MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: Season of Assumption

There has never been less plain talk in an Oscar season.

The field lacks many frontrunners and has representation on many fronts, which is stirring passion amongst a wider-than-usual range of interested observers.

This is a good thing.

Six of the 13 films that the Gurus o’ Gold have as Best Picture nomination contenders have female leads or at least one legitimate female co-lead.

Representation by people of color in the awards race is thin, reflecting the lack of movies that fit the Academy ideal for representation of people of color. Get Out, which has a black lead, and writer-director, is in contention in spite of its horror-comedy genre, which would historically keep it from contention. Mudbound, with white actors in lead roles and strong supporting roles by people of color, as well as a black female writer-director, suffers the weight of not getting a true theatrical release by Netflix. Performances by Oscar-winners Denzel Washington and Octavia Spencer are also in play.

Three contending movies are set outside the U. S. – Dunkirk, Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread – all in the UK. Call Me By Your Name is set in Italy… among Americans on a summer holiday.

Two female directors are in play, though only one is seriously, as well as one who seems likely to land a spot. Two black directors are in play, with only one seriously and less likely to land a spot amongst the five nominees.

Of the 13 movies in serious Best Picture play, there are two or three that I would be uncomfortable with as the winner. I’m guessing that would be true of almost everyone reading this, even though the two or three thought unworthy would vary.

So… It’s a good field.

And 85% or more of Academy voters will nominate what they like in the order that they like the work. So why does it seem like so many are girding for a fight over the nominations?

So much has happened in 2017 to bring the heady dreams of the Obama era to a sudden close. At the same time, the movie industry is faced with a serious challenge, not only about representation, but tangible, easily-quantifiable sexual abuse forced by industry men onto industry women.

There is a strong current of people simply not wanting to consider signs of progress, which include Moonlight winning,  embracing both gay and black culture… Harvey Weinstein being exposed… men put on notice… success of Wonder Woman and Girls Trip… And now a season of interesting, diverse Oscar contenders. Great.

But as winning heals, losing can also open old wounds.

The issues haven’t changed all that much. Everything seems to be hanging on Get Out and Call Me By Your Name for one bunch, with an assumption that Lady Bird will hold things up for the ladies’ side. That’s pressure on the nomination, or lack thereof, for just two films. Either the Academy is okay with the LGBTQ community and the African American community or not, based on whether these two movies get in.

Here is where some will scoff—the very people who will be the first to claim homophobia and/or racism if these films don’t get in. Let’s be honest.

The problem is still not The Academy. The bar is too low for the industry. If four POC nominations in the “top 8” categories is enough for Oscar not to be “so white,” nothing has changed and two seasons in a row without black acting nominees is a statistical blip.

But when it comes to awards time, most people still ask the wrong questions.

Inclusion is not a lack of exclusion.

Inclusion, in terms of award season, is having more than two or three or four films directed by women, or by people of color in contention.

In August at Gurus o’ Gold, we had 40 films considered in contention.

So by census, there should have been at least five “black” films in the mix. There were three – Detroit, Get Out, and Mudbound. Detroit washed away, in part, by complaints that the filmmaker was not black, so her film was somehow invalid. Mudbound premiered at Sundance and had not yet launched on Netflix, but is fronted by a white family (white stars) that has to deal with racism because of the connection to a black family that is changed by the war. And Get Out is the well-loved hit horror-thriller-social satire that did led the box office early in the year.

All three could be expected to miss the Oscar nominations cut. It looks like Get Out will get in, and Mudbound still has opportunities. Detroit may get in with a song, but doesn’t appear to be in contention for the big awards. But aside from the Denzel Washington starrer, nothing was released into the conventional award season space of the fall, except Marshall, which just wasn’t good enough kindling.

And even more than the count of how many options the season has, there is the 25% or so of non-POC titles that crash and burn and are quickly forgotten. With “white movies,” 10 or so crash and that leaves 30 in play. In “POC movies” you lose one and you’re down to three. Detroit gets waylaid and you’re down to two. Mudbound gets Netflix-sidebarred and then there’s onlyGet Out. And suddenly, the entire issue of race at The Academy comes down to a horror-comedy-thriller from a first-time director.

That’s crazy.

No matter how much you love Get Out or see the social discussion as the focus of the film… whether it gets nominated or not… crazy.

It’s also crazy to argue that if Get Out isn’t included in the Best Picture nominees that racism is primarily responsible.

There are six English-language, non-animated 2017 releases that have a 96% or better rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Get Out, Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name are expected to get Best Picture nods. The Big Sick, Mudbound and The Florida Project are considered borderline.

Of the next group, at 93%, only two of the five are expected to get nominations. The Shape of Water/Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in; Logan/Baby Driver/War for the Planet of the Apes out.

And then down to the 92%ers… The Disaster Artist/Dunkirk/Spider-Man: Homecoming/Thor: Ragnarok/Wonder Woman.

The other top contenders (Darkest Hour/The Post/I, Tonya/Phantom Thread) have RT ratings between 84% and 91%.

There are 20 films. Do the five you pick to vote for as Best Picture define your moral standing?

Two of those 84%-91% titles are my two favorite films of the year. 1. Phantom Thread. 2. I, Tonya.

After that, from this list, in no defined order yet, are Baby Driver, Lady Bird, Logan, The Shape of Water, 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Thor: Ragnarok.

My Top 10 will likely be rounded out by First They Killed My Father and Jane… though I reserve the right to make changes when I focus on the Top 10 instead of this column… especially since Detroit and Darkest Hour should be there somewhere.

I really like Get Out and Call Me By Your Name and The Big Sick and The Florida Project and Wonder Woman, too. And I like pretty much everything else on the list.

So where am I morally? I have seen both movies multiple times, but if you told me I had to watch Thor: Ragnarok or Get Out again right now, I’d pick Thor. And though I have a great love and respect for First They Killed My Father, I would watch pretty much anything else on this list if you sat me in front of a screen right now. FTKMF is exhausting. So is Detroit. Mudbound isn’t exactly fun, either.

There is horror in both Detroit and Get Out… but one is more entertaining. So is that a compliment or a pejorative? Why is being entertained by Get Out the reason it must be nominated in some minds and the reason that La La Land had to lose (regardless of what other film won)?

Our standards are fluid. No one says that the most serious movie has to win every year. Or the most commercial. Or the best-rated on Rotten Tomatoes. Or the biopic. Or the movie about Hollywood. No one really says that a movie on a similar subject can’t win in back-to-back years… though logic dictates it is unlikely.

Movies around black stories won in two of the past four years… does that mean the issue is off the table? Of course not.

But wait, Chicago and Million Dollar Baby, with their female leads, won in two of three years. That must be why a movie with a female lead hasn’t won in the years since!

Of course not. A movie with a female lead hasn’t won since 2004 because only 22 of 92 BP nominees have had female leads… Well, that doesn’t explain it either.

Every one of those 22 movies has a story of its journey. And so does every one of the 12 Best Picture winners in that same period. (There were only 10 nominees dealing with stories of race in that same dozen years.)

There is a mindset that suggests that Academy voters decide to “give it to” a movie of color, or about a serious issue, or a film veteran’s body of work, or something besides their favorite movie at least once every few years.

Besides the absurdity of 5,500 or 6,500 or 7,000 people deciding anything about individual voting as a group, there is the ego issue of every of those voters, all of whom feel they worked to be a member of the Academy and tend to take themselves seriously.

So what will the membership expansion mean to this season?

Not much on the face of it.

The Academy is still 72% male. Better than the 75% of a few years ago. But only a few percent more women voting.

By my calculation, while the international expansion has improved the overall “people of color” percentage to 13%, jumping 5% over three years of invitees, the number of black American voters has gone down slightly by percentage. (The Academy doesn’t offer LGBTQ stats, so there is no way to assess how that has changed.)

With all the effort made – and I believe it to be sincere – more white men have joined the Academy in the past two years of the expanded invitations than in any other period in the history of the Academy. Roughly 50% of invitees.

The invitees of the last three years have been younger than usual. But the majority, as has long been the norm, are clearly between 35-55. With the age bias of the industry, not a lot of people are getting invited to join the Academy past their 50s, and the level of accomplishment means few potential members arrive before 35.

So where does this leave us as the nominations are about to close?

With a lot of posturing. On every side.

White men, especially over 60 and straight, are feeling defensive… having their taste and choices questioned constantly. On some level, that is fair. They have ruled the roost without question for a long time and a long, hard look in the mirror is in order, not only in the Academy, but throughout the industry.

People of Color… well, I don’t know how this community will measure what happens on nomination morning. If Mudbound gets shut out due to the Netflix of it all and Denzel doesn’t make it, would Best Picture and Screenplay nods for Get Out and Octavia Spencer in Supporting feel like enough? That would still be Oscar-pretty-damn-white.

Is Call Me By Your Name a de facto measure of the Academy’s acceptance of gay characters?

And women… unless Mudbound gets in, Lady Bird will be the only film directed by a woman and The Post and Lady Bird are the only likely screenplay nominees written by women… so what does that mean, anyway?

I am thrilled by the idea of Greta Gerwig getting a directing nomination. She is everything wonderful that everyone says she is and I love the work she did as a writer-director on this movie. She doesn’t feel like a first-timer to me. Jordan Peele made an excellent movie, too.. but to be honest, his film reads like the work of a first-timer. Nothing wrong with that. Peele is obviously a big talent and he will become a great craftsman on top of being a serious artist.

Where does that put me, politically? Does it need to put me anywhere, except as a person with an opinion about the work?

Of course, none of this excuses bias. And there is bias out there. One can’t say it often enough. It’s not an illusion. And it hasn’t changed completely. But it isn’t the majority, either of the Academy or of white straight old men at the Academy.

One of the fun things about the Oscars is that we don’t know anything except for who won and who didn’t. But the downside of this is that we all project our politics onto those results.

Civilians should feel free to hypothesize as they like. Journalists should be held to a higher standard… much as a billionaire jerk can bloviate all day long but has a different set of responsibilities when he becomes president. (But that’s another column.)

The real danger is when we don’t have open conversations about this without people being labeled as racist, sexist, politically correct or otherwise biased. People are all these things. We need to get into honest discussions about the ideas floating around or we will never hear one another, and in almost all cases, Truth lies somewhere between dogmatic positions, not right on the nose.

Now, enjoy your Golden Globes festival of marketing and the disgusting enrichment of those eighty-nine 80-something qualification-free awards-givers. I know I will.

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4 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: Season of Assumption”

  1. William B says:

    Why must everything be viewed through a political lens? Just pick the best movie of the year on its merits. The end.

  2. PJ says:

    “So by census, there should have been at least five “black” films in the mix. There were three – Detroit, Get Out, and Mudbound.”

    Detroit being viewed by the industry as a Black film is everything that’s wrong with the industry. And that’s exactly why it’s out of the awards conversation.

    But I do agree with the thesis of this blog. There are rumblings from some corners that if a certain film is recognized that means they are only doing it because of the figure behind it popular or the it person of the time. That could not be further from the truth.

    If there were more opportunities for all then when the inevitable awards narrowing occurs, it wouldn’t feel like they were just token representation. But that is too big of a subject to discuss in depth and takes away from the clicks of breathless horse race awards coverage.

  3. Santiago says:

    It’s clear that the Academy as a financial entity will always try to nominate those films that attract the most attention to the program. That’s precisely the key problem with the awards; and now that race and gender are in the mix, validity in it’s judgement is now way low. For me, The Academy’s credibility over the years has diminished quite a lot. In their attempts to satisfy all parties, their “goal” to nominate real cinematic achievement is lost all together. Silence last year, Mother & Phantom Thread this year, the really great and unique films are being left out due to political bias. Well, that’s part of the reason the Oscar’s are merely a show and critically a joke. It’s a pity that those films are not benefiting from the publicity they might get if nominated, but I guess time will prove them worthy, as it has always been the case. So I’ll enjoy watching a bunch of my colleagues celebrate hollywood and film, but mainly I look forward to Jimmy Kimmel’s comments on a crazy year.

  4. Pete says:

    The analysis is exhausting. William B. is correct. Judging everything in terms of identity politics argues that less worthy choices ought to be elevated because they represent a protected or under-represented group. It also makes some nominations suspicious of caring more to acknowledge a work or a performance to be an act of virtue signaling. Is it not enough to celebrate excellence in whatever form it takes? Dave’s analysis drains the fun ( and possibly the excellence) from the Oscars and makes them just another exercise in equal opportunity expression.

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