Any hope, however dismal, that this Sunday’s Academy Awards will eschew political statements went out the window the moment Meryl Streep took the stage at the Golden Globe Awards, to accept the Cecil B. Demille Award for her contributions to entertainment.
In case you need a refresher: the actress used her platform to urge national as well as foreign media representatives to “hold power to account.” Streep, who like her fellow performers attended the ceremony at the behest of the Hollywood Foreign Press, knew she was in the right place to level her denunciations at #45:
“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing,” she stated.
The following morning, #45, in three consecutive tweets, did not offer any new insight on the incident when he mocked a disabled New York Times reporter, but he nevertheless branded Streep a Hillary Clinton “flunky” whose attacks were politically motivated:
Streep never mentioned #45 by name– she didn’t have to. But in a post-truth society characterized by a steady and vocal opposition to Hollywood liberals and “coastal elites,” it’s safe to say her cohort are preparing to crank the dial to 11.
SO THE HEAT IS ON?
You bet– and #45 might not be the only one you’ll find roasting over an open fire.
Notable performers of color– including Loving’s Ruth Negga, and the Moonlight duo of Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris– count themselves among this year’s acting nominees. Cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival) became only the second black cinematographer to receive an Academy Award nomination (after Remi Adefarasin for 1998’s Elizabeth).
Consider, however, that it was only last awards season when the Twitter campaign #OscarsSoWhite took the homogeneity of the Oscars to task. This year’s “inclusive” nominations don’t mean, argues April Reign, the hashtag’s creator, that the “race row” is over. Nor do these changes– however positive–signify that Hollywood is necessarily diverse.
In an interview with Slate this week, Reign acknowledges the campaign sent shockwaves through the film industry not just in the United States, but worldwide.
“Germany is discussing diversity or lack thereof in their films,” she points out. “BAFTA, which is London’s equivalent of the Oscars, has new diversity requirements for two of their film categories, requiring the nominees of those films to be inclusive.
"That’s something that we’ve never seen before and I’m hoping that other award organizations pick that up. We see that studios are doing a somewhat better job of looking for people from marginalized communities to tell their stories.”
Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has altered the guidelines by which they accept new members to broaden all demographics who cast their Oscar ballots, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the academy's president, has never reached out to Reign directly.
For her part, Reign says she finds the new membership rules “encouraging,” even if 89% of the members are white and 73% are male.
“While I have always said through #OscarsSoWhite that this is not a quota system and that these awards should be based on merit, you cannot say that it is a meritocracy if they’re not voting on the quality of the performance or the film itself.
"If they’re not, what are they using as a basis for voting? Is it implicit bias? Is it, as one anonymous academy member said, the fact that they couldn’t pronounce Lupita Nyong’o and so they weren’t interested in even watching the film?” she wonders.
“Is it that they saw a great ad in Variety a week before the votes were due, and that’s what stuck out in their head? Is it that they believe that a director or actor or whomever was due for an award just based on their body of work, not necessarily for this particular performance, and so they wanted to cast their vote in favor of that person?”
Expect rounds of cringe inducing self-congratulation.
In other news: You may have seen Manchester by the Sea (and you may have liked it). But rumors abound that Casey Affleck– a longtime favorite in the Best Actor category for his performance in the film– could lose the prize to Denzel Washington, whose passion project, Fences, could make nab him his third win in an acting category.
You may have heard of the sexual harassment allegations which have dogged Affleck for the last few months. The allegations, which date back to 2010, involve two women who worked with him on the experimental film I’m Still Here. Both claims were settled out of court (You can read the full complaints here and here).
You also may have heard of Nate Parker, whose Birth of a Nation, a retelling of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, found its Oscar hopes derailed when controversy arose surrounding rape allegations when he was a student at Penn State. (You can read a timeline of the events here.)
Both Manchester and Birth premiered at Sundance and, in much happier times, Affleck and Parker were projected to go neck and neck for the top acting prize. But one is still in the game and the other is not. While the two cases are vastly different, they’ve nonetheless sparked a national conversation on race and privilege bias.
BUT THIS IS A HOLLYWOOD CIRCLE JERK, IS IT NOT?
Eric Tuscanes, who worked for a film distributor based in New York City and has contributed film criticism to sites such as Serving Cinema, certainly thinks so.
“The Oscars are inherently ridiculous,” he says, “because it's a bunch of overly dressed millionaires posing as goodwill ambassadors because they worked on a movie… Anne Hathaway nailed the dichotomy recently—she won for a movie about human suffering (2012’s Les Miserables) in a designer dress that cost more than the average Joe's yearly income.”
Tuscanes also points out that it takes much more than good filmmaking for a film to become an Oscar contender.
“Distributors are the real players of the Oscar race; a movie has to land a distribution deal first, and then the distributor has to give it a timely release date,” he said Oh, and the PR agents who get their actors coveted spots on magazine covers deserve their credit too.”
Were the Oscars more like the Cannes Film Festival, where voters watch the films in contention in time and then choose their favorites, he continues, the Oscars “might be less susceptible to dishonesty.”
For the best indication that the Oscars are little more than “privileged people voting for their favorites,” he recommends those with a vested interest in the ceremony read The Hollywood Reporter’s recurring “Honest Ballot” series, wherein anonymous members of (AMPAS) give their true feelings about the current season’s contenders.
One of the more recent additions to this series, a ballot from a “longtime female member of the 1,158-member actors branch who— this season, anyway— is not associated with any of the nominees,” lends weight to the Tuscanes theory.
The AMPAS member acknowledges that the majority of this year’s winners are foregone conclusions and rails into each of this year’s nominees with delightfully vicious gusto.
ON VOTING FOR BEST PICTURE: “I hated Arrival — it just sucked. I didn't like Fences because they just filmed the play — I wanted to see the guy go into the jazz club and play his music, the girl who's having his baby, his kid on the football field. But I think Denzel [Washington, its producer/director/star] decided that every word of the script [by the late August Wilson] was so precious that he wasn't going to "mess" with it, and the movie suffered as a result.” HER VOTE: Hell or High Water
ON VOTING FOR BEST ACTRESS: “I liked none of them. I thought Meryl [Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins] played it like a clown — she's cute and adorable, but this woman didn't matter to me in the end — but people are gaga over Meryl, and I think she solidified her nomination when she gave that speech at the Golden Globes. I don't think she would have gotten nominated without it.” HER VOTE: Ruth Negga in Loving
ON VOTING FOR BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: “I hated the German movie [Toni Erdmann] so much because it was so shticky— Germans are not funny! The only part of the whole movie where I laughed was when she couldn't get out of her tight dress and just ripped it off and went around naked. I hear Jack Nicholson is going to be in a remake, and he might make it funny. The other four were beautifully done, so it was hard.” HER VOTE: A Man Called Ove
“It’s always interesting what movie will get released when, and how that movie might fare given the release date calendar,” Tuscanes concludes, noting that all Best Picture winners premiere at film festivals first, and that 2006’s The Departed was the last film to win the coveted award without a festival pre-screening.
Still, awards season, for all its predictability, is not without its excitement.
“You never know what’ll pop up for the Toronto Film Festival’s People’s Choice, or a prize win at Sundance or Cannes,” he acknowledges. “The Oscars don't honor the best in film; they honor the best promoters in film.”
BUT ENOUGH ABOUT THE POLITICS AND THE PRIVILEGE! WHAT ABOUT THE MOVIES?
We spoke to casual viewers and film aficionados alike who’ve expressed high hopes for the ceremony, warts and all.
“The Oscars always make me nostalgic for Old Hollywood and the celebration of film– though they never cover the year as a whole,” says Caitlin Davis, a native of Waterloo, Ontario, who considers the event her personal “Super Bowl” and values its propensity for “fun escapism.”
It’s not political statements that bother her, either. “I think there needs to be a shift of focus to the nominees and cutting back on the hoopla of presenters and over the top musical acts,” she opines. “Enough with the cutting people's speeches short and shoving them off the stage with Jaws music. “
Ryan Jamison, a regular contributor to Taste of Cinema who resides in North Vancouver, British Columbia, says the Oscars are his favorite film event of the year and that they’ve become even more important in an age where the rise of TV and streaming services have sort of detracted from the novelty of the cinema (We’re looking at you, Netflix and Hulu).
For Brendan Carr, a native of Van Wert, Ohio, awards season represents “elegance, fine moviemaking, and a lot of memories.” While the Oscars have sometimes lent itself to “crass and offensive jokes on the line of [Seth McFarlane’s] “We Saw Your Boobs,” he believes the ceremony “unites Hollywood’s past to its present” more often than not.
Carr points out that the average viewer might not always recognize, let alone have an intimate relationship with Oscar-nominated films. In truth, several recent Best Picture winners failed to make waves at the box office; the 2009 Iraq War-drama The Hurt Locker, for example, only had a lifetime gross of $17 million.
In 2014, Birdman and Boyhood went head to head for the coveted statuette, but neither film attracted many viewers away from the arthouse circuit, a sign, wrote Variety’s Brent Lang at the time, that AMPAS members “are more moved by art than commerce when it comes to handing out the top prize.”
Still, Carr says, good “word of mouth” remains the best way to make Oscar-nominated films more accessible to the average filmgoer. “Try to compare the films to others people might know already,” he says.
For all of the marketing and distribution misfires, the Oscars, says Ryan Jamison, “reinforce a level of prestige into the medium that at times feels sorely missed. I don't always love their choices but seeing someone I admire win an Academy Award always brings me great pleasure.”
SO SHOULD I WATCH?
Hell yes, you should.
The Academy Awards will air live this Sunday on ABC at 5:30 p.m. Pacific.[Feature Image Courtesy IndianExpress.com]