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Reading the tea leaves on an unpredictable Oscar race

The 2017 Academy Awards take place on March 4.
The 2017 Academy Awards take place on March 4.

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With the 90th annual Academy Awards show happening on March 4, predictions are coming from all corners.

Over the years, critics have nearly perfected the science of Oscar forecasting, taking into account recurring trends from prior ceremonies in addition to other awards show results. This year, anticipation extends beyond the simple question of who will take home a statue.

Over the past several months, the #MeToo and #Time'sUp movements have swept Hollywood — and awards shows are in the hot seat of the conversation. With the politicization of this year's ceremonies, such as the Golden Globes, the bar has been set pretty high for how the Oscars will tackle the film industry's representation problem. Considering how eclectic this year's nominee pool is, the suspense is high.

Our host John Horn sat down to chat with Slate's Aisha Harris and Vulture's Kyle Buchanan about their opinions on this year's nominee pool and how they predict the ceremony will resonate with audiences. 

Interview Highlights

Kyle Buchanan: I really am into the nominees. I'm into how eclectic they are, how many of them are the product of writer/director, so they really reflect a unique vision. I'm into, as an Oscar pundit, the fact that we really don't know what's going to win. It seems like the most wide open race I can recall. I think a lot of that has to do with not just the movies, but the fact that the Academy has been leading this two-year push to diversify its membership. You have to wonder, are we going to see the results of that younger, ostensibly hipper voting block this year?

Predictions for how the #MeToo conversation will manifest at this year's ceremony:

Aisha Harris: I don't know if anything will be ultimately satisfying, because I think it goes beyond the sort of sign posting and signaling at an awards show. I think we need to move beyond that point. But I will be pleased if we see not just women, but also men taking the lead. I do think there's something to be said for letting women be vocal and wear all black, carrying the torch and leading the way. But I would love to see some of the men stepping in there and pointing out that they are there with them as well and they are going to support them. 

KB: If you really want, in a nutshell, to see how much the industry has changed within the last year, look no further than the fact that Casey Affleck won the Best Actor Oscar last year and this year is conspicuously not presenting the Best Actress Oscar as is the custom. The mood around sexual misconduct in Hollywood has changed, I hope permanently. 

On which public statements will resonate meaningfully with viewers: 

KB: One of the live-action shorts that's in contention is a short called "Elementary," which is about a school shooting. That's a pretty strong category this year, but I think it's going to end up having the edge over the other nominees, surely by dint of the moment that we're in. I often think that when Oscar voters vote, they're thinking about the quality of the performance, the context of the world. They're also thinking, Who do I want to get up there and make a speech? And I think you'd want those people to make that speech right now. 

AH: I wonder if the sort of bigger categories will lend themselves to those types of moments. I do think that, as Kyle says, we tend to see those very heartfelt and very meaningful speeches happen when it's the less highly-publicized awards. For the Best Foreign Film language category, if something like "A Fantastic Woman" winds up winning, which is ... about a trans woman, and the fact that it's not even about, per se, their transition, — seeing someone like that win and what they have to say would be especially meaningful. Because that movie is so meaningful. And I think that especially since we don't usually see actual trans people playing trans roles, I think that'll be very important. 

Best Picture predictions:

KB: In the case of "Shape of Water," the really big stat it will be defying is that [for the] Screen Actors Guild, 'Shape of Water' did not get a cast nomination. The last movie to win Best Picture without getting a [SAG] cast nomination was "Braveheart." Last year, "La La Land" didn't get that cast nomination either and we all scratched our heads. But that might have been one of the signs that the support was not quite as broad as people thought. "Three Billboards" is a big favorite of the actors. Actors are the biggest branch of the Academy and I think that they will go for that movie despite the fact that it did not land a best director nomination.

AH: I think it'll be "Three Billboards." The other thing that "Shape of Water" would actually be defying is that it would be the first sci-fi movie to ever win best picture. It's very rare that science fiction movies even get nominated. In the last couple years, there's been "Arrival," and also "The Martian," but they never seem to take that top spot. I think "Three Billboards" is actually going to be the one that takes it and I will be very upset, but I'll deal with it. I don't think time will be good to "Three Billboards." That's all I'll say. 

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