MCN Commentary & Analysis

22 Weeks To *Oscar: The Politics

2020 has been a brutal year… at the movies and everywhere else. Most of us are hopeful that 2021 will bring positive change, starting with the taming of the virus by habit and vaccine.

I believe, intensely, that The Academy is making a mistake by moving forward to have a competitive season at a time when movie theaters are closed in Los Angeles or New York and with theaters opening and closing across the globe as the pandemic ebbs and flows. Regardless of your opinion, or mine, about the choice to allow films that were never intended to be shown in theaters except to qualify for Oscars to compete, the idea of an Oscar year being dominated near the point of exclusivity by said films with almost nothing in the mix from the five major studios brings into question the very meaning and value of Oscar.

The horrors of 2020 do not mean that excellent work in the cinematic arts has not been done. I will proceed on a constant analysis of how the season is going, as laid out and endlessly morphed by The Academy. (I expect more candidates to be squeezed in before this is all over.)

Given that we are finally in the Biden transition, this week seems like a good one to talk about the politics of *Oscar this season. We are already feeling the excitement of Film Twitter and its pleasure in the idea of an Oscar season without major studio movies. Somewhere there is a Venn diagram of the people who are turned on by movie theaters closing and those who would love to see an end to movies that don’t pass their political purity tests. A significant percentage of Film Twitter is in that shared segment.

But when the entire *Oscar pool is made up of independent films, this gets complicated. Treacherous, even.

We might as well start with the Netflix haul, as theirs will be the biggest footprint and the closest to traditional studio movies.

Da Five Bloods
The 40-Year-Old Version
Hillbilly Elegy
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The Midnight Sky
Pieces of a Woman
The Prom
The Trial of The Chicago 7
The White Tiger

Impressive. More than a quarter of the field this season. All but one of the films has an Oscar winner in front of, or behind the camera. That would be The 40-Year-Old Version, while the only reach-y one among the rest is Pieces of a Woman, which co-stars the great Ellen Burstyn.

So is there anything problematic lurking here? Well, yes. George Clooney, David Fincher, Ron Howard, Charlie Kaufman, Ryan Murphy, and Aaron Sorkin are all very successful white male American filmmakers making movies that are mostly about white people and their problems.

Let me be 100% clear. I think the idea that race or degree of success would be any part of deciding whether these filmmakers’ films are awards-worthy is wrongheaded. But I don’t run the world. And I have seen this issue become significant in award-season rumblings of the last number of seasons. If you claim you haven’t, you are being defensive or an ostrich.

That doesn’t mean that six of the eleven films in the Netflix Awards Line-Up are somehow politically disqualified from Best Picture nominations or a win in this malformed year. (One was bludgeoned on first view, if not before it screened, Hillbilly Elegy.)

Realistically, Pieces of a Woman (white international director… all-white cast) and The White Tiger (a relative romp of Danny Boyle proportions from usually sublime director Ramin Bahrani), and The 40-Year-Old Version (female writer-director of color, but pure Indie Spirit) are not serious Best Picture players.

That leaves Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom from the Netflix playbook, both directed by and starring great black Americans, many of whom have been embraced by The Academy.

Will this matter?

Ma Rainey is the best of the Netflix films that I have seen (a couple have been withheld). Saying that these things do matter to many people is not to say that race and/or pedigree are the only or primary or secondary drivers of these films’ awards interest. But in a cultural time when other films are disqualified for “failing” these tests, there is a discussion — however dangerous — to be had.

Mank has been the presumptive front-runner of this season for at least six months. David Fincher is revered. It’s a movie about Hollywood (which has overcome PC assault… at least until La La Land). Gary Oldman is one of our great actors. Great cast overall.

It would be silly to write off Mank as anything less than one of a small handful of potential Best Picture winners. On the other hand, it is a movie about a successful 1930s (thus, obviously white) screenwriter isolated in luxury because he is an out-of-control drunk, who walks the line of endless hypocrisy in relationships he has benefited from over decades of his debauched life. And he writes a great movie… though the movie is not really what this movie is about.

I can imagine the pieces that will run if (when?) Mank is made into half of a two-horse race by media and the other horse is directed by a woman or person of color and is about some supposedly more important subject. I will not approve of these personal editorials that pretend to be offering reporting and insight. But again… I am not in charge.

So let’s step away from Netflix for a moment and look at the realistic rest of the field, by PC focus.

Female Directors: Nomadland, One Night in Miami, First Cow, I’m Your Woman, On The Rocks, Mulan, Wonder Woman 1984
Non-American-Born Directors: Ammonite, Mulan, News of the World, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Tenet
Non-White Directors: Minari, One Night in Miami, The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Of all these titles, two have white male leads (First Cow, News of the World). Only five of the thirteen have male leads, period.

Flipping back to Netflix, only one of the company’s eleven contending films has a female director and that is the most personal and unlikely to break through for Best Picture or Director, The 40-Year-Old Version. On the other hand, six of eleven showcase a female lead or co-lead.

Does this matter? Should it?

What none of us know is how different demographics, within the media and within the Academy voting bloc, will split the difference faced with so many options that match their preferences, both positive and negative.

Obviously, taste comes into the discussion. And once again, I point out that referencing these connections is not saying that I think that every individual uses them, consciously or unconsciously, to define their choices. But because of circumstances this season, there are no real “surprises” coming… no gamechangers.

Also, there is a difference between the nominations window and the final winner window. Again, in this situation, even more than normal, whatever “normal” may turn out to mean.

Let’s assume that Netflix will pick off three Best Picture slots and slots down the slate with them.

So Netflix takes three Best Actress slots. Then, Frances McDormand. Then… Carey Mulligan, Andra Day, one of the Ammonite women, or the Hillbilly Elegy stars who eat the true lead of that movie alive (one of its other big and rarely mentioned problems as a movie)? That’s when the arguments turn into ways of eliminating quality performances.

And how does one compare an endless parade of magic tricks by a director in a movie like Mank or Tenet to the vérité style of Nomadland or a theatrical-style piece like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or high style like Promising Young Woman?

Will the over-60s at The Academy actually embrace the parade of traditional directors and their more traditional movies this season? Will they still be high on the rush of honoring Parasite and Filmmaker Bong last season?

And how will everyone split their votes? Best Picture 10 versus Best Director 5. It’s not a new issue, but there are more titles stuck in the same elevator this year than ever before. One of the issues that sloshes around every Oscar season is throwing some BP votes to movies you enjoyed more than you respected… or vice versa.

And how will voters split – if they split – between a streamer like Netflix, which has spent years establishing that their films as FILMS, even if destined for the service primarily, versus movies that were targeting theatrical release – like Mulan or Soul or Wonder Woman 1984 – but got sidetracked to streaming? Is this a season where they see Netflix films as more legit than some studio releases, like, weirdly, Tenet, which hangs out there as a singularity.

In the past, I might have considered constructs that set one film with a constituency against another. But this season, the pool feels too small, both in number and style of filmmaking for that.

One Night In Miami‘s hopes are probably damaged by Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, not because they are both films with black talent behind and in front of the camera, but because both are stage pieces with limited opportunity to open things up, and Ma Rainey just does a superior version. For a first film with these limitations, Regina King did great. She got terrific performances. But four guys in a room is a circumstance that many of our great directors have failed to overcome. I look forward to her next films. George C. Wolfe did his best work as a film director and made the August Wilson play feel like a movie, with only a few moments where it feels very stagey, in a way that is very hard and a step more effective in that way)than Fences.

I also believe that Mangrove, by Steve McQueen, would destroy The Trial of the Chicago 7, although the specific subjects are different. One is mostly about the abuse of people of color in England in the early 70s and the other is about young white people (Bobby Seale is #8) fighting bad governmental policy (which feels current, even if it won’t by voting time) in the late 60s in America. The difference is that Mangrove feels more complete and is way more emotional (aside from the gagging of Bobby Seale). And McQueen is just working on a different level of directing compared to most, not just Aaron Sorkin’s second directorial effort. BUT… there is no showdown coming, as Amazon decided to push out Mangrove as part of a streaming series. So expect Chicago 7 to rack up no fewer than eight nominations and possible front-runner status.

Nomadland and Ammonite have nothing in common except for female leads. But their timing in Pandemic Year ties them together. And Nomadland came out the winner in that skirmish.

The Prom, a late entry, is the only really fun film in the mix. That alone (okay… and Streep) could deliver a Best Picture nomination.

And The United States vs. Billie Holiday has been, for now, positioned at The Closer… the last film to full jump into the *Oscar season. Previously nominated director in Lee Daniels. A female star unknown to movies. A historic show business story. Trevante Rhodes, a young actor of great charm who is beloved from Moonlight. Righteous anger aplenty.

It checks every box.

Now we just have to see the movie.

27 Responses to “22 Weeks To *Oscar: The Politics”

  1. Jeff Sneider says:

    Don’t forget Malcolm & Marie, though I’ve heard it’s more of a performance thing. I wouldn’t sleep on Judas and the Black Messiah. Sound of Metal is better than every movie listed above. Won’t get much love from voters, but it might if the Oscar press had any balls. Maybe Breaking News in Yuba County or The Mauritanian will manage to surprise? Not seeing a winner among Netflix’s slate. If Nomadland lives up to the hype, I could see that winning. I’m with DP though… no clue why the Academy is pressing forward with this season. Studios have all but retreated. Ratings for all awards shows are in the gutter. No one wants to celebrate this year in cinema. Might as well do a show honoring 2 years worth of movies in 2022. And what happens to the 2022 show — is that going to honor just 10 months of movies? This is such a mess, and so, so stupid.

  2. Dr Wally Rises says:

    I don’t agree Jeff. The artists and artisans that contributed to the movies of 2020 deserve to have their moment in the sun, regardless of the diminished or compromised circumstances. There has been a lot of great work this year that doesn’t deserve to be scrubbed from history because of circumstances beyond the control of the filmmakers.. Or held over as an afterthought to 2022. How fair would it be on, say Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods, a movie that dropped in June 2020, to have his work on that movie not acknowledged, if at all, until April 2022, almost two whole years after the fact.

    If professional sport can find a way to keep going by quarantining hundreds of athletes in a bubble for weeks, I’m pretty sure that the Academy can find a way with a stage and an internet connection for a couple of hours.

  3. David Poland says:

    Dr Wally… half of the NBA season was over before The Bubble. And *Oscar is not competitive the way sports are… even though they are too competitive.

    Let’s reframe your question. If you were Delroy Lindo and you were finally getting the recognition you deserve, would you like to know you are getting it from half the normal field? If you were LeBron, would you like to have won the NBA Finals against a team with half of its starting line-up sitting on the bench?

    And yes, Jeff, there are still a couple of movies coming that fit The Criteria. But the fact you love Sound of Metal so much is the definition of why Oscar is interesting. 9000 people with their own tastes and some experience making quality movies. Everything goes into the pot. Some chouices are obvious (like Mank) and some are not. And we get surprises.

    They are taking a system that had holes and are proceeding this year with the system with the same holes, adding more and pretending it is the same. It’s not. The full and free experience of films, primarily on a big screens, defines the value of Oscar. The value of Oscar is that it is an intrinsic agreement that they are of the highest value. That will not be the case this season. An Emmy is lovely too. It’s just a different thing.

  4. David Poland says:

    PS Hi and Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you and your families are healthy and happy.

  5. Bob Burns says:

    Hillbilly Elegy looks like whiteface to me. A standard of local theater production in a place like here, Birmingham, is rich white actors playing “poor white trash” characters, with classist sterotypes played large… like blackface mistrel shows. Rene Zellweger in Cold Mountain, or Three Billboards come to mind.

    When discussing Oscar politics, you can’t ignore reactionary backlash. A leading contender is made to be a threat to the values of (as Harvey famously called them) the steak eaters of the Academy. The Universal, and Miramax publicists are/were masters of the reactionary campaign. The Green Book camapaign was blatently reactionary. Beautiful Mind over Moulin Rouge and FotR, conservative filmmaking over quality. a long list could be made.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Can we retire forever the term “white trash”? It’s disgusting.

  7. Bob Burns says:

    apologies anonymous. in defence, I used it in reference to the way poor, uneducated white characters are often portrayed by privileged actors, which I find offensive,…..not to actual people. After posting I wondered if it was offensive, which, as you point out, it was.

  8. movieman says:

    “Nomadland” is the best movie I’ve seen (so far anyway) this year, and–ironically, or maybe not so much considering the director wasn’t born in the U.S.–the most quintessentially “American” film in years.
    Unless 2020 turns out to be the year when streamers (I’m looking at you, Netflix) finally win the big kahuna after two close-but-no-cigar years in a row w/ “Roma” and “The Irishman,” I could definitely see “Nomadland” as “The Movie To Beat.” But maybe that’s just me talking as a huge Chloe Zhao fan.
    If nothing else, it’s sure to be a serious contender in multiple key categories, incl. Picture, Director and Actress.

  9. Dr Wally Rises says:

    ‘Let’s reframe your question. If you were Delroy Lindo and you were finally getting the recognition you deserve, would you like to know you are getting it from half the normal field? If you were LeBron, would you like to have won the NBA Finals against a team with half of its starting line-up sitting on the bench?’

    Thank you David. To which I’d counter by torturing my sports analogy even further. There’s a saying in soccer that you can only beat what’s in front of you. If half the line-up is delayed or held over, that’s not the fault of the films in 2020 that weren’t. In years to come Delroy Lindo would be able to be described as ‘Delroy Lindo, Oscar winner’, not ‘Delroy Lindo, Oscar winner, kinda, sorta’.. His statue will have no asterisk on it. Narrowed competition or no, it’s not like anything truly nuts will happen like Sonic The Hedgehog or Unhinged being nominated for Best Picture. Quality will still ultimately tell.

  10. David Poland says:

    We can. But it’s at the core of what the rage over this film is about.

    I agree that it is awkward to use terms as harsh as that. And I struggle with that, because it is truthful in the way that Trump voters are truthful. (not reality based or kind) Of course, it’s not just white people. And no one should see another human being as trash.

    So… I will be much more careful before using it again, as I don’t see these people or others that way, so I should not take the shortcuts of others.

  11. David Poland says:

    You think quality tells?

    (hee hee hee… teasing… mostly)

  12. leahnz says:

    you’ve edited this post from its original form to be less embarrassing 8chan/cringe-y reactionary, i see

    (also, leaving holland’s excellent ‘mr jones’ off any of these stupid lists if double fucking stupid)

  13. Bob Burns says:

    The point remains, though. There have been many films that portray people of my background in ways that feel authentic, and others that I watch, and feel insulted, as actors and directors reveal the sterotypical ways they see us.
    There are thousands of small towns that are drying up, with people who remained out of loyalty to the places where they have always lived. Maybe they do not have the personal resources to rise above their circumstances. Many, if not most people don’t. My sister in law is defending a group of poor whites for the murder of a kidnap victim. The ransom was $700. Even portraying people like these as stereotypical Hollywood hicks would be insulting.

  14. leahnz says:

    winter’s bone

  15. Bob Burns says:

    yes. leahnz, exactly.

  16. Bob Burns says:

    Winter’s Bone was wonderful.

    A number of African Americans, not all, of course, objected to Three Billboards depiction of race relations. I take their opinion seriously. I hated its depiction of small town whites.

    Three Billboards pulicists took these objections and used them to construct a reactionary campaign, as if the objections were an attack on whites. Green Book did the same thing. The films were not reactionary. The films’ campaigns were. Reactionary campaigns have been an Oscar season standard, at least as far back as Citizen Kane and How Green Was My Valley.

  17. cadavra says:

    In listing all the Netflix contenders, the absence of THE BOYS IN THE BAND puzzles me. I’d think at the very least Parsons and DeJesus would be viable in the acting categories, and maybe production design as well.

  18. David Poland says:

    Leah… you think I edited the piece? Or is that a reference to something else?

    Nothing wrong with Mr. Jones, but it doesn’t have the aggressive support to get it in the Best Picture race, as best I can tell.

  19. David Poland says:

    Bob – I agree that both films were dragged into a negative discussion about race, but campaigns? I would have to ask for any evidence of your claim that they constructed campaigns around this. Not my experience at all. But there was definitely a media push against both, trying to cancel both in the name of other films that were preferred.

    It has become a standard in the last few years to find disqualifications being argued, pretty successfully.

    I don’t expect Netflix to campaign on the basis that disliking Mank is hating white people or industry people.

  20. David Poland says:

    Bob… Debra Granik, who would likely pass, would be the right kind of director for Hillbilly Elegy. But she would have surely redone the script from the ground up.

    Niki Caro’s underrated North Country is another example… and she also made what could easily have been a racist mess work in McFarland USA.

    The problem with any movie that makes the focus on a specific group happens when there isn’t some other story, bigger than the idea of just looking at the group. This is a strength of Nomadland, which never feels like it’s specifically about poverty or mental illness, but about a way to live which some people choose or embrace, often as the path to a greater happiness.

  21. leahnz says:

    tell the truth DP, did someone bury you in a PeT SEmAtARy

    (you did edit the piece. there are several bits – words and phrases – that are missing/toned down/different from what was posted when it first appeared before i went to bed and read it, read it again later before commenting. your cringe y reactionary bs unfortunately stuck in my head)

    “Nothing wrong with Mr. Jones, but it doesn’t have the aggressive support to get it in the Best Picture race, as best I can tell.”

    GOOD GRIEF the fact that between your blithe boot-licking for the status-quo and fancying yourself some delphi oracle you don’t even seem to even register that this as THE problem with this entire fucking oscar farce. gob-smacking and yet so predictable, and also incredibly annoying. tow that line.

    it’s as if granik, caro and zhao share something in common

  22. David Poland says:

    Not me. Ray did some editing. Had no idea. That is the truth.

    Good Grief, Leah… I am just trying to keep score. I don’t know what status quo you think I boot lick for… but if it’s theatrical, you’re just wrong, There is simple, obvious math that makes it clear that there is enormous financial upside to keeping theatrical healthy. You have a real argument otherwise, bring it on.

    But to your point, I am fine with The Oscars ending. Things change. But i write for the industry and this industry seems committed to keeping the old whore afloat. So one of the things I write about is how to do that. If you believe that adding more of any group into the mix at the awards stage, I would call you impossibly naive. The industry needs to make more movies with people of color and women and international filmmakers in the mix at every level of production and distribution. I have been calling on The Academy to make that the focus and not just trying to look “woke” while doing almost nothing to cause progress. But I’m sure you think I’m wrong about that too.

    I’d love to know what you actually think was wrong with what i wrote as opposed to cleverly worded attacks. You have the problem of arrogance in that you assume what you think is so obvious that everyone but the blind get it without you stooping to spell it out. I have that too sometimes. But I try to fight it.

    I write about an art form that is driven by economics. I tend to write more about the economics because art is a matter of taste and money can be broken down into a variety of logical arguments, supported by facts. I still love movies as much as ever. But I don’t have the platform to rise above the noise and most writers’ tool to do so is to take the most extreme (positive or negative) positions. I don’t want to do that.

    I’m not an oracle. But I know the history. I know the history of why. I’m not really interested in the mood of the room because the room is fickle and unreliable.

    And never fear… plenty of shitty movies made by women who got the chance this year. And some great ones. I honor the great ones. And I have written and given all the media support I can to Granik and Caro from their early work. Zhao is relatively new and I offered to do what I could for The Rider and it never worked out. I understand that women and people of color have been kept out of the directing chair for most of a century. But I haven’t figured out a way to grade on the curve yet. I don’t think it respects the artist to do so.

  23. leahnz says:

    “Not me. Ray did some editing. Had no idea. That is the truth.”

    ok I actually wondered if this was the case after writing the above, but it doesn’t change anything because you don’t appear to ask yourself or address WHY Ray would do this? i know: because you sounded like a reactionary jackass on talk radio, and that’s the straight poop.
    re: critiquing “what you wrote”: the thing is, i read the first thing you wrote and it was a bit of an illuminating glimpse into your true thought process, way toned down in the above — so i guess…you might fool some of the people some of the time?

    what ‘industry’ do you think you know? the entertainment journalist industry? you write what people TELL you about the film-making industry, your opinions on film, and bean-counter stuff. and that’s fine.
    your insight into the actual machinations of what goes on in film-making is second-hand. it often regurgitates the POV of those in positions of influence/power. further, you’ve shown again and again you’re not interested in the uncomfortable slog of digging into the implicit (unconscious) bias, power structures and gate-keeping rife in the industry because it contracts your prevailing attitude that the film industry is driven by the peccadilloes of individuals instead of structural, conveniently waving off the racist, sexist reality. that’s why i so often bring up the example of the necessity of blind auditions in orchestras — the perfect illustration of implicit bias and how a false meritocracy perpetuates itself, and is revealed. the film industry is not at all dissimilar.

    “But I haven’t figured out a way to grade on the curve yet.”
    whoo boy well there it is. it’s like you’re all the men judging women musicians at the orchestra auditions before the blind-audition process was implemented, deluded and smug. at least it’s honest. your understanding of practically everything re the sexist, racist, homophobic nature of an industry driven by the self-perpetuating bias of white men thus creating a false meritocracy – and ultimately mediocrity – is pretty much nil. you’re like a dinosaur stuck in a tar pit, trying to walk out but mired in the status-quo because you refuse to listen, learn and expand your mind. maybe instead of so much navel-gazing on your part try listing to marginalized people.

  24. Bob Burns says:

    Reactionary campaigns are when publicists encourage resentment of criticism. For example, Green Book was criticised, right or wrong, for being a story about a brave black genius, mistold by a white film maker. The criticism became much louder when it became an awards contender. The campaign became in part about resentment of the criticism….. by definition a reactionary campaign. Moreso because it is about a privileged class protecting its prerogatives….. the expectation to be awarded and praised for telling other people’s stories in the way they please….. as long as they are well intentioned and well crafted.

    In a larger sense, since the beginning, for a hundred years, Hollywood has operated under the constraint that it will not celebrate socialist ideas. But, that is a separate point.

  25. David Poland says:

    You assume a lot, Leah. You are articulating your biases and projecting them on me. And that’s fine. Used to it. Thanks for articulating.

  26. leahnz says:

    Bob B, just wanted to say your assessment of the greenbook campaign is pretty spot on

    DP, honestly, this just pathetic. you sound warped.
    (and really, as another commenter here has noted, you do sound a bit like dumb corleone in how you keep trying to turn everything around onto others and use the term ‘projection’ incorrectly. what you say above simply makes no sense.
    in closing, cuz this is dumb: i’m not “projecting” shit onto you, you have been writing what you think here at great length for yonks and i’m going by WHAT YOU SAY, over and over. it’s not rocket science. what’s gone wrong with you, seriously

  27. David Poland says:

    Yes, you keep saying, Leah… no details, just posturing.

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