Is ‘Fences’ Going to be a Major Player at the Oscars?

In 1979 Jane Fonda saw a play that she bought to produce as a film for her father, On Golden Pond (1981). She believed the film would finally bring her agin father a long overdue Academy Award for Best Actor. Before a frame of film had been shot there was talk of Fonda winning that Oscar, so much so that co-star Katherine Hepburn nearly withdrew from the film because she felt it might be a Fonda vehicle. When the film came out, rave reviews greeted the picture, though many also accused it of being sentimental and sugary, the performance could not be denied.

As expect Fonda did win her Oscar, and died six months later. Hepburn also won, her fourth for Best Actress, and Ernest Thompson won for his screenplay adaptation of his acclaimed play. My gripe is that good or bad, Fonda was going to win that Oscar. Oh you say they do not give Oscars for bad acting. Think again. Pacino got one for Scent of a Woman (1992), Begnini for Life is Beautiful (1998), Zellweger for Cold Mountain (2003)….it certainly does happen.

In 1996, ‘The Crucible’ was predicted to sweep the Oscars, the long-awaited film version of the infamous Arthur Miller play about the Salem Witch Hunt in 1692. By Christmas despite excellent reviews it was gone, and I mean gone.

So we have Fences coming, a great American play by Lanford Wilson, a long-awaited film version with Denzel Washington directing he and Viola Wilson who recently staged a remount of the play on Broadway to great acclaim. Two great actors in a great play. How can they go wrong? You might ask.

And of course we have an Academy hungry for diversity, needing to nominate black actors this year and some sort of Civil War could break out within the ranks of the Academy. We thought they had a sure-fire nominee, potential winner in The Birth of a Nation (2016) but the ugly past of creator Nate Parker reached forward and damaged the credibility of the filmmaker so badly, the film has no chance, he has no chance of Oscar attention.

But Fences, there a lot of hopes placed on this film.

The Academy would like nothing more than to honor Denzel Washington with a second Best Actor Oscar, his third in total as he won for supporting in 1989, and perhaps even Best Director. Viola Davis, everyone believes should have won a few years ago for The Help (2011) but fell victim to the Academy needing to honor Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady (2011) for twenty eighty years worth of slights. There has already been category jockeying for Davis, fearing the Natalie Portman performance in Jackie, there have been rumors she might go supporting thereby assuring her a win. Or does it? Michelle Williams seems to have the supporting Oscar sewn up for her brilliant performance in Manchester By the Sea, so does it help Davis to move to the supporting category…I think not.

What if the film is not as good as they hoped it would be, which could happen, certainly has happened in the past. What if it is good and ends up with several nominations but it is a year when the Academy spreads things a bit?

If ‘Fences’ falters, does that throw ‘Loving’ ahead a few spots, because it began a fall away after TIFF, or does it help Moonlight, which has done well with critics. The upcoming audience favorite Hidden Figures could end up capitalizing on the fall out of Fences, should it happen.

Now to be clear, I have not seen Fences. It is among the greatest plays of the 20th century, a beloved work of the stage, which has had a long road to the scree. Denzel Washington chose to direct the piece, as well as star in the film along with Viola Davis, both well liked, gifted actors. It has all the earmarks of a film the Academy will love, but what if..

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