New This Week
Judas and the Black Messiah was nominated for six Oscars and won two. It had been nominated for Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Song, and two Supporting Actors, Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. Kaluuya won as expected, and H.E.R., D’Mile, and Tiara Thomas pulled off a surprise win for the song “Fight for You.”
Directed by Shaka King, who co-wrote the screenplay with Will Berson and Kenny and Keith Lucas, the film takes place in Chicago between 1966 and 1969. It begins with 17-year-old William O’Neal, a serial car thief, agreeing to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party for the FBI in order to have the charges against him dropped.
The Chicago chapter at the time was run by the charismatic 18-year-old Fred Hampton whose radical activism FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was determined to “neutralize”.
Kaluuya, already 30 at the time of filming, and Stanfield, 28, his Get Outco-star, were both seemingly too old for their parts, but Hampton and O’Neal were larger than life characters who seemed older than their chronological ages, so there was no controversy there. What was controversial, however, was that both lead actors were nominated in the supporting Oscar category rather than in lead.
Hollywood had been playing footsie with the acting categories since the inception of the supporting awards, but this was the first time that both leads were nominated in support. The usual trick was to place one in lead and the other in support to avoid competition between the two leads.
Spencer Tracy and Luise Rainer, in 1936, the first year in which supporting performances were eligible for Oscars, were both nominated for lead Oscars for their supporting roles in San Francisco and The Great Ziegfeld, respectively. Rainer actually won. Three years later, Greer Garson was nominated in the lead category for her supporting role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips while Olivia de Havilland, whose role in Gone with the Wind was considerably longer than Garson’s, was nominated in support to avoid conflict with Vivien Leigh, the first time a starring role in a major film was treated in such a manner. Leigh won, while de Havilland lost to co-star Hattie McDaniel, who had a true supporting role in the film for which they were both nominated.
The tomfoolery reached its height of ridiculousness in 1944 when Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for Going My Way. He won in the supporting category, while his co-star Bing Crosby took home the Best Actor award. Reforms were put into place so that studios were required to submit lists of which actors and actresses should be considered for lead Oscars in their films, and which should be considered in support.
Controversies continued, however, with such notable examples as Fox’s placing Anne Baxter in lead for All About Eve, who some considered to be taking away votes from Bette Davis in her greatest role. More likely, however, Davis lost her shot at a third Oscar because of competition from Gloria Swanson, who like Davis, was nominated for playing an aging actress in that year’s Sunset Boulevard.
In 1963, Roddy McDowall was widely considered a favorite to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Cleopatra, but 20th Century-Fox goofed and listed the entire cast as leads, quashing his chances.
In more recent years, voters determine category placement. Although performers may receive votes in both categories, they can only be nominated in one. Film producers do their best with massive advertising to convince voters to consider one of a film’s stars of the same sex in lead and the other in support. Voters generally follow suit, even though they often do so with raised eyebrows, such as when they nominated Denzel Washington in lead and Ethan Hawke in support for 2001’s Training Day for which Washington won. More recently, the split nominations between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in 2015’s Carol caused major outrage.
With Judas and the Black Messiah, it was generally thought that Stanfield as “Judas” O’Neal would be considered lead as the story was being told through his eyes. Others, however, disagreed, feeling that top billed Kaluuya as “Black Messiah” Hampton, whose picture was most prominent in all the film’s advertising, was the film’s true lead. No one thought both were supporting players, which suggests that different groups voted for one or the other. Whatever happened, it does seem like another tweak of the nominating rules is in order.
Outstanding real supporting players in the film were Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s wife and Jesse Plemons as O’Neal’s handler. Martin Sheen, on the other hand, deserved major Razzie consideration for his hideous portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover.
Judas and the Black Messiah is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.
Kino Lorber has released a 4K restoration Blu-ray of Mel Brooks’ celebrated 1968 comedy The Producers with an interesting commentary from filmmaker/historian Michael Schlesinger.
Brooks won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, while co-star Gene Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing second fiddle to Zero Mostel as the down-on-his-luck Broadway producer reduced to romancing rich old ladies for the money to back his shows. Wilder comes up with the idea of raising more money than is necessary to produce a show so that when it flops, there won’t be any profits to share. The catch is that if a show is a success, they could land in jail for fraud.
Mostel’s leering is better suited to the stage than film, and although he did get to film the stage version of his second most famous Broadway show, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1966, Noman Lewison, the director of 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof, cast the subtler Israeli actor Topol instead.
I am among the few who actually prefer Brooks’ musical version of The Producers, filmed in 2005 with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
Also new from Kino Lorber are Blu-rays of Ang Lee’s under-appreciated 2007 film Lust, Caution and William Phelps’ 1987 surfing film North Shore, still one of the best ever made in that genre.
This week’s U.S. Blu-ray releases include The Mauritanian and Land.