Every year, final Oscar triumphs are dictated by the winning narrative. Last February, after the election of Donald Trump, Barry Jenkins’ African-American gay coming-of-age drama “Moonlight” was finally the more compelling message for the Academy to send, over the impeccably crafted escapist romantic musical “La La Land.”
This year, two improbable allies are vying for Oscars in three categories; Original Screenplay, Director, and Picture. Born in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Comedy Central star Jordan Peele, 38, now lives in LA and wrote and directed his breakout first feature, the Hitchcockian thriller “Get Out.” He first met Greta Gerwig, the Sacramento-born 34-year-old New York actress-turned-writer-director of family drama “Lady Bird,” on their Vanity Fair photo shoot in Bel Air. The pair hit it off as they went on to share their experience on this year’s long awards circuit. So much so that on Oscar nominations morning, Peele was among Gerwig’s first phone calls — as he was texting her. Their affection was palpable at their Santa Barbara directors panel, where they sang each other’s praises.
Improbably, Peele and Gerwig are going head to head in the category that they are most favored to win: Best Original Screenplay. On Sunday night, Peele won the Writers Guild Award in that category. And he’s likely, even though “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” competitor Martin McDonagh was not eligible for the WGAs, to also win on Oscar night. Here’s why.
Two narratives back up Peele and Gerwig, who each labored long and hard, putting their souls into their screenplays. And both are Academy outsiders who represent the Academy’s current push for inclusion, for alternate voices that are not standard-issue white male. Peele is a bi-racial male writing about race in a brilliantly imaginative way, inside the frame of an entertaining horror thriller. And Gerwig executes a coming-of-age romantic dramedy with precise grace and surprising universality.
Both films are popular and well reviewed. (“Lady Bird” has a 94 Metascore, “Get Out” is at 84.) Universal has taken “Get Out” global with a total $255 million worldwide, while A24’s “Lady Bird” is heading toward $50 million domestic and hasn’t yet hit the world.
What are their constituencies inside the Academy? Both are low-budget indies; neither has major support among the crafts. (A movie usually needs a Best Editing nod to win Best Picture.) Both “Get Out” and “Lady Bird” earned SAG Ensemble nominations, while “Lady Bird” landed two Oscar acting nods (Soairse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf) to “Get Out” for Daniel Kaluuya — with a total five nominations to four for “Get Out.”
As well-liked performers, both Peele and Gerwig are charming lobbyists. Clearly, women are leaning into mother-daughter dramedy “Lady Bird,” but they make up only 28 percent of Academy voters. And one meme that threatens the movie’s Oscar chances suggests that Gerwig’s movie is somehow overrated or overhyped for what it is, a charming romantic comedy that wouldn’t be in the Oscar conversation without the current groundswell for #MeToo and #TimesUp. (The people who feel this way tend to be men who don’t identify with the story.) Gerwig knows she’s riding a wave. At Friday’s Aero Q&A following “Lady Bird,” she admitted she’s already signed up to direct another (undisclosed) film: “Everybody has a lot of pressure to hire some ladies!”
Ultimately, Peele has more widespread support from the Academy’s dominant males as well as everyone who admires his audacious auteur originality and woke message. Who else could have ever dreamed up this wild mixed-genre concoction? Many people regard “Lady Bird” as finally more conventional and less innovative.
So “Get Out” likely takes home Best Original Screenplay. But voters still want “Lady Bird” to win something. Yes, TV star Allison Janney is a hugely popular frontrunner candidate for Best Supporting Actress for “I, Tonya.” But look for another performance as a mother to steal her thunder: recent Tony-winner Metcalf in “Lady Bird.” Often, the Academy veers highbrow.
Going forward, both Gerwig and Peele have entered a new rarified Hollywood filmmakers club, where the likes of A-listers Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Guillermo Del Toro want to help them. Along with their close friendship, they’re ahead, with their status enhanced, no matter who wins on Oscar night.