Award Tour: Oscar Season Warm-Up, Part 1

Award Tour travels through the yesteryears of pop culture to revisit both the highlights and the curiosities of award season.

As we approach the end of the calendar year, we also move into the beginning of Oscar season, a concentrated burst of heavyweight P.R. campaigns and red carpet appearances that spans the Golden Globe Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a host of other industry fetes, and culminates at the biggest Hollywood finish line of them all: the Academy Awards (which will be handed out on February 9, 2020).

The official start of Oscar season comes early this month when the National Board of Review announces the recipients of their annual awards on December 3rd. They represent the first of the four major critics groups – including the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics – whose best-of-the-year accolades signal that the Oscar race is officially on.

By the time the Oscar nominations are announced each year, there are usually very few surprises left. But, the critics group awards are often full of surprises that influence the Oscar race, and can also boost the visibility of a deserving artist or film. Here are a half dozen moments where the scribes got things amazingly right.

1938 – New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), Best Director: Alfred Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes

Film buffs take note: this was the first of only two awards that Hitchcock ever won for directing (and, we’ll be talking about the second one in a follow-up post). Throughout a long and storied career in which he arguably became the most popular, well-known, and frequently imitated director that the movie business has ever known, it seems shocking, in retrospect, that Hitchcock never won any of the industry’s highest honors (i.e. the Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe, or Director’s Guild Award), and was largely ignored by most of the major film critics groups. So, without knowing it, the Gotham critics made history with this one. In a year that has since become better known for such traditional Hollywood fare as Boys Town, Jezebel, and You Can’t Take it With You (the eventual 1938 Oscar winner for both Best Picture and Best Director), the NYFCC’s decision to honor Hitchcock for his classic mystery thriller now looks especially forward-thinking.

1985 – Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), Best Film: Brazil

This was another forward-thinking choice, and one that was especially daring at the time. Director Terry Gilliam was locked in a contentious battle with Universal Pictures over the release of his dystopian science fiction satire, Brazil (a battle that was well-chronicled in Jack Mathews’ behind-the-scenes page-turner, The Battle of Brazil). The now-legendary conflict between Gilliam and Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg included a studio-sanctioned team of editors working on a more audience-friendly version of the movie without Gilliam’s consent; a full-page ad in Variety in which Gilliam cheekily asked Sheinberg when he was going to release the film; and, a slate of secret screenings of Gilliam’s cut of the film that the director held for film critics behind the studio’s back. The shocking conclusion to this whole affair came when the LAFCA voted to give Brazil their award for Best Film, even though it still had not yet been officially released anywhere in the United States. With heavyweight hopefuls like The Color Purple and Out of Africa (the eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture that year) vying for award season position, this was the equivalent of lobbing a grenade at the Hollywood publicity machine. After that, Universal quickly relented: Gilliam and Sheinberg reached a d├ętente that got Brazil into theaters for an end-of-the-year run, and a cult classic was born.

1987 – NYFCC, Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman, Street Smart

Before he was known as both God and one of America’s favorite movie presidents, Morgan Freeman was perhaps most recognizable as one of the most popular characters from 1970s children’s television: Easy Reader from The Electric Company. After spending much of that decade on PBS helping a subset of Gen X-ers learn how to read, it was a total surprise to see Freeman playing an irascible and manipulative pimp in Street Smart. But, his performance allowed him to display more versatility than audiences knew he had, and it got the attention of the larger film community: he won nearly all of the film critics’ awards that year, and landed his first Oscar nomination. Best of all, Street Smart gave Freeman the breakthrough role that launched his movie career as we know it now.

1988 – NYFCC, Best Actor: Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers

Why yes, a David Cronenberg movie about twin brother gyncologists who are both sleeping with the same partner is just as weird and unsettling as one would expect it to be. But, the movie in question, Dead Ringers, also gave Jeremy Irons a flashy role that made him an early Oscar frontrunner in 1988. It, therefore, wasn’t surprising when he started racking up award season accolades from the critics group. The big surprise came later when he was shut out of that year’s Best Actor Oscar race altogether (the eventual winner was equally flashy in his own right: Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man). Two years later, when Irons finally did win an Oscar (for his equally colorful turn as Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune), he gave Cronenberg a long overdue thanks in his acceptance speech.

1991 – National Board of Review (NBR), Best Actress: Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, Thelma & Louise

When it comes to movie awards, ties don’t happen very often, but the NBR’s 1991 tie for Best Actress could not have been more appropriate. How else to honor two equally iconic performances in an epochal film? How could anyone sepearate Thelma from Louise? Impossible. This was the only suitable response. Unfortunately, the Oscars skipped a golden opportunity to follow suit at that year’s ceremony: Davis and Sarandon were passed over in favor of Jodie Foster’s equally classic turn in The Silence of the Lambs.

2007 – National Society of Film Critics (NSFC), Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There

In a career full of dazzling performances, this one may be Cate Blanchett’s most stunning. There’s no other way to describe how thoroughly she morphs into one of Todd Haynes‘ multiple Bob Dylan dopplegangers in the musical docudrama I’m Not There. (Compare the clip above with this footage of Dylan from 1965, then take note of how fast Blanchett’s performance blows your mind.) Critics had high praise for Haynes’ surreal impressionistic biopic, but audiences more lukewarm towards it, which may have dampened Blanchett’s Oscar chances that year. (Tilda Swinton took home the Best Supporting Actress trophy that year for her turn in Michael Clayton).