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Pete Hammond’s Notes On The Season: Foreign Film Race Heats Up; ‘Moana’ Set To Soar At The Oscars; Denzel And Viola Get Grilled By Mrs. August Wilson

Deadline logo Deadline 2/18/2017 Pete Hammond
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A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

And now we are really at crunch time, and though I have talked to a few Oscar voters who already have cast their ballots since final voting opened on Monday, many still are waiting closer to next Tuesday’s 5 PM PT deadline to make their decisions. Those planning on voting in the Foreign, Documentary and Shorts races probably will need this rainy holiday weekend just to catch up with that viewing opportunity since the Academy’s DVD set of those categories just went out last week (though streaming was available for the more adventurous).

And if you think front-runner La La Land is letting up for a minute, think again. Even after the 14-time-nominated musical took five BAFTA Awards including Best Picture, Actress and Director last Sunday (after triumphing at most other major awards races), a campaigner with the film told me: “We are not going to let up for a minute. We are going for it.” Indeed. Lionsgate even got writer-director Damien Chazelle booked with Jimmy Fallon on Wednesday night, followed by an interview with all four anchors of Good Morning America the next morning, where they all fawned over his film. That was a coup considering those shows usually don’t go for directors unless your name is Spielberg, Scorsese or Tarantino.

The studio also has been handing out behind-the-scenes featurettes to outlets (including Deadline) like they were candy on Halloween, not letting any rock go unturned. It clearly is the Harvey Weinstein influence on how Oscar campaigning is conducted that has become the norm in recent years. Meanwhile, Weinstein himself has focused on his big hope, the six-time-nominated Best Picture candidate Lion, by eliminating critics’ quotes from their ads and emphasizing people such as Salman Rushdie, Madeleine Albright, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann of Bloomberg Politics, and Gloria Steinem, who is quoted as saying Lion is “a special gift now that we are being told to isolate ourselves and pretend we are not all passengers on spaceship earth.” It gives the film real gravitas especially in the Donald Trump Muslim ban environment in which this year’s Oscar race has found itself engulfed recently. That is particularly true in the Foreign Language Film contest where one film, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman continues to be at the center of a storm, one that despite its merits is not being wholly embraced by its competition.

FOREIGN STRIFE INTENSIFIES

Last week I talked about Farhadi’s statement saying that he is staying away from the Oscars, regardless if he is allowed to come, due to the now-failed travel ban against seven largely Muslim countries including Iran, which is represented at the Oscars by The Salesman. Trade and mainstream media continue to pick up the story, which has had the lopsided effect of giving Farhadi and The Salesman most of the publicity in the race, as well as turning it into a cause celebre to be voted for, according to some, just to make a statement against Trump.

This week London’s mayor even jumped into the fray, announcing a free Oscar Night screening of Farhadi’s movie in Trafalgar Square to protest the travel ban. Farhadi jumped on board Tuesday, saying, “The gathering of audience around The Salesman in this famous London square is a symbol of unity against the division and separation of people.” Should The Salesman win, it would be ironic since his film is not about that at all, and really not very political. lt has far less of a pertinent message for the times than, say, fellow nominees A Man Called Ove and Land of Mine. And the moment for any kind of political statement would be lost on the Oscar stage since Farhadi would be sitting at home, refusing to come and join his fellow nominees who also have something important to say and aren’t staying away. Farhadi, who lives in Iran as well as Paris, easily could come to the Oscars and be more effective either on the red carpet, at the Saturday Foreign Symposium, or even on the Dolby stage should he win. But so far, no dice. The Academy won’t even release the six tickets allotted to his film so other foreigners might be able to get seats as it can’t be sure he won’t change his mind.

With the travel ban now banned by the courts, other nominees in a similar situation seem to be announcing every day that they are thrilled to be invited to the Oscars, have obtained visas and are coming to Hollywood support their films. The growing list includes Bahar Pars, the Iran-born co-star of Swedish nominee A Man Called Ove, a movie that celebrates diversity and humanity among all kinds of people living in the same neighborhood. It also includes the Syrian leader of the White Helmets, Raed Saleh, and Documentary Short nominee The White Helmets’ cinematographer both obtaining visas to attend the Oscars in support of what their movie says about first responders in war-torn Syria. It also includes Hala Kamil, the Syrian subject of another Doc Short nominee Watani: My Homeland. The list also counts filmmakers and subjects from other nominated shorts dealing with immigrants like La Femme et le TGV, Silent Nights, Ennemis Interieurs, 4.1 Miles and so on. The Salesman has less to say about the way we are circa 2017 than perhaps any of those films, Lion, Hell or High Water, Arrival, Hidden Figures, Zootopia, and others.

So why does Farhadi stick to the idea that he shouldn’t come? His absence is likely to be just what Trump would want. It means the travel ban had a high-profile effect. It clearly was on the mind of a couple of executives overseeing the companies with other foreign films in the race when I talked to them earlier this week.

Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics, which has Germany’s Toni Erdmann and Denmark’s Land of Mine up for Foreign Language Film, is not happy about the situation– especially at how he perceives what the media is writing about in suggesting that some Academy members are being persuaded to vote for The Salesman as a protest vote against Trump. The Guardian, in fact, called the London Oscar-night Salesman screening a “snub” of Trump’s order. “We have been in this game a long time and seen a lot of things happen. There’s political things that happen that are influencers, but this one seems a little different,” he told me. “It seems unfair for someone to write that a vote for Asghar is a vote against Trump.” Keep in mind he respects Farhani having released is previous Oscar winner, The Separation. He worries that new rules now allowing all members of the Academy to vote in the Foreign Language race as opposed to the way it had been for years, when you had to prove you had seen all five nominees in a theater, will mean that some members might just vote for Salesman based on name recognition and as a form of protest, maybe without even seeing it or the other nominees.

“It is not about the subject matter of the movie — it is a cause that has nothing to do with the movie, and that is unfortunate. I called the Academy and asked them if they would make a statement just to remind people that they needed to see all five movies before they vote, and they should really base their vote on what is the best movie, and they told me they were not going to make

a statement. I thought it would be appropriate, especially at this time with all that is going on,” he said. “My motivation is that I saw several stories that encouraged people to make a vote that was a political vote rather than one that is about the quality of the film. People that aren’t in the Academy are writing this and urging members to do this,” he said. For the record, the only official statement the Academy has released was at the time of the announcement of the travel ban, when they also singled out this movie and said in part, “We find it extremely troubling that Asghar Farhadi along with the cast and crew of this year’s Oscar-nominated film The Salesman could be barred from entering the country because of their religion or country or origin.” Just by only mentioning that one movie the Academy could appear to be unfairly giving an advantage or springboard for activists trying to make this a political football.

In fact, some members have gone public with the idea of a protest vote. Former critic and Directors Branch member Rod Lurie tweeted right after the ban was announced: “Muslim ban may keep nominee Asghar Farhadi from attending Oscars. I agree voting for him is essential.” He ran out of characters before he could say whether he had seen Farhadi’s movie, or any of the other nominees, and was retweeting a media report that suggested voting for Farhadi was symbolic. Multi Oscar nominated British director Mike Leigh put out a statement announcing

his participation in the London event saying, “We must show solidarity with Asghar and his principles, and against divisiveness and hate.” But is this reason enough to vote for the film? Ed Arentz, who manages Music Box Films, distributor of nominee A Man Called Ove as well as recent Foreign Language Film winner Ida, has an optimistic view of Academy members and their approach to voting. “I think Academy Award voters take this very seriously and aren’t inclined to vote for films they haven’t seen in any category,” he said. “I am very confident in the integrity of the Academy and the voting process, otherwise it might as well be an online beauty vote.” Arentz noted that anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers of people voting for Foreign Language Film has not skyrocketed since the opportunity was opened up to all members three years ago. He says in the case of The Salesman it would be a different situation if this was a movie that addressed questions of immigration, democracy and free speech. He says that would make sense, but this is about something else. Still, he’s sanguine about it all whatever happens. “If one year the process gets hijacked by contemporary politics, so be it,” he said. “It’s not the biggest thing in the world. You think the Trump administration is gonna bat an eyelash over the Academy voting for the Iranian film? If you want to make a political statement, there are better ways to go.”

HAWAIIAN EYES PROFESSIONAL DEBUT IN FRONT OF ONE BILLION PEOPLE

On a brighter note, Auli’i Cravalho doesn’t need a visa to travel from her native Hawaii when she arrives to become the second-youngest solo singer to ever perform on the Oscars. And guess what? This is going to be the 16-year-old Moana singing star’s first time performing in front of an audience outside of her school and church choir. Wow. She isn’t quite as young as 6-year-old Hook star Amber Scott was when she sang “When You’re Alone” on the 1992 Oscar show, but this is still a very big deal as the young woman who sang all of the title character’s songs in Disney’s Moana will be performing the nominated tune “How Far I’ll Go” with its composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plucked her from obscurity at age 14 for the movie job with no formal training and no performance history. Last week she even won an Annie Award for her voice work, but as she told me from her Oahu home this week, other than a recording studio, she hasn’t ever gotten this kind of opportunity before. “When I first found out, I did a lot of screaming, and then I realized I shouldn’t scream, I have to protect my voice,” she laughed.

Cravalho doesn’t have a TV (she likes to read) and therefore hasn’t seen a lot of Oscar shows, but she definitely will be recording this one. It was happenstance in the first place that led to her getting to do Moana, when a casting agent in Hawaii saw her and her high school friends audition for a non-profit local show (they didn’t get it) and invited her to try out for Moana. She sang a song from Disney’s Tangled and a few Hawaiian tunes, and the rest is history. It was the authenticity she had that impressed the powers that be, as well as Miranda. She’s pretty cool about singing on this year’s Oscars, even though Justin Timberlake, Sting and John Legend also will perform nominated songs. She met Timberlake at an Oscar nominee event and is really looking forward to meeting Sting. “I love his music. I have grown up with the old music. My mom brought me up with the good stuff,” she said, quickly correcting herself by saying she wasn’t calling Sting “old.” She is remarkably calm at this point and hasn’t even yet figured out what she is going to wear on the red carpet. “The fact that I am able to live this dream right now is incredible to me,” Cravalho said. “I understood how difficult it was to get into this industry, but now that I am in I don’t want to get out. This will be a really good performance to kind of start my singing career,” she said. I’ll say! In front of a billion people worldwide watching her on the Oscars singing with the star of Hamilton is a nice way to break into the business. “The song is magical in its own way. It is about a teenage girl, my age, who is trying to figure out what she is meant to do, and she loves her family, and she loves her island, yet there is a voice inside telling her, ‘what if there’s more out there.’ To be able to sing that song with the composer, there’s no other feeling in the world. I am just really thrilled.”

DENZEL AND VIOLA TALK FENCES AND IT HITS CLOSE TO HOME

Receiving a rare posthumous Oscar and WGA nomination for his adapted screenplay of his Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play, Fences, the playwright August Wilson has a right to be proud. Another reason came last night at the Landmark Theatre in West Los Angeles, where the Best Picture Oscar nominee played to a packed house followed by a Q&A with its Oscar-nominated and SAG-winning stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Both received massive standing ovations when introduced by none other than the evening’s moderator Constanza Romero Wilson, the playwright’s widow (he died in 2005). Deadline’s own Matt Grobar was on site for us and gave me the NOTES. In opening the conversation, she praised her husband’s legendary poetic contributions but also director Washington’s commitment to the script, a gift that Wilson left behind before his death 12 years ago,  and one that has been realized all these years later onscreen, the first-ever movie adaptation of one of his works. Washington said he directed the film so the language would remain front and center. “That’s what it starts with. That’s what it finishes with,” he said. Both actors talked a lot about the transition from their Tony-winning performances in the 2010 Broadway revival to making it come alive on film.

Davis talked about how one of the movie’s themes, that everyone ought to “matter”, really resonates today more than ever. Most interestingly she seized on a comment from Wilson, who said she would go incognito into the ladies room after screenings of the film and heard moviegoers debate the capacity for her husband’s words to translate effectively to the screen. “I just want to say really briefly that it’s interesting when people say that it doesn’t translate to the screen. See, I just have to say — I think that that’s racial,” the actress said. “I’ll tell you why, and I don’t mean to be political. I really don’t. I just want to make a point of saying that there’s a lot of different cinematic voices. You have everyone from Ingmar Bergman to Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. All of them are completely different.” And then she continued: “I just feel like there needs to be an expansiveness when we talk about narratives with people of color in them. They can come in different forms; they don’t always have to be kitchen sink. I have a feeling that that’s what people want, but there’s a sense of elevated poetry in this cinematic experience. I think there is a space for many different African American voices, not just one.”

That was some kind of night on the awards circuit just as it starts to wind down.

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