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Oscar Race Gets Blurrier as ‘The Power of the Dog’ Faces Surging Rivals

”CODA“ wins big at SAG Awards, Sam Elliott complains and the heat is on for Jane Campion’s drama

AWARDS BEAT

Clearly, the Oscar race is a tough one to call this year.

On paper, Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” ought to be the clear favorite, but you can’t underestimate all those Camila Cabelo stans voting for “Cinderella,” or the anti-cancel-culture crowd stuffing the ballot box for “Army of the Dead” (go, Zach Synder!) or “Minimata” (come back, Johnny Depp!).

I’m talking, of course, about the Oscars’ new Fan Favorite vote, where Twitter users get to hashtag their favorite film of 2021, which will then be recognized on the Oscar show in place of, say, a live presentation of the Best Film Editing category.

As for that other Best Picture race, the one where the voters are 9,487 members of the Academy rather than anybody with a Twitter handle – well, that has become a tough one to call, too. 

It, too, has a leader on paper in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” Sam Elliott’s misgivings aside, that semi-revisionist Western has been considered one of the front runners since it premiered in Venice last September, and it has received more Oscar nominations, 12, than any other film. If it ends up winning, all of the verbiage about how uncertain the race is (like, for instance, this column) is going to seem pretty silly. (Or maybe it’ll seem like desperate attempts to stave off boredom before March 27.)

But is “The Power of the Dog” this year’s “Nomadland,” a film that cruised to a Best Picture win in a COVID-wracked year even though it initially felt a little too austere and indie to go all the way? Or is it something like “The Social Network” or “Roma,” which rolled through the critics’ awards, racked up lots of nominations but fell to something a little friendlier (“The King’s Speech” and “Green Book,” respectively) when it came time for the industry to vote? 

It’s hard to tell what lies ahead for Campion’s film, and the awards calendar isn’t very helpful. So far, “Power” won at the Golden Globes, but that non-televised show doesn’t really count. It landed the most Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, three, but lost all of them and wasn’t even nominated for the ensemble prize that is SAG’s de facto best-picture award. And it lost to “The Lost Daughter” at the USC Libraries Scripter Award, which only intermittently agrees with Oscar.

Campion seems likely to win the Directors Guild Award and then the directing Oscar, but those have only led to a Best Picture win about half the time in the last decade. And while the Producers Guild Award will offer a major clue, that doesn’t happen until March 17, after final Oscar voting has already begun – and even that award isn’t as strong a predictor as it used to be.  

So at this point, we don’t really know if the industry will embrace the film the way the critics have. We know that Elliott doesn’t care for it, but his anti-“Power” comments seem as likely to rally the film’s supporters as to encourage its detractors. More troubling, perhaps, are comments like one from a longtime Academy member who talks to lots of voters and doesn’t have a horse in this year’s race: “I’ve yet to speak to a single member who had any love or passion for it.”

Obviously, “The Power of the Dog” wouldn’t have gotten 12 nominations unless plenty of members did like it. But the ranked-choice voting used in the Best Picture category looks for a consensus choice, and that could be the Achilles heel for a film whose calling card is subtlety rather than accessibility. (Plus, the film with the most Oscar nominations has only won Best Picture twice in the last 10 years.)

What’s tricky is that no one film has established itself as the alternative. “CODA” won SAG ensemble and is thoroughly heartwarming, but it would fly in the face of a plethora of once-ironclad precedents: no directing or editing nominations, only three total noms and a Sundance premiere date that has never led to an Oscar win. And perhaps more importantly, in this era in which the Academy is changing so dramatically that no precedent is ironclad anymore, it’s also seems less likely to attract crucial votes from the many members outside the United States.

And yet it’s hard not to watch the joyous celebration when “CODA” won the SAG ensemble award and think of a similar one when “Parasite” won two years ago. That was a key moment when voters realized how much fun it was to give awards to the Korean underdog, a moment that set the film on its course for Oscar victory. It’s possible, I suppose, that another room of voters realized something similar at SAG, though it’ll take some additional signs to feel like real momentum. (Say, a win at the Critics Choice Awards, which seems unlikely but not out of the realm of possibility.)

Of the other contenders, Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” once felt as if it could be the consensus movie that could beat “The Power of the Dog,” but it’s missed out on a few key nominations. It will definitely need a strong showing at BAFTA on March 13 to regain some momentum, but it’s enough of a crowd-pleaser to capitalize on any momentum it gets. A “West Side Story” surge is not out of the question, and you can imagine a scenario in which voters from all the below-the-line branches, angry at having their categories moved into the pre-telecast hour, would band together and give “Dune” a mighty push.

Those are far-fetched scenarios, of course, as are the ideas of “King Richard” sneaking in as the consensus choice or “Drive My Car” pulling a “Parasite.” But it’s hard not to at least consider them, because the front runner has yet to really act like a front runner in the few instances in which the industry has given out awards.

In a way, “The Power of the Dog” still feels as if it’s on top — but at a time when the Oscar race is normally coming into focus, this year’s race is only getting blurrier.

But hey, what about that Twitter fan vote? Aren’t we all on the edge of our seats waiting to see if “Spider-Man” can pull out the big win?

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