Oscars 2022: Standing on Ceremony at the Finish Line

One challenge for Oscar marathoners: We can waste no time in starting to screen the best-pic noms and other “top” categories straight out of the gate once nominations are announced. One never knows if life will allow one to complete the mission. This year, contenders were announced on Feb. 8, leaving 6.5 weeks to cram in all 53 movies, at a rate of about eight titles a week.

(Sounds worse than it was, as I’m including the 15 shorts in that overall count — although some of this year’s batch proved epically long, such as the half-hour “Robin Robin” in the animation category and the 40-minute “Ala Kachuu – Take and Run” from Switzerland in the live-action category.)

That hierarchical hitch means one must save the less interesting categories to view at the end. So these “lesser” features are the freshest in our minds come D-(decision)day. In my case, the dregs tend to be the visual effects and animation feature groups — never been a huge fan of blockbuster action flicks, and since my kids are all in their 30s and older by now, I don’t have much use for formulaic cartoons, either. Or so I thought: Man, this year, I found all the animated features quite relevant and riveting, especially the revolutionary “Flee,” nominated in three categories (also international feature film and documentary feature), and — surprise, surprise — “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” which I have neglected to mention much.

(What about us?!)

Another hitch in our git-along: Many of the “top award” entrants get hyped throughout the year and chances are high a marathoner might have already seen them back when they were released, putting even more distance between the viewing and the Oscar race “reveal.”

I’ve been marathoning for 11 years now, and I typically have seen only two of the best-pic noms by the starting gun. This year, though, I had a leg up, having previously seen four of the 10 best-pic noms (“Don’t Look Up,” “Dune,” “The Power of the Dog” and “West Side Story”) plus “tick…tick…Boom!” (nominated for best actor and film editing). All those titles made deep impressions, but with so much time having passed, and so many other celluloid clips crowding my brain, my recall skills are now potentially unreliable, for comparison’s sake.

Still, my husband says I must complete my tour of movie duty and make predictions on these top categories — even though everything’s been written about them and you all have your own views and I wouldn’t be able to influence anyone at this point, with the telecast set to begin mere hours from now.

Check that: According to awards columnist Pete Hammond of the Deadline website, the deadline for Oscar voting is 7 p.m. ET today. Whoa. Still time to sway anyone on the fence. Hammond also notes: “The overall current total of Academy members is 10,487, but 914 of them are emeritus status and don’t vote, likewise for 86 active Associate members.” This year, voters began with a denominator of 276 eligible movies and had not quite five days to whittle those down into the critical categories. I’ll betchu not all 9,487 voters watched all 276 contenders — and I’m pretty sure a smaller share took the time (as I did) to screen even the 53 top nominees. Mainly because it took A LOT of time.

There is definitely something wrong with this system. Shortcuts are no doubt employed. These folks could be voting by feel, pulling filaments of hype from the air, or choosing based on trailers alone (which made, for instance, the international feature “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” look much better than it was because of expert trailer-editing skills).

(Note: I’m not saying the movie was bad — it just wasn’t as good as the trailer portends.)

One mustn’t discount, then, the influence of any small-time blogger upon any big-deal Oscar voter.

So, if anyone is listening, I shall do the dirty work and make your selections for you in what many consider to be the top eight categories.

First, perhaps the most difficult: the writing categories. Eeek. Apologies in advance for my hurried, hack writing.

Original Screenplay

Belfast. Kenneth Branagh’s memoirs as a boy living through “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland proved a gorgeous, intimate portrait of the Irish soul. Part of me thought: Wow, we’re all a little bit Irish, so is it now time to celebrate them (us) as an oppressed people? Viewing the violent conflict through the eyes of a love-smitten Protestant boy — especially when the object of his affection happened to be Catholic, and about a foot taller (another nod to “Romeo & Juliet” or even “West Side Story”) — was an ingenious narrative device. But because the story was largely a diary, point deduction.

Don’t Look Up. Adam McKay’s cleverly veiled clarion call about climate change is truly a statement of our times. It broke Netflix streaming records and obviously seals the popular vote. Biting satire and worthy of the honor, no matter what the snooty elitists say.

King Richard. Loved, loved, loved this movie, but the screenplay wasn’t necessarily the element that stood out, as it was based largely on real events and documented interviews.

Licorice Pizza. Saw this on a late-show date with my husband and — unsure he noticed, but I am confessing now — I dozed off. It’s certainly not one I can go back now to review, as it’s not being streamed. I loved the dialogue that I caught, and it had a lovely improvisational feel. But the story structure seemed jumbled and overwrought, especially after I woke up. Sorry, my bad, but an Oscar winner, even a good bedtime story (in this case, a waterbed) should never induce sleep.

The Worst Person in the World. No ordinary love story, this Norwegian import was ultimately about finding love for oneself. Creative storytelling, and the stop-action scene in which our protagonist tests another course in life with an alternative lover is one for the books. The worry is I can’t fully appreciate the screenplay because I experienced the dialogue only through subtitles — and Oscar voters may feel the same. A sentimental favorite, but …

Prediction & Pick: Don’t Look Up

[Update post-Oscars: “Belfast” was the winner.]

Adapted Screenplay

I haven’t read/accessed the source material on any of these nominees — oh, no! Is that a chore I must add to my Oscar marathoning rules in order to properly choose in the future? Worse, I haven’t even read about the source material, been too busy watching movies. My stalwart husband, however, has read the “Dune” series and testifies Denis Villeneuve’s vision is finally a great adaptation.

CODA. This singing-signing-themed darling is now neck and neck in the best picture race with the alpha “Dog.” I think its chances are good. But “CODA” is a remake of the French-language film “La Famille Bélierso,” so I am less inclined to choose something for adaptation whose source material is another movie. (Although I’m certainly curious how American Sign Language and French signing compare.)

Drive My Car. Pure genius. Too long.

Dune. Shall I let my husband influence me?

The Lost Daughter. Possibly my favorite screenplay of the movies in the running — only because “Drive My Car” needed editing. Admittedly, though, the morning after I watched “The Lost Daughter,” I couldn’t recall the ending — I had to go back and review the final shot, which is so important in evaluating a screenplay. Coulda been the wine. Still, all that doll stuff was disturbing and unpredictable, which are my criteria for screenwriting: stories that keep me guessing and take twisted turns.

The Power of the Dog. This may be, technically, the best adaptation. And I may be advised to pick it, considering I have virtually snubbed this 12-time-nominated movie thus far. Then again, I’m not trying to get a good score. There is no money on the line. Only my reputation. Already damaged. This endeavor is not at all about being right — only about justice.

Prediction: The Power of the Dog

Pick: The Lost Daughter

[Update post-Oscars: “CODA” was the winner.]

And now, for the remaining, highest-achiever categories, just gonna list ’em. Not gonna sweat my rationale, as I have no reason left.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Prediction & Pick: Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”)

[Update post-Oscars: Ariana DeBose was the winner!]

Actor in a Supporting Role

Prediction & Pick: Troy Kotsur (“CODA”)

[Update post-Oscars: Troy Kotsur was the winner!]

Actress in a Leading Role

Prediction: Penélope Cruz

Pick: Jessica Chastain

[Update post-Oscars: Jessica Chastain was the winner!]

Actor in a Leading Role

Prediction & Pick: Will Smith

[Update post-Oscars: Will Smith was the winner!]

Directing

Prediction: Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”)

Pick: Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”)

[Update post-Oscars: Jane Campion was the winner.]

Best Picture

Prediction: CODA

Pick: West Side Story

[Update post-Oscars: CODA was the winner!]

Notice the absence of “The Power of the Dog” in that last bit. What can I say? I’ve always rooted for the underdog. Plus, between “The Piano” and “Dog,” can’t help but wonder if Campion has a sadistic streak.

And maybe I’m a little masochistic, but my Oscars 2022 marathon is finally, officially a wrap — although I still plan to watch “Writing With Fire” upon its release tomorrow, just to say I’ve seen 100% of all nominees in the top 23 categories. My viewing score is 98%. My guessing score will be far, far lower because I’m not in it for the win. It’s an honor just to experience all the nominees. And better luck next year.

The whole thing is a crapshoot, and I’m pooped.

See you all virtually tonight. Congratulations to all the artists who make the movies magic. And keep an eye peeled for winners holding their Oscar statuettes upside down to signify their protest of the eight categories cut from the telecast. I’m with them — thumbs down on ABC’s decision.

[Update post-Oscars: 6 of 8 correct. But never saw the Will Smith outburst coming. My overall score, though, is abysmal — the worst ever at 47%. Mostly because I didn’t appreciate “Dune,” and couldn’t trust the popular choice.]

46 Years On, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ Is Still Having Its Day

Throwing Oscar adjudicators a bone: There aren’t many dogs (aka duds) in this year’s pack of nominated flicks.

And, no, this isn’t a post about front-runner “The Power of the Dog,” although it might be interesting to note the staying power of movies with “dog” in the title.

Case in point, canines have been featured in such Oscar-worthy works as 1987’s “My Life as a Dog,” 1997’s “Wag the Dog” (more about political louses than tail-chasing curs), and at least eight animated shorts from 1944’s “Dog, Cat and Canary” to 2011’s “Adam and Dog.” (Moviegoers’ pet pooch Lassie got nods with “Lassie Come Home,” up for cinematography in 1943, and for one of the treacly songs in 1978’s “The Magic of Lassie.” Man, in dog years that collie has outlived romanticist Francisco Goya’s painting “The Dog” by a long shot.)

This post instead is about how the crackling bank-heist feature “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), starring Al Pacino as a nervy, nervous underdog thief, is stealing attention among today’s Oscar honors fetchers. That 46-year-old vehicle reverberates in two long-shot 2021 movies begging for closer attention.

Before this month, pretty much all I knew about the massacre at New York’s Attica state prison came from Pacino’s improvised performance in “Dog Day”: his raised fist and unrelenting “Attica!” chant. That single line has become a one-liner among cinephiles, repeated almost a joke. In my warped mind, I sometimes merged the image of Pacino outside the bank riling up the crowd with the scene in 1960’s “Spartacus,” in which enslaved survivors of a rebellion refuse to give up the identity of their leader, with their unified, upstanding “I’m Spartacus!” ruse.

What a shock, then, to absorb the full context of that hue and cry in Stanley Nelson’s “Attica.” This consciousness-raising documentary traces the five-day 1971 uprising in which thousands of incarcerated men protested their inhumane treatment — attesting they’d been treated worse than dogs — and took dozens of hostages as collateral for their civil rights demands. Through interviews with survivors and witnesses, and copious archived media that might have been lost to history, viewers are flogged with the all-too-familiar horrors of racism (70% of Attica’s population were Black men). It’s soul-crushing 50 years later, against the backdrop of I’m George Floyd, I’m Ahmaud Arbery, I’m Breonna Taylor, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum … to realize change don’t look like it’s ever gonna come.

The parallels to the Pacino scene are uncanny. Snipers perched on rooftops; bloodthirsty, trigger-happy police amassing; hostages suffering from Stockholm syndrome and sympathetic to their captors; members of the media enlisted as leverage; helicopters looming like monsters. Then there’s the brutal way things play out — the evil duplicity of those law-and-order types who are ultimately unwilling to relinquish an inch of privilege. The prisoners at Attica were forced to relent. Pacino’s Sonny, even while ranting, symbolically waves a white towel — his surrender seemingly inevitable.

The wedding of Liz Eden and John Wojtowicz.

And Sonny was motivated (if misguidedly) by his own rights struggle. The film was based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, who needed the money to finance what society then called “a sex change operation” for his transgender lover, Ernie Aron. The real-life Wojtowicz, after serving seven years of a 20-year prison sentence, received $7,500 for “Dog Day” movie rights and gave $2,500 to Aron, who subsequently became Liz Eden. The movie was groundbreaking in dramatizing members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Nominated for six Academy Awards (best picture, leading actor, supporting actor, directing, film editing, and original screenplay), “Dog Day Afternoon” clinched just one, for screenwriter Frank Pierson. He drew his inspiration from the Life magazine article “The Boys in the Bank” by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore — who perhaps can take some credit for casting, because they described Wojtowicz as “a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or a Dustin Hoffman.”

But the allusion to Attica was never part of screenwriter Pierson’s design. A 2018 interview with Pacino in Vulture reveals the line was improvised, the action feeding off the crowd of extras and onlookers:

“It was an assistant director who whispered the magic word to Pacino in the now-famous scene in which he rallies the crowd outside the bank. “He says, ‘Say “Attica.” ’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Go ahead. Say it to the crowd out there. “Attica.” Go ahead.’ So I sort of half got it, so when I got out there, I looked around. This is on-camera now. Cameras are rolling, and I looked around, and I just said, ‘Hey, you know, Attica, right?’ … And we start improvising, and you get that whole Attica scene, because an AD whispered in my ear as I’m going out a door. I mean, that is what movies are.”

In 2014, as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, Uri Hasson, an associate professor of psychology and neurosciences at Princeton University, explained how brain responses to films could be measured dynamically using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). After mapping subjects’ neural responses to particular “Dog Day” clips, the Attica! scene among them, he declared that 63%-73% of viewers’ brains were engaged — a remarkably strong response. He also observed outward manifestations of connection/emotion, like laughter.

“Attica” the documentary is guaranteed to deeply engage the brain and provoke serious emotion — in my case, outrage, tears, and unbridled fear for those still navigating racist brutalities in their daily lives. I don’t expect the movie to take home the Oscar — its competition this year is brutal (not as brutal as scenes depicted), and its narrative, building suspense toward a dreadful denouement, is jumbled. But it’s important folks bear witness to the buried history and also understand the undercurrent of one of Pacino’s iconic performances.

The other movie in this year’s Oscar race that pays unexpected homage to “Dog Day Afternoon” is the Norwegian offering “Verdens Verste Menneske,” translated as “The Worst Person in the World,” up for both original screenplay and international feature film. Who’s this worst person? Julie is no criminal. She’s a med student on the cusp of 30 who’s unsure what she truly wants in life — career-wise, love-wise, reproductive-wise — and how her indecisiveness affects those in her path. The title unfairly indicts her, of course, because many of us herk and jerk our way toward self-actualization.

One of her onetime lovers — played by the brilliant Anders Danielsen Lie, who happens to be a doctor as well as an actor — delivers an incisive line, something like: “How many times can one watch ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ anyway?” That’s loosely translated and quoted, as I was at an actual movie theater for this one and not taking notes. Danielsen Lie’s character, a cartoonist and comic book writer, was reflecting on art, on the things in life with true value. He says something to the effect of: You can’t pass along culture in objects, you can’t really collect it, you can’t hold it in your hand. Although Julie, who works at a bookstore, reminds him, oh, but no, with books you can.

It’s an interesting testament to the screenwriter, who wrote the words and obviously reveres the American movie that snagged the 1975 award for best original screenplay. Just a passing reference, but one that made me sit up and wonder: How deep into our universal psyche does “Dog Day Afternoon” go?

Pretty deep, apparently. In 2009, “Dog Day Afternoon” was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. I wonder if it’s been translated into Norwegian.

You may have heard about one special scene in “The Worst Person in the World,” in which Julie flips a switch and manages to momentarily test another life choice, an alternative pathway. The world freezes, and she escapes her domestic scene and runs through city streets to meet a potential love interest. Blissfully, no GCI tricks were used; folks freeze in place as she and the camera crew dodge and dart by.

I heard that on the day this scene was filmed, other passersby — or non-passersby, as it were — caught on to what was happening and extended the scene outward, filling in like an endless game of freeze tag, even though they weren’t on anyone’s list or payroll. It reminded me of the energy of the extras in the Attica! scene of “Dog Day Afternoon” — a fuse lit among the crowd but, in this case, inspiring stillness, inner reflection.

Our memories of movies live beside the memories of our lives, sometimes indistinguishable in our brains. No doubt John Wojtowicz had trouble remembering where he left off and the folk hero created by Pacino began. In fact, a transcendent 10-minute art installation dubbed “The Third Memory” features the actual John Wojtowicz re-enacting the 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery alongside footage of Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” and actual media coverage, including that Life article that inspired the screenplay. Sure would like to see the functional magnetic resonance imaging on that.

And that’s how movies amplify the stories of our lives. Some lived, others half-lived, some half-remembered, others impossible to forget.