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A new casting Oscar electrified film fans. It could end up being a double-edged sword

Glenn Whipp and Joshua Rothkopf – Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Last month, the motion picture academy’s board of governors announced the creation of a competitive Oscar for casting. You won’t see an acceptance speech for another two years, when the 2026 ceremony honors the releases of 2025. But we’ve already started thinking about how such an award would have played out this year or at ceremonies past, and how the addition of a new category could affect future campaigning.

Columnist Glenn Whipp and film editor Joshua Rothkopf sat down to discuss the pros and cons of AMPAS’ latest walk-on part: an Oscar to celebrate a long-unsung aspect of moviemaking.

Joshua Rothkopf: I’ve had a fair degree of whiplash over this news, I must admit. Initially, my reaction was: Finally. What took them so long? Casting is, unambiguously, an art form, one that enlivens the page and fleshes out drama. It wouldn’t be overstating the case to point to certain bold casting choices — Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” say, or Clint Eastwood in “A Fistful of Dollars” — and see not merely the arrival of major screen stars but the birth of entirely new subgenres: the nebbishy cringe comedy and the spaghetti western, respectively.

But it didn’t take long for me to wonder how such casting awards would be determined. Would it be to honor inspired acts of genius like the ones above? How “inspired” is it to cast Margot Robbie as Barbie? Or, as it so often goes with other categories (costumes, makeup, editing, etc.), would these Oscars eventually go to the films that had the most casting: huge, star-laden ensembles such as the recent “Don’t Look Up” or 1963’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” starring every ’60s stand-up on a break from their Vegas schedule?

Worse, if the casting Oscar functioned as a de facto ensemble award, would that make it easier for a voter to ignore individual performances in the major acting categories? If, for example, “The Silence of the Lambs” were nominated for casting, would there be less of an impulse to vote for Anthony Hopkins or Jodie Foster in their individual categories, assuming they were even nominated? Glenn, tell me I’m worrying too much.

Glenn Whipp: You’re worrying too much. If anything, I think it’ll go in the opposite direction. For instance, if there was a casting Oscar last year, voters likely would have gone with “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” How do you vote for Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis and Ke Huy Quan and not reward the person — in this case, Sarah Finn, best known for casting the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe — who put them together?

That’s my nagging fear with this award, that it will too often mirror the best picture prize without a thoughtful consideration of what went into the casting of all the nominees. Let’s imagine this year’s race. “Oppenheimer” probably would win for the impeccable way that John Papsidera assembled actors, many of them movie stars in small roles, to replicate a sprawling array of historical figures. It wouldn’t be a bad choice. But I don’t think it’d be the correct one, as Ellen Lewis and Rene Haynes took on the huge task of populating “Killers of the Flower Moon” (for starters, there are 63 Indigenous characters with named roles) and aced it, finding so many terrific actors to inhabit Martin Scorsese’s historical epic and bring it to life.

Look at me, Josh. I’m already complaining about the mistakes I’m imagining voters will make, and we’re two years away from this category being instituted. But that’s why we love the Oscars, right? To second-guess and lament the roads not taken… and sometimes celebrate when they get it right. And since casting is the only job listed in a movie’s opening credits that hasn’t had an Oscar category of its own, it’s about time they were invited to the party. What do you think, my friend? Am I right in my forecast of how things would have played out this year?

Rothkopf: This is what we do, Glenn: pre-complain about mistakes yet to be made. I am in awe of Papsidera’s work on “Oppenheimer” — an icy glint of Casey Affleck goes a long way and Robert Downey Jr.’s return to seriousness was one of the notable casting stories of the year. I’m less convinced by your argument for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which to me felt too obeisant to Scorsese’s usual A-team. (Is there an award for least persuasive accent? Give it to Robert De Niro.) Also, didn’t Leonardo DiCaprio switch roles during development?

If we stick to what I’m going to call the “inspired genius” model of casting, I think “Poor Things” would have a better shot, in that it liberates Emma Stone to explore a register she’s never roamed. There’s a thrill in watching that movie and realizing how fully Stone is going for it. In a perfect world, the casting award would recognize those kinds of leaps, the ones that transform how we think about an actor, elevating a movie into something sublime. Not to be too on-brand in my love of Ari Aster, but aren’t Toni Collette in “Hereditary” and Florence Pugh in “Midsommar” two recent examples of importing unusually potent acting firepower to a genre that often lacks it?

Then again, maybe “Barbie” does have the strongest casting narrative of the year: so many Barbies, so many Kens. A casting Oscar would be an opportunity for a voter to honor Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster while skipping over Ryan Gosling and America Ferrera in their respective categories. (Trust me, this is going to happen.) It may be an award in which comedy finally gains significant Oscar purchase after being denied for so long. When I think about wonderful casts from the past, I come up with comedies. I defy you to find a more dazzling group of actors devoted to pure nonsense than the one in 2008’s “Burn After Reading.” What are some of your favorite casts that you would deem Oscar-worthy?

Whipp: Ellen Chenoweth, the Coens’ longtime casting director, is an absolute legend, for good reason. “A Serious Man,” which she cast with Rachel Tenner, stands out for me because it’s such a wonderful ensemble, mostly theater actors, nobody too well known, all of them perfect fits. Finding Michael Stuhlbarg, poignant and so good at deadpan delivery, to play the movie’s Job-like central character would be the kind of work I’d love to see the academy recognize moving forward. And, of course, there’s no better ensemble than “The Big Lebowski.” Unless it’s “Fargo.” (Both were cast by John S. Lyons, who worked with the Coens before Chenoweth.)

There’s a fearlessness behind the best casting, going against type (the great Lynn Stalmaster, recipient of an honorary Oscar in 2016, nudging Mike Nichols to cast Hoffman in “The Graduate”) or seeing something in an actor before everyone else. Chris Pratt’s leap from playing an adorable golden retriever doofus in “Parks and Recreation” to “Guardians of the Galaxy’s” Star-Lord was a delightful surprise. (Another Sarah Finn special.) Or Marion Dougherty thinking of Danny Glover for a buddy cop action-comedy titled “Lethal Weapon.”

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of rediscovering someone hiding in plain sight. Lily Gladstone won several critics prizes (including from our group, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.) for her 2016 breakthrough role as a lonely ranch hand in Kelly Reichardt’s female-driven set of prairie tales, “Certain Women.” After that, she struggled. But “Flower Moon’s” casting director Haynes knew Gladstone from the start of her career and understood she had the quiet strength and dignity that would make her perfect for the film’s lead, Molly. I think any movie that reintroduces Gladstone to the world deserves special recognition. (Sorry to circle back, Josh. But I simply won’t tolerate any “Killers of the Flower Moon” slander.)

Rothkopf: No argument on the quiet strength and dignity part, Glenn, but unfortunately, she’s not perfect for the film’s lead, because Molly isn’t the film’s lead, neither in terms of how she functions in the plot nor how much screen time she has — and I think even big fans of the film know this. I wonder if such incidents of category fraud will be taken out on the casting Oscar category. That would be unfortunate.

Hopefully we’re all going to learn a lot more about how casting works. I think about the legendary ensembles of the past, especially the 15 films (still only 15 of them in nearly 100 years of awards-giving) that managed to land acting nominations across all four of the long-established acting categories, movies like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Network” and, yes, “American Hustle.” A casting award may become one given for the quantity of decent roles in a script.

For me, it comes down to that rush when we know it’s the right actor in the right role: It’s Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” (Unless, of course, you think it was Brad Pitt in “Moneyball,” finally claiming the Redford mantle in a persuasive way.) Is there a danger here of turning these career-apotheosis performances into mini-campaigns for the casting Oscar? Or is that the pleasure?

Whipp: I think we all — critics and those in the industry alike — will be getting an education in casting, prompted by this new Oscar. Talking with Allison Jones, the casting director behind so many great film and TV comedies (“The Office,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “Bridesmaids,” “Lady Bird” … really, too many to name) and, most recently, “Barbie” (with Lucy Bevan), she told me people had no idea what she does. “I think most people think casting is just ‘hiring,’” she said. “That’s like saying a costumer just picks a red or blue shirt.”

Jones cited “The Holdovers,” assembled by Susan Shopmaker, as a “perfectly cast film,” noting, “Every role was made almost unbearably human by Susan’s choices and instincts.” It’s about providing the director — and the story — the right choices, she adds. Shopmaker, who discovered the unknown Dominic Sessa at a New England boarding school and convinced Alexander Payne to cast him, won the British Film Academy‘s casting award last month.

That award offers some hope that voters might sidestep the problem afflicting so many Oscar choices — the impulse, as you noted before, Josh, to reward the “most” and not necessarily the “best.” Rewatching Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail” not long ago, I marveled at the alchemy between the three primary characters, played by Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid, a flawless trio. Quaid’s role, a naive sailor sentenced to eight years’ time for a petty offense, nearly went to John Travolta. Casting director Stalmaster didn’t forget him, though, and put Travolta in “Welcome Back, Kotter” soon afterward, launching his career. That’s one reason that Stalmaster earned his honorary Oscar. Good to know that he’ll soon have company.

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©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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