Overtures and Undertows

‘Overtures and Undertows’: What Award Season Means to Me

By Noma Faingold

I’ve been an avid viewer of the Academy Awards since I was a child. My parents, while they liked films, were more consumed with opera season. My older brother was more into finding reasons to be out of the house, mainly to play sports. At least that’s what he told us. 

I have vivid memories of Oscar broadcast moments, including Louise Fletcher’s moving acceptance speech in 1976 for her portrayal of villainous Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” where she thanked her parents (both of whom were deaf) using sign language.

In college, my roommate, Karen, and I were on the same page about our reverence for the Bob Fosse autobiographical masterpiece, “All that Jazz.” When it lost the Best Picture Oscar to “Kramer vs. Kramer” (which wound up sweeping in all the major categories), at the end of the 1980 broadcast, Karen cursed and threw the remote at the TV, which seemed like the correct response.

As an adult, I held several Oscar parties, but found them to be frustrating endeavors because my guests would continue to talk as awards were being announced and during acceptance speeches. I didn’t have the nerve to shush them. I wish they had naturally adhered to my personal etiquette that any discussion should take place during commercials. There was also plenty of time for catty, fashion-related comments during the banal pre-Oscar red carpet shows. I could even accept chatter during the less sexy awards, like Best Sound Mixing and Best Animated Short Film.

As my passion for film grew and I was blessed to write movie reviews and feature stories, I became aware that each year, there’s an award season that begins with a fall film festival circuit, followed by a series of award ceremonies (Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards [SAG], British Academy of Film and Television Awards [BAFTA], among others), culminating with the Academy Awards. Prestige films are released and marketed strategically in the fall for maximum award consideration. 

Media access to actors, actresses and filmmakers during this time increases significantly, which brings me to being invited to join the “press line” at the annual SFFILM Awards on the evening of Dec. 5, 2022.

None of media in the press line seemed to be invited to the event, which was actually a fundraiser for the largest San Francisco film organization, which hosts the longest running film festival (since 1957) in the Americas.

We were in the same building at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as the better dressed big donors, and Academy voters were sipping pre-show cocktails on the main lobby below us. Meanwhile, we were scrunched together with the names of our media outlet taped to the floor in front of us. At times, I felt my body being pushed against the retractable belt barrier in front of me. I was representing the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon sister publications. To my left were a pair of journalists, Kit Stone and LaTasha Monique, from the Black Cape. To my right was Meaghan Mitchell, a reporter for the San Francisco Standard. 

The reporter right behind me shall remain nameless for two reasons: Amid the crush while “working,” she thought it was a good time to get a cocktail. She put it on the floor next to her while conducting her video interviews. Not surprisingly, her other offense was to cloyingly ask a couple of actresses receiving awards who they were wearing.

Some of us were relegated to the end of the press line, while photographers and broadcast journalists were stationed toward the front of the line. None of us seemed to mind, once the talent, who were soon to be honored with awards, graciously and thoughtfully answered our individual questions.

Actress Margot Robbie, who was receiving the Maria Manetti Shrem Award for Acting, was the last to walk down the truncated red carpet. She was promoting “Babylon,” an epic film about the decadence and costly ambition during 1920s Hollywood, co-starring Brad Pitt and directed by Damien Chazelle.

At the SFFILM Awards in December, Margot Robbie would receive the Maria Manetti Shrem Award for Acting. In the pre-show press line, Robbie promoted her latest film, “Babylon.” Photos by Noma Faingold.

This is not Robbie’s first award-season rodeo. She could teach a master class is how to do this, whatever this is. 

The Australian-born superstar was previously nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress in “I, Tonya” (2018) and for Best Supporting Actress with “Bombshell” (2020). 

She was a pro in every sense of the word, almost gliding from reporter to reporter, while never taking a bad photo, amid the continuous snapping. She was strikingly dressed in a long, black, sleeveless bodycon dress with tasteful cutouts. She walked a fashion tightrope by successfully not overdoing it. After all, this was not the Oscars or even the Critics’ Choice Awards. Yet, she exuded glamour as soon as she entered the room. Everyone one who came before her was forgotten. 

Even when she was asked questions that she had heard dozens of times during press junkets, her answers seemed enthusiastic, spontaneous and worthy of 20-second sound bites. 

“She definitely knows how to work it,” Mitchell whispered to me.

I asked Robbie how she feels about the rigors of promoting a film during award season. 

“This has been an incredible year in film. I’m really excited about the release of ‘Babylon’ during award season in particular,” she said. “The best part is you end up doing this circuit with the same group of people and you get to know them.”

Another SFFILM Award recipient was Oakland-born director Ryan Coogler, 43, of “Wakanda Forever,” who was being honored with the Irving M. Levin Award for Film Direction.

Oakland-born Ryan Coogler, director of “Wakanda Forever,” works the press line at the SFFILM Awards in December, where is was honored with Irving M. Levin Award for Film Directing.

Coogler, has also directed “Black Panther,” “Creed” and his 2013 breakthrough, “Fruitvale Station,” described getting an award in the Bay Area as “surreal.”

“This is home for me,” said Coogler. “I have a deep sense of gratitude that I’ve had so many opportunities. It feels so strange to think it’s been a decade. I just feel blessed to be doing it 10 years later.”

Director/screenwriter/actress Sarah Polley was being recognized with the SFFILM Award for Storytelling for her latest film, “Women Talking,” which she wrote and directed. It’s a true story about how a group of women deal with an existential crisis of what to do about sexual assault and abuse in their isolated religious community.

Polley, who has directed both documentary and narrative films, mostly of the indie variety, looked at the recent “Women Talking” Oscar buzz as, “an amazing opportunity to get to show the film more. I’m thrilled people are talking about it,” she said. “I keep waiting for it (award season) to be an unpleasant experience. But so far, I keep getting to meet interesting people and have interesting conversations.”

Actress/director Joan Chen, who has lived in San Francisco for 30 years, was presenting actress Stephanie Hsu with the George Gund III Award for Breakthrough Performance for her role in the hard-to-define, genre-leaping, “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

Hsu, 32, seemed to be loving every minute of award season. 

SFFILM Award recipient Stephanie Hsu is embracing award season for her breakout role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

“It’s my first time being in this world that I’m saying yes to all of it, while still preserving myself,” she said. “This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once you get past the noise of it all, it’s about celebrating something I worked so hard on that encapsulates so much of what I believe in about art and the love of making stories.”

Perhaps award shows mean less to people these days. Priorities seemed to change because of the pandemic. Network TV viewership is way down. The Academy Awards broadcasts the last few years have been problematic – often characterized as boring, misguided productions. Other criticisms include disparity (#oscarssowhite) and that the Academy voters are out of touch with more populist tastes. 

And about last year’s Oscars – I’m not even sure what a comeback is supposed to look like for the show, or for Will Smith, after the slap seen around the world. 

Streaming has radically altered the film industry. A lot of people don’t even value the group audience experience at a theater. Is cinema on life support? Except for superhero or fantasy movies, does anyone still want to sit in the dark, watching a film on a big screen and being completely transported (without interruption) to another world for a couple of hours?

I do. 

I will be watching the 95th Academy Awards on March 12, probably alone, rooting for my favorite acting performances to win. I want to see cinematographers, art directors, screenwriters and directors get their due.  However, should “Avatar: The Way of Water” win anything besides technical awards (I barely got through the heavy-handed, cliché first “Avatar”), I might throw my remote at the TV screen.

Noma Faingold is a writer and photographer, who lives in Noe Valley. The native San Franciscan, who grew up in the Sunset District, is a frequent contributor to the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers, among others. She is obsessed with pop culture and the arts, especially film, theater and fashion.

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