The Academy Awards ceremony is this weekend and while the votes are in, many of the races still seem too tight to predict. The Power of the Dog from Netflix looks poised to potentially take home best picture, while Jane Campion, its writer and director, could very well snag a win for best director. Of course, there are plenty of other films and directors hoping to pull an upset. Belfast and CODA have been getting lots of buzz, and Campion is up against Belfast director Kenneth Branaugh, along with Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi in the starry directing field.
While artistic merit rightly plays a huge part in determining a winner, there are other factors that can make or break an individual’s candidacy. There are about 9,500 eligible members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who vote for the Oscars, all industry professionals. When picking the winners, those voters tend to factor in box-office success, public discussion and studio-funded hype along with their own personal preferences. Judging artistic excellence is highly subjective, and studios spend large sums of money on Oscar campaigns in the hopes of swaying as many voters as possible.
Unfortunately, only one person can grab the statue, which often means that a truly outstanding performance will fail to take home the prize. As a professional actor and SAG Award voter, I spend a lot of time poring over films, and I’ve seen every nominated movie this year. The field includes some amazing performances, but it’s unlikely that many of my favorites will win. I’ve broken down all of the acting categories, plus best picture and best director, to tell you which performances I think should win, but probably won’t.
Best picture: West Side Story
Few movie remakes outshine the original, especially when the original is considered an all-time great. But Steven Spielberg has managed to do just that by updating his source material, while paying homage to the beloved Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins–helmed musical. At last, we have a West Side Story that features African American and Latino actors. They converse and sing in a mix of Spanish and English, which gives Spielberg’s film a sense of authenticity and depth that was sorely lacking from the 1961 original.
Spielberg’s West Side Story is also a visual delight. Dance numbers leap from the screen while the vibrant costumes and sweeping cinematography make it an ideal homage to big budget musicals of the past. It’s a film that should be seen in theaters, but failed to find its audience when it was released in December. Covid undoubtedly played a part in its low box office numbers, which in turn might have affected its Oscar chances. At this point, it’s pretty much an afterthought in the Best Picture race. Rachel Zegler, who played Maria, couldn’t even get a seat at the ceremony until she shared her plight on social media. The Academy is now bringing her on as presenter, but the whole incident illustrates how little of an impact the movie’s made on the race.
Other Nominees: Belfast, CODA, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog
Best directing: Steven Spielberg (West Side Story)
Spielberg had never done a musical before taking on West Side Story in 2021, yet you’d never know it from the impressive finished product. Few directors are as successful and decorated as Spielberg, and yet West Side Story could be one of his most impressive feats. His eye for light and contrast made some of the dance numbers visually pop in fun and unexpected ways. In “Cool,” characters fight on a rickety dock as the sun beams and the camera swoops, creating a tense cinematic moment told inventively through dance and song. It’s a moment that propels the plot forward while providing ample proof that Spielberg has mastered the art of musical storytelling in film. While Jane Campion looks to be the frontrunner in this category, I found Spielberg’s work to be the most impressive.
Other Nominees: Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza), Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car)
Actor in a leading role: Andrew Garfield (Tick, Tick … Boom!)
Musicals require actors to utilize three main skills: acting, singing and dancing. Actors who succeed at all three are called “triple threats.” Most people already knew that Andrew Garfield could act, but few had any idea that could sing and dance as well. In fact, Garfield was not much of a singer at all before he took on the role of Jonathan Larson, the real-life writer and composer of the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Rent, in the movie Tick, Tick…Boom! Larson died suddenly on the eve of the first performance of Rent and Tick, Tick…Boom, which is directed by Lin Manuel Miranda, is adapted from Larson’s autobiographical one-man show. Not only did Garfield learn how to sing for the role, but he also dances and manages to perfectly embody Larson’s quirky exuberance and indomitable spirit. His passionate and impressive performance required a wider range of skills than those of frontrunners Will Smith and Benedict Cumberbatch, making it my pick as the best of the year.
Other Nominees: Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Will Smith (King Richard), Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth)
Actress in a leading role: Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye)
Jessica Chastain had a truly remarkable 2021. Her work with Oscar Isaac in the HBO miniseries Scenes From a Marriage, where she played a wife leaving her husband, was a masterclass in subtlety and vulnerability. A few months later, audiences saw her again in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, in a role that was completely different from anything we’ve ever seen from her before. Chastain inhabits the real-life televangelist with a bubbly fierceness and deep resolve that anchors the film and gives it both humor and emotional resonance. She so thoroughly embodied Tammy Faye that it was almost impossible to believe that this was the same actor who battled Oscar Isaac toe-to-toe in Scenes From a Marriage. Makeup and costumes play a role in any physical transformation, but Chastain’s use of voice and mannerisms gives her Tammy Faye a nuance and believability that would be impressive under any circumstances. Chastain won the SAG Award in this category, but faces tough competition from Nicole Kidman and Olivia Colman for the Oscar. I hope she pulls out the win for a much deserving performance.
Other Nominees: Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter), Penélope Cruz (Parallel Mothers), Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Kristen Stewart (Spencer)
Actor in a supporting role: Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog)
Sometimes it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. The Power of the Dog has two nominees in this category: Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Usually when a category features multiple actors from the same film, neither of them will win because they’ll split the vote and cancel each other out. It’s possible that Kodi Smit-McPhee bucks that trend this year, but either way it’s likely that Jesse Plemons will be left in the dust. Plemons’ steady and kind George Burbank acts as the subtle emotional center of the film, while operating as the perfect foil to Benedict Cumberbatch’s volatile Phil. It’s not a flashy performance, but it is a deep one and cements Plemons’ place among the elite actors of his generation.
Other Nominees: Ciarán Hinds (Belfast), Troy Kotsur (CODA), J.K. Simmons (Being the Ricardos), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog)
Actress in a supporting role: Ariana DeBose (West Side Story)
Ariana DeBose’s feisty and defiant Anita is a powerful display of a musical theater actor at her peak. She sings beautifully, dances with skill and passion, and acts with power and vulnerability. Her Anita serves as the heart and soul of the film. Tony and Maria may be the two doomed lovers, but it’s Anita’s disquieting journey that lends West Side Story its emotional heft. The role won Rita Moreno an Oscar for the original film, and it looks like DeBose is poised to follow in her footsteps. She has already picked up a SAG award, a Golden Globe and a Bafta for her work, hopefully an Oscar isn’t far behind.
Other Nominees: Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter), Judi Dench (Belfast), Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog), Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard)