Netflix is gearing up to be a big player in the awards game this season. Part of their awards strategy is making sure that their marquee titles like ROMA and 22 July get a theatrical release of some kind, which will help qualify those titles for Academy consideration—in order to be eligible for the Oscars, a film has to play in actual movie theaters for a minimum amount of time. A movie like ROMA, which comes from an Oscar-winner like Alfonso Cuaron and has already scored lots of love at multiple film festivals, doesn’t have much to worry about. The film is almost a lock for a Best Picture nomination and it’s the heavy favorite to win Best Foreign Language Film. But what does Netflix do with a movie like Private Life, which premiered at Sundance and played at the New York Film Festival, but has not received a theatrical release? What does Netflix do when the movie features one of the best performances of the year?
For those who are unfamiliar with Private Life, the new movie from The Savages filmmaker Tamara Jenkins follows married couple Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamaitti) as they struggle to conceive a child. The movies goes through the struggles of fertility and adoption, and the toll it takes on a marriage. Hahn in particular is riveting as Rachel, showcasing the despair and sadness of this rollercoaster but doing so in a way that never feels predictable or melodramatic. Hahn has always been an outstanding comic actress, but she shows another side of her immense acting talent by taking on a difficult role with nuance and depth.
Watching Hahn’s performance is both captivating and infuriating. On the one hand, watching Hahn in Private Life is to know you’re watching one of the best performances of the year. There’s no doubt or equivocating about it. You’re watching an actress give her all for a complex, realistic character and absolutely nailing it. Watching Hahn in Private Life was similar to watching Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine a few years ago. This isn’t a case of “Most Acting” or a performer looking to be noticed. It’s just an honest, intricate, complex, layered performance where you know you won’t soon forget this character or their journey because the actor did such an incredible job.
And it’s infuriating that Hahn will most likely be overlooked because Netflix hasn’t deemed Private Life at the level of 22 July or ROMA. For Netflix, Private Life is part of the content machine. It’s no different than To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before or Game Over, Man! except it’s there for people who want a prestige drama for the evening rather than a coming-of-age romance or a goofy comedy. It has about as much weight to Netflix as anything else they produce, and that means Hahn’s incredible, unforgettable work here is going to get lost in the shuffle rather than stand alongside the best performances of the year.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If Netflix wanted to, they could try and make the case for Hahn, and that in turn would only help Netflix. Yes, it needs that little theatrical push to qualify, but Netflix made that push last year with Mudbound and ended up netting four Oscar nominations out of it including Best Supporting Actress for Mary J. Blige. That’s proof that the Academy membership won’t rule out an acting nomination just because it comes from a Netflix movie. It’s hard to imagine that Academy members wouldn’t react to Hahn’s work here if they were given the chance.
Yes, Netflix is a company of finite resources. It may not seem that way because of all the content they produce, but they can only do so much in the awards race. It looks like they’re putting their chips on ROMA, 22 July, and possibly The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But they would be remiss if they didn’t realize they already have a winner with Private Life. If Netflix gives this film the attention it deserves, it’s possible they could score a well-earned nomination for Kathryn Hahn.