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The Awardist: Why movies about movies could shape this year's Oscar race

Welcome to EW's The Awardist: a new weekly column offering (very!) early and in-depth analysis of the 2020 awards season.
August 26, 2019 at 11:00 AM EDT

It might be the most well-worn of the awards-season narratives: that Hollywood — the most narcissistic of beasts — loves movies about itself. That they’ll pat themselves on the back (via the Oscar ballot) whenever they get the chance. And given that films are of inherent interest to, well, filmmakers, the subgenre always yields a healthy number of options. Yet neither Singin’ in the Rain, nor A Star Is Born, nor Sunset Blvd., nor more recent examples like The Aviator and L.A. Confidential won the industry’s biggest prize. None in this particular field had, in fact, until Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist: a black-and-white silent movie released in 2011.

The Artist so thoroughly steeped audiences in movie-magic nostalgia that it cruised to victory, despite its less-than-commercial elements. It set off a sort of movement: After an 84-year-drought, three Best Picture winners in a four-year stretch (from 2012-2015) were movies about movies. The champs to follow The Artist were similarly tough sells: Argo, which won despite (or perhaps because of) Ben Affleck’s Best Director nomination snub, and Birdman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s experimental and polarizing black comedy. The conventional wisdom at last had the data to back it up. It’s why La La Land was 2017’s shoo-in — until, of course, it wasn’t, after it’d already (mistakenly, bizarrely, infamously) been declared the winner.

This story’s got a messy past, in other words. But that doesn’t change the fact that the upcoming awards season features a big chunk of prestige movie-centric movies. Earlier this summer, Quentin Tarantino got the ball rolling with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, a sure-fired contender. OUATIH is a rich, lush period piece immersed in Los Angeles circa 1969; everyone from Steve McQueen to Roman Polanski to (controversially) Bruce Lee appears, as does Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) in a larger role. But this fictionalized story principally follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading TV actor, and his stunt-double and hangout buddy, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). With critical raves and strong box office headed into the fall, the film is an early top Oscar player across the board. Then there’s the intrigue of Tarantino announcing he’s (almost) done directing, and of Pitt delivering a career-best performance in a role that’s, if not quite as meta as Michael Keaton’s in Birdman, still plenty galvanizing. (He appears likely to run in supporting.) Plus, despite Tarantino’s well-documented and intense passion for film history, OUATIH marks his first movie to centrally focus on Hollywood; it’s made with a special, palpable degree of affection. This all adds up to not just a worthy entrant in the subgenre, but one riding the sort of juicy inside-baseball narratives that make for major prizefighters.

DiCaprio is a strong contender in Best Actor, too, and he might go up against a few other actors playing showbusiness guys. On the (meta) fictional front, there’s Antonio Banderas, still awaiting his first Oscar nomination; he stars in Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (out Oct. 4) as a version of the director, meditating on his love for film, his coming into his queerness, and his relationship to his mother as he struggles through aging and depression. The whole piece is an ode to cinema, but particularly Banderas’ performance, which captures the obsessions, nuances, and singular talents of a born filmmaker. Sure, it’s a Spanish movie, but those who know and appreciate the craft of moviemaking — see: the entire Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — should find themselves deeply moved by this tribute to the art.

Manolo Pavón/Sony Pictures Classics

As for biographical work, Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore, the comic-musician-Blaxploitation star, in Dolemite Is My Name (out later this year). Moore is more cult icon than historical giant — than, say, Freddie Mercury or Winston Churchill, men portrayed to Oscar-winning effect by Rami Malek and Gary Oldman, respectively, the last two cycles — but his is a distinctive, uniquely Hollywood persona to take on. It doesn’t hurt that he’s poised to facilitate a big movie comeback for Murphy, who all but disappeared from dramatic film after losing his Oscar bid for Dreamgirls in 2007. He’s got writers experienced in this arena, too: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the scribes behind Ed Wood, for which Martin Landau won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1995 (he starred as horror movie actor Bela Lugosi).

But at least Murphy’s been nominated more recently than Renée Zellweger — last recognized when she won Best Supporting Actress in 2004 for Cold Mountain — who’s poised for a similarly grand return to royalty with Judy (out Sept. 27). The trailer for the Judy Garland biopic alone made waves, catapulting Zellweger to the front of the (very premature) Best Actress conversation. The film is set in the late ’60s (just like OUATIH), near the end of Garland’s life. Portrayals of late, great actresses don’t tend to translate to taking home the gold — Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice and Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn being two notable exceptions — even as voters love a career renaissance. But remember: Garland’s only Oscar nomination for Best Actress came via the 1954 A Star Is Born, wherein she played a fictional Oscar winner. Zellweger seeing that narrative through feels like justice — in the most Hollywood sense of the word.

Related content:

The full 2019 Toronto International Film Festival lineup
Oscars 2020: Us, Toy Story 4, Quentin Tarantino, more early contenders of the year so far

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