Can Little Women make an Oscars comeback?


Oscar voting has officially begun in what's the most compressed awards season in recent memory. And with that comes a more accelerated focus on momentum — who's up, who's down, and who's in that sweet spot as Academy members start checking off their ballots.

A state of the race, if you will, at this critical point: In Best Picture, out of a likely eight-to-nine nominees, six feel fairly secure: The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Parasite, 1917, Marriage Story, and Jojo Rabbit. Each of these movies has been a major presence on the precursor circuit, showing up virtually everywhere they need to, and in many cases already winning top prizes. (Marriage Story at the Gothams, The Irishman with NYFCC, etc.) Their showings have been so consistently strong that even would-be setbacks to making the cut — Parasite being foreign-language, Jojo Rabbit receiving such a mixed critical response — seem more than manageable.

The movies fighting for those last few slots offer obvious strengths and weaknesses. According to voters EW has spoken with, Joker, a powerhouse with the Golden Globes and strong guild player, is not well-liked by a good chunk of the constituency; Ford v Ferrari is broadly liked but passion is lacking. The Farewell and Uncut Gems may be too small or niche; Knives Out and Bombshell could lean too commercial. And then there's Little Women — a movie that has underperformed thus far, but that may best benefit from this tightened voting period.

Every few years, there's a movie that defies the guild-determined conventional wisdom and breaks out with far more nominations than what the tea leaves would suggest. In 2018, it was Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, scoring Best Picture and Director nods among many others, despite not getting much of anything beforehand. In 2015, American Sniper did the same after getting totally snubbed by both SAG and the Golden Globes; the year before that, The Wolf of Wall Street received a much larger embrace (Jonah Hill!) than guilds indicated. The reason for these last-minute surges? Huge box office numbers certainly helped American Sniper. And a rather intense wave of critical praise propelled Phantom Thread to a breakthrough no one saw coming.

This year, Little Women is the best candidate for late-breaking success. After being completely passed over by SAG, which has overlap with the Academy, and underperforming at the Globes, which has none, the film's hopes for major Oscar noms dimmed. This, in spite of an aggressive marketing push from Sony and strong initial reviews. The movie then emerged as a cause, of a sort: In a (typically) male-dominated year, it stood out that the year's brightest female-led awards hope was getting overlooked. Greta Gerwig not receiving a Globe nod for directing meant that the HFPA's lineup was entirely male. (This also happened two years earlier, notably, before Gerwig went on to score the equivalent nomination at the Oscars for Lady Bird.) And reports surfacing of male awards voters not taking Little Women seriously — in some cases, declining to even watch it — only increased the sense of injustice.

And yet few, if any, Oscar hopefuls had as promising a holiday week — crucially, the week just before voting started — as Little Women. The film significantly outperformed expectations as a box-office hit, clearing $40 million domestically by New Year's Day. The critical response has been fantastic, topping 90 on Metacritic ("Universal Acclaim") and steadying at a sterling 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. And the press from Sony hasn't let up. That combination of factors — especially given the film's below-the-line appeal — would ordinarily translate to a very healthy nominations haul.

It's true that the movie wasn't to the HFPA's taste; this can matter more in some instances than others. (Remember, they were the first group to obsess over Bohemian Rhapsody.) It's possible not enough SAG members saw the movie in time, given how early voting began; but its screening timetable was roughly equal to Bombshell's, which fared very well with the actors' guild. Further, one of the most predictive groups when it comes to the Oscars, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, showered Little Women with more love than almost any other film. The math here, it's safe to say, is murky, as it so often is during awards season. The movie could nab anything from a handful of nominations to, perhaps, double digits; no other contender, at this point, presents such a range.

Little Women caps a year in which many acclaimed films directed by women — The Farewell, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Hustlers, and Queen and Slim to name a few — gradually disappeared from the conversation outside of their acting contenders, while the predominantly male Irishman and Once Upon a Time appear primed to duke it out for Best Picture. Gerwig is our most recent female nominee for the Best Director Oscar; if nominated this year, she'll become the first-ever two-time nominee. The sense of stalled, or slow, progress is palpable.

And so Little Women has been thrust to the center of a larger issue. It's never fair for a single movie to take on that kind of meaning and become a barometer for the industry's failings and biases. And it also may miss the point when it comes to an adaptation like Little Women, whose historical significance is much greater than any Hollywood snub. But there's power in a moment like this, too. Major newspapers including The Washington Post and The New York Times have published op-eds over the past few days addressing men who are "afraid" of watching the movie, and consequently, are marginalizing women's stories. It's too soon (and maybe too hard) to say whether all this attention will have any effect, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — white and male as it still may be, even as that's starting to change — is hardly a perfect symbol for a larger cultural problem. As voting gets underway and each campaign revs into its final phase, however, the Academy will have a story to tell, and — whether promising or dismaying, whether diverse or not — it will be listened to. What will they have to say?