The awards season might be over but it’s always nice to take a step back and reflect.
In 2017 I wrote a post about how to “fix” the Oscars. It may have been an idealist fantasy but the validity of the points still resonates. It embodied a clear desire for the ceremony to be more inclusive, especially when the industry is constantly pushing the boundaries of imaginative storytelling and technological innovation. If the Oscars are meant to be a cinematic celebration of the calendar year, then the awards itself should be a reflection of that.
Whilst there has been a concerted effort for more inclusion and diversity within all aspects of the production lifecycle, another factor needs to be considered and that is the role of the voter. Because what also came to the forefront was The Hollywood Reporter’s yearly expose with an Oscar voter and their brutally honest opinions on the nominated candidates:
“I eliminated Dunkirk [Christopher Nolan] first. He’s not into actors or acting, apparently, and I didn’t feel any kind of compassion for his characters.“
“Then Blade Runner , even though I know he [Roger Deakins] will probably win — I just thought it was very grey all of the time.“
“Dunkirk looked great, but it was a little confusing, there wasn’t enough of an emotional thread, and the drone of the airplane through the whole fucking movie just drove me crazy. For me it just didn’t fully work.”
“Then I eliminated Get Out. It’s a good B-movie and I enjoyed it, but what bothered me afterwards was that instead of focusing on the fact that this was an entertaining little horror movie that made quite a bit of money, they started trying to suggest it had deeper meaning than it does, and, as far as I’m concerned, they played the race card, and that really turned me off.“
Are films judged fairly during the award season?
There is a clear and obvious argument to be made about the value of the Academy and its support to recognise smaller or independent films that are drowned out in the constant wave of Hollywood franchises and brands. But if we are to take the comments seriously as authentic opinions, then the lack of consistency or logic by voters can spoil the recognised enjoyment that comes with a nomination.
Vulture certainly highlighted a clear generational divide in a recent article. The traditional Oscar voter has always had a distinct profile – white, male and over 50 which often leads to accusations of being tone-deaf and out of touch with critics, the cinema going audience and societal culture itself. Since the #OscarsSoWhite movement and the Academy’s effort to diversify its electorate, it shouldn’t come as a surprise at how intelligently engaged the diverse youth are. Amongst the hubris of fanatical fandoms and outspoken nerd rage within social media, they represent the thriving and thoughtful conversations that currently exist in online film communities today.
Age is a problem for the Academy but the pressing concern is the attitudes of the voters. It’s unfair to taint every Oscar voter solely by the comments of the interviewed or suggesting that voters can’t elevate intelligently to express an opinion. But to represent an establishment that is in control of the highest accolade in the film industry, to an outsider looking in, the comments made to The Hollywood Reporter smacks as ill-informed and disrespectful.
This is not some sour grapes post to take away the success from The Shape of Water which the film itself is a visually sweet and charming approach to the fantasy genre. It’s clear as daylight that Guillermo del Toro was influenced by Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in the same way my personal favourite Pan’s Labyrinth was influenced by Alice in Wonderland. The Shape of Water naturally ticks all the boxes which has a relevancy within society today – #MeToo, toxic masculinity and privilege, strong female lead, race and prejudice, LGBT and disabilities. This was a story about outsiders. Whilst I don’t think it’s del Toro’s strongest film or the strongest Oscar winner, it’s easy to see why it appeals and it’s difficult to begrudge that. But when numerous outlets reported that Jordan Peele’s Get Out was snubbed out of the Best Picture race because some voters didn’t make the time to see it and judge it, it brings that original question full circle.
There’s almost a blasé attitude about the ideology, something that Inside No. 9 recently explored in an episode called ‘And the Winner Is…’. The episode was largely predictable but it was never afraid to demonstrate how the position of voters can be taken for granted. The character of Paula (played by Zoe Wanamaker) is an American starlet recapturing her glory days. Her eager and misplaced enthusiasm only serves to get her out of the process, lazily repeating the same routine buzzwords as if you’re buying a one size fits all t-shirt. It bears a similar and uncomfortable resemblance to the increased toxicity within fandoms and how comments do not constructively add to the debate, something I recently wrote about. The same rule applies but to a higher subset of an elitist and self-entitled group. Having differing opinions is fine but in terms of a lasting judgement, it would seem the artist’s intention, thematic vision and purpose is being lost in the conversation. It has been replaced with preconceptions and snobbish judgements about what they’ve classified as a film.
To suggest Get Out played the “race card” demonstrates that voters simply didn’t engage with the film or the themes it resonated. They simply dismissed it as a “good B-movie” and nothing else when it’s far more challenging and provoking. I explored this in greater depth in my review but to plainly summarise, Jordan Peele documents the black experience, something that is not often depicted on-screen. It’s a POV perspective of tension filled and intimidating scenarios. The third act divulges into the extremity but what Peele brings to the forefront is how slavery has continued (re-tooled and re-purposed) and how cultural appropriation is still alive and well. It doesn’t aim those fears in a stereotypical fashion (a common sight for characters in Deliverance or Three Billboards for example) but highlights the everyday racism perpetuated through a privileged and clouded reality. Get Out examines a cultural insensitivity and puts it under an intense, microscopic lens. Peele using the real-life fears of the black community evoking paralleled memories of Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin is what makes Get Out a visceral experience. Did it deserved to be nominated? One hundred percent. It’s a film with plenty of subtext that speaks volumes and if a film is nominated, you are in the competition to win it. But to be snubbed (for whatever reason) and not given a fair chance to compete doesn’t reflect well on the institution.
The same attitude applies to Dunkirk which voters considered the editing “confusing” (yet ironically it went on to win best editing at the Oscars) and according to one voter, Nolan is “not into actors or acting.” It’s a bizarre blanket statement towards a director who has been an advocate in keeping the cinematic experience alive by immersing the technological advancements of IMAX and generating an unprecedented level of excitement and universal appeal. Dunkirk in particular highlighted the psychological effects of war, something which I described as a “virtual reality simulation but without the goggles.” For many soldiers who happened to face that battle for real, Nolan’s depiction was incredibly accurate. Nolan’s partnership with composer Hans Zimmer concocted a realistic psychological edge that is comparable to what Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann did for Psycho. Dunkirk may have taken an unconventional approach to re-tell a remarkable British story but its intense focus on the ordinary people and the soldiers who faced that battle is what makes Dunkirk distinct from something like The Darkest Hour (a typically traditional, politically bureaucratic and linear Oscar film). Dunkirk was the people’s war. Simply dismissing Nolan’s highly ambitious achievements is a narrow-minded viewpoint that most likely contributed to Nolan losing a hopeful momentum of winning Best Director. To the frustration of film fans, it further adds to the belief that the Academy doesn’t reward popular, artistic or commercial directors in the same way Kubrick or Hitchcock never personally won a Best Director Oscar or that it took Scorsese decades before finally landing one for The Departed.
It’s an attitude that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Oscars are campaigned in the same vein as a political election (e.g. For Your Consideration adverts). Outside influences and intimidation tactics from the likes of Harvey Weinstein wielded a powerful dominance that swayed voters and shut out the competition. Corruption was certainly not off the table when the Academy rescinded the nomination for Best Original Song for Alone But Not Alone, a film no one had seen and a song no one had heard of.
It doesn’t help matters when majority of the nominated films comes through a ‘Oscar Window’ which limits the range of films. It doesn’t help matters when performances are not recognised despite the film being nominated for everything else (case point Amy Adams and Arrival). It certainly doesn’t help when there’s a closed off and disregarding mentality when the Best Picture nominees are cut from the same dramatic genre cloth. So, while we’ve seen an engaging resurgence in genres such as sci-fi (Arrival, Interstellar, Inception, District 9, Ex Machina, Gravity and Blade Runner 2049), their chances of realistically winning are very slim with only technical awards as their justification for their inclusion. These factors all contribute to the belief that the Oscars are behind the times based on endless double standards, rule changes and contradictions. When the foundation is based on such uneasiness, how are films meant to get a fair shot when there’s an obvious bias and self-interested agendas?
It doesn’t help the image or the Academy’s cause when some voters use a contradictory logic to voting:
“Darkest Hour was pretty much a perfect movie to me — well, maybe not the subway scene, but it was really well done overall, and you really understood from it the courage that it took from Churchill to save that country. I wish we had more politicians today who were as courageous. While I thought it was the best movie of the year, I didn’t think it would have a chance of winning, so I put The Shape of Water, which I also liked a lot, at number one.”
The comments remind me of the excuses that followed Brexit and the US Presidential Election in 2016:
“I voted for Leave but didn’t think we would leave the EU.“
“I voted for Trump because he’s different. We need a political shake up but I don’t believe all of the rhetoric he uses will come to fruition, especially healthcare as I’m dependant on Obamacare.“
It’s as if the democratic voting process has become meaningless that you take for granted that exercised right to vote for the issues you truly believe in. If this voter absolutely believed that The Darkest Hour was worthy of winning best picture, why not vote and support it? Why vote against your “perfect movie” simply because you didn’t think it had a chance of winning? Even if the award still ended up in The Shape of Water‘s hands, at least you voted for something you were passionate about.
It works in the other direction as well when it came to the vote for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing:
“I really don’t understand the difference between the two, so I pass.” – the voter had abstained.
What happened to every vote matters?
The whole point of voting is that you give candidates an ideal chance of winning. Using the vote as a strategic cause or simply not doing research to know the difference between sound editing and sound mixing is unacceptable. As an Oscar voter, it is your job to know. It is your job to make the time to view films. It is your job to put personal differences aside to judge a film objectively. But most importantly, it is your job to actively participate and engage in the process. It makes voters look as if they’re incapable of making an informed decision and merely just going along with the accepted flow.
That’s why I think it’s an important issue to highlight. There is no doubt in my mind that the Academy’s attempt at inclusion with its voters is working. Despite the overshadowing controversy with envelope-gate, Moonlight won Best Picture. Jordan Peele won for Best Original Screenplay for Get Out. Rachel Morrison became the first female DP to be nominated for Best Cinematography for Mudbound. But there is a still a long way to go and the attitudes of the voters needs to evolve as well.
Film is meant to be challenging and the best of them will push you out of your comfort zone. Some will argue that films don’t need an Oscar recognition or an award to be recognised. The online film communities and our investment will always dominate that personal experience. But having pre-conceived agendas and narratives of “what film is” that acts as a refusal for voters to judge or research a film objectively means we are all losing out. Instead of getting progressive films of modernity such as The Social Network, The Dark Knight or Inception, we end up with The King’s Speech and The Reader as winners.
In a wave of change, it’s important that the Academy and its voters get serious. Because if you want to restore some validity or importance for a prestigious award, those actions need to start within.