Oscar Nominations Analysis: Voters Give Power to ‘The Dog’ in a Year Marked by Change

“It’s such a weird year – nobody knows what’s going to happen,” one studio executive says after some idiosyncratic nominations

Jesse Plemons - Kirsten Dunst - Power of the Dog

For months, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” has seemed to be a critics’ favorite that would do well at the Oscars but might be too subtle or austere to go all the way, even though Campion herself felt like a favorite for Best Director. But the 9,487 voting members of the Academy went a long way toward changing that narrative on Tuesday morning, as four acting nominations helped power the “Dog” to a surprising position as the film with the most nominations.

Not only did Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog” beat the presumed below-the-line juggernaut, Warner Bros.’ “Dune,” 12 nominations to 10, it became the only film this year to land nods in four categories that are often seen as crucial to an Oscar win: acting, directing, screenwriting and film editing.

That doesn’t mean that “Power of the Dog” is a lock (or even a prohibitive favorite) to become Netflix’s first Best Picture winner, but it does suggest that Oscar voters have fully embraced the 1920s-era Western starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons, all of them newly-minted Oscar nominees.

In the last 10 years, the Best Picture winner has also been nominated for directing, acting, writing and film editing six times, but has missed one of those the other four times. (Best Director was missing twice, film editing and acting once each; you’d have to go back to “Titanic” in 1998, and before that “The Sound of Music” in 1964, to find Best Picture winners that weren’t nominated for writing.)

This was a year in which the Academy’s growing international bloc clearly showed its muscle once more, helping Japan’s “Drive My Car” to land directing and writing nominations (as well as Best International Feature), putting the Norwegian film “The Worst Person in the World” in the original-screenplay category and helping Penélope Cruz break into Best Actress ahead of Lady Gaga or Jennifer Hudson for the Spanish-language drama “Parallel Mothers.”

And in a way, the nominations reinforced that some of the U.S. guilds are less reliable indicators of Oscar success now than they used to be: SAG Awards voters may have matched the Best Actor field five-for-five, but they only predicted three of the five Best Actress nominees, and two of the five in both supporting categories.

(Still, that’s better than the British juries that chose the acting nominees at BAFTA: They only matched two of the five actors and none of the five actresses.)

In a frothy announcement hosted by two performers far better known for television than film, Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Jordan, Academy voters were fairly predictable but also a bit idiosyncratic, rescuing “Spencer” star Kristen Stewart from the snubs she’d endured in precursor nominations, not even giving Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” a production-design nom and finding room for Van Morrison’s opening-credits song in “Belfast” but not for that film’s central performers, 10-year-old Jude Hill (who was always a long shot), Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe (who were not).

But then, an idiosyncratic year probably demanded an idiosyncratic group of nominations. On Monday afternoon, one weary top studio executive called me and groaned, “It’s such a weird year – nobody knows what’s going to happen.” And while that exec is likely quite happy with some of what did happen, the process to get there was an exhausting one: At first theaters were open and in-person events were taking place, albeit with COVID tests and vaccination cards. But the Delta variant complicated matters, Omicron really complicated them further, and suddenly we were back to an awards season conducted almost exclusively online, with few opportunities for voters to trade favorites and little chance for buzz to grow.

It was a year in which most Academy voters no doubt cast ballots for films they’d seen on computer screens or TV monitors, which is another reason why the strength of “The Power of the Dog” came as a slight surprise; that film’s combination of wide vistas and shadowed intimacy demands to be seen on a big screen, something many voters likely couldn’t do.

And now we have a long Phase 2: Final voting doesn’t even begin for more than a month, and the Oscars aren’t taking place until March 27, almost seven weeks from now.

In one way, the Academy looks smart for having scheduled its show a month later than usual – because unless other variants emerge to throw things into disarray, that seems to be a relatively good time to have some kind of in-person ceremony. (Almost all of January’s and most of February’s awards shows were either postponed or went virtual.)

But it’s also a very long time to wait, particularly since the Academy (and, really, the industry) is desperate to have awards shows regain some of the viewers they’ve lost over the last few years. And without “Spider-Man” in the Best Picture competition, they’ll have to find other ways to stir up interest – because this particular batch of movies, as fine as many of them are, don’t have the profile to turn the trick.

Now, it’s not the job of voters to come up with a slate of films that will increase the Oscar show’s viewership; it’s their job to salute what they think is the best of the year in film. And if that pushes the Academy Awards even further from a mass event to a niche one, it’s not something we can blame them for.

Instead, blame COVID, and blame strategies that have made movies – those things that the Oscars were set up to salute – a entertainment-industry afterthought. As I was having dinner on Saturday and preparing to watch the last shortlisted documentary I hadn’t seen, “Access Hollywood” was on TV and I didn’t bother to change the channel. I wasn’t really paying attention, but at some point it occurred to me that I was watching a one-hour show devoted to the entertainment industry and airing three days before the Academy Award nominations, and I didn’t hear one single mention of any movie that was truly an awards contender.

For all the Academy’s attempts to bring ordinary viewers into the nominations announcement, it seems that the Oscars are barely on the radar of mainstream media, mainstream viewers or anybody but a niche audience. And if the movies in contention aren’t even mentioned on an entertainment program in early February, how forgotten are they going to be when the Oscar show takes place in late March?

So congratulations, “Power of the Dog.” And good luck, Academy.