The greatest misconception about the Academy Awards is that it is all about the performance.
It is virtually impossible for Academy voters, or the average moviegoer for that matter, to see and assess every film and performance in a given year. There is no mathematical equation to evaluate performance either. How Oscar voters complete their ballots depend on the projects that are accessible to them and how personal biases influence their perception. One actor might give a performance generally considered the year’s best, but that doesn’t guarantee a vote. Perhaps that actor in unbecoming in public or private, and a voter doesn’t want to reward that behavior. Or, another actor, overlooked several times before, gives a stunning performance, and a voter decides that now is “their moment.”
Hollywood is the land of narrative, and that extends to the fall awards season. Just as important as the performance and how studios promote it is the story that publicists and entertainment journalists can tell about it. (Oscar voters, like all of us, love a good story.)
There are several awards archetypes. The sympathy Oscar comes from a nominee experiencing a recent public trauma and gaining sympathy from voters (Elizabeth Taylor’s first Oscar for BUtterfield 8 came after nearly dying during the filming of Cleopatra). The overdue Oscar, detailed above, has benefitted Geraldine Page (A Trip to Bountiful), Paul Newman (The Color of Money), Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman), and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant). Too many winners have ridden the transformation narrative to glory. Some narratives also hinder nominees. Taylor went so long without an Oscar primarily because of her scandalous personal life. Eddie Murphy nearly won his first Oscar for Dreamgirls until Norbit dropped smack-dab in the middle of the season, making way for Little Miss Sunshine’s Alan Arkin.
This year’s awards season is unique because three leading contenders – Kristen Stewart, Will Smith, and Jamie Dornan – are operating within the same narrative, whether they know it or not. Assuming their statuses hold, and it’s likely they will, this year may be the Redemption Oscars.
If there’s one nominee across all categories who feels like a guarantee, it’s Kristen Stewart. The star of Spencer has led the Best Actress race for months with her stunning portrayal of Princess Diana during a nightmarish Christmas holiday. Stewart stormed the fall festival circuit, earning rave reviews across the board for embodying Diana’s essence and effectively vanishing into the role. The transformation is notable, not because Stewart looks exactly like Diana, but because she doesn’t look like the actress we met over a decade ago.
That Kristen Stewart was most famous for playing Bella Swan in the Twilight movies. In hindsight, the role did Stewart no favors: Bella was mostly a reactionary character bouncing between her undead vampire boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattinson) and her wolf best friend/second choice Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Stewart had little to do but grimace and cower as supernatural teenagers fought over her. The Twilight saga was a phenomenon that turned Stewart into a star, but her limited range in those movies set an impression that she couldn’t act well.
Stewart has quietly chipped away at that perception of her with several acclaimed performances in the years since. She became the first American actress in three decades to win a Cesar Award for 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria. She also received praise for performances in Still Alice, Personal Shopper, and Seberg. Many critics now regard her as exceptional, but Spencer is a high-profile project to communicate that to everyone. The media coverage so far has focused on how Stewart connected with Diana, but there is little doubt that voters watching this performance will have Bella Swan in the back of their minds. For them, Spencer caps off an evolution that was years in the making: from YA ingenue to a powerhouse performer capable of beautifully portraying one of the 20th century’s greatest icons.
Jamie Dornan is another actor carrying the baggage of a dodgy book-to-film franchise. While he garnered critical acclaim in The Fall, Dornan’s role as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey introduced him to mainstream pop culture. Fifty Shades had little hope of being a critical success, but the beating the film and its sequels received exceeded expectations. Critics went after every element, including Dornan’s wooden performance and his chemistry (or lack thereof) with co-star Dakota Johnson. Like the Twilight saga, the Fifty Shades films were successful despite their quality, grossing hundreds of millions worldwide. They also threatened to pigeonhole him as a stoic, wooden leading man.
Dornan’s post-Christian Grey years have stretched the perceptions of his range. He starred opposite Rosamund Pike in A Private War and received rave reviews for his comedic turn in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Current Best Picture frontrunner Belfast finds Dornan’s sweet spot of simmering intensity and open-heartedness, best captured when Pa sings “Everlasting Love” to his wife Ma (played by Supporting Actress contender Catriona Balfe). The song has paid dividends for Dornan’s Best Supporting Actor campaign; he scored the season’s first viral moment singing at the film’s premiere at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures this month. Pundits and critics were already loving Belfast, but Dornan shedding his dry S&M persona with a full-blown charm offensive is voter catnip.
Will Smith built his entire career through the charm offensive. He was the world’s biggest movie star from the late 90’s to the early 2010s, with a record streak of $100 million-grossing films and relatively positive critical reception. He has been nominated twice for Best Actor, for playing boxer Muhammad Ali in 2001’s Ali, and stockbroker Chris Gardner in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. In 2013, his commercial and critical fortunes took a turn with the release of After Earth. Critics skewered the film, and its domestic box office barely passed $60 million, a significant step down from the grosses of similarly-budgeted films like Men in Black 3 and Hancock. Apart from 2015’s Focus, the 2010s were a critical and commercial disappointment for Smith. Concussion, Suicide Squad, Collateral Beauty, Bright, and Gemini Man were far cries from his 2000s heights. Aladdin and Bad Boys For Life were box office smashes, but it’s debatable whether their success was attributable to Smith’s diminished star power or well-known intellectual property.
King Richard, the story of Venus and Serena Williams’ rise to tennis superstardom, is the kind of film and performance Smith used to churn out in his sleep. It’s an accessible crowdpleaser that draws from Smith’s bottomless well of charisma and allows him to explore and challenge it in some way. King Richard works both as a sports biopic and a meta-commentary on Smith’s career, exploring the limits of charisma and how being always-on detrimentally harms one family and oneself. Smith must understand the parallels, given that he is simultaneously promoting King Richard and his autobiography at the same time. The double promo not only raises his profile but also paints a pretty compelling picture of a superstar in recovery and reflection, assessing his highs and lows with candor and considering where he goes next.
The only rub in what appears to be a flawless campaign narrative is that book itself. After last year’s “entanglement” saga with his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, there was a sense that the public had known too much about the Smith family’s trials and tribulations. Smith’s book blasts the door open. For weeks, his complicated love life has been media fodder, from his psychosomatic reaction to sex as a young adult to even more intimate details about his marriage. There’s reason to fear that Smith’s oversharing is distracting from King Richard, something not helped by the film’s disappointing box office opening (to be fair, the film’s HBO Max launch likely impacted its performance). While he is still the clear frontrunner and the book press will eventually be over, Academy voters’ memories are longer than you think.
A lot can change in the months leading up to the Oscars. Someone can say or do the wrong thing, or a film’s momentum can sputter into irrelevance. However, narratives form early in the race, and the most compelling thus far is one of redemption. An actor rebounding from a bad film or a string of them is a story that reinforces Hollywood’s power, and the Oscars are its chief judge. Having three of them win in one year might be too good for the Academy to pass up.