Oscars 2019: From Rami Malek's Bohemian Rhapsody to Olivia Colman in The Favourite, here's what you can expect

It’s anybody’s guess who the winners will be, and till the evening begins, we will  debate the choices, their strengths and weaknesses...

author_img Sudhir Srinivasan Published :  22nd February 2019 06:00 AM   |   Published :   |  22nd February 2019 06:00 AM

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody

The weeks leading up to the Academy Awards evening haven’t exactly been without furore. Well, have they, ever? Usually though, any loud disagreements concern films and film professionals who have been snubbed for nominations. The clamour this year concerned one — comedian Kevin Hart — who had been chosen to host the 91st Academy Awards, that’s now almost upon us. Following the untimely resurfacing of some old tweets of his that reeked of homophobia, he was asked to apologise or else, and given that his immediate response was to refuse to issue an unconditional apology, he clearly seems to have chosen ‘or else’.

Meanwhile, the Academy had begun pursuing some ill-advised plans. One concerned the introduction of a ‘popular film’ category, as though we don’t have enough of ‘popularity’ trumping ‘quality’ in this age of RTs and shares. Thankfully, sense prevailed, and it’s since been abandoned. The other plan — of four award categories (editing and cinematography included) not being televised — provoked outrage from even within Hollywood, as directors like Alfonso Cuaron (whose Roma has secured 10 nominations this time) and Guillermo Del Toro (whose film, The Shape of Water, won the coveted Best Picture award last year) proceeded, with their tweets, to show how dull this decision was. Thankfully, The Academy listened again, and has since abandoned this plan too. 

And now, finally, any pandemonium emerges only from debates surrounding individual picks for winners under the various categories. Can The Favourite somehow usurp Roma’s Best Picture throne? Or perhaps the Green Book, which explores racist themes, will emerge an unlikely winner? It has after all won itself a Golden Globe already. Will the nomination of Glenn Close (The Wife) survive the threat posed by Olivia Colman (The Favourite)? Will Mahershala Ali double his Oscar tally this year (he won his first two years ago for his splendid cameo in Moonlight), or will Richard Grant’s smooth, sensitive 
portrayal of a charming conman in Can You Ever Forgive Me spring a surprise? The world will be abuzz with such conversations, this week, with news publications making their respective cases. This piece too is one such.

Some award categories inspire no debate. They are almost boringly straightforward. Take the Music (Best Original Song) category, for instance. We may as well start tweeting congratulatory messages to Lady Gaga for Shallow (A Star is Born) winning this one. Shot in front of a live audience, the song is a defining moment in the film, and serves as a capsule of the film’s very philosophy. Take a close look at these lines: Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us, We are far from the shallow now.
It’s a lyrical meditation on what life under the glare of spotlight must be like. It’s a nod 
to all those famous people, surrounded and celebrated so, but yet, are so desperately lonely. It’s a plea for depth, an urge to find meaning, a rebuttal to an industry that will gleefully trade originality and profundity for mass adulation. When Lady Gaga soars with that vibrato towards the end of the song, what you feel is what people set out to make films for.

While on the expected, Avengers: Infinity War should take home the Visual Effects Oscar. It’s a remarkable year for superhero films (this calendar year will see the most number of superhero films getting released). The Academy Awards recognise this genre with a Best Picture nomination for Black Panther, the first-ever time a superhero film is being bestowed this honour. The film has secured as many as seven nominations, and firmly rubbishes any notion that the super-hero genre is any lesser cinema than any other. I suppose it also helped that Black Panther isn’t just another superhero origins film; it’s also one that’s fiercely proud of African heritage and lifts the dark veil of stereotypical, destructive portrayal that has long preceded it. Notably, three of the seven nominations for the film are for black women, and in the non-acting categories (Production Design, Costume Design, and Original Song). It’s another first in the history of the Academy Awards.

Another apparent win should be Roma under the Best Foreign Language Film category. It’s a film that’s touted as the favourite to win the Best Picture category; so this category should be a walk in the park 
for Alfonso Cuaron’s film. It’s only the fifth time ever that a film is being nominated under both these categories, and notably, none of the other four, including Life is Beautiful (1998) and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), have won the Best Picture Oscar. A foreboding trend?

Roma vs The Favourite
A safe punter would hedge bets on Roma winning the Best Picture award. I imagine that the only other serious contender — the film I’ll be rooting for — is The Favourite. The others? Bohemian Rhapsody aimed for far too less, even if it was vibrantly successful in achieving it. Green Book, again, felt too simplistic, and seemed almost to be providing a simplistic, fairytale-ish commentary on a dreadfully dark issue. The wildly entertaining Blackkklansman is a scary comment on the prevailing state of affairs, but doesn’t make for a completely satisfying experience, given its erratic detours in form and content. A Star is Born — as emotionally powerful as it is — doesn’t do a whole lot new with its time-tested material, and its commentary on the frivolity of mainstream art, relevant though it is, feels faint. Blank Panther, despite doing more than your average superhero film, is still a diligent checking of boxes, as far as its story is concerned. Vice is bogged down by director Adam McKay’s constant attempts to make its material more accessible. While it worked so efficiently in The Big Short, here, it almost seems like a trivialisation of some breathtaking horrors unleashed during the time period covered in this film.

So, really, the coveted Best Picture award is between Roma and The Favourite for me. Roma is real, and a ruminant, painterly ode to women — specifically, the ones in the life of director Alfonso Cuaron. Will its procurement by Netflix affect its chances though? It’s a film that’s captivatingly beautiful to behold; it’s one that deserved more time on the big screen, but didn’t get it, on account of the streaming giant’s involvement.

Roma is also quite indulgent, as is the malady of many a film based on the director’s own life experiences. The people are real, the places are real, the horrors are real, the redemption is real… but beyond the beauty and the reality of what you bear witness to, I’m afraid Roma does lack a great, gripping story that encompasses all this beauty. You could hardly say this about Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a title I hope describes its chances this Sunday evening. It’s a film that beautifully toys with your assumptions over the morality of its characters. 

It’s a story of two women trying to gain the favour of the perennially ill, foul-tempered, and almost childish Queen Anne; it’s one that constantly steps into surprising areas. It, refreshingly, doesn’t take itself as seriously as period films about royalty usually tend to. It’s shockingly lively for how sombre its 
material is, and is driven by three terrific performances — all three female actors have been nominated for the Oscars. The only concern is, will its devil-may-care attitude, especially concerning its use of profanity, affect its chances? If anything, it should get it for being so original, and refusing to play by conventional Oscar rules.

Step up the microphone
Rami Malek’s inhabiting of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody — a shining light in a film almost scared to step into serious zones — should fetch him the Best Actor in a Leading Role award. I do think though that Bradley Cooper’s performance as the damaged rockstar in A Star is Born is rather underrated. He doesn’t flinch from showing all his damage and vulnerability, and captures perfectly the dying of a light. It’s an apt foil to the young light that is Ally (Lady Gaga), and sets the stage, quite 
literally, for a fascinating romance between a dying soul and one that’s just born. Bale does what we have almost taken for granted in Vice. He transforms — and transforms more within Vice to have you notice as little differences in physicality and expression from the real Dick Cheney. He’s cautious in speech, and is flawless in his transformation from a meek hopeful to a manipulative megalomaniac. 

Willem Dafoe too is pitch-perfect in At Eternity’s Gate as the tortured genius that was Vincent van Gogh — a favourite it seems for filmmakers these days, given that this is the second film about the painter in as many years. It’s an average film unfortunately, even if it’s not on account of Dafoe’s performance. Viggo Mortensen in Green Book is another terrific performance — raw and funny as a racist driver-bodyguard who shuns racism for friendship. But none of them singlehandedly power their film as Rami Malek does in Bohemian Rhapsody, who gets you forgetting that the film is happy simply to provide easy entertainment. There would be nothing wrong with that, of course, in another story, but in treading matters of homosexuality and alienation, a reluctance to engage with such topics warrants criticism.

The Best Actress in a Leading Role category too is full of breathtaking performances. Yalitza Aparicio is beautiful in her simplicity — even while struggling through great complexity — in Roma. She’s naïve, seemingly weak, but as Cuaron takes his time showing, she’s as strong as they come, with indefatigable love and an unquenchable thirst for duty and loyalty. Lady Gaga’s singing performances are shining lights in A Star is Born, and are its best moments. It’s not a musical, however; and so, she’s up against some towering acting performances. Like Melissa McCarthy, for instance, who could have well won it easily another year, for her role of a lonely, bitter writer in Can You Ever Forgive Me. 

Superficially examined, it’s a light tale of a friendship, but it’s stacked upon deep layers of a struggle through loneliness, the burden of being an artist, and the moral sacrifices you have to make sometimes for survival. Unfortunately for the aforementioned actresses though, two performances rise above them all: Of Glenn Close (The Wife) and Olivia Colman (The Favourite). The former’s been knocking on the Oscars door for a while now — this is her seventh nomination and she hasn’t won once yet, which suggests that the Academy could well be under pressure to cap off all her failed nominations. She’s got a strong enough performance to make her case: As JoanCastleman, who is a loyal, dutiful wife, and yet, fiercely her own person, even if the world around her won’t allow too much of it. She’s a picture of poise one moment, and an embodiment of feminine rage, another. It won’t be an easy win for her though, given she’s up against Olivia Colman. If Glenn’s Joan is strength, Olivia’s Anne is weakness. Olivia evokes much sympathy playing a character that’s hard to sympathise with. Queen Anne, her character, can turn from being a child in need to a person of power who, instinctively, can decide whether you live or die. She’s desperately in need of love, and yet, not in a position to trust, given the sycophants she’s surrounded by. She needs to be rebuked, but is too proud to allow it. Olivia portrays the destructive nature of this dichotomy beautifully, and if Glenn fails again to win (which would make her the actress with the most Best Actress nominations to have never won), Olivia would be quite a worthy choice.

No host, no controversy
It’s hard to miss that among many of the nominated films, a running theme, this year, is same-sex relationships. From being a defining element in a film, it seems it’s slowly — thankfully — beginning to be a part of even those films which aren’t centred on it. Green Book is about racism at a particularly toxic time, and one of its two main characters is a black pianist (Mahershala Ali) who has to deal with the repercussions of also being a homosexual. The charming Can You Ever Forgive Me is about art and survival, but it’s also about what it is to be gay. The Favourite is about a bisexual queen, and how two women, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weiss, who’s my pick for the Best Actress in a Supporting Role category) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), fight for her love. Lady Sarah’s dignity in love is dearly moving, while Abigail shows what Emma Stone can do in a negative character. Heads up: It’s quite frightening. Vice maybe about the ex-American vice president, Dick Cheney, but it also touches upon how he deals with his daughter’s confession that she’s a lesbian. We could have had more, had two other films not shirked from coming into contact with the topic — one more so than the other. I’m talking, of course, of Bohemian Rhapsody, which is steadfast and almost regressive in its refusal to engage with this aspect of its rockstar protagonist — almost as though it’s scared it’d ruin all the fun. Black Panther too, it is alleged, originally had a hint of a gay relationship between two Wakandan female bodyguards, but apparently, it was edited out.

It’s anybody’s guess who the winners will be, but till the evening begins, we will debate our choices, their strengths, their weaknesses. Once the winners are announced, they will continue, with new onesjoining the fray. Last year’s ceremony was criticised by some as having been an almost dull, overly long affair. With the weeks leading up to the ceremony generating some disharmony, let’s hope for another straightforward, untroubled event. There’s no host, this time; so any damaging controversy — like the one Seth MacFarlane caused in 2013 when he sang of actresses going topless in films — will be avoided. Now, it’s just a simple matter of handing the right envelopes, and reading the names right. But it’s the Oscars. Let’s see what’s in store this time.

Our picks:

Best Picture: The Favourite
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)
Cinematography: Roma
Directing: Alfonso Cuaron
Film Editing: Vice
Foreign Language Film: Roma
Music (Original Score): Terence Blanchard (Blackkklansman)
Music (Original Song): Shallow (A Star is Born)
Visual Effects: Avengers: Infinity War
Production Design: Black Panther
Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Blackkklansman
Writing (Original Screenplay): The Favourite