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How the Next Oscars Could Mirror 1997

As I muse about the Oscar race this season, one that has been considerably derailed because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I start having flashbacks to the 69th Academy Awards held in 1997. That was when, for the first time, the majority of the then-five Best Picture nominees were lower-budget indie films.

The lone contender from a major studio? Cameron Crowe’s “Jerry Maguire,” a TriStar Pictures 1996 release starring Tom Cruise as a sports agent who goes rogue after having an epiphany about the dishonesty involved in his chosen career. He convinces Cuba Gooding Jr.’s wide receiver to sign up with him as the football player chants on a phone call, “Show me the money.” While the film claimed five spots on the ballot, only Gooding claimed a trophy.

Its four competitors in the Best Picture race, meanwhile, were all lower-budget arthouse titles. Given that the year’s biggest blockbuster was the sci-fi thriller “Independence Day,” which grossed $300 billion- plus domestically, it was a no-brainer that pundits covering the race would use the phrase “Independents Day” to define how many of the nominees were from small distributors and not major studios. 

Of course, Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax Films was on top of the heap with “The English Patient,” a David Lean-like wartime romance directed by Anthony Minghella that boasted the most nominations with 12. Besides becoming the first Miramax title to win the top Oscar prize, it also claimed nine other statuettes, including an unexpected supporting actress win for Juliette Binoche. Many thought that old-school Hollywood movie star Lauren Bacall, who was overlooked by Oscar previously for her acting, had it in the bag as Barbra Streisand’s mother in “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” but it was not to be.

Two other options up for Best Picture also claimed prizes. The Coen brothers’ “Fargo,” released by Gramercy Pictures, won Best Original Screenplay as well as Best Actress for Frances McDormand as pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson. “Shine” from Fine Line Features tells the story of David Helfgott, an Australian concert pianist whose years of abuse as a child haunts him as an adult. Geoffrey Rush’s performance earned him a Best Actor Oscar, the biopic’s lone trophy out of seven chances.

As for “Secrets & Lies,” none of its five slots on the ballot translated into a win. But the success of the October Films release at awards time put British director Mike Leigh and his cast on the map.

By now you are probably asking yourself, what this has to do with 93rd Academy Awards that are delayed until April 25, the latest date ever since the show was first broadcast on TV in 1953. The move was made to allow films that had to shut down production because of COVID-19 to complete their shooting if possible by extending the eligibility period. For the first time since Oscar’s infancy, the window for films now spans two calendar years. Movies released in 2020 or the first two months of 2021 will be able to compete.

However, Christopher Nolan’s tent-pole sci-fi thriller “Tenet” was used as a test to see if moviegoers would possibly risk their well-being when it opened in U.S. theaters on Sept. 3. It managed to gross $334 million worldwide. That might sound like a lot, but consider the director’s last effort, the 2017 war epic “Dunkirk,” took in $526 million around the globe, making it the most successful World War II film ever, it came off as a disappointment.

Suddenly, studios with pricey titles were rethinking their plans about some likely awards contenders while shelving them until after the 2021 Oscar season. Such highly anticipated big-budget crowd pleasers as Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel,” John Krasinski's “A Quiet Place Part II” and Daniel Craig’s last appearance as 007, “No Time to Die,” have all been shelved until later next year. The hope is that the pandemic will subside, multiplexes will be safe, and these films will compete in the 2022 race.


That means that smaller movies now have an edge in the race. Looking at the combined odds of the more than 2,000 readers making early predictions about the Academy Awards on the Gold Derby awards site, arthouse contenders that premiered at festivals include Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” which got an early boost by winning the Golden Lion at Venice as well as the coveted People’s Choice Award in Toronto. The story about senior citizens who live in RVs after the 2008 recession while working at odd jobs is for now the one to beat. It will be released in theaters on December 4, 2020. 

Similarly, Regina King—an Oscar-winning supporting actress who won for 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk”—was able to show her directing debut “One Night in Miami” in Venice to great acclaim. Even better, King was the first Black female director to ever have a movie selected in the fest’s history. It will stream on Prime Video on January 15, 2021.

The best news, however, in terms of diversity Oscar-wise? After last year’s snub of Greta Gerwig’s direction of her Best Picture nominee “Little Women” and Lulu Wang’s overlooked “The Farewell,” Zhao and King seem destined to become just the sixth and seventh female directors to compete in that category—and it’s about freaking time.

Meanwhile, Netflix is going overboard this year with streaming contenders, starting with Spike Lee’s Vietnam War reunion, “Da 5 Bloods,” which landed on the site in mid-June. Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” showed up online on October 16. But the most anticipated arrival on the site is “Mank,” David Fincher’s first feature film since 2014’s “Gone Girl.” The just-released trailer that focuses on Herman J. Mankiewicz, an alcoholic screenwriter who struggles to complete his script for 1941’s “Citizen Kane,” is a black-and-white stunner. Gary Oldman might just pick up another Best Actor trophy for his work here after winning for his performance as Winston Churchill in 2017’s “Darkest Hour.” "Mank" will be available online on December 4.

Also in the running is Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World,” starring Tom Hanks in his first Western as an Army veteran and widower who escorts a young German girl back to her family in Central Texas. Strangely enough, Universal Pictures seems set on showing the movie in physical theaters. What with COVID-19 continuing to spike, let’s see if it eventually goes virtual.

Netflix also has “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” based on August Wilson’s play and starring Viola Davis as the legendary blues singer. She could become just the second Black lead actress to snatch an Oscar after Halle Berry’s historic for her performance in 2002’s "Monster’s Ball." Sadly, it is also the final movie made by the late Chadwick Boseman. It lands on December 18.

Also going the Netflix route is Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” based on a memoir by J.D. Vance that focuses on the Appalachian values of his upbringing and the societal woes of his hometown. Oscarologists are hoping that the film’s pair of highly overdue actresses finally gets the gold. Glenn Close, whose seven nominations with no wins qualifies her as the biggest loser among actresses, might finally be honored for her supporting grandmother role. As for Amy Adams, who plays her addicted daughter, she has collected six nominations and no wins. As a lead, her category is much more competitive. We will see when the film drops on Netflix on November 24, just in time for Thanksgiving.

While most movie mavens would rather see such films on the big screen, there is definitely an uptick in diversity, both racially and gender-wise, this awards season. 


Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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