The Oscars are set to unfold on Sunday night with more drama and tension than at any previous point during this year’s awards race. The attendance of a number of key nominees seems uncertain, including Belfast’s Kenneth Branagh and Ciarán Hinds.
Both men tested positive for Covid-19 shortly after their appearance at the Baftas 13 days ago and require proof of a negative lateral flow test to secure entry to the Academy Awards. Many in the industry have been reporting a glut of positive cases following numerous ceremonies and parties over the past fortnight.
Meanwhile, the recipient of the best picture Oscar – for months considered a lock for The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s western starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a repressed rancher – now hangs in the balance. It had been assumed Campion’s film would follow in the tracks of Nomadland, which won the big awards last year.
Yet a late surge of momentum for another film directed by a woman threatens to dethrone Campion’s well-funded Netflix epic. Coda, Apple TV+’s first original film, premiered at the Sundance film festival last January and was released in the US in August, to moderate reviews. Yet Sian Heder’s small domestic drama about a hearing-impaired family in a Massachusetts fishing village has rapidly gone from dark horse to frontrunner.
The film, which has only been streamed about 375,000 times – by far the fewest of all the best picture nominees – took top prize at the Screen Actors Guild awards last month, followed by victory at the Producers Guild of America awards last Saturday.
The PGAs are seen as an especially important bellwether, not only because they mark the final major ceremony before the Oscars but because they too are decided by a preferential vote system. And while The Power of the Dog’s admirers are numerous and passionate, Campion’s film has also been deemed cold and overlong by some Academy members, meaning it is likely to be placed ninth or tenth by many.
Heder’s film, meanwhile, an undemanding coming-of-age tale, has fostered considerable warmth and goodwill among the voters, ensuring that even if it isn’t placed first or second on a ballot, it is unlikely to lag far behind. Earlier this week, Joe Biden gave the cast and crew of Coda a tour of the White House; one of the film’s stars reported the president and first lady “loved” its “theme of family authenticity”.
Heder was left off the Oscars’ best director shortlist; a snub some voters may be eager to rectify elsewhere. A decade ago, Ben Affleck was similarly excluded from that category; his film, Argo, went on to win best picture.
Campion is, however, all but certain to triumph in the director category. Now 67, the New Zealander is the first woman to be nominated twice, and would be only the third to win (following Chloé Zhao in 2021 and Kathryn Bigelow in 2010).
Other sure bets include Will Smith in the best actor category for his performance as the father of Venus and Serena Williams in King Richard, and Troy Kotsur in the supporting actor race for Coda. Supporting actress Ariana DeBose looks set to be West Side Story’s highest profile winner for her screen debut.
The leading actress category remains less certain. Jessica Chastain’s transformative turn as televangelist Tammy Faye is narrow favourite, but Penélope Cruz (in Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers) and Olivia Colman (for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter) could present potential upsets.
The 94th Oscars return to a full-capacity Dolby theatre after last year’s socially distanced ceremony at the Union station in Los Angeles. Ratings for that show dipped more than 50% year on year, and incoming telecast producer Will Packer is aiming to reverse the trend with a show celebrating popular cinemagoing, including a new #FanFavorite award and a performance of the chart-topper We Don’t Walk About Bruno from the Disney film Encanto, despite it not being nominated. Eight craft category prizes will be handed out just before the main show and the speeches will be edited into the official broadcast – a move that has caused upset among many members of the Academy.
Three new hosts – Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall – are set to oversee proceedings, marking the first time in four years the Academy Awards will have an overall MC. Earlier this week, Schumer expressed eagerness for the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to put in an appearance by video link. He is said to have declined.