Oscar Futures: Will the Academy Like Loving?

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Photo: Focus Features

Every week between now and February 26, 2017, when the winners of the Academy Awards are announced, Vulture will consult its crystal ball to determine the changing fortunes in this year's Oscars race. In our Oscar Futures column, we'll let you in on insider gossip, parse brand-new developments, and track industry buzz to figure out who's up, who's down, and who's currently leading the race for a coveted Oscar nomination.

Best Picture

Loving. On paper, Loving is exactly the sort of movie that Oscar voters respond to: a historical love story about two regular people fighting for their mixed-race marriage in 1958, a battle that changed the country. But director Jeff Nichols eschews sentimentality and melodrama; as the New Yorker's Anthony Lane put it, "the movie is restrained to a degree that will strike some viewers as exasperating, or even perverse, and that others will deem properly heroic." It will find its partisans, and there is room in the Best Picture race, but the lack of sap — the film is steadfastly determined to be as undramatic as possible — means it's no shoo-in.

Hacksaw Ridge. Mel Gibson's gory World War II film has left critics, including our own David Edelstein, gobsmacked in a good way. This movie could carve out its own niche this season as the only real war film in play — in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, the battlefield footage is but a blip — and until Martin Scorsese's Silence comes along, it's the most ostentatiously masculine contender for a cadre of Academy members who canonize films like last year's The Revenant.

Current Predix: Fences, Hell or High Water, Jackie, La La Land, Lion, Live by Night, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Silence
Best Director

Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge. In the same year that awards aspirant Nate Parker was undone by scandal, could a pariah like Gibson really find his way back into Oscar's good graces? It helps that Gibson is already a part of the Oscar firmament: Braveheart won Best Picture, and even his Apocalypto, released right after Gibson became radioactive, mustered three Oscar nominations. Gibson's press tour for Hacksaw Ridge will provide his most sustained time in the spotlight in quite a while, and so far, the carefully planned media blitz has run smoothly, if somewhat defensively.

Jeff Nichols, Loving. This category will often spotlight a young American filmmaker on the rise, though this year, Nichols will have to contend with better-positioned peers like La La Land's Damien Chazelle and Moonlight's Barry Jenkins. Still, Nichols has been drawing closer to a breakout moment since his acclaimed 2012 film Mud nearly found Oscar traction, and his austere, auteurist approach to Loving will likely go down better with the directors branch than with the Academy as a whole.

Current Predix: Damien Chazelle, La La Land; Barry Jenkins, Moonlight; Pablo Larrain, Jackie; Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea; Martin Scorsese, Silence
Best Actor

Joel Edgerton, Loving. Edgerton drew close to a supporting nod last year for Black Mass, though when the film itself faded, his chances were shot. Still, this Australian has a habit of getting under the skin of his characters that has drawn notice, and while I originally thought his Loving lead might be too tamped down for Oscar, he could squeak in since the lead-actor category is unusually fluid this year.

Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge. Hacksaw Ridge rests on Garfield's slim shoulders, and while I noted last week that it will likely add to the actor's Oscar buzz for his coming turn in Martin Scorsese's Silence, it's entirely possible that voters will prefer him here. Just think of Leonardo DiCaprio, who was nominated for Blood Diamond in the same year that his star vehicle The Departed, for which he was snubbed, won Best Picture.

Current Predix: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea; Joel Edgerton, Loving; Andrew Garfield, Silence; Ryan Gosling, La La Land; Denzel Washington, Fences
Best Actress

Ruth Negga, Loving. I've talked to viewers who were ambivalent about Loving, but even they were beguiled by Negga as the wide-eyed Mildred Loving, who instinctively tucks her head into her husband's shoulder but sees everything. "Negga gives her vulnerability but also strength of heart," said USA Today's Brian Truitt, while the New Yorker's Lane wrote, "Just as she holds the family together, so Negga possesses the film, and you can’t stop looking at her eyes." In a category that will likely be filled with formerly nominated veterans, this up-and-comer could be the one to break through.

Annette Bening, 20th Century Women. How good is that new 20th Century Women trailer? It smartly positions Bening front and center and lets so many of her best moments breathe — in particular, her line about how she'll never truly see her son out in the world "as a person" is a heartbreaking cue that the whole movie pivots around. While this is more lived-in work than the flashy star turns afforded Natalie Portman and Emma Stone this season, cleverly cut marketing can emphasize how much Bening packs into one simple, rueful line reading.

Current Predix: Annette Bening, 20th Century Women; Ruth Negga, Loving; Natalie Portman, Jackie; Emma Stone, La La Land; Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Best Supporting Actor

Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins. There's a bit of sleight of hand going on when it comes to Grant's awards-season consideration: For the Oscars, he's being pushed as a supporting actor, but for the Golden Globes, he's campaigning as a lead, since the Globes has a lead-actor category for comedy/musical that will be a cinch for him to penetrate. Still, will this gamesmanship confuse Oscar voters and ensure his votes will eventually be spread across two categories?

Nick Kroll, Loving. Oscar loves it when a comedian plays it straight, but Kroll's presence in Loving has been deemed "very distracting" at best. It's the sort of role that would be Oscar catnip in another movie — he's the attorney who fights to have the Lovings' case heard before the Supreme Court — but the film is about as concerned with him as the humble Lovings are … which is to say, not very.

Current Predix: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight; Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water; Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins; Liam Neeson, Silence; Dev Patel, Lion
Best Supporting Actress

Viola Davis, Fences. There's no news in the supporting-actress race this week, and no news benefits Davis, who became this category's de facto front runner last week. Still…

Viola Davis, Fences.Fences will finally debut for press this Saturday, so we'll soon see if this potential Oscar juggernaut has what it takes to reshape the season.

Current Predix: Viola Davis, Fences; Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women; Naomie Harris, Moonlight; Nicole Kidman, Lion; Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea