Does box office success equate to awards potential? It’s the question of the season when it comes to Joker, a divisive comic-book movie that has somehow vaulted its way to the fore of this year’s Oscar conversation. The gritty villain origin-story has cannily maneuvered the circuit ever since launching on the lido at the Venice Film Festival, winning the prestigious Golden Lion and moving on to a loud encore in Toronto.
The controversy surrounding the movie’s seemingly cavalier approach to violence and anarchy was at first seen as a potential barrier to accolades, then an attention-grabbing benefit, and now largely unrelated to its chances entirely — another backlash cycle, come and gone. What we’re left with are hard data — a decidedly mixed overall critical reception, record-breaking box office numbers — and gut reactions.
I’ve been skeptical of the movie’s awards chances for awhile now. Joker undeniably dominated talk at the fall festivals, at least early on, but the movie has rarely been held up as a favorite where it counts. On the ground in Toronto, where the film had a splashy screening, it felt like an afterthought as Cannes premieres like Parasite entered new phases of campaigning and similarly recent debuts like Marriage Story more effectively built on their first wave of buzz. The top 3 for the Grolsch People’s Choice Award — the vibrantly unpredictable Parasite, the emotionally wrenching Marriage Story, and the poignantly satirical winner Jojo Rabbit — were drastically different from one another, but each firmly asserted their place in the running well before the votes were counted. The deeply unpleasant Joker, by contrast, generated plenty of debate over its value, but wasn’t taken seriously as the best of the crop.
We’re now at that point on the calendar where the Best Picture field starts narrowing down; beyond the pair of potentially major titles we haven’t seen (1917 and Richard Jewell), things are starting to take shape. The conventional wisdom — including for most here at EW — is that Joker rests on the bubble, with a shot but hardly a lock for a nomination. The main argument for why it’ll make the cut? Box office. The movie is hugely popular — more-so than any other contender this year, or most years. And voters will give it a fair shake, since leading man Joaquin Phoenix feels like a safe bet for a Best Actor nomination, at minimum.
But put simply, it is quite rare for a nihilistic comic-book movie that critics are decidedly mixed on — Joker sits at a 59 on Metacritic — to land a Best Picture nomination. You could say unprecedented. It’s true that popularity changes the equation some; see Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody last year, or Get Out the year before that. But those movies’ appeal — either socially groundbreaking or comfortably crowdpleasing — aren’t really comparable.
And equally common are the movies that sail to surprising box office success, score with guilds and various precursor groups, only to fall short come Oscar time. Tough genre sells (and ultimate Best Picture snubs) like comedy Bridesmaids and spy thriller Skyfall were major critical and commercial hits that hovered over their respective years as possibilities; Straight Outta Compton made the final cut at SAG, PGA, and WGA before getting shut out of the Academy Awards entirely, save for a screenplay nom. More specifically, many dark, arty, financially successful films in Joker’s vein have been tipped for major embraces before getting passed over — stuff like Gone Girl, David Fincher’s highest-grossing pic ever, or of course, that other prestige Joker movie, The Dark Knight.
Where else might box office play more of a factor? Look, first and foremost, to another male-targeted film hitting theaters Friday: Ford v Ferrari, James Mangold’s muscular, star-studded racing drama which got off to a strong start in Telluride but has since tapered off. It still has what it takes to be a major awards player; high theater grosses could offer the winds it needs in its sails to regain momentum. Recall last year’s studio-backed prestige pic that came running out of the gate before losing ground: Damien Chazelle’s First Man. Once that film underperformed at the box office, its prospects for major recognition really dimmed. Ford v Ferrari is at a similarly pivotal point in its awards journey. It needs the people.
Beyond Ford, which is fronted by generally good guys, it’s a banner year in film for meditations on toxic masculinity. Two prime examples, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman, arguably lead the pack for Best Picture. But in those movies’ cases — as in Ford — there’s a tender, nostalgic quality, a fresh treatment of old stories and archetypes that feels simultaneously like homage and subversion. It’s the best of both worlds for an Academy that sticks to what it knows, while still grudgingly moving with the times.
What we can say for a lot of these movies — for Irishman, for Hollywood, for Ferrari — is that they offer something to root for. A comeback. A swan song. An underdog. You’ve got Martin Scorsese out there passionately advocating for cinema; some may be annoyed by the digs at Marvel, but for others, they’ll resonate. You’ve got Tarantino finally making a movie about the industry he so publicly adores. Voters need a story they can get behind. I’m not sure Joker has a persuasive one to tell.