No One Is Happy With the Oscars

We seem to be so grouchy about our entertainment. There was so much grousing about the 92 Academy Award nominees and the awards show itself, you’d think the entire world was forced to take a spelling test and file their taxes at the same time. There’s not enough diversity in the nominees. There’s too much diversity in the production numbers. There’s too much politics in the acceptance speeches. Don’t like that host. Don’t like not having a host. The ceremony is too long. They shouldn’t have cut off the speech from THAT person… The Academy Awards seems like a microcosm of our American politics. No one likes the process or the outcome, except for the ones we agree with.

Thoroughly NonAmerican and Violent

In the interests of full disclosure, I did not see Parasite, which won Best Picture. It also won Best International Film (note the change in language from the old “Best Foreign Film”), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. This was the first time the Best International film also won this distinction and the first time the Best Picture was in a non-English language. Seems especially ironic in a country immersed in a war over whether to expel everyone not from ‘Murica.

Best Picture winner, Parasite, official photo from Madman Films.

Now might be the time to mention “foreign” directors have won Best Director 10 out of the last 12 years, with only Kathryn Bigelow and Damien Chazelle as the exceptions (and Chazelle’s parents were emigrés). For all the handwringing about the lack of diversity in nominees, the winners have not been white American men. Yes, I do think Greta Gerwig’s snub from the list of Best Director nominees was a palpable insult.

Since I started going to the five dollar Tuesday movie practically every other week, Parasite has cropped up on my list because it received rave critical reviews and strong positive audience scores. We kept balking because of its reputation as a horror film; I really don’t like gore. Yet, I can’t help noting to myself that six of the nine Best Picture nominees were filled with violence, and the four I saw were excellent despite the flame-throwing and axe-hurling. (1917, Jojo Rabbit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and The Irishman.)

What We Missed

I also didn’t see and don’t plan to see the violence in The Joker, and I’m still rather curious about why it garnered so many nominations. Its reviews weren’t promising (NY Times critic A.O. Scott called it ” an empty, foggy exercise in second-hand style and second-rate philosophizing …). The film, an origin story for a legendary super-villain, clearly touched a nerve with other viewers who declared it as a masterpiece practically before it was in theaters. The Joker is a loner from the wrong side of the tracks whose descent into madness is apparently brilliantly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix (who did win Best Actor). Yet, the fascination with him seems like standard fascination with the devil. Lucifer’s story has always been more interesting than Gabriel’s. There’s probably a part of all of us that enjoys watching revenge carried out, fantasizing about how “we” might wreak it on our transgressors.

Does that make it worthy of Best Picture? Doesn’t seem so to me, but perhaps, we’ve become polarized as audiences just as we have as voters. A low critic score and high audience score is as reflective of who is self-selecting to see the film as it is the merits of the film itself. Yet then how does that explain the nine nominations for the film aside from Best Actor or Best Picture? Is the real lack of diversity evident in this microcosm of white male rage being nominated for Editing, Costume Design, Cinematography, and Sound Mixing?

Personally, I preferred Little Women. Lots of people (men) didn’t, as the film garnered very few nominations, not just in director but in other categories. This, despite receiving much more favorable reviews by both critics and audiences. It’s particularly ironic when compared with (arguably) a film as opposite as The Joker, since both portray views of class struggle. They are both about the neglect by the rich and the struggles by those who must make sacrifices just to eat. Given that the Best Picture winner also focused on the stark contrast between wealthy and the struggling classes, maybe there’s a theme here that we’re missing.

Part of the identity crisis that has afflicted the awards in recent years is the sense that they serve too many incompatible constituencies. An industry that likes continuity and tradition, a global audience that wants a big spectacle, younger voters interested in aesthetic risk and social awareness, a domestic public that somehow both hates politics and insists on politicizing everything. The broadcasts of recent years have exposed some of the contradictions between Hollywood’s universalist aspirations and its parochial realities.

NYT: What the Parasite Landslide Says about the Oscars

A History of Dissatisfaction

The 1973 Oscars was one of the first I remember watching (Best Picture: Godfather). My strongest memory was of being particularly annoyed when Charlton Heston made a snarky comment about my childhood crush, Michael Jackson, being up “past his bedtime” to sing original song nominee (“Ben,” a song I’ve never liked). In 1975, when Hearts and Minds won Best Documentary, the directors of the winning anti-war film remarked on the irony of peace coming to Vietnam. This prompted hosts Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra to declare that “We are not responsible for any political references made on the program, and we are sorry they had to take place this evening.”

Wouldn’t it be darned hilarious if a presenter came out in this day and age and said, “we are not responsible for any political preferences….”? Who would you get to do that? Jane Fonda? Clint Eastwood? Spike Lee? Actually, that might be fun! Have them all come out at the same time! Throw shade at each other!

Last year, the problem was that Green Book, a feel-good “based on a true story” movie about race relations, took liberties with the true story and highlighted the role of the white drive to the point where the family of the black pianist had to disavow the movie. Only three years ago, the wrong movie was announced as Best Picture. As I glance back over winners and nominees, there’s a whole host that I still can’t see as deserving (Gladiator, Shakespeare in Love, or even Braveheart over Apollo 13? fuhgeddaboutit!). Still, there’s an awful lot of great movies, both winners and nominees.

Facebook commentary was filled with “I can live without ever seeing another war movie.” Yet 1917 was the best WWI film I’d seen and probably ever will see (with Paths of Glory a close second). Jojo Rabbit was the most upbeat Nazi film I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, I wasn’t interested in Ford vs. Ferrari but overheard a woman at my coffee shop comment that it was “the best movie, by far, that she’d seen all year.”

Democracy In Action

The Academy has pushed to improve the diversity of its membership, which now stands at 32% women and 16% minorities. (Although that 95% winning list of non-American Best Directors puts the lie to some this chauvinism.) Nominations are still limited in that only those within the profession can vote for their category. Only camera operators vote for Cinematography; only actors can vote for acting nominees. To the extent that women or minorities are not represented in those categories because of barriers to those professions, the results will be skewed. As with any other kind of voting, the change has to come by pressing for more diverse representation by those who vote.

Curiously, the documentary features went to women and men who extolled issues of class, gender, and race. The show itself put a spotlight on the lack of diversity by opening with black, gender queer performers Janell Monae and Billy Porter.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 09: (L-R) Janelle Monáe and Billy Porter perform the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

They rocked the house. In contrast, the appearance of white rapper Eminem emerging to sing a song nearly two decades old was lost on me. Also, just when I was finished laughing at the incongruity of banter by former SNL cast members Will Ferrell, Julia Louie-Dreyfuss, Maya Rudolph, and Kristin Wiig, well, here came Elton John pounding out what is probably his worst song ever, which then won Best Song over the much more lively and movie-appropriate “Stand Up.”

Let’s face it. There’s no accounting for tastes when it comes to movies. Like democracy, the Oscars are a hot mess. Given that the surprise winner was a subtitled film which turned out to be beloved by critics and audiences, maybe there’s a lesson there.

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