Surprises Could Include Barbie, Saltburn & More

Put your pencils down, and pass your ballots to the front. The nominations voting period for the 96th Academy Awards is now closed. The latest influences on the race came from the Critics Choice Awards and the Golden Globes, where Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” topped both groups. However, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things” has shown considerable strength, and films such as Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” and Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall” are picking up momentum.

Variety spoke with dozens of voters from all of the Academy’s branches, asking what films and performances were resonating with members and their acquaintances.

Here are six things I’ve learned from discussions with AMPAS members.

AMPAS could see a record-breaking showing in best picture for female directors.

The Producers Guild of America nominated three movies directed by women: “Anatomy of a Fall,” “Barbie” and “Past Lives.” If the three translate to the Oscars‘ Best Picture lineup, it will be the most films directed by women to be nominated. Only 19 movies helmed by female filmmakers have been recognized by the Academy. Of those, only four Oscar lineups have included two female-directed movies — 2009 (“An Education” and winner “The Hurt Locker”), 2010 (“The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone”), 2020 (“Promising Young Woman” and winner “Nomadland”) and 2021 (“The Power of the Dog” and winner “CODA”). Things look promising, but you can never count out a surprise omission.

It’s a 50/50 shot for Greta Gerwig in best director for “Barbie.”

The billion-dollar question surrounding Warner Bros’ “Barbie” is will its director, Greta Gerwig, receive enough votes from the Directors Branch? Given the genre, and the impression that as one AMPAS member told Variety, “at the end of the day, it’s just a Barbie movie,” could that prevent the past nominee for “Lady Bird” (2017) from making the cut?

You can point to genre bias or simply that other visions are generating passionate responses (i.e., Jonathan Glazer for “The Zone of Interest”). The first significant clue will come from BAFTA nominations Thursday. The top two female filmmakers are automatically placed among the six nominees based on the voting method. If only two women helmers are among the nominees, and one is not Gerwig, it could be a sign of trouble (at least with international voters). If that lineup includes three women — Gerwig, Celine Song (“Past Lives”) and Justine Triet (“Anatomy of a Fall”) — the speculation will remain intact.

If Gerwig misses out on a directing nomination, we could still see another “Argo-type” situation that propels the comedy into serious winning contention.

“Saltburn” is surging.

Emerald Fennell’s sexy thriller has been the talk of the town and the internet, generating polarizing responses from various branches. Amazon MGM’s campaign has also garnered attention, with FYC ads featuring the notorious bathtub drain seen on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles (a brilliant move).

The film is seemingly on the bubble in several categories — supporting actress (Rosamund Pike), original screenplay, production design, cinematography and original score — with voters mentioning the drama in multiple conversations with Variety. Watch out for a better-than-expected showing.

“The Color Purple” needs the Acting branch to keep its hopes alive.

It’s an art form to drum up an awards campaign for the final releases of a season. “The Color Purple” is critically lauded but has struggled to get essential recognition from critical guilds such as art directors, costume designers, and hair and makeup. With only a SAG nom for cast ensemble under its belt, the musical remake of the 1985 classic is relying on Actors Branch support with members coming through for possible nominees such as Danielle Brooks. Historically, a musical performance has never been the sole nomination for its movie. So, either predict “Color Purple” for other categories or (unfortunately) project a shutout of the picture.

“Origin” is still going for it in best picture, but that could be its only nomination.

Industry heavy hitters such as Cher and Angelina Jolie have voiced support for Ava DuVernay’s harrowing drama, leading social media chatter to speculate that a possible “To Leslie-esque” surprise could be brewing for its star Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (coincidentally, Andrea Riseborough attended a screening). However, based on discussions with voters, there’s a feeling the movie could become the first movie since “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943) to be nominated solely for best picture. With 10 slots, I presume anything is possible.

It’s not clear which, or if any, “Poor Things” supporting actor will get nominated.

Two supporting actor nominees have hailed from the same movie for four years running. This year, “Poor Things” co-stars Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo have been inconsistent in being recognized together at the televised awards ceremonies. Only Golden Globes, which nominates six, had both men in their lineup. With SAG going for Dafoe and snubbing Ruffalo, with BAFTA leaving Dafoe off its initial longlist but including Ruffalo, it’s a coin flip if both, one, or even any of them make the cut. With “American Fiction” and “The Holdovers” gaining momentum (which helps bids for Sterling K. Brown and Dominic Sessa), your guess is as good as mine.

“Maestro” could mimic “Mank.”

In 2020, another monochromatic period drama, “Mank” from director David Fincher, led the nomination tally with 10, but missed two critical categories — original screenplay and editing. Regarding Bradley Cooper’s part black-and-white portrait of composer Leonard Bernstein, the biopic looks solid for spots in best picture, lead acting, and a handful of techs. Nonetheless, original screenplays with other artisan races are on the bubble, leaving the Netflix feature in a range of between five and 10 nominations (which is quite large for a Best Picture hopeful). Often, the streamer has come out on the higher end of the nom tally.

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” still has a shot.

I was pleasantly surprised how much the Sony Pictures’ animated feature hit came up in discussions with voters. Perhaps not enough to make a difference, but strong in the writers, visual effects and music branches. Could “Spider-Verse” become the first non-Disney animated best picture nominee? That’s too close to call, but more importantly, which film would it replace?

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