COVID-19 changed a lot of things, including Oscar eligibility. Ordinarily, only movies from 2020 would be honored this year. But because of the pandemic’s impact on filmmaking, the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony will highlight work from 2020 through early 2021. That means “The Father” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (both released on Feb. 26, 2021) were able to nab deserved acting nominations.
In a long and esteemed career, Best Actor contender Anthony Hopkins gives his finest onscreen performance as the titular character in “The Father.” The film earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and rightfully won Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay (by director Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton) at the 74th British Academy Film Awards.*
Based on Zeller’s 2014 play “Le Père,” the drama follows a family patriarch as he navigates his way through various stages of mental decline. The script’s structure is presented in a thriller-like fashion that puts the audience into the character’s shoes (or rather, his head). This clever mechanism works on a couple levels. For starters, it engages viewers as they try to discern what’s really going on amid the disorienting places and people presented.
As the intellectual task becomes increasingly taxing it morphs into a feeling of empathy. Hopkins adds to this experience by brilliantly conveying the vulnerability of dementia patients. His is not only one of the best film portrayals of the past year-and-a-quarter, but of the 21st century. The supporting players, particularly Olivia Williams and Oscar nominated Olivia Colman, are also excellent.
When it comes to fine female performances, Andra Day’s Golden Globe winning turn in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” should not be missed. In her first starring role, the Academy Award nominated actress masters the literal highs and lows of jazz legend Lady Day. If that’s not impressive enough, she also does her own spot-on singing.
From Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of country music icon Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980) to Renée Zellweger’s rendition of movie star turned lounge singer Judy Garland in “Judy” (2019), the Academy has a habit of distributing Oscars to actresses who inhabit famous singers, especially when they do their own singing.
Unlike “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks bases the latest Holiday biopic on Johann Hari’s book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” which primarily focuses on the political trials the singer endured for courageously performing the anti-lynching ballad Strange Fruit.
This angle helps elevate an otherwise problematic drama from solely playing into the tired old tale of addiction and abuse typically seen in backstage biopics, such as “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” (1993), “Walk the Line” (2005) and “Rocketman” (2019), to name a few. Granted, the film has no shortage of these tropes but at least director Lee Daniels affords the audience bittersweet relief during the end credits when he includes an amusing outtake of Day and co-star Trevante Rhodes dancing to Holiday’s 1941 hit All of Me.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” can be streamed on Hulu. “The Father” is playing in theaters and online platforms, including Amazon Prime Video, FandangoNOW, Apple TV, and iTunes. Both films are recommended, specifically for the lead performances.
Top image: Andra Day in “The US vs. Billie Holiday” courtesy of Hulu.
Middle image: Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in “The Father” courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
* Since this piece was posted, “The Father” received Oscars for Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton).