Joe Reid isn't just Primetimer's managing editor. He's also an awards expert and one half of the popular podcast, This Had Oscar Buzz. So who better to weigh in on Netflix's chances to sweep the 93rd Academy Awards?
The Netflix story at the Academy Awards has been one of big gains falling just short of ultimate victory. It's pretty remarkable to consider how, in just five years time, the streamer has established itself as such a force. Initially, the line was that Netflix was going to face resistance from Oscar voters loyal to the traditional studio system. This was the reason many thought that the 2015 film Beasts of No Nation, and in particular Idris Elba's SAG Award-winning performance, were snubbed by the Academy.
But Netflix pressed on, saw a small breakthrough in 2017 with its first acting nomination (Mary J. Blige for Mudbound), and then in 2018 found itself in the unfamiliar position of having a frontrunner on its hands. Alfonso Cuaron's Roma was a critics' fave, a filmmaker's film, and got a field-leading 10 nominations. But on Oscar night, it was Green Book that took home Best Picture. Last year, Netflix managed two Best Picture nominees in The Irishman (10 total nominations) and Marriage Story (6 nominations), plus three additional nods for The Two Popes, yet still, no Best Picture. What was it going to take to bring home a Best Picture statue for the streaming giant?
Okay, so obviously Netflix did not plan for a pandemic that, among other things, has ground theatrical distribution to a halt. Say what you will about the negative effects that streaming has had on the film industry, but I don't think we can lay COVID-19 on its doorstep. Regardless, the fact that the major studio films of 2020 have been mostly pushed to 2021 means that Netflix suddenly takes up a lot more real estate in this year's Oscar race. Even with the Oscar calendar adjusted — films have until February 28th to open, with the Oscar ceremony set for April 25th — the only studio set to release their major fare before the end of the "year" is Netflix.
In other words, if this isn't the year for Netflix to finally grab that brass ring, when is? With a slate of contenders including the likes of Spike Lee, David Fincher, and Aaron Sorkin, Netflix could very well end up dominating what is shaping up to be a very strange Oscars. Will it be a Schitt's Creek-style sweep of the top awards, though? Let's look at the chances.
At the moment, awards prognosticators are putting David Fincher's Mank either at or near the top of the heap in the race for Best Picture. Fincher's been here before, having previously directed the film with the most nominations in 2008 (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and the film with the loudest Best Picture buzz in 2010 (The Social Network). This time, he's also armed with an elegantly filmed black-and-white piece of Hollywood behind-the-scenes lore, with a story about the making of Citizen Kane. And with a screenplay written by Fincher's late father, there's narrative to spare.
Besides Mank, Netflix has other strong contenders in Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods, which premiered in the summer, got great reviews, and would be a long-awaited Best Picture triumph for its director; and The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin's incendiary telling of the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic Convention, complete with a stellar cast and a political posture that should still have resonance with the wounds of the Trump administration still fresh.
One outside contender for a Best Picture nomination that's getting much louder buzz in the acting races is Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Due to premiere on December 18th, this adaptation of the August Wilson play features Viola Davis in the title role and, in his final screen performance, Chadwick Boseman.
And one late-breaking contender to consider: Netflix recently acquired the film Malcolm & Marie, a romantic drama starring John David Washington (Tenet) and Zendaya, after a bidding war with Fox Searchlight and A24. Written and directed by Zendaya's Euphoria collaborator Sam Levinson, the film is a black-and-white drama about a couple whose "whose relationship is tested after they return from his movie premiere & await critics' responses," and it's set to open in early February. So Mank might not be the only option for navel-gazing Hollywood types this season.
Boseman is the clear frontrunner to get a posthumous Best Actor award for Ma Rainey, the first such acting Oscar since Heath Ledger won for The Dark Knight in 2008. Netflix stands a good chance at getting three of the five nominees in Best Actor, with Boseman's Da 5 Bloods co-star Delroy Lindo in line to get a long-deserved first Oscar nod, and Mank's Gary Oldman likely to represent his film as well.
Best Actress is shaping up to be quite competitive this year, with Frances McDormand's performance in the Fox Searchlight film Nomadland stirring up murmurs of the actress getting Oscar #3. Netflix has a few contenders who might stand in her way, though, including Viola Davis, whose only Oscar win was in Supporting Actress for Fences four years ago. The other big contender is Vanessa Kirby, whose grief-stricken performance in Pieces of a Woman got a ton of attention at the pared down Toronto Film Festival this past September. Kirby is something of an in-house talent at Netflix, having come to fame via her performance as Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of The Crown.
Less likely to stake a claim at a Best Actress Oscar this year is Amy Adams in Netflix's Hillbilly Elegy. Ron Howard's adaptation of the J.D. Vance memoir has been roasted by critics, to the tune of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, and so Adams' quest to finally win an Oscar is unlikely to end this year. One actress who hasn't had trouble winning Oscars is three-time winner Meryl Streep, and while I wouldn't expect her performance in Ryan Murphy's The Prom, premiering on Netflix December 11, to score an Oscar nod, she seems like a pretty solid bet to score her 33rd(!) Golden Globe nomination.
The supporting categories are pretty much chaos at this early stage, but Netflix has a few movies that should be strong contenders. Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 could fill up an entire Best Supporting Actor category on its own, and one of the more fascinating stories of the precursor award season this year will be seeing which actor(s) emerge as contenders. At the moment, I'd probably pencil in Sacha Baron Cohen's performance as Abbie Hoffman, as well as Mark Rylance's turn as lawyer William Kunstler, though don't count out Yahya Abdul-Mateen, Frank Langella, or Jeremy Strong.
Mank should mount a strong campaign for Charles Dance's performance as William Randolph Hearst, and/or Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer. Meanwhile, Da 5 Bloods could score supporting nods for Clarke Peters, Isaiah Whitlock, Jr., or Jonathan Majors… or you could be looking at double posthumous nods for Chadwick Boseman.
Mank also appears to be the current frontrunner in Supporting Actress, given how aggressively Netflix is already promoting Amanda Seyfried's performance as Marion Davies. She'll see some in-house competition from 1974 Best Actress winner Ellen Burstyn, who plays Vanessa Kirby's mother in Pieces of a Woman. Initially, Glenn Close was getting a ton of buzz for Hillbilly Elegy — particularly since she came so close to winning her long-awaited first Oscar only two years ago — and while it's not unheard of for a critically lambasted movie to score a nod in supporting (think Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones), Close faces an uphill climb.
Aside from the major categories, Netflix could find themselves in the mix in several of the less heralded Oscar categories. Best Visual Effects is going to be a free-for-all this year, with almost all the major blockbusters having exited the 2020 season. That could open the door for Netflix to score VFX or Sound nominations with a film like The Old Guard, which was very well-received by critics and audiences.
Best Original Song could also be an area of strength for Netflix, with contenders from The Prom (which has a song written specifically for the movie version), the animated film Over the Moon, and — if we're all very lucky — Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. One particularly interesting contender could be Taylor Swift's "Only the Young," which will be campaigned as an original song from her documentary Miss Americana.
Historically, Netflix's strongest Oscar category has been Best Documentary Feature, where they've been nominated every year since 2014 and have won twice. This year, they could contend with any combination of Crip Camp (which is executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, who were behind last year's winner, American Factory), Dick Johnson Is Dead (which won awards at Sundance and Critics Choice), Athlete A (about the sexual assault scandal with the U.S. women's gymnastics program), or Disclosure (about transgender visibility in entertainment).
This is the Schitt's Creek scenario, where the Canadian comedy swept every major Emmy Award category in an unprecedented running of the table. Is it likely that Netflix could pull that off? Maybe not. But the path is there: Mank charms enough Oscar voters with its tales of Old Hollywood and nabs Best Picture and Best Director for Fincher; Chadwick Boseman is heavily favored to take Best Actor, while Viola Davis could join him for Best Actress, or else Vanessa Kirby could nab that. Amanda Seyfried a strong contender to win Best Supporting Actress. And if, say, Sacha Baron Cohen can consolidate support for The Trial of the Chicago 7 into a Best Supporting Actor win … look, it's possible. It's quite possible.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Netflix, 93rd Academy Awards, Da 5 Bloods, Hillbilly Elegy, Mank, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Pieces of a Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin, Amanda Seyfried, Chadwick Boseman, David Fincher, Glenn Close, Sacha Baron Cohen, Spike Lee, Vanessa Kirby, Viola Davis