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Oscar Prospects: Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the Black-History Epic That Should Be Hogging the Buzz

The Butler is likely to crack the Best Picture lineup, even if claiming the big prize is all but impossible.

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Oscar Prospects: Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the Black-History Epic That Should Be Hogging the Buzz

Time will tell if Academy members’ reported trepidation about 12 Years a Slave will actually impact the movie’s awards momentum, but at the moment, Steve McQueen’s keenly-lensed horror show seems unstoppable in its march to Oscar anointment, and to being crowned the best achievement in a standout year for black cinema. While it’s terribly embarrassing that members of Hollywood’s top voting body would shun any major contender, and still consider themselves worthy of casting legitimate votes, it remains interesting that, of 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 2013’s two key black-history epics, the latter, ostensibly much more Academy-friendly, has landed on the bottom. Upon seeing its trailer, folks I know griped that The Butler seemed too Oscar-baity—the Forrest Gump of the Civil Rights Movement. 12 Years a Slave, on the other hand, seemed the more vanguard selection—a fearless look at the barbaric slavery era from a filmmaker with art-instillation proclivities. In the end, despite those shameful fears of seeing black flesh whipped with bracing realism, McQueen’s film and Daniels’ film have curiously switched places, as the former is in fact a safe Academy pick whose outward prestige masks a hollow heart, while the latter is an idiosyncratic soul-stirrer whose personality transcends its standard structure.

Given that it will still have many supporters, and that it’s done tremendously well at the box-office thanks to a unique, immediate mainstream release from The Weinstein Company, The Butler is likely to crack the Best Picture lineup, even if claiming the big prize is all but impossible. Its madly impassioned maestro, whose unflinching depictions of more modern atrocities have been criminally overshadowed by McQueen’s long takes of torture (or is it torturous long takes?), has become one helluva a long shot for Best Director, even though The Butler is twice the film Precious was. The movie isn’t likely to gain attention for Cinematography, as Daniels’ textural tendencies are a bit too slipshod in DP Andrew Dunn’s hands this time (Dunn also shot Precious). But given that the film spans decades while telling parallel stories, and often intercuts the silent servitude of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) with the radicalism of his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), Brian A. Kates and Joe Klotz might see their Film Editing rewarded with a nod.

Anyone who’s seen The Butler likely remembers the warmly ridiculous Halloween scene wherein Cecil and wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) dress in matching, wonderfully tacky Soul Train jumpsuits. That scene may, oddly enough, help secure a Costume Design nod for the movie, which is also defined by the symbolic, social-class-determining, black-and-white butler tuxes. In addition, the amount of old-age prosthetics eventually applied to Whitaker and Winfrey—not to mention the parade of actors playing shrewdly characterized, just-shy-of-cartoonish American presidents—should easily put The Butler in line for a Makeup nomination. After all, if Hitchcock can be recognized in this category, and The Iron Lady can win, then The Butler surely deserves to be in contention.

The movie’s cast will produce one definite and one possible acting nominee. Buzz for Winfrey’s exquisite turn as a desperate housewife grappling with familial strife hasn’t faded a bit since The Butler’s release, even if her competition has heated up considerably. Winfrey may not win the Supporting Actress race, but she’ll certainly square off against such probable candidates as 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o, American Hustle’s Jennifer Lawrence, and Nebraska’s June Squibb, each of whom have very plausible chances of coming out victorious. What’s remarkable about Winfrey is her disappearing act—perhaps the most famous woman on Earth, she fits perfectly into the tapestry of Daniels’s world, never glaringly standing out as the queen of all media in ‘60s garb. Meanwhile, her chief co-star and on-screen husband gives a performance that, in virtually every way, is on par with that of 12 Years’s Chiwetel Ejiofor, who will undoubtedly beat him to the finish line. Whitaker’s work has been dismissed as cypher-ish, but Cecil is no less a representative vessel than Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup, channeling the vast burden of a people as a servile, undervalued human. What’s more, while Ejiofor may have the slight edge over Whitaker when it comes to anguished facial expressions, Cecil’s inner life, and his life outside his daily grind of humiliation, is better realized than Solomon’s.

In a perfect world, The Butler would be competing, and perhaps triumphing, against 12 Years in a lot of the same categories. But, then, in a perfect world, we would have seen films like these—by black artists, about black experiences—vying for Oscars years ago.

Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actress, Oprah Winfrey; Best Costume Design; Best Makeup.

Possibilities: Best Director, Lee Daniels; Best Actor, Forest Whitaker; Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Original Song.

Shouldn’t be Overlooked: Best Supporting Actor, David Oyelowo.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:

Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that seems like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)

We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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