Alexandria, VA – Prevailing wisdom in Hollywood predicted a Best Picture Oscar win for the 39-year-old Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s directorial triumph Nomadland since its streaming and theatrical release on February 19. Quoting a top-grossing film producer asked about its Oscar Best Picture chances, “It’s a lock!”
Best Picture Nomadland had been predicted to dominate the top Oscar categories despite failing to meet a key barometer: winning the Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Cast or Ensemble in a Motion Picture nomination.
Only three films have ever won the Academy Award for Best Picture without receiving the best cast or ensemble SAG prize: Braveheart (1995), with a cast of thousands, The Shape of Water (2017) notable casting there, and Green Book (2018), having proved to be short on overall ensemble strength while relying largely upon the three persuasive leads. Mahershala Ali’s performance as Dr. Don Shirley swept the best supporting actor awards. Viggo Mortensen earned a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal as Tony Lip.
The commendable Trial of the Chicago 7, with Aaron Sorkin’s as-always stellar screenplay, earned its first recognition of the awards season by winning SAG’s best cast or ensemble drama. But a win in this category is nevertheless not considered a Best Picture contender predictor. Twelve times in the last 26 years, the Oscar for Best Picture synced with the SAG best ensemble kudos, most recently last year’s BP runaway hit winner Parasite.
That’s a win almost 50 percent of the time. Yet, the oddsmakers favored Zhao’s masterpiece about a woman down on her luck during the last great recession who takes to living a pioneer’s nomadic existence out west in a modest, beat-up, “ratty” van. Zhao cast real-life nomads as characters in the adaptation from Jessica Bruder’s novel, “Nomadland.” Bruder was made a consulting producer for the film by Zhao. The result is cinematic gold and a Best Director win for Zhao.
As rare as it is for the novelist to have input regarding a film adaption, it’s even more exceptional to be offered input in the filmmaking process. Zhao, who wrote the screenplay adaption as well as producing and editing, aspired to connect with the corollary characters, not just the lead, which was portrayed impeccably by now three-time Best Actress Oscar winner Francis McDormand.
In her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, where Zhao earned two awards for Best Director, Motion Picture and Best Picture, Drama, she spoke eloquently about that which binds us across all individual differences—our common humanity. “Compassion is the breakdown of all barriers between us…This is why I fell in love with making movies and telling stories. Because it gives us a chance to laugh and cry together and to learn from each other and have compassion for each other.”
Nomadland had earned six Oscar nominations — Director, Lead Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing Cinematography, and Best Picture of the Year. It’s always a head-scratcher when a film chosen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as the Best Picture doesn’t win the best director Oscar too. Surely the best motion picture of the year didn’t direct itself.
In a year of pervasive economic devastation and unrelenting social/political/cultural/racial upheaval dividing the nation, cleaving the world into an ever-greater chasm of having and having not, Nomadland is a salve for the soul. Oscar, as such, could turn a blind eye to the Amazon workers controversy even though Hollywood is pro-labor union—SAG/AFTRA, PGA, Screenwriter’s Guild, Director’s Guild.
During the film, McDormand’s character, the itinerant, 60-something Fern, takes a job working at an Amazon fulfillment center. This created something of an ongoing brouhaha since its screening at the Venice Film Festival last fall. Working conditions at Amazon are allegedly exploitative, though the attempt last month to unionize workers in Alabama failed. With Amazon emerging as a viable film production force of reckoning, Hollywood could justify the incongruity of a presumably less-than-compassionate corporate culture being depicted as making life better for the film’s plaintive protagonist.
Let the mudslinging end. With numerous awards from the Producers Guild Awards and the Directors Guild Awards, coupled with Golden Globes and BAFTAs, all signs pointed to Oscar making history: breaking the Hollywood glass ceiling, brandishing an antidote for anti-Asian animosity, opening a window into “there but for the grace of God go I” homelessness and housing insecurity—all themes meriting a standing ovation, endless applause, and a heartfelt shout-out “BRAVA!”
Oscar abhors predictability. Oscar enjoys a pull-the-rug-out surprise all the more so. And every so often, Oscar really gets it right. For a woman who runs and howls with the wolves, McDormand achieved the seemingly impossible: more Best Actress Oscars than Meryl Streep.
For those who have lost or those who have departed this past year, “What is remembered, lives.” We’ll be seeing them down the road. In this life or the next.