Carey Mulligan and Riz Ahmed poised for Oscar upsets after Spirit awards wins

The Independent Spirit awards on Thursday confirmed what now seems an inevitability for Sunday’s Oscars: Nomadland will win best picture and best director.

Chloé Zhao’s drama about older Americans who live in their vans and recreational vehicles took the top two prizes at the Spirit awards, following a near-unbroken run of wins at ceremonies including the Golden Globes and the Baftas.

Such a result at the Oscars would make Zhao the second woman to win best director, following Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010.

But other victories at the Spirit awards revealed the unpredictability of the best actor and actress race. Carey Mulligan, 35, won best female lead for rape-revenge comedy drama Promising Young Woman, while Riz Ahmed, 38, took best male lead for his role as a drummer who loses his hearing in Sound of Metal.

Accepting her award over Zoom from a Hollywood hotel, where she is quarantining ahead of the Oscars, Mulligan dedicated her award to the late Helen McCrory, who died last week. “She was a true independent spirit and actress I have looked up to, and will continue to look up to, for the rest of my career,” said Mulligan.

Ahmed – who has lost two family members to coronavirus – finished his speech by wishing peace to all those who have been affected by the pandemic.

Both Brits are increasingly fancied as outside bets for Sunday, with Ahmed tipped as capable of pulling off the sort of upset seen in 2003, when The Pianist’s Adrien Brody snatched Oscars victory from frontrunners Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson.

Ahmed’s main competition is Chadwick Boseman, who if he won would become the second posthumous best actor winner for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Anthony Hopkins, for his role in dementia drama The Father.

A win for Hopkins, 83, would make him the oldest-ever Oscar acting winner, but there is said to be a sense in Hollywood that, despite a late surge of support for Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play, Hopkins hardly needs more silverware to add to his cabinet.

And while Boseman is still the favourite, Ma Rainey has underperformed through awards season. As with Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7, its autumn Netflix release appears to have resulted in a springtime sag from which it has struggled to recover.

Promising Young Woman, however, has enjoyed the opposite reception, with a Christmas Day release in the US – and early April debut in the UK – leading to fresh momentum for the debut film from Brit Emerald Fennell, who is the likely winner of original screenplay Oscar.

Although the film has divided audiences, its passionate champions could push Mulligan over the finish line ahead of McDormand, whose turn in Nomadland is less showy than those (in Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) which won her previous Oscars.

Also in the running are Andra Day for her role in Lee Daniels’ Billie Holiday biopic, Viola Davis for the title role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Vanessa Kirby for Pieces of a Woman. Kirby, 33, remains a dark horse in the race for her astonishing performance as a woman whose baby dies shortly after its birth.

This year’s Oscars ceremony is expected to be one of the most unusual in its 93-year history, with Los Angeles’ Union Station the primary venue, hosting 170 guests. Hubs in London and Paris will accommodate nominees unable to travel.

Producers including the Contagion director Steven Soderbergh have promised an event more akin to a movie than a conventional awards ceremony. Masks will not be worn on camera, said Soderbergh last week, but they will play “a very important role in the story”.

He added: “If that’s cryptic, it’s meant to be. That topic is very central to the narrative.”

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