Love and Respect at the Oscars

oscars

LitHub/2018

By CHRIS MYERS

The Academy Awards are dumb. But I still love them to death.

On the one hand, the Oscars are self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, and self-promoting. They sway in whatever political breeze is blowing at the moment, constantly overcorrecting to make up for the slights or oversights of the previous year.

On the other hand, the Oscars are just a lot of fun. They’re like catnip for movie lovers — an annual celebration of film, and a chance to root for and honor our favorite movies, performers, and filmmakers. The time between the nominations and the awards is a period of excited anticipation — a time of water-cooler debates, amateur analysis (like this article), and enthusiastic movie consumption.

So I love the Oscars — I just don’t respect them. They are flawed for the aforementioned reasons, and also because the Academy so often gets things howlingly wrong. How else do you explain the fact that neither Spike Lee nor Quentin Tarantino has ever won an Oscar for Best Director (a dubious distinction that  they share with, among others, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and Tim Burton)?

Crash was a better picture than Brokeback MountainShakespeare in Love was a better picture than Saving Private Ryan? Puh-leeze. Granted, any awards program is highly subjective, but the Academy has almost 7,000 members — you would think the wisdom of the crowd would prevail more consistently. (By the way, we can mark Shakespeare in Love’s upset victory in the Best Picture race in 1999 as the apotheosis of Harvey Weinstein’s overweening power in Hollywood.  Weinstein, whose Miramax company produced Shakespeare in Love, boosted the movie’s Oscar standing with relentless schmoozing, campaigning, and — we can now safely assume — intimidation. Hopefully this year marks the end of that power.)

The Oscars pit movie love versus cinematic respect, and that tension plays out every year in the nominations and awards themselves. The Academy often rewards movies that people respect but that few have actually seen, usually bypassing or snubbing movies that people love. Sometimes the two feelings converge, and the Academy recognizes a film that people both love and respect, such as The Return of the King or Titanic (granted, the script of the latter was a mess, but fans loved the film, and film geeks respected the technical wizardry and grand scale).

This year, among the Best Picture nominees, there is great love for Get Outand Lady Bird. People respect The Shape of Water and Dunkirk, but do they love them? I guess people respect The Phantom Thread out of deference to Daniel Day-Lewis and P.T. Anderson; I have yet to meet a single person who even likes the movie, much less loves it. Sophia Benoit, a great Twitter follow if you’re looking for one, tweeted: “Phantom Thread is great if you just want to hear every footstep every character in a movie makes.”

It’s fun to go over the nominations and try to spot trends or hidden messages. This year, happily, the #TimesUp movement manifested in a well-deserved Best Director nod for Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), and the first-ever (what?!?) nomination of a woman for Best Cinematography (Rachel Morrison for Mudbound). Respect is due.

However, the Academy took it too far when it nominated Christopher Plummer in the Best Supporting Actor category for stepping into the disgraced Kevin Spacey’s role and re-shooting his scenes in All the Money in the World. Has anyone seen this movie? Among the many deserving actors snubbed in favor of this “message” nod were Bob Odenkirk in The Post, Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me By Your Name, and Jason Mitchell in Mudbound.

This year’s Best Actor race highlights perennial issues in Oscar nominations. Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq) received nods because they are who they are; they would get nominated if they starred in a remake of The Phantom Menace. That leaves three nominees to consider seriously: Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour, Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name, and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out.

Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour is grade-A, prime Oscar bait: an established actor ravenously chewing the scenery in a ponderous historical picture while extending his hand for his long-overdue statuette. It’s the kind of role the Academy really respects. But both Chalamet and Kaluuya turn in much more nuanced, emotionally layered performances — particularly Chalamet, who perfectly captures the fragility and swaggering self-assurance that co-exist in so many adolescents.

The race is complicated by the fact that Oldman is famously right-wing and piggish (he’s on record referring to Nancy Pelosi as “a fucking useless cunt”).  Academy members — predominantly left-leaning and progressive — will surely be deploying some game theory on themselves as they vote, thinking: “I shouldn’t vote for Oldman because he’s a sexist, right-wing, quite possibly anti-Semitic pig, but that would just confirm everyone’s stereotype of Hollywood as a bastion of liberalism. So if I do vote for him, I’ll be subverting the conventional wisdom about Hollywood and, commendably, judging his performance on its merits. Good on me.”

Of course, it’s a bit of an uncertainty. There is no consistent character test for Academy Award eligibility. Oscar currently lives in the homes of Woody Allen, Mel Gibson, Susan Sarandon, Roman Polanski, and Spacey, among others. I would simply argue that if Academy members did judge Oldman’s performance on its merits, they would conclude it just isn’t as good as Kaluuya’s or Chalamet’s. Sure, I was occasionally struck by how Oldman had matched the physical mannerisms we’ve seen in famous photos and newsreels of Churchill. But there wasn’t a second when I stopped thinking, “That is Gary Oldman absolutely acting his ass off.” He’ll win.

When it comes to the big night — March 4 this year — can the Oscars give movie fans, like in a healthy relationship, both love and respect? Maybe. With increasing regularity (four times in the last five years), the Academy has bridged the gap between love and respect by splitting the Best Director and Best Picture awards.

I heartily endorse this trend. Last year, Best Picture went to Moonlight, a difficult, important, and deeply thoughtful movie that everyone respected. Best Director went to Damian Chazelle for La La Land, a high-spirited lark of a movie that people loved — I think because the film itself was as joyously drunk on movie love as any film since Singin’ in the Rain. Both Moonlight and La La Land were great movies, in very different ways. It was nice to see both honored with major Oscars.

I hope the same thing can happen this year in the Best Picture and Best Director races. I would give the Best Director trophy to Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water, a movie for which people have great respect. It’s a visually ambitious and somewhat airless film, but also includes a powerful, understated, and deeply romantic performance by Sally Hawkins — who should win Best Actress but probably won’t.

I would give the Best Picture award to Get Out. It’s a superficially simple film that, while immensely entertaining, transcends the conventions of its genre to make an important statement about race and class. It feels like an instant classic, as Nathan Carpenter, the co-editor of Six Votes Down, recently pointed out on Twitter.

So, Academy voters, split the awards! Share the love — and the respect.

Chris Myers is a librarian and film buff who lives in Portland, OR. His all-time favorite movie is Chinatown, which he loves and respects. This year he and his wife, Laura, will be hosting their 20th annual Academy Awards party. Chris is on Twitter @myerschrisj.

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