I can’t predict which of the ten Best Picture nominees will take home the Oscar at the Academy Awards on March 27. But I can shine a spotlight on the titles of those nominees, which represent a wide variety of styles from acronym to slogan to Bible verse, with some glittering linguistic nuggets in the field. Let’s roll the credits!
Belfast. Director Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film, which is shot mostly in black and white, takes place in the capital of Northern Ireland in 1969, as sectarian conflict is beginning to simmer. But despite the political backdrop, this is an intimate look at one family’s decades-long — maybe centuries-long — connection to a place. “Belfast” is an Anglicization of Gaelic Béal Feirste, which means “mouth of the sand-bank ford.” City names show up frequently in movie titles; think of Casablanca, Havana, Barcelona, Fargo, Munich, Selma, Chicago, and–one of my favorite independent films–Columbus.
CODA. An acronym for Child(ren) of Deaf Adults, this title refers to the teenage central character, Ruby, who is the only hearing member of her family. (She’s a talented singer, which suggests another meaning of coda: the “tail” or concluding part of a musical or literary work.) The CoDA acronym was coined by Millie Brother, who founded the nonprofit organization by that name in 1983. Perhaps the best-known acronymic movie title is M*A*S*H, which stands for “Mobile Army Surgical Hospital”; others include S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons and Tactics) and WALL-E (Waste Allocation and Load Lifter–Earth class).
Don’t Look Up. In this satirical comedy, a massive comet is on a collision path with Earth, and two earnest scientists beg government officials and citizens to “Just look up!” and take action. Naturally, there’s pushback from comet-deniers: Their slogan is “Don’t look up!” which becomes a rally chant and an imprint on ball caps and other merchandise. (Gee, that sounds familiar!) No spoilers here, but this is not an anti-science movie. “Don’t look” movie titles are a mini-genre of their own: you may recall Don’t Look Back, Don’t Look Now, and Don’t Look Down.
Drive My Car. The only non–English language Best Picture nominee is based on a short story, “Doraibu mai kā,” by Haruki Murakami. (The author is well known for his references to Beatles songs; in addition to this one, which evokes “Baby, You Can Drive My Car,” he also wrote “Noruuei No Mori,” a rough transliteration of “Norwegian Wood.”) It’s all about language and silence: The central character is a theater director who casts multilingual actors, as well as one woman who uses Korean Sign Language, in a production of Uncle Vanya. The title alludes at least in part to the time the director spends being chauffeured by a taciturn young woman. Besides Beatles films (Yellow Submarine, A Hard Day’s Night), I can think of one other movie whose title is borrowed from a Beatles lyric: Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed, a lovely Spanish film released in 2013.
Dune. Each January Lynne Murphy, an American linguist who lives and works in England, selects “transatlantic words of the year”: words like “jab” and “furlough” that have successfully crossed the pond in either direction. This year, though, she chose a US-to-UK pronunciation of the year, and that pronunciation was “doon,” which is how Americans pronounce the title of the sci-fi epic based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. “In most BrE [British English] dialects,” Murphy wrote, “…the spelling du (and tu and su) involves a palatal on-glide, which is to say a 'y' sound before the u.” When Dune opened in the UK, many speakers of British English pronounced its title “Doon,” as Americans do, instead of “Dyoon” (or even “June”), as Brits do. Dune, meaning a mound of sand, was borrowed from Dutch in the early 17th century; it’s related to down, an Old English word for hill now seen mostly in the plural (e.g., Churchill Downs).
King Richard. The story is about tennis champions Serena and Venus Williams, but the focus is on their strong-willed and ambitious father, Richard Williams. He’s never called “king” in the film, and given his humble status when the movie opens–he’s working as a security guard — the title may be semi-ironic. We may also be meant to make a connection to the two Shakespearean plays about kings named Richard, with their commanding and tragic protagonists.
Licorice Pizza. The title is never referenced in the film, which takes place in 1973 in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. Here’s how director Paul Thomas Anderson explained it in a 2021 interview with Variety: “After many months of banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what to name this film, I concluded that these two words shoved together reminded me the most of my childhood. Growing up, there was a record-store chain in Southern California called Licorice Pizza. It seemed like a catch-all for the feeling of the film. I suppose if you have no reference to the store, it’s two great words that go well together and maybe capture a mood. Maybe it just looks good on a poster?” “Licorice pizza” is a metaphor for a black vinyl disc; its initials also suggest “long-playing” record. Brand names appear rarely in movie titles because their use may involve licensing fees; one exception is Because of Winn-Dixie, whose title character is a fictional dog named for a real supermarket chain.
Nightmare Alley. Another remake, this time of a 1947 film with the same title; both versions are based on a 1946 novel, also called Nightmare Alley. In both films, the title alludes to the carnival sideshow in which Stan, the central character, begins his fate-tempting mind-reader career; the book includes a more direct reference to a recurring nightmare of Stan’s. In Middle English, a nightmare was a female spirit or monster that settled on a sleeping person or animal and produced a feeling of suffocation; the mare element — unrelated to the “female horse” sense — goes back to Old English, where it meant “a suffocating spirit.”
The Power of the Dog. This moody neo-Western takes its enigmatic title from the 22nd Psalm: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” Biblical titles have a long history in film titling; a very partial list includes Inherit the Wind, The Tree of Life, East of Eden, Chariots of Fire, and Tender Mercies.
West Side Story: When the play on which this film — a remake of the 1961 original — is based was first conceived in 1949, its working title was East Side Story: It was set on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the battling gangs were groups of Jews and Catholics. In her 2011 book about the production, Something’s Coming, Something Good, theater critic Misha Berson writes that for a while in the play’s long development it was called Romeo and — briefly — Gangway. (Ouch!) At last the action was moved to an Upper West Side neighborhood called San Juan Hill, and the gangs became Puerto Rican and white ethnic. The play opened on Broadway in 1957; the neighborhood was bulldozed in 1959 to make way for Lincoln Center.
For another angle on the Oscars, read my 2014 column about the names of film-production companies.