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Revisiting Alexander Payne’s 7 Oscar races in honor of ‘The Holdovers’

Alexander Payne has had quite a unique awards run at the Oscars. The acclaimed writer and director, best known for his black comedy contemporary films adapted from novels and mostly set in the rural Midwest, has amounted seven Academy Award nominations and two wins, while his movies have garnered a total of 19 bids, including seven of his actors: Jack Nicholson, George Clooney, Bruce Dern, Kathy Bates, June Squibb, Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen. With his latest directed movie “The Holdovers” gathering massive buzz, and set to release October 27, let’s take a look back at Payne’s previous seven Oscar races.

His first nomination came for his second feature film “Election,” based on the 1998 Tom Perrotta novel of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. It’s about a teacher who deliberately sabotages an election due to his immense dislike of one of the student candidates. Payne directed and co-wrote the film adaptation with collaborating writer Jim Taylor, winning the Writers Guild of America Award and resulting in a nomination for both for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2000 Academy Awards (the only mention for the 1999 movie), losing to John Irving for “The Cider House Rules.”

After a shocking Oscar snub for his next movie “About Schmidt” in Best Adapted Screenplay in 2003, despite winning the Golden Globe combining both original and adapted, Payne rebounded two years later with arguably his most successful film, “Sideways,” about two men in their midlife crisis embarking on a road trip to celebrate one of their weddings. Starring Paul Giamatti, Church, Madsen and Sandra Oh, and based on the Rex Pickett novel, Payne and Taylor swept the screenplay categories that awards season, winning the Golden Globe, WGA, BAFTA and Oscar, as well as the Big Four film critics’ awards (Los Angeles Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics’ Circle, National Society of Film Critics and National Board of Review), becoming the only writers and the only film to win all these awards for screenplay. In addition, Payne was noticed for his directing achievement with bids at the Globes, Directors Guild of America, and the Oscars, as the film went on to nab five total Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and supporting nods for Madsen and Church.

In 2011, Payne adapted another novel with “The Descendants” by Kaui Hart Hemmings, changing his setting to Hawaii and stepping into the producer chair for his own film. The movie features Clooney as a man who comes to terms with his wife’s secret affair and their marriage after she is left comatose. It won the 2012 Golden Globe for Best Drama Film, giving Payne his first victory as a producer. Later he got three Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, the last he ended up prevailing and sharing with co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. “The Descendants” was also recognized for Best Editing and gave Clooney his fourth acting citation.

His most recent stint at the Oscars was in 2014 for another road movie “Nebraska” starring Dern, Squibb and Will Forte, and was the first that he solely directed without writing. The black-and-white film about a trip to the titular state for a supposed million-dollar sweepstakes has the highest Oscar nomination tally for a Payne movie with six: Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay for Bob Nelson, Best Actor for Dern, Best Supporting Actress for Squibb, and Best Director for Payne. The director’s nomination was not a sure bet and he was on the cusp, given he only had the Golden Globe mention and was snubbed by the DGA, so it indicates a lot of support and respect.

That leads us to Focus Features’ upcoming 1970s dramedy “The Holdovers,” written by David Hemingson and marking Payne’s second collaboration with Giamatti as he portrays a curmudgeonly teacher who looks after a student over the Christmas holiday. Premiering at the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, it placed first runner-up at the latter festival’s People’s Choice Award, an accurate indicator of what may break into the Best Picture lineup at the Oscars.

Since 2007, at least one of the three films listed as the TIFF People’s Choice has gone to receive a Best Picture nomination (with the exception of 2011). “The Holdovers” seems like it would have the best odds against the winner, the satirical dramedy “American Fiction” and the animated Hayao Miyazaki film “The Boy and the Heron” (the second runner-up), given the prestige Payne has and his Oscar history.

If “The Holdovers” does end up nabbing the top category at the Oscars, it would likely follow the same pattern as all of Payne’s previous movies, with major notices in the top categories (acting, writing, and directing) and a chance at a couple technical categories. Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and newcomer Dominic Sessa have received praise for their performances and are in the conversation for acting bids and Payne could very well receive his fourth Best Director nomination if the movie does well during the season.

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