Calling the Oscar race now is like predicting the outcome of a football game in the first quarter. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that I’ve just seen the big winner at the next Academy Awards, to be held March 4. It’s the simple, sweet romance Call Me by Your Name.
The irresistible element of the film, which hits theaters November 24, is that it’s a gay love story. The two leads, Armie Hammer as an American grad student spending the summer of 1983 with a professor’s family in Northern Italy, and Timothée Chalamet as the 17-year-old Euro-American son of the house, have a hesitant, gentle but increasingly passionate affair that is bound to make the movie industry swoon. At a screening last week for the film’s debut at the New York Film Festival, I walked out at the end only to discover that virtually everyone else in the theater was absolutely bolted to their seats, transfixed, probably weeping.
I expect red-state types to dismiss the film because it’s gay and for blue-state types to overpraise the film because it’s gay. The latter group will find its matter-of-fact, non-judgmental, non-tortured mood to be especially appealing. It’s far more serene and joyful than Brokeback Mountain or Moonlight, the gay movie that won last year’s Oscar. This time, there is not much effort to pretend that worlds will shatter if a gay romance becomes known to those around them. Although the two men are secretive about their trysts, it gradually emerges that the parents of the teen (Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar) are cool with the whole thing anyway. “At last,” the film’s fans will say, “gay people get a glossy love story of their own.”
I’d flip that around and say, “If these were straight people, would there be anything remarkable about this movie?” Directed by Luca Guadagnino in soft, summery tones, the film is evidently deeply felt and more than competently executed. But story-wise, it’s a bit thin: The guys spend an hour or so exchanging flirty glances, then half an hour or so in various bedroom scenarios. There’s nothing really keeping them apart except that neither knows whether or not the other is gay. For a 132-minute film, this isn’t a lot of plot.
Still, Chalamet, who was previously best known for playing Matthew McConaughey’s son in Interstellar, exudes star power and is already the cynosure of the season in the movie business. Without ever seeming to do much acting, he captures the attention throughout the movie and stands a good chance of winning an Oscar for his work. Were he to win Best Actor he would be by far the youngest man ever to do so, but he could be shunted off into the supporting category because of his age, as Timothy Hutton was for Ordinary People. Chalamet has two other attention-getting turns about to hit theaters, in Lady Bird and Hostiles, and his combination of maturity and boy-band cuteness is going to make him a big name.
As for Hammer, who first attracted attention as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network and went on to do disastrous work as the co-lead in the flops The Lone Ranger, J. Edgar, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Mirror, Mirror, he has learned to relax a bit, and though he isn’t hugely talented, he’s appealing enough.
When it comes time to vote for the Oscars, Call Me by Your Name is bound to strike a deep chord in the many gay members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It also carries the kind of sociopolitical freight the Oscars seek, though it isn’t overtly a message movie: Only in the closing minutes, and only in a subtle, oblique way, does Call Me by Your Name allude to the human misery that goes along with gay people feeling the need to hide their natures from themselves and others. Gay marriage is of course unmentioned, but audiences will not miss the point that everyone is better off if people are free to be gay without fear of obloquy.
Some other contenders, such as the upcoming Winston Churchill WWII drama Darkest Hour, may be more thematically important, but Hollywood is far more interested in sexuality and personal liberation than it is in war.
Some other Oscar contenders such as Dunkirk and the upcoming Winston Churchill WWII drama Darkest Hour (both of which are essentially about the same subject and seem likely to cancel each other out) may be more thematically important, but Hollywood is far more interested in sexuality and personal liberation than it is in war. Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Pentagon Papers movie The Post, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham, could also be a contender, but these days Spielberg’s serious films (such as 2015’s Bridge of Spies) are increasingly hamstrung by their earnestness. Paul Thomas Anderson also is finishing up a new, as yet untitled, film, about 1950s London and starring Daniel Day-Lewis in what the actor claims will be his final movie. But Anderson’s films have a vexing habit of sprawling, then petering out.
Call Me by Your Name seems likely to enchant Oscar voters more than any of these, despite a title that is shaping up as the stupidest catchphrase in a tearjerker since “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It’s an instance of pillow talk between the gay lovers, who seem to find it erotically engaging to address themselves by their own names. Is calling out one’s own name between the sheets really a romantic act? To me it sounds like the opposite: pure self-gratification.