MCN Commentary & Analysis

The State of Oscar. 020920. Cancelling The Oscars.

There is so much to dig through that this was intended to be two columns. But it’s the day before Oscar and these pieces have sat on my desktop for two days and F.X. Feeney is dead and Orson Bean was killed while jaywalking at 91 and I don’t feel like tearing anyone specific a new asshole.

But this issue needs to be discussed.

The Academy, like Hollywood, has had a racist, misogynist streak over the many decades. There have been many exceptions. But celebrating (or condemning) exceptions is silly on either side. And The Academy is a pretty liberal organization, just as Hollywood has been. Were the liberals of the 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s as progressive as liberals are today? Of course not. And neither was The Academy.

If you want to see The Academy offer reparations for its past, I won’t argue with you. But even those who feel that way are loath to acknowledge that, as that is seen to devalue reparative actions (like inviting Academy-disenfranchised industry participants to join with a lesser standard of entry than previously claimed).

I would argue – and do argue – that The Academy moved onto a new track with the expansion of Best Picture from five nominees to as many as 10. It’s near-comical when political progressives make arguments for narrowing the field back to five because the advantages of the BP non-expansion has all worked for progressivism in The Academy, so why would anyone who believes in those ideals want to go backwards?

This was not the intention of The Expansion. The hope, in part, was that the expanded list would end up including films with bigger box office and perhaps some smaller indies as well. But Academy membership, particularly starting in the second expanded season (2011 awards for 2010 releases), long before The Academy set out to make diversity a membership priority, didn’t jump on the biggest films of the year (with exceptions) but almost exclusively included prestige films that had grossed less. In fact, only two Top 5 domestic grossers to be nominated for Best Picture in the last decade (of 87 total nominees) are Toy Story 3 (10 seasons ago) and Black Panther.

Here’s another fact. In the 40 years before The Expansion, only three non-native-English-speakers (Milos Forman twice), no women, and no people of color won Best Director. Starting with the first year of The Expansion, The Academy has awarded non-native-English-speakers in seven of the 11 seasons, a woman once, and only onewhite American director.

Am I calling for a “Hooray, The Academy is now diverse!” celebration of these statistics? NO! I do think things have improved. But I don’t think the disparities in the industry have changed enough and as a reflection, the same is true in The Academy. It will take time. And I don’t think there are shortcuts. The 2020 effort changed the demographics in The Academy to some degree, but while there have been clear improvements on the gender front, the race issue remains a problem, as the expansion has sought out people of color mostly from other countries. And like it or not, The Academy is a domestic organization and acts as such, with no real embrace of the international beyond what was in place before the expansion.

But that is another column for another day.

The decision to expand to 10 Best Picture nominees (later adjusted to “between five and as many as 10”) came in June 2009. Precious was already one of the big buzz films out of Sundance (along with the more Academy-friendly An Education), before the change. At the festival, it had a very narrow path to a Best Picture nomination. Likewise, The Hurt Locker, a film I had championed since its North American premiere at Toronto in 2008, had received a failed May release by Summit, and seemed to have a hard road to Best Picture. Even come the fall festivals, the only obvious Oscar bait that stayed in play was Alexander Payne’s Up in the Air with George Clooney. Avatar was a giant question mark, The Coens’ A Serious Man was under siege as self-loathing Judaism, District 9 wasn’t that kind of film, The Blind Side didn’t even have a date yet, Up was a cartoon, and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was posited as too violent.

As it turned out, Avatar was the massive grosser that got in, though the overwhelming positive reaction to the then-singular 3D and fully CG experience, which has faded over time, seemed more the driver than its box office. The rest of the domestic Top 5, aside from Up, were sequels. There was talk about Top 10 grossers The Hangover, Star Trek, and Sherlock Holmes getting in. Didn’t happen. The Blind Side (#8) was a late November entry and it found success with audiences and a narrative with Sandra Bullock suddenly an Oscar front-runner.

But it was The Hurt Locker with $12.7 million (in first release), An Education with $12.6 million and A Serious Man with $9.2 million that surprised, getting in after doing such minimal business.

The story of the season became Kathryn Bigelow, who seemed locked down for Best Director, versus Jim Cameron (Kathryn’s ex-husband) and Avatar. Mega-movie vs Indie. Men vs Women. Etc, etc, etc.

Things rolled along and the main complaint was that The Academy had middling taste. The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo. Then we had the 12 Years A Slave and Gravity year.

Trouble came with in the 87th and 88th Academy Awards. Selma only got Best Picture and Song (which it won). Then Straight Outta Compton and Will Smith’s Concussion were ignored and OscarSoWhite were born.

The tone for the 89th Academy Awards was different. Cancel Culture showed up for Oscar.

La La Land was the first film to be attacked relentlessly. The argument was not primarily that something else – Moonlight – was superior, but that La La Land was not worthy of consideration. La La Land won the fights on Oscar night, but Moonlight won the war (even though the filmmakers from both films were not participants in fighting the other film in any way).

The next season, it was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that was disqualified by Film Twitter and much of the media for not being about racism enough, made worse, in the argument, by the supporting character of Jason Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell) starting as a racist asshole and finding some degree of decency by the end of the film. The alternative choice of much of the anti-Three-Billboards crowds was Get Out, a terrific and terrifically popular thriller with a not-so-sub-text about race, written and directed by a black filmmaker, which was in the race thanks to a relentless and very expensive campaign by Universal. The result was a win for The Shape of Water.

Last season, Green Book was the movie most attacked. Did the failure to get the Get Out win after the Moonlight win inspire the Cancel group to raise the vitriol, both fearful of losing ground gained and anxious to believe that a more progressive change had become the norm? I can’t say. But Green Book was not argued just to be a bad movie, but it was everything wrong with Hollywood and older people and the history of white liberalism in America. There was a problem… a weird split between those who wanted Spike Lee to win for BlacKkKlansman and those who were happy to support Alfonso Cuarón for his second Directing win in four years and the fourth directing win in five years for one of the Three Amigos. Also complicating things was the foreign language and Netflix being behind Roma. So Green Book won and Cancel Culture took the hit.

This season, Ford v Ferrari was the first film to succeed with an audience and have the rug pulled out from under it. And it was very quick… A couple days from a happy, excited Telluride premiere for Patron Passholders. By Sunday, the gild was off the lily. The film was good… but not the kind of movie that should win Oscar. A bunch of competitive white guys.

Marriage Story was hot out of the box at Telluride, with Netflix’s other title, The Two Popes, getting unexpected raves. Parasite followed its success at Cannes with more in the mountains. Uncut Gems split the room between adoration and walkouts. Pain & Glory had everyone buzzing. And Waves, a black-cast movie with a young white director was the underdog getting a lot of love.

Jojo Rabbit and Joker came out of Toronto strong, where Joker was somewhat dismissed by the critical community as far as Oscar went. Joaquin. Not much else. But Jojo Rabbit started getting cancelled almost immediately. Audiences clearly loved it, so the knives came out as a certain number of critics came out brooding over the use of Berlin at the end of WWII – or “the Holocaust” as many insisted – as a source of comedy, leading to drama that was disqualified by the early laughs in the film. Winning the festival’s Audience Award made it undeniable as part of the Oscar season, which put even more of a focus of disdain on the film.

But like two seasons before, there really was no clear pick to fill the politically correct slot. Waves and Just Mercy just weren’t The One(s). Little Women and Bombshell were still to come and of unknown quality. The Irishman got the critics aboard, but there was too much talk about the length and the theatrical distribution and it just isn’t the crowning achievement of Scorsese’s breathtaking career. Marriage Story was embraced for its ambivalence, but that also seemed to disqualify it in a weird way.

Bombshell arrived and had a mixed reaction, but even some of those who seemed to like it a lot lingered on the issue of anything Fox News being anything less than scorched earth about the channel and everyone who worked there. I maintain that John Lithgow’s Roger Ailes was the supporting performance of the year… but few were okay with a Roger Ailes being humanized.

Little Women had a sparking debut screening… and then the moaning started about the story structure. (Oy.) And with that, the chance of having a female directing nominee started to slide.

But there was another key event. Neon was going all out to get Parasite a Best Picture nomination. Bong was the workhorse. The guy is lovable. The movie is excellent. And somewhere in early November, a Best Picture nomination for this film went from longshot to inevitability. And as the result of everything else happening around it, it became The Right Movie for those who want there to be a Right Movie.

On Sunday, November 24, the last serious entry into the Oscar season arrived. 1917. And in a day, the film became the favorite to win and the film that had to be stopped.

Of course, preferring Parasite is 100% fine. The film is deserving and it speaks, generally, to a different set of tastebuds than 1917,

But the reason I am writing this is that it hasn’t been a discussion of preference. Again. It has been about tearing down one film to get to the other. Not quite as severe as last year. But how many times does Variety’s lead critic write a piece about one of the nominees entitled, “Why 1917 Is the Last Film That Should Be Winning the Oscar”? How many times have you heard the argument that 1917 is nothing but the one-shot gimmick in the last 6 weeks? How often is the proposition offered that people don’t really love 1917 while the film was one of only three movies to gross $100 million in January with strong holds throughout the run?

Again… make the affirmative argument for Parasite or anything else you love. That’s the way it should be. But we are now in a culture that needs to argue for the failure of some films in order, some think, to raise up other films.

The unintentional result of the idiotic practice of publishing a handful of “secret honest voters” has been a contribution to this problem. They have made victims out of Parasite and other films, including, marginally, 1917. But a journalist publishing even eight – as EW did last week – secret voters in a voting group of over 9000 is just not remotely legitimate as journalism. It barely reaches the standard of gossip. And by the way…. why do we trust the people who publish this crap to be publishing what they are actually told? If they have no journalistic standard to start with, what is wrong with a little exaggeration?

I have considered my narrative from both sides. If 1917 loses to Parasite on Sunday night, it should not diminish Parasite in any way. Conversely, if 1917 wins, it is most definitely not because “they” took down Parasite, as no one has really been trying to do that.

But this is four years in a row where there has been this tone of Cancel Culture around Oscar. I don’t think it can be denied. The Shape of Water season was kind of a draw. Moonlight was a win. Green Book was a loss. (And “they” still won’t stop whining about it like stuck pigs.)

I actually do not think that a Parasite win on Oscar night would represent a win for Cancel Culture. That is giving it too much power and the love for Parasite is not just a reflection of malice towards any of the other films.

Cancel Culture, for these last four seasons, has replaced Dirty Tricks as the most powerful tool of the dark arts. (Dirty Tricks have a terrible track record, actually.) Disqualify Joker, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, 1917, Ford v Ferrari, and The Irishman as too male, particularly too white male. Take out Jojo Rabbit as morally offensive. That leaves three movies that can be “allowed” to win.

Next Oscar season is already loaded with “acceptable” titles. Two Latino musicals (West Side Story/In The Heights) . (I’m sure we will get details on the use or non-use of Latinx before the summer.) Aaron Sorkin has The Chicago Seven coming. Will Smith as the father of tennis’ Williams Sisters. Spotlight‘s Tom McCarthy is bringing another movie sure to be weighty. Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson should be in the saddle (though Anderson got his last film, led by animated dogs, Cancelled).

Still no clear shots for female directing nominees. Promising Young Female is being released in April, which is tough for awards. Focus picked up Miranda July’s Kajillionaire and there is no date on it yet. (Looks like her husband, Mike Mills, and 24 will have his Joaquin Phoenix film, C’mon C’mon ready for this award season… hmmm…) Searchlight has The Eyes of Tammy Faye in the hopper for the fall, with Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Baker (and a male director). Rebecca Hall makes her directing debut with a thriller called Passing with Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson. Universal has a female spy movie slotted in January, which could push into the season if it’s good enough. Others will turn up. But nothing locked in.

Denzel has a John Lee Hancock thriller coming. Viola has August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom coming. Nothing from Octavia or Steve McQueen or Barry Jenkins.

Ridley Scott has a sword-y macho film due for Fox/Disney that is about to start shooting. That seems like it could be something to be an object of hate. Or maybe it will just suck. Always possible.

I hope that the cycle of Cancelling Oscar is over. More films that fit the ideal that is being held these days would be the best way for that to happen.

I don’t know if it’s possible to go through a season with the media pushing the positive and not the negative. The hard part is not the gloating over whatever victory has been achieved. It’s that success in taking down any given movie encourages the use of this tool the next year… and conversely, failure makes the attacks all the more passionate.

Oscar season is not a moral win/loss proposition. At its best, it is a celebration of movies. I wish us all the best.

13 Responses to “The State of Oscar. 020920. Cancelling The Oscars.”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    There is a difference between what we may like and what ought to be awarded. It’s fine to like Green Book and admire the performances…. and for it to reach wide audiences. No argument. But withholding awards is not a free speech issue. Don’t award cultural expropriation. Cultural expropriation has been a serious discussion in the arts for more than a hundred years. Why give out awards that dishonor the institution and past winners….. and for what? There were other choices that would have been just fine on the list of winners.

    Why give out an award to Weinstein and The Artist with its in your face cutesy depiction of Weinstein-like sexual exploitation? Maybe you like it a lot, but it is a badge of shame for the Academy now.

    Why give out awards to bad history? If a film exploits an historical event to sell tickets, fine. Make the film, sell tickets, no problem. Free speech. The Kings Speech has some good history, but its historical framing was the opposite of truth in significant ways that have implications even today. Fine to like it, but don’t award such films. If our cultural leaders are indifferent to historical truth and fact when they vote, is it any wonder that regular people elect Trump?

    Three Billboards should never have been considered for awards. That is not the same as censorship.

    Maybe it’s time to listen to the twitter crowd. Awards should be more than an expression of the collective id of any particular group.

  2. Douglas Pratt says:

    Wasn’t American Sniper the top grossing film of 2014?

  3. Joe says:

    As always David, you are the voice of reason and consistently my favorite writer about the movie industry.

  4. Hcat says:

    Wow, just saw BP awarded and my jaw dropped. I certainly didn’t think it would sweep like that. Truly remarkable.

  5. Sideshow Bill says:

    Really great article and you’re spot-on. It’s all about taking down what people don’t like rather than celebrating what you do. It sucks.

    And I’m still angry at certain writers for the shit they gave Anderson over Isle Of Dogs. It was seriously misguided anger and self-righteous. I’m all for SJW’s and shit but it was a cartoon about dogs that CELEBRATED Japanese culture. Get a grip.

  6. cadavra says:

    The total wipeout of IRISHMAN is a stain the Academy will never wash away. It drives me crazy that people who spend 12 hours every year watching the Super Bowl and its before and after puppet shows are the same ones who whine about IRISHMAN being too long.

  7. palmtree says:

    Douglas, Mojo says American Sniper was #6 in 2015, just barely outside the top 5 with a mere $4.2 million less than the #5 movie, Furious 7.

    I think too much is made of cancel culture, especially since it’s really just a manifestation of something that already happens normally. People are opinionated over films, and this applies to passion for films they like and passion for films they hate (or love to hate, perhaps). I agree that some films are unfairly hated upon, but any healthy film and/or art culture is full of strong opinions. Are we really saying you can’t express dislike for a film? And if so, then why the sudden change from the century before? The fact that many of the loudest opinions are now addressing historical inequities of race and gender is overall a good thing and adds more nuance to what gets considered an Oscar movie. If anything, we need to continue expanding the notion of the Oscar film and try to include more voices from more communities.

  8. Stella's Boy says:

    Good points palmtree. Wholeheartedly agree. More diversity is good. Expanding what is considered an Oscar film is good. And cancel culture is definitely way overblown. Partly it’s people in power uncomfortable and angry that bullshit is being called out loudly and regularly now with the assistance of social media platforms. And as you said so many times it’s people acting as if legitimate criticism is actually some woke SJW campaign to silence and ban someone/something. Jason Zinoman said something I like in a column about rich comedians constantly complaining about cancel culture. “When you hear Dave Chappelle complain about audience blowback on the most popular Netflix special of the year or Ricky Gervais sigh at people’s inability to take a joke while he’s hosting the Golden Globes or Bill Maher inveigh against the power of woke millennials on his weekly HBO show, ask yourself: If the culture is so hostile to comedy that offends, why do these comics have the biggest, most prestigious platforms to say so?” I’d add Jerry Seinfeld griping about this at his sold out nationwide comedy tours and so on.

  9. palmtree says:

    Exactly. We need some perspective. And what is the historical snubbing of women and people of color if not a de facto form of cancel culture? In a real way, “cancel culture” exists to counterbalance the cancellation of so many awards worthy artists just because they didn’t fit into the Academy’s limited preferences. Instead of using these terms as easy epithets, we should think of them in context.

  10. Douglas Pratt says:

    go to Box Office Mojo Top Lifetime Gross listing and search for ‘2014’ American Sniper is the first film that appears, and Clint Eastwood was the oldest director ever to have a year’s top grossing feature.

  11. David Poland says:

    Uh, no.

    There is a difference between seeking a new balance and even reparations of a kind and raging against work that doesn’t fall into line with the PC focus of the moment.

    Of course diversity is great.

    And comedians have a point, rich or poor. The best world is one in which there is equal opportunity and the freedom to say what you think and engage in a serious (or comedic) exchange of ideas. Self-censorship is deadly. And it is how we have spent centuries in this country, not speaking about the horrors we have brought to the world, lest we not be seen as exceptional as a nation. Silence is not freedom. It might be comforting. But the pendulum swings and comfort is transient when we agree that some voices are less worthy of being expressed out loud.

  12. Stella's Boy says:

    Uh, no DP. Who is self-censoring?! They are all free to say whatever they want! And they are. There’s no evidence to support the claim that comedy is being killed or harmed by self-censorship. Whose career has been destroyed by SJWs because of a joke? Give me a break.

    Similarly, is there evidence that these ragers influenced Oscar votes? You seem to he speaking in hypotheticals that have no basis in reality.

  13. leahnz says:

    DP you’re a trash fire at this point with your wingnut terms and framing, did you have an accident with a railway spike through your noggin or something. stella’s being kind here.
    free speech goes both ways, y’all are the biggest babies who can’t take an iota of crisism without ‘omg it’s end days now that we can’t say and do whatever we like with no blowback or serious critique, cancel culture! cancel culture! stranger danger, stranger danger!’
    toughen the hell up, stop projecting. it’s embarrassing. this is all so embarrassing.

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