MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: The Wars Before The War

I should have written a column last week… but this season is turning into a beautiful bore. And by that I mean that there is some truly wonderful, exceptional work out there and on the way out… and many categories are wide open in terms of exactly who will be nominated… but those excited fish are swimming in a very small barrel.

It really was big news, by this season’s standards, that Viola Davis moved to Supporting Actress because she had no chance to win a locked-down Top 3 in Best Actress. That’s what passes for big news this season.

Loving and Moonlight will get in or not, not on the basis of race, but by degree of intimacy and whether The Academy membership is in the mood for both or neither or one of the two.

A lot of people have worked themselves into a race lather again this season, fantasizing about movies winning awards because of some sort of political make-up sex by Academy members. Ain’t happening. First, the changes at The Academy haven’t changed it much at all. Second, there is a better chance of backlash within The Academy against last year’s embarrassing response to #OscarSoWhite than there is of voters posturing to seem politically correct. (Most likely, there will be no real response at all and 99% of Oscar voters will just vote for what they like amongst the narrow swath aggressively presented to them this month and next.)

Speaking of changes at The Academy… the year of ugliness is pretty close to over. For eight months, the leadership has tortured about 700 elder members who didn’t automatically fit their arbitrary classification for deserving to keep the “lifetime” vote they earned by getting into The Academy. After all of that drama, less than 10% of that group of about 700 will lose their voting privileges. After all, taking the vote away from people in their 80s and 90s is noble, right?

I have been profoundly offended by The Academy’s handling of this whole year of demographic drama. On the broadest level, the idea of arguing that exclusion is a legitimate route to inclusion is particularly offensive when the issue is racial rights, as Brown v Board of Education settled this as an inappropriate way of handling things over 50 years ago when the Supreme Court finally found that separate but equal was not equal at all.

But that aside, what has really enraged me is the misleading characterization of actions. The Academy is, unarguably, a reflection of The Industry. If The Academy wishes to take a leadership posture, it should start by being honest.

The Academy started by announcing a three-year-old project, 2020 (trying to come closer to real-world population demographics), as though it was brand new last January. In that announcement, they also laid out a plan to thin the organization of older white males who were the dominant demographic, claiming that a significant percentage of them didn’t deserve the lifetime voting rights that membership empowered them with upon their entry… and that this was, somehow, holding back progress. But making the false connection, a large percentage of The Academy became suspect, when only a tiny percentage deserved scrutiny. They also failed to understand that in targeting older white males, they would also be targeting older white women members.

Then they hired a highly qualified black producer and a black host for the show and allowed the celebration of last year’s films to become three hours of self-flagellation, the point of which could have been made without making it the theme of the show. Moreover, The Academy made it all about African-Americans and not about other people of color, who didn’t organize against The Academy after nominations, even taking heat for stereotyping Asians. Then… they fired the black producer after the ratings tanked.

In June, after hiring some of Hollywood’s finest publicists to consult, The Academy invited 683 new members to join. They declared this a victory, but failed to note that less than 10% of the invitees were black. And that less than 10% of invitees were Latino or Hispanic. So in their great effort, The Academy failed to invite this new group, for which traditional rules were thrown out the window, a percentage within these two major groups equal to their demographic representation in America. In other words, the voting percentages for blacks and Latinos in The Academy were worse after this mass of invitations.

The Academy made a big leap with women and with Asians. A major component of this list was the scouring of the planet for filmmakers from other countries. And while I admire pretty much everyone who was invited, the point must be made that The Academy – like the American industry – is mightily biased against world cinema, even in how The Academy manages the Foreign Language category, which makes the choices of competitors political for each country and extremely unfair to countries which produce a lot more films than other competing nations. It is the idea of the Senate without the balance of the House of Representatives.

Add to that, more white people were invited to join The Academy this summer than ever in modern Academy history.

Had The Academy said, “We need to make a major change in this organization and we have to sacrifice the voting rights of 20% of current members in order to make change and this is how we want to do it,” I would be shocked, but I would be more sympathetic. At least it would be a straight, honest argument.

And mostly, if The Academy was honest about the invitations this year, announcing that it had failed to find as many new black and Latino members in America as it would have liked because the industry just hasn’t given those groups ample opportunity, it would be have been the introduction of another important conversation, not an attempt to make the whole thing go away at any cost.

As for this Oscar season, it will be “less white” because of the movies that are in play, not because anyone found a more honorable view of race or because The Academy fixed their demographic disparity.

And by the way, #OscarSoMale will be as big a problem this season as any other. There are no female directors being seriously discussed in that category this year, even though there are a number of high-profile female-driven films in the Best Picture race. And I am pretty sure that there are no female screenwriters in serious play either, which makes it worse than last year.

This season will have “black” nominees because Denzel Washington took a classic play by a classic stage writer (August Wilson) in which he and his female lead won Tonys in 2010 and made it into a movie. And because a rising directing star decided to make a movie about the history of miscegenation. And because a young filmmaker decided to explore his own story of growing up and offered a unique vision filled with great performances and a muscular young distributor is pushing it hard. And because Fox greenlit their version of The Help and filled it will well-loved, fun, smart actresses who tell an important story and will have audiences having fun while they do it. (And let’s not forget the late, almost-great The Birth of A Nation.)

Four films, quite different, loaded with wonderful stuff, and happen to have color. Great for the industry. Great for The Academy. But no one made something change. Circumstances made this year’s change. And next year, it may well change “back.” No way of knowing from here.

The Academy could not – can not – fix the perceived problem it has without massive, unrealistic alterations to the organization. And that would require reducing the size of the organization to under 2500 members. This industry just doesn’t have enough veteran filmmakers of “Academy quality” of color or the female gender to have a group of 7000 represent them in the same demographic levels as the rest of America. That is the industry’s fault/limitation/folly/history to resolve. So I do not blame it for not fixing the problem. I only blame it for spinning the efforts they have made into falsehoods. Because then people think it has been solved and they stop trying to fix things moving forward.

And now, almost a year after this all became a national issue, a handful of members, fewer than 100 (probably fewer than 50), will lose their voting rights in their twilight years. No demographics will be noticeably changed. Nothing will become better for anyone, except the self-righteous who want to believe that change for change’s sake is progress.

Meanwhile, The Academy has not officially hired a producer for the Oscar show. As of November 1. This leads me to believe they will be forced to hire ABC’s preference – aka this year’s Emmys host – and a well-oiled production team that has nothing to do with the film industry. Maybe I will be proven wrong. I hope so. The last time they hired a host who had done other award shows recently, he bombed hosting for the first time in his career.

And so… is it time to talk movies yet?

I’m ready. I love the line-up this year.

But this has been the ugliest off-season in memory. Don’t even get me started in on the museum that is nine figures in the hole just on construction and doesn’t have the inventory to fill its walls when it eventually opens.

Next week… movies.

2 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: The Wars Before The War”

  1. Jerry says:

    Well at least the academy members now have an over representation in the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui ethnic group.

  2. Bob Burns says:

    You should be inducted into the Academy.

Quote Unquotesee all »

“Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. Peckinpah’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of ‘The Big Valley,’ but they don’t necessarily look like The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for ‘Gunsmoke’ – it’s right there.”
~ Quentin Tarantino

“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
~ Hideo Kojima