As the town takes off for the holidays and comes to a virtual standstill, the Oscar race roars on as eagle-eyed pundits continue to fanatically parse yesterday’s release of the shortlist in 10 categories (3 of them shorts) that could, I said could, give clues as to the ways the Oscar winds are blowing towards the start of nomination voting on January 11.
Meanwhile, the level of Q&As, talk show appearances, various honors announcements coming almost daily from the Palm Springs and Santa Barbara Film Festival, nominations from Golden Globes and Critics Choice, plus invites to parties have kept us hopping ever since the SAG strike ended and actors could once again do what they do best – talk about themselves. By the way, yesterday they announced Jo Koy as the Globes host and that follows the announcement of Chelsea Handler returning as host of the Critics Choice Awards. The pair broke up last year, very amicably, so do you think they may be trading monologue ideas back and forth anyway?
MUSICAL LEGENDS GET THEIR DUE
Wednesday night members of the music branch were in a festive mood turning out in force at Skirball Center for the annual Holiday dinner thrown by the Society Of Composers And Lyricists (SCL), an event that inducted the late legendary musical maestros Leonard Bernstein and Pete Carpenter into the Hall Of Fame, and honored the still-living film composer Laurence Rosenthal with their Life Achievement Award. Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Lenny, accepted on his behalf and playfully noted that although he was a genius on the “composer” part of SCL’s name, his attempts at the “lyricist” role were not as stirring.
She read his stab at lyrics to his score for West Side Story, particularly a rather weak “Maria” that was soon replaced when a hotshot kid named Sondheim was hired to do his version. Another highlight was an incredible acceptance speech by 97-year-old Rosenthal who beamed in live via skype at 5:00 AM London time from his home. An orchestra came on stage and played several selections from his scores (which include Becket, The Miracle Worker, A Raisin In The Sun, Man Of La Mancha etc.)
He was an inspiration as he meticulously described how he fell in love with movies and movie music at a very young age when his mum took him to see Ronald Colman in A Tale Of Two Cities, and later when he saw another Ronald – Reagan’s 1942 King’s Row with its classic Korngold score that made him realize his life’s calling. Just an astounding speech.
Among those in the crowd were Diane Warren, Jack Black, and Lenny Kravitz who were all coincidentally nominated Thursday for the 5th Annual SCL Awards, as were a number of others who all made the Academy shortlist for Score and Song. Black was in high spirits coming off Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations for his hilarious “Peaches” song from The Super Mario Bros Movie and was anticipating the shortlist but alas “Peaches” wasn’t among the 15 semi-finalists. Sad Emoji. Warren and Kravitz were, and I was seated next to Kravitz at the Netflix table (where Bernstein also sat on the same day Maestro started streaming on Netflix). For Kravitz his powerful Rustin nominee, “Road To Freedom” was more than just a song to him. He told me it was born out of all he has come to know about the Civil Rights movement and what activists like Bayard Rustin accomplished. The SCL Awards take place February 13 and are becoming quite the Oscar predictor for music since 212 members of 6000-strong SCL are also members of the Academy’s 400-strong Music Branch.
THE SAG STRIKE IS HISTORY, SO IT IS TIME TO PARTY
Another recent holiday-themed highlight on the circuit for me was the Inaugural SAG Awards Season Celebration last week at the Chateau Marmont, a first in L.A. for the union. With SAG Awards voting continuing until 5pm on January 7 (nominations will be announced January 10) this became a new way to be seen by contenders in a packed event space that was wall to wall SAG voters. Among the most SAG and Oscar-buzzed contenders spotted in the crowd were Saltburn’s Rosamund Pike, The Holdovers’ Da’Vine Joy Randolph, May December’s Charles Melton, Radical’s Eugenio Derbez, and Rustin and The Color Purple‘s Colman Domingo.
Plenty of contenders for SAG’s TV nominations made the scene as well including Kelsey Grammer of Frasier 2.0, Bob Odenkirk, Nicholas Braun, Natasha Lyonne, Shrinking’s Jason Segel and Jessica Williams, David Oyelowo, Lisa Ann Walter and more. Longtime SAG exec Jon Brockett and Silent House Productions’ Marc Bracco were talking up their new duties as Executive Producers of the 30th Annual SAG Awards (along with Baz Halpin and Linda Gierahn) which enters a new era post-strike as it embarks on a new streaming deal with Netflix for the ceremony on Saturday February 24th, but still back at the Shrine as usual. There was much excitement about Barbra Streisand accepting the SAG Life Achievement Award this year.
‘HOLDOVERS’ GAINING MOMENTUM
The night before, The Holdovers had a SAG Nominating Committee Q&A at AMC’s Grove Theatre that earned three standing ovations for stars Paul Giamatti, newcomer Dominic Sessa, and the aforementioned Randolph. The trio then headed over to the ever-busy Ross House (a residence with a sound mixing room that seats 100 and is used constantly during the season) in the Hollywood Hills where Laura Dern and Bob Odenkirk hosted a screening for Oscar voters had just concluded, and the actors joined their director Alexander Payne and Screenwriter David Hemingson soaking up the praise from the crowd, just as they had done the night before this at another local residence high above the city lights. Among those gathered were Jim Gianopulos and Jerry Bruckheimer who both raved to me about Michael Mann’s Ferrari as well which they had seen at its L.A. premiere that week. After exhaustively working the circuit on behalf of his first Best Picture nomination last season for Top Gun: Maverick, Bruckheimer seemed happy to just be watching movies this year.
OFFICIAL AMPAS SCREENINGS HAVE A SEAT FOR YOU
Speaking of places for Oscar voters to see films, the official Academy screenings at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at AMPAS headquarters in Beverly Hills are back in force, and quite frankly though this is one of the best screens in town to see a movie they sadly aren’t always exactly well attended. One recent film with two Oscar nominated stars (one even an Oscar winner as well) drew a sparse 20 people in the 1,010-capacity theatre to hear the Q&A with its director. Another featuring a panel with its Oscar nominated director, much decorated cast, and others played to just 40 people, a shame since it is a film all voters should see before casting a ballot. Fortunately the Academy shoots all these Q&As and lets them live on the digital Academy Screening Room all members have.
Perhaps because of that access to movies at their homes, attendance at these official screenings is so inconsistent. It is a shame because there is no better presentation than at the Goldwyn and the AMPAS staff is the best in town at keeping it that way. Some movies do draw a crowd for whatever reason. This summer there were capacity turnouts for the much talked about “Barbenheimer” duo of Barbie and Oppenheimer, similar to other sold-out venues for that July phenomenon (and also not available on the AMPAS seasonal screening room at that point). Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning filled the place too. One member who is a die-hard regular, however, was surprised that I was surprised at some of the low turnouts, saying it isn’t uncommon in his experience to see some movies draw tiny crowds even with the Q&As.
Other awards screening stops for contenders on the circuit are usually double, sometimes even triple, booked (jaded L.A. is full of no-shows) to insure as full a house as possible even if all the attendees aren’t exactly guild, critics, or Oscar voters. Food helps too, one reason the infamous Ross House is always filled with cinematic revelers. The Academy on the other hand puts out a schedule on their web site and leaves it at that, no RSVPs, no indication of who’s coming, just the schedule, sometimes six over a weekend. Also no food is allowed. My solution might be to loosen the rules, let the studios open it to non-AMPAS members (with members getting priority of course), and set up concession stand with popcorn and drinks etc. just as the WGA theatre started doing a few years back to combat low attendance for their member screenings. At least poor publicists wouldn’t have to explain to distraught filmmakers and stars so looking forward to their prestigious Academy screening that they are playing to a pretty empty house sometimes.
On the bright side, some films have drawn decent crowds. Maestro with a Bradley Cooper/Carey Mulligan/Matt Bomer Q&A drew about 600, Killers Of The Flower Moon with first post-strike appearances by Leonardo Di Caprio and Lily Gladstone, in addition to Martin Scorsese and others had about half a house for the 3.5-hour epic. Napoleon and The Color Purple drew an estimated 250 or so. The Academy did amend their rules again recently to allow members to bring up to three guests as well to help the turnout.
‘THE COLOR PURPLE’S’ BLITZ BAZAWULE‘S UNIQUE CHALLENGE
Speaking of the terrific The Color Purple, which just made the Oscar shortlists for two of its new songs as well as Kris Bower’s score, I recently hopped on a zoom to chat with its director, Blitz Bazawule who has not only made a movie musical in the tradition of the best of them, but also brought a fierce authenticity to the roots of the music and what Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book was all about. This is Bazawule’s second feature film, the first was the 2018 indie The Burial of Kojo, but you could say this was a huge leap on the Hollywood scale in a way that might be daunting considering he was taking on such a beloved property in its fifth iteration (following the book, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 11-times Oscar nominated film, the original Broadway adaptation, and then its 2015 Tony and Grammy winning revival). But the Ghanaian director was ready for the task. After all, he is a musician, visual artist, filmmaker, and author (Scent of Burnt Flowers, which he is set to turn into an FX Limited Series), and was acclaimed for his work on Beyonce’s “Black Is King” album. Still I had to ask how nervous he was knowing his producing team included three certified legends who all were significantly responsible for the success of the beloved 1985 version: Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Quincy Jones.
“It was helpful in that they are people who know this material in and out. But I have to give them credit. They were deeply gracious in allowing me to make my movie,” he said. “And I think that was one of the big concerns when you’re going into a film like this, you know? Are my producers going to want me to remake the movie they made? They don’t want me to remake the movie that they made because it’s made already. They were most interested in my approach, my unique approach, and I was deeply supported by all of them, including (the other producer) Scott Sanders, who brought it to Broadway and, you know, also had a history with it. But again, I think that my mentality was coming into this film to make an original movie and treat the material like we were the first to harness it, and I think that by doing so we inevitably have contributed, I hope, in a meaningful way.”
And there was one other legend that Bazawule was very concerned about pleasing, and that was the author who started it all 40 years ago.
“Alice Walker has seen the film and wrote me one of the most beautiful notes. I mean, she loved it, but I’ll tell you the story. She came on set, we were shooting and you got to imagine that was probably one of my most nervous days. I mean, this woman literally wrote, you know, the Holy Grail. That’s what we all were going off from, right?,” he told me. “And she shows up and she walks over to my monitor. I’m in my director’s chair, and she goes ‘I’d like to see what you have been shooting. I got super nervous because what do I show Alice Walker? I mean, she’s not seen anything yet. Nothing. She doesn’t watch the dailies, nothing. She just wanted to see a scene. So I played her the scene where Mister comes into the juke joint drunk, Harpo walks him out, and when he stumbled out he puts his head on Harpo’s shoulder and goes, ‘you done good. You know, I had my doubts when you said you were going to build a juke joint but you done good. Boy, you done good’, and he rests his head. And I hear deep sobbing behind me, and I’m thinking it can only be one of two things. Either I’ve destroyed The Color Purple, or I’ve made Alice Walker cry.”