Todd Haynes is the latest auteur to use Cannes as a launching pad for a potential Oscar contender, debuting his delicious dramedy “May December” at the festival on Saturday.
Premiering less than one hour after Martin Scorsese’s 202-minute “Killers of the Flower Moon” conquered Cannes, the torrential downpour on Saturday night couldn’t keep many patrons away from taking in the Haynes movie. And not just because the movie reunites the director with his muse Julianne Moore, who he worked wonders with on “Safe” (1995) and “Far from Heaven” (2002), the latter which earned an Oscar nomination for Moore’s performance and one for Haynes’ script.
Add the excitement of Moore acting opposite Natalie Portman; how can this not be a winning recipe for success? With a whip-smart script from feature debut screenwriter Samy Burch (and a “story by” credit by Alex Mechanik), as well as a surprising standout turn from heartthrob Charles Melton, “May December” more than delivers on those sizable expectations. The film is looking for a distributor, so depending on which studio picks up rights to the film and when they opt to release it, this could be an all-around awards player in multiple categories at the next Oscars, including best picture.
The film tells the story of actress Elizabeth Berry (Portman), who is set to portray Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore), a Georgia woman who became a notorious tabloid figure when she engaged in a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old boy, Joe. Twenty years have passed and Grace is trying to keep the past in the past. But in order to prepare for her upcoming role, Elizabeth visits Gracie and a now 36-year-old Joe (Melton), who are married with children, and her arrival exposes the fractures beneath their carefully constructed surface. “May December” is very loosely based on the story of teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who had an affair with and married her teenage student Vili Fualaau.
A two-hander in its purest form, Moore and Portman deliver the acting equivalent of an Olympic fencing match. Using Burch’s words and Haynes’ direction as their blades, with one woman feinting while the other flinches, the two execute a masterclass of technique — one of the best performances of their acclaimed careers. No kidding, they are that good.
Moore, a five-time Oscar nominee – “Boogie Nights” (1997), “The End of the Affair” (1999), “Far from Heaven,” “The Hours” (2002) and “Still Alice” (2014), which finally landed her the best actress prize – gives Gracie an endearing lisp and a brittle edge (as well as an icy resolve). It’s a brave performance, making you care at various points for a woman who did something unthinkable. There’s so many breathtaking scenes for awards voters to dig into.
The same goes for Portman, who’s picked up three career noms for “Closer” (2004), “Jackie” (2016) and her best actress winning “Black Swan” (2010). At first, Portman’s Elizabeth is ingratiating and unfailingly polite. But her Hollywood chic barely covers up a certain voyeuristic ruthlessness. It’s her delivery of a bracing line, “This is what grown-ups do,” towards the end of “May December” that bring all the film’s themes back into focus.
So, here’s the thing… how do you campaign such equally talented and charged female roles for Oscar attention?
In best actress history, only five movies have managed to receive double noms in that category – “All About Eve” (1950) with Anne Baxter and Bette Davis, “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959) with Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, “The Turning Point” (1977) with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, “Terms of Endearment” (1983) with MacLaine (who won) and Debra Winger and “Thelma & Louise” (1991) with Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon.
There’s been a growing disdain for actors, widely thought of as leading performers, being campaigned for supporting recognition, more widely known as “category fraud.”
Sprinkled throughout history, the worst offenses can be seen with Al Pacino’s supporting actor nominated turn for 1972’s “The Godfather” (which resulted in the actor boycotting the ceremony) or Tatum O’Neal winning supporting actress for 1973’s “Paper Moon,” despite being in just about every scene. In recent years, the topic bubbled up when Rooney Mara successfully campaigned as a supporting actress for Haynes’ “Carol” (2015), with her co-star Cate Blanchett pushing for lead actress. That awards campaign sparked a debate within the industry community. According to Matthew Stewart, who professionally tracks screen times for Oscar nominated performances on his website Screen Time Central, Mara appears in nearly 60% of the film. She is the second-longest performance ever recognized in the category. Mara eventually lost to Alicia Vikander for “The Danish Girl,” another performance many deemed lead.
For movie studios and awards strategists, it’s about putting an actor (and a film) in the best position to garner Academy attention. Is it right or fair? No, because this prevents other performers who do give supporting performances from getting recognized. Take Sarah Paulson, also from “Carol” or O’Neal’s nominated “Paper Moon” co-star Madeline Kahn. So will Portman go lead while Moore competes for supporting actress or vice versa?
With all this chatter about the two powerhouse women from “May December,” Melton, best known as Reggie Mantle on CW’s television series “Riverdale,” nearly steals the movie. The best supporting actor category has been a welcoming place for Hollywood newcomers and relative unknowns – such as Troy Kotsur for “CODA” or Kodi Smit-McPhee for “The Power of the Dog” (2021). Melton’s choices to embody a man who never really had a chance to be a teenage boy are remarkably executed, which speaks to Haynes’ astonishing touch with his actors and what he can bring out of them.
It’s been 21 years since Haynes picked up his sole Oscar nom for writing “Far from Heaven.” So how long will the Academy wait to recognize one of our greatest living filmmakers? Hopefully, not too much longer.
The film could find the most love from the Writers Branch members. We know how much the Academy loves movies about movies, and a film that follows an actor’s process could be the tipping point that propels it into front-running consideration.
Even though the music is one of the movie’s best features, it’s likely not eligible as it uses previously recorded material. The music branch rules state a film must have a minimum of 35% original music to qualify. However, you can still look for the movie in other artisan contender lists, such as cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt and film editing by Affonso Gonçalves.
Fun fact: Will Ferrell, who was in attendance at the premiere, could garner his first Oscar nom as a producer of the film if it’s nominated for best picture. But, of course, it’s a long way from May to December – in the awards landscape, that is.