SAG and PGA Reveal the Biggest Threat to ‘La La Land': Donald Trump

Analysis: If Damien Chazelle’s musical appears to be a light film in heavy times, could voters turn to “Moonlight” or “Hidden Figures” instead?

Last Updated: January 30, 2017 @ 2:25 PM

After a weekend that featured the Producers Guild Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards, it became increasingly unlikely any film will be able to stop “La La Land” on its way to a Best Picture win at the Academy Awards on February 26.

But it’s possible – not likely, but possible – that Donald Trump could stand in its way.

That’s because awards season became very political after Trump’s election, and particularly after a first week in office that included the ban on travel from seven Muslim countries. And as the atmosphere grows more charged and partisan, the chances grow that “La La Land” could appear to be a light movie in serious times.

Because of that, it might conceivably become a less appealing winner than “Moonlight,” a drama about a young black gay man that could be seen as a statement in favor of tolerance and inclusion, or “Hidden Figures,” which celebrates the contribution of African American women to the U.S. space program.

“I won’t pretend that ‘La La Land’ is a political movie,” said John Legend at Saturday’s PGA ceremony, pinpointing the one thing that could work against Damien Chazelle’s dazzling musical in increasingly politicized times.

But he went on to make a good case for the movie: “This is a film about love, about dreams, about … Los Angeles. Los Angeles is the home of so many immigrants, so many creative people, so many dreamers … Our America is big, it is free and it is open to dreamers of all races, all countries, all religions.”

And after a weekend that saw a political Producers Guild Awards show and a very political SAG Awards show, that may be the key for “La La Land” – persuading voters that it is not just a glorious throwback to old musicals, but a nuanced and bittersweet film that can speak to today.

If it does so – and it should be able to, since it’s far from just a retro romp – then “La La Land” will continue to waltz toward the finish line at the Dolby Theatre.

After all, Saturday’s Producers Guild win would just about seal the deal in a normal year; as the only other awards body to use the preferential system of vote counting, it is a reliable Best Picture indicator in a way no other award is.

And while the film would have to become only the second Best Picture winner not to be nominated for a SAG ensemble award, and the first since “Braveheart” in 1995, the fact that the film is so focused on leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone made that oversight understandable.

The critical favorite “Moonlight” could have solidly established itself as the main competitor to “La La Land” with a SAG ensemble win, but instead it lost a little ground to “Hidden Figures,” which has a similar message of inclusion that gives it an extra appeal in divisive times.

And the more Donald Trump annoys Hollywood, the more voters could conceivably gravitate toward one of the films that make the bigger statement.

The trouble for “Hidden Figures” is that without an Oscar nomination for director Theodore Melfi, it has to stand as something of a longshot in its quest to become the top alternative to “La La Land.” In fact, with only three nominations, it has less across-the-board support from the Academy than any other Best Picture nominee.

So the PGA award, and the SAG ensemble award, didn’t do much to change an Oscar Best Picture race in which “La La Land” held its big lead. But in the individual SAG categories, particularly Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role and Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, guild voters did manage to shed light on key races.

In the best-actor category, the string of critics’ awards for “Manchester by the Sea” star Casey Affleck came to an end at the hand of guild voters, and showed that “Fences” lead Denzel Washington has the potential to make this category a real race at the Oscars.

Another revealing win was Emma Stone’s for “La La Land.” Until now, she has been competing against comic actresses in awards shows like the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards – but in her first head-to-head contest with “Jackie” star Natalie Portman, she came out on top and kept her status as the presumptive favorite in a competitive actress race. (Note: SAG didn’t nominate Isabelle Huppert, who remains a strong threat on Oscar night.)

In the supporting categories, the SAG wins for Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali took two frontrunners and kept them in that position. And the eloquence of Davis’ and Ali’s acceptance speeches made them popular winners on Sunday and should make them popular winners at the Oscars.

Another winner on Sunday night: “Captain Fantastic,” whose motto “power to the people, stick it to the man!” suddenly reverberates far more than ever before.

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