Steven Spielberg Has the Best Picture Oscar Frontrunner. Will ‘The Fabelmans’ Go the Distance?

Michelle Williams gives a luminous performance and it won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival — but that may not be enough.
The Fabelmans
"The Fabelmans"

For Steven Spielberg’s coming-of-age origin myth “The Fabelmans” (November 11), Universal enacted the “Green Book” plan: Put it in front of the friendly audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. Spielberg has shown his films at many festivals over the years, but never TIFF — which also happened to offer the best timing for the very pregnant Michelle Williams to make a North American festival trip. The Toronto crowd’s standing ovation was raucous and enthusiastic, and sure enough, the family drama won the often Oscar-predictive People’s Choice audience award.

Thus Spielberg’s auto-fictional, intimate, and modestly budgeted film instantly pushed to the front of the Oscar Best Picture race, with support expected from directors, writers, crafts, and most especially, actors. While four-time nominee Williams is less likely to win as Best Actress, it was her choice not to play category fraud. She is front and center as the young Spielberg stand-in’s (Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman) charismatic pianist mother who supports her son’s moviemaking obsession.

Long overdue for a win, Williams went supporting for “Manchester by the Sea” and “Brokeback Mountain.” If she was first on the call sheet, damn it, she was going for Best Actress. Never-nominated Paul Dano, who stars as Sammy’s techie dad, plus Judd Hirsch as his crazy uncle (last nominated 42 years ago for “Ordinary People”) will vie for supporting slots.

But careful what you wish for. Being the Oscar frontrunner out of the gate is not always where you want to be. Spielberg knows this firsthand: A decade ago, “Lincoln” was the frontrunner and scored 11 nominations but wound up with only two wins, for Daniel Day-Lewis (who, after all, was Lincoln) and production designer Rick Carter.

The trick is to hang in the race until nominations morning and then sustain momentum thr0ugh Oscar night. This game plan worked for “Green Book,” which also played the London Film Festival and AFI FEST and tagged many of the right Academy boxes. So does “The Fabelmans,” which played the Rome Film Festival and will get an AFI FEST boost on November 6.

GREEN BOOK, from left: Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen, 2018. ph: Patti Perret /© Universal /Courtesy Everett Collection
“Green Book”Universal/courtesy Everett / Everett Collection

Here’s what it takes to get to a Best Picture win.

Make Oscar voters feel good about themselves. “The Fabelmans” will appeal to older Academy members who grew up with 50 years of Spielberg movies and know them well. “E.T.” and other films are cited in the script co-written during the pandemic by Spielberg (his first since “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence”) and his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner (“Munich,” “Lincoln,” “West Side Story”). Spielberg has never been nominated as a writer.

Academy voters relate to the struggles of an artist, whether it’s Don Shirley of “Green Book,” “Birdman,” “The Artist,” or the young Spielberg fighting for support from his family to get his films made.

Best Picture winners tug at the heartstrings. From “Ordinary People” and “CODA” to “Moonlight,” more often than not these movies make voters cry.

Embrace social issues. “Green Book,” “Moonlight,” “Twelve Years a Slave,” and “Crash” plumbed cultural issues like racism, while Spielberg reveals the intense anti-Semitic hazing he experienced at his Northern California high school.

Score big at the box office. If the movie draws audiences to theaters, “The Fabelmans” will gain momentum. “West Side Story” was dinged by being a remake and by not flourishing during its pandemic theatrical run. Cinephiles will be the target demo and word of mouth will need to kick in to broaden its appeal beyond friendly festival audiences.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 21: Steven Spielberg attends the 2022 TCM Classic Film Festival Opening Night 40th Anniversary Screening of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial…" at TCL Chinese Theatre on April 21, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Steven Spielberg attends the 2022 TCM Classic Film Festival Opening Night 40th Anniversary Screening of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”Getty Images

Reveal a filmmaker at his best. Spielberg directed and produced 11 Best Picture nominees and won once (“Schindler’s List”). He scored two directing Oscars out of eight nominations (“Schindler’s List, “”Saving Private Ryan”). Last year, “West Side Story” landed Best Picture and Director nominations, out of seven nominations. Ariana Debose won Best Supporting Actress.

In recent years, Spielberg has gained cred for following his muse instead of pursuing overtly commercial projects. “The Fabelmans” is a crowdpleaser with an 84 Metascore, but the family drama lacks some of the scale and scope that attracts multiple nominations. Editing and John Williams’ score would seem in the bag.

A negative for Spielberg is his first overtly personal film follows similar efforts by several other auteurs, a trend launched by Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma.” It took home three Oscars for Cuaron for Director, Cinematography, and Best Foreign Language Film in 2019, the same year that “Green Book” won Best Picture.

Italy submitted Paolo Sorrentino’s “Hand of God” two years ago, while last year yielded Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” which won Best Original Screenplay. This season we also have James Gray’s Reagan-era memoir “Armageddon Time,” which focuses on the relationship of Gray’s young protagonist (Banks Repeta) with a less-entitled black friend (Jaylin Webb), and Sam Mendes’ ’80s beachside romance “Empire of Light,” which stars Olivia Colman as a middle-aged woman enthralled with a younger black theater coworker (Micheal Ward).

Spielberg’s film has already demonstrated strong popular appeal, but critics’ groups may not boost it with year-end attention. They may think the film doesn’t need their help.

The question is, who could overtake Spielberg? James Cameron could grab many votes for his mighty “Avatar” sequel. And the stealth candidate from wily Searchlight is Martin McDonagh’s hit “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which could build support from the speciality-leaning and international side of the Academy. Spielberg hasn’t taken home a competitive Oscar since his Best Director win in 1998 for “Saving Private Ryan.” “The Fabelmans” is an authentic and brave piece of filmmaking from a revered 75-year-old global auteur. It will be hard to beat.

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