Oscars 2022 Spotlight: King Richard
On the surface this appears to be a stereotypical sports drama all about the power of the American dream. It doesn’t take long for King Richard to reveal itself as something decidedly different. It is, at its heart, a family drama following the trials and successes of Venus and Serena Williams as they grow up in the complicated shadow of their fatther “King” Richard, who frames the real interest of this story. The film is a tad too long but there is no denying the rich subtext and the dynamism of the story and the performances, including particular challenges they faced as persons of color. The tennis matches are really well shot and edited bringing the larger narrative arc to an apporopriate climatic and cinemtaic flouriish, but its the simple scenes of dialogue that carry the films decided emotional punch, with Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis sharing formidable space in both lead and supporting roles.
The Oscar Story:
It feels odd to suggest a Will Smith led serious drama dropped quietly and without much in the way of attention, fan fare, or viewership. This seemed to indicate the early fate of this anticipated Oscar contender. I was hard pressed to find much of anyone refrencing this film in early conversations as having much shot at all in multiple nomination categories.
And then Will Smith started to steamroll his way through the greater awards season winning top Actor nods and simataneously carrying this film’s campaign on his broad shoulders with dynamic awards speeches and plenty of interviews (he genuinely is one of the hardest working people in Hollywood). Fast foward and we are now looking at nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Will Smith), Supporting Actress (Aunjaneu Ellis), Original Song (Be Alive), and Original Screenplay, No matter how you shake this down, that kind of representation means you can’t overlook this film contending in any of the categories, even, shockingly so, Best Picture.
Now here me out. While there is a path forward for King Richard I don’t think it is winning Best Picture. However, I don’t think its a stretch to say the film could steal potential votes from the two films currently battling it out for that win (Coda and The Power of the Dog). Given how drastically different these two films are and how this represents a vast contrast of sensibilities within the voting body, the real question then becomes which film is likely to suffer more from the powerful presence of King Richard. That is difficult to say. The Power of the Dog will gain most of its votes from insiders who believe it to be the kind of high and prestigous art film that “should” win Best Picture. Those same people (read: Film Twitter) have been emerging as a bi sour over Coda’s last minute surge, describing it as (to borrow the words of one voice I read) fluffy and superficial sentimentality wrapped up as populous fare. On the flipside is the seemingly larger populous of voters who found The Power of the Dog to be cold, dour, and distant and who seem much more ready to embrace something positive, uplifting, and crowd pleasing. Enter Coda which genuinely seems to fit the bill. For the record, this is precisely why early analysis quesitoned the ability of The Power of the Dog to contend early on. That cold, dour, distant feeling didn’t seem to fit with the year we all just waded through in 2021. It would feel like dumping more fuel on an already and still burning fire. Something positive and uplifting and celebratory is the tonic appraently many people seem to be desiring right now.
So where does King Richard fit into all this? On one hand it is not out of place at all in the category of Best Picture winners. It strikes that balance between high art and popular fare and so I could see some voters, out of disdain for Coda (which feels absurd and mindboggling even to write… in my opinion Coda is both a geuine work of art and a film that one would think is impossible to hate), voting for King Richard in the number two spot just to push back against its embrace. Its also entirely possible that those who are enthusiastic about Coda will be primed to select King Richard in that number 2 slot as well. This is where that preferrential ballot could have genuine impact on the race in one way or the other. It will be interesting to watch.
Far less controversial is the expected win for Will Smith. If there is a sure thing this season it is in the Lead Actor category. Once upon a time it was thought that this was Benedict Cumberbatch’s to lose for his method turn in The Power of the Dog. Appreciation for that film and his performance has become more and more muted as awards season has pushed on with some even placing Andrew Garfield in that second spot for Tick Tick… Boom, another suprise on nomination morning. It feels safe to say Smith is far ahead in this race and that many believe he is long overdue.
In terms of Supporting Actress, while general consensus has Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) locked in for an expected win it also feels fair to say that Aunjaneu Ellis is occupying that number 2 spot over Judi Dench (Belfast), Kristen Dunst (The Power of the Dog), and Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter). Original song seems a fairer place to predict a win for King Richard though, with Dos Oruguitas from Encanto being its primary compeition.
Perhaps the most intriguing race when it comes to King Richard is Original Screenplay. Once you filter through the narrative of Kenneth Branagh’s possible make up vote for failing to secure a real spot in the Best Picture race (he is beloved within the Acadamy and has been hard at work making the rounds with interviews and publicity) along with the expectation that Jane Campion will take the Directors spot, the possible upset by Paul Thomas Anderson for Licorice Pizza in either Director or Original Screenplay actually makes an even more compelling case for King Richard sneaking in quietly from the periphary and making some real noise in this category. If you had to hedge your bets on a possible surprise win this would be a fair category to do it in.