The Oscars have a legacy problem
It’s one of my favorite days of the year: Oscar nomination morning. I still can’t help but have a giddy sense of anticipation every year with that unnaturally early morning announcement. This year, it didn’t take long for that giddiness to fade away. These Oscar nominations are uncreative, unimaginative, and, worst of all, irresponsibly regressive, an ode to unnecessary legacy and a relic of a time that the movie industry can’t seem to put behind us. The movie industry should be at the forefront of diversity and change, with the Academy at the helm of this never-ending stream. Instead, the crusty old white people who still predominantly make up the Academy’s voting body continue to let nostalgia get the better of them, continue to highlight old white men who don’t deserve it, and continue to ignore the films that are leading this charge for societal change. Once again, the Academy had a chance to make a poignant statement, and once again, we were left disappointed.
The crux of this (depressingly yearly) disappointment is around the Best Director category. Once again, the Academy nominated 5 men, 4 of which are old and white, (represent, Bong Joon-ho) with 2 of them doing not much more than clocking in to receive their Oscar nod. Before you try and defend the nominations of Scorsese and Tarantino, (I love both of them, personally) ask yourself this: What does a nomination for Best Director mean? How does the old guard of Hollywood, Scorsese and Tarantino specifically in this case, (and to a lesser extent Sam Mendes, also nominated) benefit by receiving one of the 5 prestigious nods in this category? Receiving an Oscar nomination, particularly for Best Director, is something of a welcome party in Hollywood. A recognition from your peers that your work is distinctive enough to be celebrated one night in February. Yet, in the entire history of the Academy Awards, exactly 5 women have been nominated for Best Director. Scorsese and Tarantino have been nominated 10 times combined before this year. Why do they each need another Best Director nod?
That doesn’t even address the creative question of these films. What someone like Scorsese has to do to make The Irishman happen that’s more unique / exemplary than what Greta Gerwig had to do for Little Women? (She had to fight from the start just to be allowed to direct Little Women.) Or Arel Hal’el for Honey Boy? (She refused the helm the project if Shia didn't play his father.) We saw this credibility / creativity bump with Gerwig after the (sadly) unprecedented success of Lady Bird, which she openly admits gave her the creative leverage she needed with Sony to write / direct Little Women. Without the Oscar buzz generated around Lady Bird, Gerwig likely would not have even been given the opportunity to direct Little Women. Someone like Scorsese already enjoys a blank check on all his projects, free to (actually) spend millions of dollars to use CGI to change Robert De Niro’s eye color in The Irishman. He’s been celebrated for decades already, do we really need to celebrate him again simply because he made another mafia film? What did Tarantino do that is so exemplary? Wake up one morning and decide I should use the unlimited resources at my disposal to convince two members of the Hollywood elite to finally star in a film together? Wow, I need a minute to let the prestige wash over me.
While I do commend the inclusion of Bong Joon-ho, and the (also sadly) unprecedented awards success of Parasite, (first film from South Korea to ever be nominated for Best International Feature Film, let alone Best Picture) the rest of the category is such a dumpster fire it’s hard to get excited about that. Seriously, what’s Todd Phillips even doing in there? What did he do on Joker that’s exemplary over one of these more modern films with a 10 year+ production cycle? (Looking at you, Safdie Brothers and Uncut Gems.) If you don’t think this is a big deal for the industry, the prestige of winning Best Picture or being nominated for Best Director gives you a kind of clout that stays with you for years. Just ask Sam Mendes, who burst on to the scene 20 years ago with one of the most cringe films to ever win Best Picture, American Beauty, (yikes) and will, to this day, be given blank checks to make something like 1917. This isn’t meant to bash a film like 1917, but the only way the Academy will become more inclusive is by shining the spotlight on auteurs that are not in the “old guard.”
Also a trainwreck and a sign of the old guard still very much in control are the acting categories. The Academy narrowly avoided #OscarsSoWhite yet again, with exactly one black person receiving a nomination. (Sorry, Cynthia Erivio, for pulling the short straw and being this year’s token black person.) The Academy had a huge chance to make a statement on diversity and highlight some incredibly emotional / powerful / groundbreaking performances like Awkwafina’s in The Farewell, Jennifer Lopez’s in Hustlers, and Lupita Nyong’o in Us. Or the entire cast of Parasite. But, instead, we’re stuck starring at the perplexing / frustrating double nomination of ScarJo, (who is not someone we need to be celebrating in her own right) the dumbfounding inclusion of a Megyn Kelly impersonation, anything from Richard Jewell, (at least Kathy Bates is actually a supporting performance, but that is another conversation for another time) and, of course, Joaquim Phoenix in Joker.
Ugh, now we have to talk about Joker and its absurd 11 nominations. The inclusion of this film at all is as dangerous as it is frustrating. For a few weeks in late January / early February, the Oscars are at the forefront of our cultural conversation. They are some of my favorite weeks of the year because of the societal discussions we have relating to the films the Academy say are worth talking about. However this year, I will find myself answering entirely too many questions about Joker, a film that dangerously glorifies its main antagonist, a disgruntled white man who feels ignored by society and essentially responds by becoming a celebrated mass shooter. Joker’s vile lead has already directly inspired one mass shooting in our country, the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, and now to have a film glorifying this character go out and receive this much praise from the Academy? It’s nothing short of heinous and despicable. I just had the chance to see Arana, a Chilean film centered around that country’s 1973 coup, which has inspired a very similar conversation in Chile. Since the film’s release, the spider symbol of the Fatherland and Liberty party (the party at the center of that 1973 coup) has shown up all over the country ad seen an unfortunate uptick in popularity, a stark reminder that there’s a very fine line between glorification and rememberence of tragedy. A line which Joker flies past. Highlighted by its shameless hero imagery towards the end of the film, Joker arrogantly falls into the glorification category, and was a troubling entry into our cultural hivemind before it received eleven unnecessary Oscar nominations.
The Academy needs to understand that they have a rare, unique, and bright spotlight on our culture conversation every year for a few weeks in late January. However, at this point it's impossible to deny that this spotlight has decreased in recent years, highlighted by two years of #OscarsSoWhite and the constant, frustrating exclusion of female-led filmmaking. Every year, the Academy further ponders why its slowly and consistently losing its relevancy, while also continuing to nominate films that should never be relevant like Joker. The doomsday clock is approaching midnight on the importance of the Oscars, and as long as groundbreaking films like The Farewell, Little Women, Queen and Slim, Hustlers, Honey Boy, Just Mercy, and Us continue to be criminally overlooked, that clock will not stop. Sure, there are signs of change at the ground level, (2019 was a record-breaking year for female filmmaking, but also: low bar) however until the Academy decides that it's more important to highlight Lulu Wang's contributions to The Farewell over another Tarantino nomination, that change will come far slower than it should.
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