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Once upon a time in Hollywood:
It’s July 2019, and no one’s wearing a mask. Before a huge, revved-up audience, writer-director Quentin Tarantino presents his blood-spattered sentimental ode to an industry in transition, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” in 70-millimeter screenings held at the legendary Pacific Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the Dome. Tarantino made sure it got its close-up in his movie. A cement geodesic volleyball of an L.A. landmark since 1963, it came from the architect who gave the world the Capitol Records building.
Today, the Dome sits next door to the Sunset Boulevard Pacific ArcLight complex, which up until the COVID-19 pandemic, outgrossed just about every other boutique and specialty and art-house venue in America, depending on the movie. For years the ArcLight’s most popular location held the hearts of thousands and thousands of L.A. cinephiles. When it opened in 2002 the assigned-seating policy seemed fussy and strange to many, but this was a place that took films and film history and no-texting policies seriously. You never knew who you’d run into there, famous or not.
Since mid-2019, everything has changed about that starry scenario. Tarantino’s movie, a smash, feels like an adolescent fever dream from another era, imagining an alternate-reality L.A. from an even earlier era.
Earlier this week, the ArcLight Cinemas and the Pacific Theatres chains, owned by Decurion, called it quits. This means Chicago’s ArcLight Cinemas in the New City mixed-use development in Lincoln Park, along with the Glenview ArcLight, are closed now, too.
There’s so much love in L.A. for the Dome and the Sunset Boulevard ArcLight, not to mention the Pasadena ArcLight eulogized recently by my onetime Los Angeles Times colleague Mary McNamara. Those theaters may well find backers, famous ones or simply other theater operators, to revive the dormant venues once the pandemic abates.
That still leaves the rest of ArcLight’s theaters, including the Chicago and Glenview locations, a memory.
We’re just now seeing the full effect of the pandemic on the biggest movie chains — AMC, Regal and the like, as well as smaller ones, such as ArcLight and Alamo Drafthouse.
We’re just now realizing how many theaters are destined to become memories in a hurry.
Hollywood itself, along with where and how we see our movies, has changed, perhaps permanently. And this is the blur of change providing the backdrop for the 93rd running of the bull known as the Academy Awards, April 25 on ABC-TV.
The nominated performances this year come from films released in the calendar year 2020, up through the pandemic extension date Feb. 28, 2021.
It’s the most diverse performance slate in Oscar history. Audiences have discovered “Minari” (gentle, artful poetic realism), “Promising Young Woman” (well-acted, cruelly superficial treatment of serious themes) and others by way of various streaming platforms and, here and there, in between COVID surges, drive-in and reopened indoor theater screens.
Other potential audiences remain just that — potential audiences, not yet actual, wary of titles they haven’t heard enough about to suit their risk tolerance.
Ooo, I haven’t heard of that one! Why would I check out something I don’t already know I know, and think I like?
Everything in American life, and culture, and entertainment, has fractured and diversified beyond recognition. In a healthier economy, and a healthier country, that’s ideal. That’s change, in motion, toward a better, fuller version of the world and the stories we tell about it and the storytellers the industry encourages.
So many folks I’ve talked to say they feel left out of the Oscars this year, even if they liked director Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” or Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” or Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” adapted from Heller’s play. Frances McDormand brought “Nomadland” to the director; Anthony Hopkins brought his A-game to “The Father.” They might well win their third and second Oscars, respectively.
Or not. They might not! Remember the whole thing about predicting Oscar winners, back before the pandemic? Before the 2020 killings of George Floyd and so many others? Before what happened, again, in Minnesota just last week, this time to Daunte Wright? It’s no wonder the Oscars seem insanely frivolous this year. Life right now is more about nailing down your second vaccination or trying to stay sane while another Black or Brown citizen is killed by the police than speculating on who’ll win best supporting actress.
But in the spirit of brainless, diversionary nostalgia, what the hell. Let’s go. Some predictions follow. We’ll wait until next Sunday for the full 24-category Oscars ballot. For now, let’s try five:
Best Picture. It’ll probably go “Minari,” “Nomadland” or (in a presumptive second-choice good-enough pick) “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” “Nomadland” is my guess, simply because it’s won a lot of awards these last few weeks.
Leading Actress. Tough, incredibly competitive category. So far Viola Davis has won the Screen Actors Guild award for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Andra Day won the Golden Globe, comedy or musical division, for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”; Carey Mulligan won the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for “Promising Young Woman”; and Frances McDormand won the BAFTA for “Nomadland.” Vanessa Kirby is the fifth nominee, for “Pieces of a Woman.”
I’m predicting Mulligan.
Leading Actor. It’s between Riz Ahmed for “Sound of Metal” and Anthony Hopkins for “The Father.” Hoping for Ahmed.
Supporting Actress. Super easy! It’ll be Yuh-Jung Youn, for her delicious turn as the grandmother in “Minari.” It’s the honorary Helen Hayes-in-”Airport” win, except it’s a fine performance in a fine movie, as opposed to Hayes in “Airport.”
Supporting Actor. Daniel Kaluuya likely has the edge for his portrayal of Fred Hampton, the Illinois Black Panther Party chairman assassinated by Chicago police, in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” I’d be equally gratified by a win for Chicago native Paul Raci, so miraculously right as the manager of the group home for deaf recovering addicts in “Sound of Metal.”
Directing. I believe this one’s Chloe Zhao’s to lose, for “Nomadland.”
Let’s go out with a tale of the origins of the Academy Awards, however sleazy and manipulative — which is how I like my movies, but never mind.
Near the end of the silent film era, studio mogul Louis B. Mayer wanted to build a beach house in Santa Monica for his family. According to Scott Eyman’s biography “Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer,” he hired MGM studio laborers to do the job. Then he found out that the studio construction union’s contracts meant higher wages than Mayer wanted to pay.
He paid it, grumbling, but realized he’d better find a way to prevent his other employees — actors, directors, etc. — from organizing. Presto! In early 1927, a select gaggle of 36 writers, producers, actors and industry craftsmen attended a banquet thrown by the newly created Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Mayer promised attendees that anyone in AMPAS would be treated well, so fiddle-dee-dee to any need for organized labor to get into the act. Also, he said, there’ll be prizes. Hence, the Academy Awards, later nicknamed the Oscars.
In Mayer’s own words: The solution to the threat of unionization was to “hang medals all over (the studio employees). If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”
And that’s why simple nostalgia for Hollywood’s glory days has a way of curdling under the microscope.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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