member, few shows this year struck as deeply as Fairview.


Fires in the Mirror

Fires in the Mirror (Signature Theatre)

Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman recounting of the 1991 Crown Heights riot, the apex of a conflict between the black and Jewish communities, received its first major New York City revival at the Signature Theatre, 27 years after its debut. In this incarnation of Smith’s verbatim drama, with text taken from dozens of interviews, it wasn’t a one-woman but a one-man play, with Michael Benjamin Washington shape-shifting between the many characters, ranging from a Hasidic mother to Reverend Al Sharpton. Vocally and physically, Washington breathed new and humanizing life into two worlds of strangers staring at each other over a great divide. Smith’s masterful dramaturgy (and extraordinary story-gathering) still stuns, and the sense of these testimonies passing from voice to voice—from their original speakers to Smith and now to Washington—provided the production with an added layer of poignancy.


Gary

Gary (Booth Theatre)

From the moment blood started spurting from her neck in the prologue, Julie White stole the show in Taylor Mac’s shocking, delicious Gary, a madcap sequel to Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy. Even though Nathan Lane was an amply amusing headliner, White and co-star Kristine Nielsen elevated Mac’s farting-corpse comedy to dizzying slapstick heights. And, somehow, amid the blank verse and zippy zaniness, Mac also unfurled a pointed pacifist message about the meaningless messiness of war. Perhaps Mac, a celebrated performance artist and playwright who uses the pronoun “judy,” asked a lot from absurdism-wary Broadway audiences in judy’s most mainstream outing to date, especially with the deep-cut Shakespearean in-jokes. But Gary, despite its naysayers, achieved its goal of giving gas its own grotesque gravity.


Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven

Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (Atlantic Theater Company)

One of the year’s saddest plays, and also quite possibly its funniest, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is a brutal, big-hearted landscape study of a New York City halfway house from Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherfucker with the Hat, among other attention-getting titles). What’s most impressive about Guirgis’s sprawling play, which also features a cameo by a live goat, is how he gives full life and rich, specific language to each of eighteen characters. His gift for using large-scale ensemble scenes to instantly, meticulously develop characters and shade in relationship histories is unrivaled. And what a cast, with particularly shimmering performances from Elizabeth Rodriguez as the dauntless director of the residence, Liza Colón-Zayas as a hurting, harassing veteran, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes (also excellent in New York Theater Workshop’s runboyrun and In Old Age earlier this fall) as a long-forgotten film star. With unafraid humor, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven serves a generous helping of humanity.


King Lear

King Lear (Cort Theatre)

This was a production more sinned against than sinning. Though I may be in the critical minority for adoring Sam Gold’s abstract, perhaps overly academic King Lear, I found it to be an eye-opening vision for Shakespeare’s most engulfing tragedy. Hard to follow for newcomers to the play itself? For sure (I don’t begrudge the King Lear neophytes sitting near me who left at intermission), but what a collection of performances: Ruth Wilson’s heartbreaking dual portraits of Cordelia and the Fool (a mainstay original casting theory from King Lear scholarship working wonders in action); the sometimes-justified charismatic cruelty of Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O’Sullivan as Goneril and Regan; John Douglas Thompson as a cantankerous, devoted Kent; and the deaf actor Russell Harvard as the Duke of Cornwall, accompanied by an interpreter (Michael Arden). Gold’s casting choices tightened the dramaturgy: When Cornwall killed that servant, he lost his “ears” in the same scene that Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell) literally lost her eyes. And, most centrally, having seen Glenda Jackson play Lear in an utterly incoherent production (not directed by Gold) at London’s Old Vic in 2016, I was astonished by the newfound wit, anger, and ferociousness in Jackson’s second look at the role.


Little Shop of Horrors

Little Shop of Horrors (Westside Theater)

Unlike the revisions and reinventions of other musical revivals this year (Kiss Me, Kate, Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish), Michael Mayer’s giddy production of Little Shop of Horrors is just a really, really good staging of the show that heightens everything you’ve always loved about it. Jonathan Groff gave a delightfully nerdy performance as Seymour Krelborn (he’s soon to be replaced by Gideon Glick) with Tammy Blanchard a tender and tenacious Audrey. Mayer’s direction reveals, much like Seymour’s own transformation, a diamond in the rough: Little Shop of Horrors is a magnificent mixture of ridiculous dark comedy and, somehow beneath the carnivorous leaves and thirst for blood, sweetness. The cast’s superb rendering of Alan Menken’s score (and Howard Ashman’s witty lyrics) has also been captured on a recently released recording, and if you can’t make it to the tiny Westside Theater before the show closes in March, it’s worth the listen.


The Michaels

The Michaels (Public Theater)

The eighth play in Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama detailing episodes in family’s lives in the Hudson Valley, The Michaels is as gorgeous, subtle, and quietly perfect (or perfectly quiet) as any production staged in New York this year. Calmly riveting, the play takes place basically in real time as the glued-together fragments of a family (plus a visiting friends) cook and eat dinner. On the one hand, it’s a glistening portrait into the world of modern dance: Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) has come home to recreate the legendary choreography of her mother, the ailing Rose Michaels (Brende Wehle), for a tribute performance. Nelson beautifully weaves patches of dining-room dancing into the play. But the play’s tensest conflicts lie between the present and the past, as Rose battles her once-buoyant body, and her girlfriend Kate (an astonishing Maryann Plunkett) contends with the ever-present memories of Rose’s longtime partner. Nelson masterfully delivers the richness of whole lives wrestling with the passage of time, distilled into the duration of a single dinner.


Mojada

Mojada (Public Theater)

Luis Alfaro’s Mojada migrates the Medea myth to present-day Queens in a terrifying, literarily inevitable unspooling of an undocumented woman’s battle to preserve her family and her dignity. In the Public Theater’s production, Chay Yew’s fluid staging intermingled Mikhail Fiksel’s vital sound design with Alfaro’s poetic text, brought to life especially by Sabina Zúñiga Varela in the title role and Socorro Santiago as a wry Greek chorus of a domestic worker. A flashback sequence to the family’s frightening escape across the border was probably among this year’s most horrifying, tense stretches of drama (along, perhaps, with the final scenes of Slave Play and Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!). In Alfaro’s assured hands, the mythical and the modern meld powerfully, yet another win for the Public’s superb track record of marrying the classic and the contemporary.


Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)

Shakespeare’s seldom made this much sense. In Kenny Leon’s glorious production of Much Ado About Nothing, Messina is transformed into 2020 Georgia at the height of Stacey Abrams’s (fictitious) presidential campaign. Leon’s resetting felt so special not just because of its all-black cast or potent use of music throughout, but because each line of Shakespeare’s text blossomed as if dug out and replanted in a brand-new garden. I’ve rarely seen a Shakespeare production that felt as freshly explored, and I’ve also never seen an audience allowed to receive a Shakespeare play with such total comfort and confidence in the language’s accessibility. Leading the phenomenal cast in conversational clarity was Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks, a sweet, salty, stunning Beatrice. And the best news for fans of Shakespeare (or strangers to Shakespeare) who missed the show: It was filmed for PBS’s Great Performances and is available to watch here.


Native Son

Native Son (The Duke on 42nd Street)

The Acting Company moved into the Duke on 42nd Street this summer, running Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son in repertory. While Measure for Measure was uninspired, and the repertorial combination didn’t add much to either play, Native Son triumphed. A tense, taut terror ride, directed with careening force by Seret Scott and centered around two major performances—Galen Ryan Kane, seething and sorrowful as Bigger Thomas, and Jason Bowen as the violent spirit of the Black Rat that Bigger feels society pressuring him toward—this production never let up in momentum. Despite the 1940s setting, this adaptation distills the distancing near-century of racial oppression into a shocking 90-minute thriller that felt, in this fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat staging, bracingly immediate.


one in two

one in two (The New Group, Signature Theatre)

Written during the height of Donja R. Love’s struggle with depression as he approached his 10th anniversary of living with HIV, one in two is a work which rends its author’s identity apart into three figures, all queer black men tasked with telling the tragic—but does it have to be?—story of an HIV-positive man. At each performance, audience applause selects which actor will take on which role, bringing to life the lottery of being a queer black man in America, the unimaginable statistic that one in two gay or bisexual black men will contract HIV in their lifetimes. That’s the only chance for applause the audience gets: In an arresting dramaturgical move, there’s no curtain call, just a silent exodus from the theater as the actors stare up at the ever-increasing tally of diagnoses. It’s a riveting, riotous play that pierces with its sense of vital urgency and its unwillingness to follow the rules.


The Rose Tattoo

The Rose Tattoo (American Airlines Theater)

For audiences familiar with Tennessee Williams’s best-known classics, Serafina Delle Rose’s happy ending seems hardly likely to happen. But Marisa Tomei’s take on the young widow Serafina refuses to succumb to her loneliness like Tom Wingfield or Brick or Stanley Kowalski, the tragic heroes of other Williams works. If The Rose Tattoo is a tonal rollercoaster, it relies on its central actress to prevent the play from riding off the rails: Tomei delivered, offering a shape-shifting performance oscillating from joy to grief and back to passionate hope. Partnered brilliantly with the Scottish actor Emun Elliott, Tomei transformed The Rose Tattoo into a spirited, deeply funny tour de force. Director Trip Cullman (Choir Boy) decorated this production with healthy dollops of physical comedy and a warm mist of candle-lighting and Italian song.


Slave Play

Slave Play (Golden Theatre)

I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about Slave Play since I saw it nearly three months ago. And that’s very definitely the point. More than any play I’ve seen this year—maybe ever—it’s come up in conversation again and again, not just because I want to recommend it (which I do), but because I’m still wrestling with it. Jeremy O. Harris’s unanswered questions have also burrowed deep, unsettling the norms of theatergoing: A viral video of a white audience member screaming at Harris as he calmly hears her out in a post-show talkback pretty much sums up the revelatory detonation this play has become. But what’s most admirable about Slave Play remains that, stripped of all the noise outside and around the play, it’s still a thoughtful, honest story about four interracial couples learning how to listen to their partners and taking terrible risks to be heard.


The Sound Inside

The Sound Inside (Studio 54)

Though The Sound Inside is a play that doesn’t demand a Broadway-sized house, it certainly deserves one; a mesmerizing miniature, it’s perhaps the best new play on Broadway in 2019. Starring Mary-Louise Parker (in her first of two Broadway lead roles this season), this small-scale gem tells the story of Bella Lee Baird, a Yale professor who asks for a shocking favor from a student. Both teacher and students are novelists and their fiction works blend blurrily into their lives. This is as much a play about writing as a play about people, and I was wholly won over by the sense that Bella is shifting and shaping the story the audience receives. Parker is devastating as an unreliable narrator wrestling with the power she alone has to reveal or conceal the truth.


What the Constitution Means to Me

What the Constitution Means to Me (Helen Hayes Theater)

When the national tour of What the Constitution Means to Me takes off in January, it will be the first time playwright Heidi Schreck hasn’t also performed the central role. It’s hard to imagine the piece without her. After all, this play is her, as Schreck recounts her experience as a teenager entering constitutional debate competitions for college tuition cash and then describes, through scintillating monologue and conversations with onstage companions, how her understanding of the constitution’s impact on women and American identity has evolved. The play peaks with a face-off between Schreck and a real-live NYC high school debater (I saw the brilliant Thursday Williams) before asking each other questions provided by the audience. A moving model of what it looks like to listen deeply to other people’s stories, in a season filled with painful questions, What the Constitution Means to Me was the rare play that softly started to offer answers.

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Confessions of a Drag Legend: Charles Busch on The Confession of Lily Dare

Busch discusses his latest comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s.

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Photo: Carol Rosegg

When we last caught up with Charles Busch almost a decade ago, the playwright, actor, and drag artist was starring in The Divine Sister, a vehicle he created for himself to emulate a Rosalind Russell-like star of Hollywood’s “golden” era playing a mother superior. “There’s actually this marvelous fantasy element to my career, and I’ve been very lucky the way things have worked out,” says the 65-year-old as we chatted once again in his West Village apartment, which is decorated, as he once famously put it, “like an elegant 19th-century whorehouse.” Over the past 35 years, Busch has sustained a unique and idiosyncratic career, every so often creating over-the-top roles for himself and gathering a bunch of his actor friends to put on shows just for the fun of it. On this occasion, the topic of conversation is The Confession of Lily Dare, which began life in 2018 and is now being presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre by Primary Stages.

How would you describe The Confession of Lily Dare in a nutshell?

It’s a comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s. There was this brief period where things were kinda loose and creative—the so-called Pre-Code cinema—before the severe Production Code made many restrictions on morality in American film. There was a bunch of movies—all variations of the same plot—about a young girl led astray, who has an illegitimate baby who she gives up, and then, many years later, the child comes back into her life. And, because she has led this very sexual renegade life, she has to hold on to her great secret, that she never wants the child to know.

Who’s Lily Dare?

A survivor. I’ve always wanted play a role where I went from a young girl to an old crone. In a certain sense, I play four different characters, because she makes some wild transformations from innocent young girl to Marlene Dietrich-type cabaret entertainer to bordello madam to worn-out waterfront saloon singer. I morph using different character voices as she changes personae. I think in some ways it’s a metaphor for what we all go through in real life, as we change and our personalities adapt to our circumstances. I have noticed, as my contemporaries have gotten older, sometimes we become almost parodies of ourselves; we get so much more exaggerated in our idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. What I’m doing as Lily Dare is on a much more stylized level, but I think it has a basic truth to the way we do adapt as we get older.

This show was originally meant for a limited run off-off-Broadway. What changed?

I’ve had this very long relationship, going back to 1981, with Theater for the New City, which is a kind of funky downtown multiplex of a theater on the Lower East Side. Every other year we—that’s me and Carl Andress, the director I’ve worked with for 25 years—make a call to Crystal Field, who runs that theater, and say, “Can you give us a space?” It’s a fun thing to do for a couple of weeks and usually I get it out of my system. We did Lily Dare there a year and a half ago and the audience response to it was so lovely. But, really, more importantly, I wanted to do more. I loved the variety of emotion that it stirred in the audience. With comedy, I like when there’s a roller coaster of tone; it can be very outrageous and bawdy, but then there are genuine moments of tenderness or suspense. I really wanted to test this and, you know, go for big laughs but also see whether a rather jaded, cynical contemporary audience could lose themselves in the tearjerker elements of the story and be genuinely moved. So, when Primary Stages—a theater I’ve had a relationship with, going back to 1994—said it wanted me to be part of their 35th anniversary season, I suggested Lily Dare.

Mother-and-child relationships are central to Die Mommie Die! and The Third Story. Does that have something to do with your losing your mother at an early age?

I’ve always been a sucker for anything about mother love, and it’s a wonderful experience to play my obsessions night after night. I think I can speak for anyone who’s lost a parent. It’s something that marks you and influences probably every aspect of your life, whether it’s personal relationships or, if you’re a creative artist, your work. I write them into the play so I can tap into those emotions endlessly. Thank God for self-pity, because it can be very rewarding! This play, particularly, is all about the search for a mother, the search for a child.

You’ve said before that your plays come about because there’s a role you’d like to play.

Yes, I’d get an idea like “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to be Rosalind Russell in a 1960s nun comedy,” or “wouldn’t it fun to be Norma Shearer in an anti-Nazi war melodrama.” In this case, it was “Wouldn’t it be fun to be Barbara Stanwyck in her early-1930s tearjerkers?” I’ve just been very fortunate that I’m in a position that I can get these fantasies to come true.

The other thing I do, usually after I get my idea for a play and a character that I’d like to do, is write a list of actor friends of mine that I just like to hang out with, and then I try to figure out roles for them within the context of the story. Sometimes I feel like I have my own old-time movie studio and my contract players and I have to figure out new ways of presenting them. I’m so fortunate that I’ve been working with the wonderful Jennifer Van Dyck for quite a few years now. She was a classical actress without a camp bone in her body when I got hold of her. Her range is so marvelous. I can use her in so many different ways; as an elegant lady, sometimes I write old-fashioned trouser roles for her because she has kind of a Katherine Hepburn quality. In my Cleopatra, I think she’s the only actress who’s ever played Octavian and his sister, Octavia. And in Lily Dare, she ranges from playing my bordello madam to my opera singing daughter, a doctor’s wife and a mysterious baroness.

What’s it like writing roles for yourself?

It took me to the age of 19 to figure out I could write roles for myself. It becomes harder as you get older, although, for the most part, I’ve aged into my roles. In the late ‘80s I was playing Norma Shearer in The Lady in Question, who was a great star at the peak of her beauty, let’s say in 1940, and then years later I was playing a mother superior, which would have the part that an actress would have played as she’s approaching her late 50s. It’s always important to me that when I look in the mirror, I look like the character I’m playing. Perhaps what I’m seeing in the mirror isn’t what the audience is seeing. I hope that’s not true! I may be deluding myself, but I’ve never thought that the source of the comedy of my performances was the differential between what my intention is and what the audience’s conception is. I think a big part of camp is that space. There are so many different kinds of drag performers that come from so many different points for view. For me, it was important that I physically looked as close an approximation that I possibly can to an actress from Hollywood’s golden age. In this play, I’m taking a little bit of a detour. I end up there, but I just start off with as a young convent girl of 16. With the help of my wig stylist and costume designers and lighting designer I hope I give some kind of an illusion. I’m telling you this might be the last time that I play somebody quite that young. I’m getting kinda tired being all trussed up in corsets!

Do you rely on your memories of the old movies for your parodies? Did you have to do research for Lily Dare?

I just absorbed it watching all those movies on television. I’ve been doing it since I was eight years old and I think the bulk of my research was done by the age of 12! When I do a new play like Lily Dare, I try to see some of these movies that I haven’t seen, that I know are in the same genre. But I’ve always loved Madame X, which is really the prototype for that kind of movie. It’s not for me to do the spoof of film noir; that’s really for the ordinary folk, you know. I choose obscure movies that nobody could care less about! And, in a way, that’s kind of good because I don’t really approve of something where an audience’s enjoyment is based on their knowledge of the movie. With something like Lily Dare, the assumption is that 99 percent of the audience has never seen Frisco Jenny or The Sin of Madelon Claudet or—they all have similar titles—The Secret of Madame Blanche. It doesn’t matter, you can just enjoy it as a good yarn. And thank God for Google—to be able to look for restaurants in San Francisco that were open before 1906. Because if I’m going to use an anachronism it is very deliberate.

What about the plays that didn’t feature a role for yourself, notably The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife?

I’ve written a number of them and, honestly, it’s frustrated me that my only Broadway play was that. And it’s not for lack of trying. A play of mine that we did at Primary Stages a few years ago, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, got some of the biggest laughs in my career, but critics didn’t really care for it. I don’t know, I sometimes spend useless time in rumination of “Did I make the wrong choice, did I take the wrong path there?” And where is it gonna get you? The thing about my career is that I’ve earned a nice living just by doing exactly what I wanted to do and had fun doing it. And I guess it is too late to start bitching about what might have been.

Is the movie version of Allergist’s Wife still happening?

Oh, that movie project has dragged on. I can’t say it is not going to happen, but there’s certainly no activity at the moment. I have several plays that I’d like to write in different styles—always a million notions for film parodies. There’s an Irish parody that I’ve been intermittently working on, and another autobiographical play that that I’ve done research on. What I do get excited about is being in movies. Some of the most creative experiences in my whole life have been making movies like Die Mommy Die! So, Carl and I have a new idea for a movie that we hope to do next year. It’s a zany contemporary caper movie starring Julie Halston and me, and that we hope to shoot in my apartment!

Is it true you’re writing your memoirs?

Oh, I have been working on it for so many years! The idea was that it will be more memoir than celebrity autobiography, because I’m not that well known. But I think I have a very interesting story. My aunt who raised me was a fascinating figure; I think she’s very much in the tradition of aunt literature from Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly to David Copperfield’s Aunt Betsey Trotwood to Travels with my Aunt and Auntie Mame. And, of course, there are the different worlds that I’ve been a part of—the East Village of the ‘80s—and there’s this story of a young person wanting so desperately to be in the theater and realizing that there’s no was no place for him in a traditional career and having to just invent one. I think I’m rather fearless as a dramatist—I just keep going and nothing seems to stop me—but I’m much more vulnerable as a prose writer. So, it’s dragged out a lot, but finally I think I see the end is near.

Do you think that your work has influenced artists of succeeding generations just as Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatre inspired you?

I guess so. Seeing Charles Ludlum when I was at such an impressionable age, it was cataclysmic the way it changed my perspective of the possibilities of who I could be. And I meet young people who say that I have that effect on them. With this play—Carl was just saying the other night—it was great to see young gay people in our audience who just seem overwhelmed. I think it is a lovely thing—it doesn’t happen too often it seems—that we have a new generation of young gay kids being exposed to the kind of humor and see generations of gay men sitting together and sharing a laugh.

Is there a confession of Charles Busch?

Really, it took me a while to understand that everything you write is personal and that even though it would seem like just a spoof of an old movie genre it is actually very autobiographical, and I’m often the last person to realize it. I think this play is a confession of Charles Busch, maybe you have to look a little deeper.

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Song

Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year.

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Rocketman
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year, as Golden Globe nominees Taylor Swift and Beyoncé failed to score nominations, though the former’s omission sparked heavy sighs of relief among Oscar completists who were dreading to have to watch Cats. Neither did they make room for Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen, whose “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” in Wild Rose was widely regarded among the year’s best movie songs. In short, this is a category that feels more characterized by what’s absent than what’s present.

Ten previous nominations have so far added up to one conspicuously absent win for the indefatigable Diane Warren, whose nomination for Chrissy Metzs inspirational dirge in the very, very Christian Breakthrough calls to mind the nomination that was removed from competition six years ago, for Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel’s contribution to the also very Christian Alone Yet Not Alone. Conversely, the Toy Story series has never been absent once from this category, actually earning Randy Newman one of his two wins here for the third installment’s “We Belong Together.” Cynthia Erivo’s all but absent chances to win in the best actress category wouldn’t be much of a factor here even if the academy felt more overt remorse about #OscarsSoWhite, and so far as power ballads go, we expect the academy’s drama-queen wing to fall into line for Frozen II’s “Let It Go II.”

However, when Elton John won the Oscar 25 years ago for The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” his lifelong songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, was absent from his side, as it was Disney’s top lyricist, Tim Rice, who shared that 1994 award with the pop star. John was canny enough to mention the fact that he and Taupin had never won a competitive award while they accepted the Golden Globe earlier this month for Rocketman’s peppy closing number “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.” In saying so, he turned the act of voting for the song into endorsing a de facto lifetime achievement award for the team.

Will Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman

Could Win: “Into the Unknown,” Frozen II

Should Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman

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Interview: Kantemir Balagov on Avoiding Artistic Stagnation with Beanpole

Balagov’s cinematic verve feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it.

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Kantemir Balagov
Photo: Kino Lorber

The cinematic verve of 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it. His sophomore feature, Beanpole, may have many audacious touches, but the controlled classicism with which he constructs a meticulous physical and emotional landscape defies his age.

Beanpole centers the female home-front experience in post-World War II Leningrad. The film’s vibrant hues belie the dour misery that bonds two friends, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), even closer together in the wake of war’s destruction. The need to bring life, especially in the form of a child, into this bleak landscape animates the two women amid an otherwise debilitatingly austere backdrop. Balagov charts Iya and Masha’s psychological power struggle gently and without ever steering into melodramatic territory, all while maintaining virtuosic control over sound and image.

When sitting across from Balagov prior to his film’s New York Film Festival premiere last October, the incongruity of film and filmmaker seemed even more pronounced. His youthfully unkempt appearance contrasted with both the intelligence of his answers and the methodical nature of his decisions behind the camera. The interview began with Balagov elaborating on how he crafted Beanpole and ended up in a reflective discussion musing about how directors can develop a signature style without succumbing to artistic stagnation.

In your debut feature, Closeness, you introduced your presence to the audience by putting your name in title cards and contextualizing your reasons for making the film. Even though there’s nothing like that in Beanpole, are you still in the film?

Yeah, absolutely. I hope I’m in the film. I try to watch the world with my character’s point of view, their eyes. I’m [as] afraid as Iya and Masha to be alone. That’s kind of my fear and their fears. I try to share my experience with them. For me, they’re real [people], not just characters.

Who do you consider to be the protagonist of this film: Iya, Masha, or both?

I think that even Sasha [Masha’s love interest, played by Igor Shirokov] and the doctor are beanpoles. In Russian, beanpole is about height. But, for me, it’s about clumsiness. The way they are trying to live after the world is a clumsy way. They feel clumsy, and they talk a little bit clumsy. They’re all beanpoles in some way.

You’re working once again with non-professional actresses. Is there a particular effect you’re looking to achieve with their less studied and self-conscious style?

They’re actresses, and they studied while shooting. For me, the most important thing is personality. I don’t need the acting course. I need the personality first of all. Trauma and personality.

Since they hadn’t been in other films before, does that make them more impressionable as performers? Can you shape their performances in a certain way?

I think the lack of film experience didn’t play a big role. In the first moment, we created a human connection rather than a professional one.

Is there any conscious reason in particular why, at least so far, you’ve gravitated toward telling women’s stories?

I try to discover my female side and understand my childhood. I was living with my mother because my parents were divorced. I feel comfortable with them.

It’s impossible to discuss your films without colors, especially blue in Closeness and green—as well as yellow, to a lesser extent—in Beanpole. What’s the process of conceiving those intellectually and then working with your production team to visualize it?

The content of the film shapes the colors. Specifically talking about Beanpole, in reality, the colors were much gloomier. We wanted to pick colors to highlight avoiding their reality—to uplift it.

Is that for the sake of the characters in the film or the audience watching it?

That was made for the emotional impact. I knew what my characters would be. I knew how much suffering there would be, and I didn’t want them to look miserable in the frame. I want them to look decent, so that’s why we tried to create some beautiful frames. Like art frames.

It’s such a stark contrast to post-war films with greys or desaturated colors.

Yeah, from the beginning, it should be like mud. But there are just some things that helped point me to using colors.

Does it come from a feeling you have? Are you a student of color theory?

No, my hobby is photography, and I’m a huge fan of Magnum photos, the agency created by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Robert Capa. In the color photos, there’s some rhythm of the colors. It’s easy to see because a photo is like a freeze frame. I took it and used it in Closeness, and I liked it.

The line “heroes weren’t only on the front lines” feels like such a summation of Beanpole’s mission—revising history to accommodate the substantial contributions of women. Is it meant to echo forward into the present at all?

Frankly speaking, I didn’t intend to make a movie that resonated with today. I started to think about it in 2015, and it’s important to remember that the events of 2015 might not be expressed in this in 2019. My goal was not to make something that reflected today’s events.

The press notes point out there’s no imagery of Stalin or communism at all in Beanpole. What was the rationale behind that—to make the story more universal?

Cinema, for me, is a tool of immortality. I think those people don’t deserve immortality, in my view.

It makes the film feel not necessarily universal, but it’s not quite so bound to specifics of the time. It’s applicable beyond the immediate context.

Yeah, I think so. We didn’t want to hitch it to a certain period. We wanted to create a universal story.

What’s the effect of all your meticulous historical research on the set? It strikes me that it has as much to do with having an impact on the performers as it does the audience.

I think those meticulous things we included in the film affected the body language, for example. It helped the actors achieve a specific tone, voice, and gesture. The way people moved back then is very different from the body language we have today.

How so?

People were exhausted by the war. They moved slowly. When I was researching, I watched some footage from those times. In some way, we have some common things [with that time period]. But they talk differently. The intonation in the voice seems very fragile—one touch and it’s going to break.

You’ve frequently referred back to the advice of your mentor Alexander Sokurov. Now that you’ve made two films of your own, are there any areas where you’ve gone your own way or found your own wisdom?

As an auteur, I want to be independent. But as a human being, I feel a connection with him. I really appreciate it.

In recent interviews, you’ve said that you feel like you’re still searching for your style. What does the end result of that search look like for you? A single, identifiable aesthetic or a more intangible voice?

It’s hard to describe. It’s you who will decide.

Don’t put that pressure on me!

I was so curious, I asked Sokurov when I was studying what’s the difference between stagnation and an author’s signature. He said to me that you should find it on your own, I don’t have the answer for you.

I get the sense that artists tend to look for stories that inspire you, and you all don’t think of necessarily envision a linear career path in the same way that journalists do. Scorsese, for example, makes so many different kinds of films, but you can always tell that he made them.

That’s why I was curious about the difference between style and stagnation. I really admire many contemporary directors, but so many of their works are stagnant. I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid that my third film will be a sign of stagnation.

So variation is what you hope for?

Yeah, I would like to make an animated movie. I’m really curious about games. I would like to direct a game. I’d like to make a film from a game, like The Last of Us. I’m open to it.

Translation by Sasha Korbut

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

The Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category.

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1917
Photo: Universal Pictures

We’re sorry. Last week, Eric and I agreed that he could blow my lead here by saying that we were going to bet on Ford v. Ferrari to take both sound awards. Part of our logic was that the sound awards split more times than not, and opting for the same film in both categories would guarantee that we’d at least get one of those categories correct. But seemingly every day of this accelerated awards season hasn’t only increasingly solidified 1917’s frontrunner status for best picture, but also pointed to the possibility of it lapping up almost as many Oscars as Slumdog Millionaire, so we’re doing some course correcting.

Last night, the Cinema Audio Society, which has accurately predicted the winner in this category 14 out of 26 times, awarded its prize for achievement in sound mixing to Ford v. Ferrari. And that 1917 wasn’t even nominated for that award makes Ford v. Ferrari a relatively safe bet here. (Only one other film, Whiplash, has won the Oscar here after failing to be nominated for sound mixing at the Cinema Audio Society since the guild’s inception in 1994.)

But we’re going to take it as a sign of things to come that Ford v. Ferrari and 1917 split the top sound awards at the recent MPSE Golden Reel Awards, suggesting that the latter’s lack of a CAS nomination may have been a fluke, possibly a result of it entering the awards race so late in the season. Also, the Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category, especially those with more than a realistic chance of snagging the top prize, so we’re giving the edge here to Sam Mendes’s war horse, which will be lapping James Mangold’s racing drama at the box office in a matter of days.

Will Win: 1917

Could Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Should Win: Ad Astra

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.

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Joaquin Phoenix
Photo: Warner Bros.

We’ve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say we’re already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (we’ve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.

Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And it’s a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting Renée Zellweger at the beginning of this year’s marathon: “There’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals.”

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, who’s going to win the Oscar, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, he’s up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.

Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. He’d have the award even if he wasn’t playing Joker’s real-life version of Donald Trump.

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story

Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short

Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.

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Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Photo: Grain Media

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

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

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