Colm Bairéad’s An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) has become the first film in Irish to be nominated for best international picture at the Academy Awards. Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin performed beyond expectations with nine nominations. Overall, as many as 14 nominations went the way of domestic films and talent as the nation clocked up its most successful day ever at this stage of the Oscars.
An astonishing five Irish actors find themselves competing for awards. Four of those are up for Martin McDonagh’s black comedy. Colin Farrell is nominated for best actor, Kerry Condon is mentioned for best supporting actress, and Barry Keoghan and Brendan Gleeson go against one another in the best-supporting-actor race.
The rising Kildare star Paul Mescal, just 26, is nominated as best actor for his turn as a Scottish father holidaying with his daughter in Aftersun, Charlotte Wells’s acclaimed debut. It looks as if Mescal beat Tom Cruise, star of Top Gun: Maverick, to a hotly contested fifth place in that race. Mescal receives the honour as he enjoys rave reviews for his lead performance in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theatre, in London. The previous record for the most Irish actors nominated in one year was three, in 1989 (although that includes Daniel Day-Lewis, who had not yet taken citizenship).
The Banshees of Inisherin beats the record for most nominated Irish film ever – hitherto held jointly by Belfast and In the Name of the Father, with seven each. The film is also shortlisted in best picture, best editing, best original score and, for McDonagh, best director and best original screenplay. Banshees has been on this path since its premiere at the Venice film festival, in September, where Farrell won best actor and McDonagh won best screenplay.
The nomination for An Cailín Ciúin is perhaps the most notable. That film is a product of the Cine4 development, a partnership between TG4, Screen Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. In 2017, Alan Esslemont, director general of TG4, linked the scheme’s potential to success at the Oscars. “I think there’s a huge international market for the cinema in the Irish language,” Esslemont said. “I think the possibility of getting an Oscar in the Irish language is probably stronger than getting an Oscar for a film developed in English in Ireland.” That ambition has now come close to realisation. An Cailín Ciúin secured its place in a fiercely competitive category. Its next challenge is getting past Edward Berger’s adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, current favourite for best international film.
Bairéad sounded faintly shattered as he reflected on an already furiously busy Oscar campaign. “You can tell when someone really likes the film,” he told The Irish Times. “You can tell the degree to which they believe what they are saying. The reaction we were getting was uniformly euphoric from academy members. Some of them were breaking down in tears 30 minutes after the film was finished. I would be talking to them and they’d be reflecting on the film. We thought if the film is having this sort of effect then there is something to this.”
There was still further Irish interest. Richard Baneham, already an Oscar winner, is nominated in the best-visual-effects race for Avatar: The Way of Water. A graduate of the animation course at Ballyfermot College of Further Education, the Tallaght man won his Academy Award for the first Avatar film, in 2010. Jonathan Redmond, raised in Sandycove, is, alongside Matt Villa, nominated in the best-editing category for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. Redmond has previously worked with the Australian director on The Great Gatsby and the TV series The Get Down.
Tom Berkeley and Ross White’s lovely Northern Irish film An Irish Goodbye was a deserved nominee in best live-action short. Telling the story of two brothers who come together following their mother’s death, the film, cofinanced by Northern Ireland Screen, features a particularly strong performance from James Martin, who has Down syndrome.
There was, however, disappointment for Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon, as that studio failed to score a nomination in best animated feature for Nora Twomey’s charming fantasy My Father’s Dragon. The animation house, one of the great successes in Irish entertainment, had seen all four of its previous full-length films secure a place in the Oscar race.
None of the Irish actors nominated today has previously been up for an Oscar. Farrell may have the best chance of converting his award into a win. The Dubliner looks to be duelling it out with two other big hitters at the top of the best-actor card. Brendan Fraser, a popular leading man of the millennial years, comes back from a career slump to take a nod for his role as a clinically obese teacher in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. Austin Butler, flashily impressive in Elvis, also seems like a plausible winner.
Keoghan and Gleeson, Dubliners born 35 years apart, will struggle to get past Ke Huy Quan in the best-supporting-actor category. The Vietnamese-American actor, first seen as a juvenile in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, looks likely to cap his comeback in the science-fiction comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once with an Academy Award.
Condon is in a volatile race, but Angela Bassett, the veteran African-American actor, has recently made the running for her turn as the bereaved matriarch in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. She would be the first person to win an acting Oscar for a Marvel movie. (Indeed, Bassett is the first actor from that franchise to get even a nomination.)
In the best-actress category, Cate Blanchett is favourite for her turn as a malign conductor in Todd Fields’s Tár. Should she win she would become only the fifth woman to secure three or more acting Oscars. She will, however, face fierce competition from Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once. The Asian actor somehow missed out on a nomination for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in 2001, and a win here would be popular.
The best-picture race looks to be a battle between Everything Everywhere All at Once, the zippy populist pick; The Banshees of Inisherin, a more sedate affair; and Steven Spielberg’s coming-of-age drama The Fabelmans. That last film lost some steam after a poor performance at last week’s Bafta nominations. But Spielberg will surely be in the running for his third best-director Oscar. Should The Banshees of Inisherin triumph it will become the first Irish film to take the top award.
Landing 11 nominations to become the most nominated film, Everything Everywhere All at Once looks to be ahead of the pack. The Banshees of Inisherin shares second place with All Quiet on the Western Front. The Irish results exceed even the notable successes in 2016, when Lenny Abrahamson’s Room and John Crowley’s Brooklyn received multiple nominations.
Away from the domestic hoopla, there were a few notable surprises. Oscar historians will be particularly interested in Andrea Riseborough’s nomination as best actress for the drama To Leslie. Successful Oscar campaigns tend to run for months, but, until a week or two ago, To Leslie, which has grossed a minute $27,400 on its US release, has barely been mentioned. In the last few days of nomination voting, an array of distinguished actors popped up to recommend Riseborough, hugely admired by her peers, to the academy’s members. Jane Fonda spoke of a “brave and unsparing performance”. Ed Norton mentioned “the most fully committed, emotionally deep, physically harrowing performance I’ve seen in a while”. Her unexpected success is sure to change how Oscar consultants go about their jobs.
Elsewhere a few dogs refused to bark in the night. There had been much talk about SS Rajamouli’s RRR, an anti-colonialist epic from India, receiving nominations across the board. Its failure to be named as the Indian submission for best international film meant that it would never be in competition with An Cailín Ciúin, but Oscar watchers, following reports of ecstatic US screenings, felt it had a chance elsewhere, even in best picture. In the event it managed a nomination only in best original song.
As ever, there will be debates about “diversity”. The last two awards for best director went to women – Chloé Zhao, for Nomadland, and Jane Campion, for The Power of the Dog – but there were, this year, no women directors among the five nominees. Sarah Polley, the Canadian film-maker, was surely in the conversation, but the film ended up figuring in just best film and best adapted screenplay. The academy will, however, be celebrating the fact that four Asian or Asian-American actors are up for awards: Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu for Everything Everywhere All at Once and Hong Chau for The Whale.
Over recent years, even before the Covid crisis, the Oscars have struggled with disappointing viewing figures. This year the organisers will hope that multiple nominations for hit films such as Elvis, Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water will bring back fans. Jimmy Kimmel returns to host at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 12th – which is to say the morning of Monday, March 13th, if you’re watching in Ireland. His greatest hope will, surely, be that nominees resist any temptations to slap the presenters.