As Oscar night finally approaches and Hollywood prepares for the biggest night of the year, speculation as to who will win the coveted top prize reaches its climax, and there could well be a surprise in store with a number of films still in with a fighting chance. Over the past few months, the race for Best Picture has looked increasingly uncertain, with both of the bookie’s favorites, Del Toro’s The Shape of Water and McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, coming under scrutiny with calls of plagiarism and wayward racial politics respectively. Meanwhile, undercards Lady Bird and Get Out have received plenty of media attention but may not have the stature or marketing budgets to win over the majority of voters. But one of the year’s critical darlings and a film that on paper should have the Academy swooning has been largely left out of the conversation.
Despite a stellar reputation within American cinema and a previous nomination in the Best Picture category, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has never won the golden statue. 2007’s There Will Be Blood came close but was pipped to the post by the Coen Brothers’ competing neo-western No Country for Old Men, and Anderson’s last couple of unconventional dramas were almost entirely snubbed from the ceremony. This was expected to be the case this year, with couture-world period drama Phantom Thread considered to be behind the likes of Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project in the Oscar race. But on the morning of nomination announcements, Phantom Thread landed an exceptional six nods, making it one of the year’s most-nominated films. So why are the film’s chances of Oscar success so low?
At first glance, Phantom Thread is a dialogue-heavy, visually traditional period piece about eccentric, attractive Brits in 1950’s London. If this doesn’t already scream of typical Oscar fodder, then take into account a lead performance – a supposedly final lead performance – from the Academy’s most awarded actor: Daniel Day-Lewis. Here he stars as Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrated dressmaker who burns through a line of female muses that he draws inspiration from and promptly discards when he grows tired of them. This is until he meets his match in Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress who appears meek and reserved initially, but eventually takes center stage when Woodcock becomes briefly debilitated under mysterious circumstances. With extravagant and elaborate costume design, a drifting, atmospheric score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and themes of inter-relationship conflict and male genius, Phantom Thread has Best Picture sewn into its very seams.
A few years ago, at least. While period dramas and biopics are still notably favored by the Academy (see fellow nominee Darkest Hour), an influx of young diverse members has led to more open-mindedness, with some left-field selections getting an unlikely look in. Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a prime example of a film that likely would have been left out of consideration prior to 2017, due to both its genre and its themes. However, the public, the industry, and the mainstream media now seem to have placed a responsibility upon the Academy to become more ‘woke’, and introduce wider diversity in decisions regarding representation; this is a welcome change, but one that may work against a film such as Phantom Thread.
But this is not the central reason for Phantom Thread’s slim chances this Sunday night. While luscious and classical on the surface, Phantom Thread is radically subversive in its character development and devilishly gripping during scenes where Alma and Reynolds are bickering with fearsome intensity. Its revelatory climax is completely unpredictable, turning the film’s narrative on its head in a delightfully twisted fashion.
A film such as Get Out or The Post may hold heightened relevance in Trump’s America, but Phantom Thread’s fundamentals musings on the power dynamics in relationships hold a more timeless quality, and unlike its fellow nominees, it feels as though it could have been made any time in the last fifty years. And that isn’t to say that the film isn’t relevant to the current discourse on gender politics, with its depiction of toxic masculinity and exploitative male figures of power who hold little regard for female independence.
Initially overcome by Reynolds’ charm, Alma moves into the house of Woodcock to become his full-time canvas, and the honeymoon period is quickly over when it becomes clear that her presence is required for nothing more than artistic inspiration while she serves as her lover’s mannequin. When she isn’t modeling for him, Alma is little more than an inconvenience to Reynolds, hopelessly wandering through the house like a lonely ghost fading out of existence.
But Alma proves herself an immitigable force, and refuses to become a victim of her circumstance, nor does she want to leave the man she truly loves. A colossal power shift occurs, and Alma’s manipulative abilities come to fruition as well as her psychological and emotional sturdiness which far overpowers that of Reynolds, who despite his steely exterior and infuriating arrogance is really just a spoilt man-child in need of a controlling maternal figure like the one he lost, and who now visits him in his dreams. Alma and Reynolds’ relationship is far from conventional, as these intrinsically complex characters are embroiled in an even more complicated romance, one that is unhealthy and tempestuous, but romantic none the less. A portion of Academy voters will surely have been turned away by the film’s unexpectedly aberrant and erotic undertones, but this is what makes the film stand out as from its fellow nominees as an individual with tricks up its sleeve.
“NO OTHER BEST PICTURE NOMINEE PROVIDES A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING YOU COULD WANT FROM A FILM, ESPECIALLY WHILE RETAINING THE SAME AMOUNT OF SPRAWLING DETAIL AND COMPLEXITY THAT PHANTOM THREAD DOES.”
Aside from it being my favorite film in a particularly good pool of nominees, my strongest argument for it deserving this year’s crown would be that Phantom Thread has a little bit of everything, and provides all of the key things that the other nominees have. It provides as much tension and conflict as Dunkirk and Get Out do, as much political gravity as the likes of Three Billboards or The Post, the historical detail of Darkest Hour, the comedy and quotability of Lady Bird (Anderson was recently asked when he would make another comedy, to which he replied that he just had.), it’s as romantic as Call Me by Your Name, and a particular sequence with a ghostly apparition even provides a hint of fantasy usually associated with a Guillermo Del Toro movie.
No other Best Picture nominee provides a little bit of everything you could want from a film, especially while retaining the same amount of sprawling detail and complexity that Phantom Thread does. While it is extremely unlikely that the film will take home the award, no film (or filmmaker) deserves it more.