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Academy Awards Voting Begins: It's Now 'Dog' vs. Underdogs

Jane Campion sits in a chair behind a TV monitor on the New Zealand set of "The Power of the Dog."  
A vast expense of grassland surrounds her and a colleague, with shaded mountains and a blue cloudy sky in the background
Jane Campion on the set of "The Power of the Dog." Her Western now faces strong competition from other best picture nominees, including "CODA"
(Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)
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Unlike a recent presidential election, campaigns for Academy Awards don’t involve unhinged accusations of voter fraud, ballot dumping and rigged counting software. But even if nominees don’t engage in the kind of public mudslinging found in most every battle for elected office, this year’s Oscar race is becoming increasingly polarized and even a bit negative.

Those divisions are most evident in voting for best picture. The presumptive favorite is writer-director Jane Campion’s adaptation of the Thomas Savage novel The Power of the Dog. Over the last few weeks, several voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scienceshave told me they’re not going to mark it down for the top trophy.

Their motivations have little to do with the artistic achievements of The Power of the Dog itself. Several voters instead said they’re reacting to what they describe as the film’s sense of entitlement, reflected in Campion’s recent remarks about Serena and Venus Williams when commenting on Hollywood’s misogyny.

Consequently, as balloting for the Academy Awards begins Thursday, the best picture race is not coming into clearer focus, as is often the case at this point in time. As strong a contender as The Power of the Dog remains, there’s now a chance the best picture statuette could go to CODA, Belfast, West Side Story, Dune or King Richard. 

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It’s hard to imagine Steven Spielberg’s massive musical or the estimated $165-million Dune getting that many underdog votes, but several Oscar voters told me such sympathies seem to fit CODA. Among the films vying for best picture, its journey to the screen was among the most perilous.

Early in developing the project, CODA writer-director Siân Heder was told by prospective financiers that she couldn’t make a movie with deaf actors unless she cast a pop star like Taylor Swift or Lorde as part of the ensemble. (Heder instead chose relative newcomer Emilia Jones as the film’s lead hearing character; Jones’ credits include “Pale Teenager” in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth and “English Girl” in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.)

CODA, which cost about $10 million to make, premiered — virtually, not in a theater — at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2021, at the height of the pandemic. It was acquired by Apple TV+ for a record $25 million.

The Power of the Dog, meanwhile, is one of the most celebrated films of the season. More critical to its Oscar chances, it is the sole best picture selection with nominations in the three categories historically necessary to take the top Academy Award: picture, directing and editing.

The movie just won the best picture and director awards given by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts; the BAFTAs are Britain’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. Campion also won the top filmmaking award from the Directors Guild of America.

Then, at the rather marginal Critics Choice Awards, Campion called out ceremony guests Venus and Serena Williams, whose childhood and father is the subject of King Richard.

“Venus and Serena, what an honor to be in the room with you,” Campion said. “You are such marvels. However, you do not play against the guys — like I have to.” Even if the ceremony had a tiny TV audience, Campion’s belittling of the greatest tennis player of all time regardless of gender (Serena) and her highly accomplished sister exploded on social media. She quickly apologized and called those comments "thoughtless."

I asked one prominent Oscar voter and former best picture winner if Campion’s remarks could cost The Power of the Dog a best picture win.

His answer was succinct: “No.”

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