Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Saturday night, the Producers Guild gave its Best Picture award to “The Shape of Water” and that, in the immediate judgment of industry pundits and Oscar handicappers, pretty much ended the speculation for what wins the Academy Award for Best Picture in March.
So, of course, the Screen Actors Guild followed in kind by presenting its top award – Best Cast in a Motion Picture – to: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
This, ladies and gentlemen, is how life during awards season plays out: As an ongoing party, maybe sometimes as an amusement park, but rarely, if ever, as an annual phenomenon consistent enough to disclose how it’s all going to go week after week, ceremony after ceremony, guild to guild.
It bears repeating: The Oscars are, basically, a trade award conducted among those in the movie-making trade. Whether you like a movie better than another doesn’t matter. The Oscars are awards judged by peers and awarded to peers whether they’re sound engineers, set designers, writers, editors, directors, producers and, of course, actors.
The only Oscar everybody votes on, apparently, is Best Picture. So what have we learned this weekend?
That other movies in play this season besides “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards…” have no chance at all? That “Lady Bird,” “Get Out,” “The Post,” “Dunkirk,” “I, Tonya,” “The Big Sick,” “Call Me By Your Name” and others are now out of the picture entirely?
Um… maybe? But if past history is any guide, especially as far back as a year ago, probably not.
One remembers, for instance, that Denzel Washington’s SAG award for best lead actor in a motion picture in “Fences” had placed him out in front of other contenders for the same Oscar. Who did the Oscar go to? Casey Affleck for “Manchester By The Sea.”
And let’s not even go to the 2016 Best Picture Oscar, which, you may recall, was so much in the air despite “La La Land’s” seemingly insurmountable lead, that there was doubt even after the envelope was opened that night. And yet, “Moonlight” won. Really. It did. Remember?
One concedes, however, that Sunday’s SAG award to “Three Billboards…,” coming as it did almost two weeks after it received the Golden Globe for best dramatic motion picture, seems to push it out ahead of the crowded field of “prestige” movies competing for industry awards.
And yet, writer-director Martin McDonagh’s mordantly funny and, yes, impeccably acted story of an embittered mother (Frances McDormand, a SAG winner last night for best lead actress in a motion picture) who goes to any length in pursuit of justice for the rape and murder of her daughter, has in recent weeks collected some less-than-flattering chatter about what its critics say is the facile way it treats the issues raised in its narrative.
One of the mother’s antagonists, for instance, is a dimwitted bigoted cop (Sam Rockwell, also a SAG winner for best supporting actor in a motion picture) who, before the movie begins, is said to have tortured an African American suspect in his custody. But because that incident is more spoken about than actually depicted in the movie, critics say it softens or even trivializes the subject of race.
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“It all just feels off,” Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris wrote of “Three Billboards…” in an essay that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times. “Its black comedy doesn’t leave a bruise. The violence curdles into the cartoonish. The movie could be about grace and vengeance, but they’re presented as hoary lessons and hokey contrivances.”
At the same time, even the movie’s harshest critics acknowledge that McDormand, Rockwell, Woody Harrelson (as Rockwell’s melancholy, beleaguered boss) and the rest of the cast performed brilliantly. Which is, of course, what the Screen Actors Guild prizes above all else. Whether this goodwill from the industry will be sustained all the way to the March 4 ceremonies remains to be seen.
After all, they don’t even announce the nominees until Tuesday morning. Which will give everyone concerned a whole new set of things to chatter – and complain – about.