Inside Anthony Hopkins’ unexpected win at the Oscars

A picture of Anthony Hopkins, who won Best Actor but did not attend the Academy Awards in person, is shown during an Oscars watch party at the Stuart & Cinema Cafe, in Brooklyn, New York, US, April 25, 2021. REUTERS
For months, it was considered a sure bet that Chadwick Boseman would win a posthumous best-actor Oscar for his galvanising performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The Sunday night ceremony was even rearranged around that expected outcome, scheduling Boseman’s category last so his widow, Simone Ledward Boseman, could accept and end the show with a crescendo of emotion.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the surprise winner was Anthony Hopkins for “The Father,” and since the 83-year-old actor was a no-show at the ceremony, presenter Joaquin Phoenix collected the Oscar in his stead and the telecast abruptly ended.

What went down? I’m told that Hopkins was at home in the Welsh countryside and had offered to accept via Zoom if his name was read, but the Oscars nixed that plan. To distinguish themselves from award shows like the Golden Globes that had been hobbled by videoconferencing mishaps, Oscar producers encouraged nominees to attend the Los Angeles gala in person or to make their way to satellite ceremonies that had been set up in a handful of European cities.

Though his nominated co-star, Olivia Colman, attended the satellite show in London, Hopkins chose to stay put in Wales, and since the producers’ edict was “no Zoom allowed,” the show instead ended anticlimactically. (In lieu of an acceptance speech, Hopkins released an appreciative video on social media the next morning.)

So that’s one burning Oscar question answered, but another still remains: How did Hopkins pull off that shock victory when Boseman’s coronation had felt so certain for so long?

To find out, I called up Michael Barker, who acquired and distributed “The Father” in his role as co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. To hear Barker tell it, Hopkins’ win was more than a year in the making and involved a lot of careful calibration so the film’s lengthy Oscar campaign would peak at the very last minute.

Sony Pictures Classics bought “The Father” in late 2019 and initially planned a rollout similar to that for the company’s Oscar favourite “Call Me by Your Name”: The drama would debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, earn glowing reviews and then relaunch in November with a slow theatrical rollout in the thick of Oscar season.

That’s an awfully long time for a movie to sustain momentum, but when a film is dealing with delicate topics, that lengthy runway is imperative, Barker said. “The Father” is a wrenching film about an elderly man wrestling with dementia, and many voters told Barker and his co-president, Tom Bernard, the subject matter made them afraid to watch it. Overcoming their defenses and turning the movie into a must-see would take some time.

“We have always prided ourselves on having these high-quality films that need that long tail,” Barker said. “We just trusted in the quality of the film, and especially the quality of the two lead performances. Then the pandemic intervened.”

As theaters began to close and studios sold off many of their 2020 films to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, Barker and Bernard were faced with a quandary: Should they negotiate a lucrative deal to offload “The Father” to a streaming company eager to acquire a hot awards title, or keep it for themselves in the hope that theaters in New York and Los Angeles would reopen later in the year?

“We decided it didn’t make sense to sell the film to a streamer, because the streamers had so many films of high quality — we were worried it would just become one of many at the end of the year,” Barker said. “So we decided to take the risk.”

As the pandemic wore on, the Oscars eligibility window was extended from the end of 2020 to Feb 28, 2021, and “The Father” escaped to a late February opening date. In the meantime, Netflix debuted “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” to great acclaim, and Boseman’s heralded performance rocketed ahead of Hopkins with Oscar oddsmakers.

Had Sony Pictures Classics miscalculated its moment? By the end of the year, Boseman was considered unbeatable and most of the season’s major contenders were already in release. Meanwhile, “The Father” was still MIA.

“So many of the big films were available on streamers that I could just go on Netflix or Amazon and there’s ‘Sound of Metal,’ there’s ‘Mank,’ there’s ‘Ma Rainey,’” Barker admitted. “So how do we get our film to those academy members as best we can? We left no stone unturned in what we offered them.”

Sony Pictures Classics added “The Father” to the academy’s screening portal in November, but doubled down by also sending out DVD screeners and hard-bound copies of the script to awards voters. “We still feel there’s a certain number of people who would prefer the DVD,” Barker said, “and even if you don’t prefer it, when you get the DVD at home, there’s that title again to remind you to see it.”

That old-fashioned approach began to pay off, and “The Father” earned crucial nominations at the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, as well as a Producers Guild nomination indicating potential best-picture strength. Still, Boseman won the Golden Globe over Hopkins on Feb 28, just as “The Father” was opening.

That rollout came as theaters in New York and Los Angeles began to reopen, distinguishing “The Father” as a marquee wide-release title for voters anxious to see a big-screen film. But with theaters operating at a reduced capacity and important locations like the ArcLight in Los Angeles still closed, Sony Pictures Classics would have to offer some other options.

“It was obvious, the wider we got, that there wasn’t going to be huge grosses for pandemic reasons, so we decided to put the film out on PVOD for $19.99 on places like Amazon Prime and Apple iTunes,” Barker said, referring to premium video on demand. And that digital debut came just after the film earned six Oscar nominations on March 15, stoking the curiosity of people eager to catch up on the nominees.

 “I think what really helped us was to wait until that moment when people were actually on the verge of voting, and trying to be in the limelight at the right moment when so many of the other films on the streamers had already played out last fall and become old news,” Barker said.

A strong showing at Bafta, where Hopkins finally notched a significant best-actor win, indicated that the film’s momentum might be picking up, and a high-profile appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” was scheduled right before Oscar voting closed. But in the meantime, many voters who were sure that Boseman would win, and that their votes would not matter, threw their support behind Hopkins, illustrating the peril of being the front-runner. It helped, too, that Hopkins hailed from a best-picture nominee (“Ma Rainey” was not nominated), a correlation that usually accompanies a best-actor victory.

In the end, Hopkins won in what Barker is sure was a tight race: “I bet if you looked at the totals, there was even a close No 3 with Riz Ahmed” from “Sound of Metal,” he said. The fact that “The Father” — and not the eventual best-picture winner, “Nomadland” — received the adapted-screenplay Oscar, suggests that its appeal to voters wasn’t limited to the lead actor’s titanic performance.

As for that actor, “I had an exchange of emails with him this morning, and they were quite wonderful,” Barker told me. “He was very exuberant and very moved. He said to have something like this at his age was such a gift.”

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