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The State of the Race – How the Presidential Election May Change the Way People Think About the Oscar Race

There is a good, a bad, and an ugly about being anointed the Best Picture frontrunner out of Telluride. Part of the bad means you have a target on your back. Best thing is to sneak past the sleeping alien, holding Newt in your arms, until you can get to safety. Once you’re a target, people want to try to take you down. Some films prove to be Teflon and can’t be taken down, just as some presidential candidates seem to be be Teflon. Others, not so much. At this stage of the race, several films are being scrutinized for different reasons. The question is, which of those will emerge the “least offensive” by the time voting takes place.

In some ways, the Oscars are like politics. Campaigning for the Oscars is much like campaigning for an election. A lot of the same forces are at play, like negative campaigning (known since the Nixon era as ratfucking), or whisper campaigning, or otherwise sabotaging a perfectly good contender. This year, once again, a character issue comes into play, at least where Nate Parker is concerned. And likability really does seem to matter, just as unlikability does. However, there is a new unpredictable element that just entered the race and that’s the recent presidential election.

Donald Trump’s unlikely win, and the surreal months that preceded it, mark an unprecedented event in US history, as jolting in it’s own way as 9/11. (Before anyone says, “Good grief, Trump’s election didn’t kill 3000 people,” just wait. When Trump and Congress take away the Affordable Care Act, it’s estimated that up to 1500 Americans a month will die from lack of healthcare. That’s a new 9/11 in American causalities every eight weeks.) It is on that level of massive impact, except that when the Twin Towers were brought down we sort of knew who our enemy was. Now we really don’t. A lot of us think we know, but we still need to prove it.

Our enemies in our own ranks are different depending on which side you choose to take. Among the politically engaged, we’re split three ways — a mostly unified GOP consisting of Trump fans and Trump enablers, Bernie far-left progressives, and more pragmatic Democrats. We all hate each other. Inside each ideology are more factions: feminists of various waves, Black Lives Matter, white working class. Young vs. old, rich vs. poor, educated vs. ignorant, outsiders vs. insiders, Brexit vs. Regrexit. Fascists, racists, sexists vs. identity politics. It’s all muddled into a horrible soup as each of us wrestles to represent the dominant American identity or at least strive for something genuine to hold onto. As a nation, we are questioning who we are and where we go from here, while globally the climate just gets hotter and hotter. When you clear away the smoke and mirrors and division, what you see is this: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. It’s primarily about oil. Connecting the dots between Putin and Tillerson and Trump and Cheney is easy because they’re all the same oil stain — they’re here to take the oil, to make a few dozen billionaires richer, to embolden, and prop up the petro-oligarchy in Russia and America. Under Obama, we had a much better shot at fighting for our rights, because he stood up for us by standing in the way of rampant greed. But now, so many of the hard-fought battles we were so close to winning will be shifted to the back-burner as we get kicked backed to square one — fighting for basic human rights. I’ve never lived through this kind of social and political chaos, and I know I’m not the only one afraid and confused and angry.

So, that brings me back to the Oscar race and how I see many people working all of this out through the movies that find themselves burdened with trying to represent this tumultuous year. Two movies in particular seem to be taking the worst brunt of this unreasonable demand. La La Land is facing an all-out backlash at present for a variety of fault-finding reasons, but mainly because it’s the frontrunner. If the grumblers succeed in damaging La La Land, Manchester by the Sea stands next in line to suffer the purity test, and will get hit even harder if it emerges as the frontrunner.

A movie endures the gauntlet of a backlash either by becoming a sympathetic victim (if it’s lucky) or else by becoming hated (if it’s luck runs out). It’s hard to tell now how this will look when the dust settles. People are angry for countless reasons, and a lot of Oscar voters will likely take aim at the films they’ve been given to work some of that out. The movies devoured first in this touchy climate are those that make a misstep in “political correctness” or those that get slammed by protests attached to the status quo. I’ve already seen and spoken about that kind of close scrutiny  this year — some I agree with, some I think is silly. Among the early outcasts: Birth of a Nation (for Nate Parker’s past), Hail, Caesar! (for having an all-white cast), Sully (for having Laura Linney on the phone instead of playing a more active role, and for celebrating yet another white guy as a hero), 20th Century Women (for presumably being about women but maybe it’s really just about a boy who needs women), Fences (for having the audacity to put “toxic masculinity” at the center of a story about toxic masculinity), Moonlight (for not showing the sexually alienated boy having enough sex), Manchester by the Sea (for making us sympathize with a character who not only doesn’t deserve our sympathy but seems to personify the emblematic self-pitying white male that just made Trump president). As Alicia Christoff put it, “Men count on each other, but they know they are ultimately on their own, and they act accordingly. More than a melodrama about men, Manchester by the Sea stages the melodrama of masculinity.”

Then Arrival gets hit for being “pro-life” on the one hand and on the other hand damning it for valuing motherhood because not all women should feel obligated to be mothers, La La Land for showing a white savior who aspires to “save jazz,” which translates to racism, with a brawny dose of mansplaining thrown in there for good measure. Lion for showing Google, and Nicole Kidman for uttering the words “brown-skinned children.” Hell or High Water and Captain Fantastic for being veiled Bernie bro screeds. Captain Fantastic for also celebrating throwback hippie parents who don’t teach their kids proper boundaries. Silence for depicting another white savior in a foreign land. Those are the main points of complaint for each of our presumptive BP nominees, as far as I can see.

The flipside of all this is that the consensus really doesn’t always care about the details. It likes what it likes. It votes en masse to override the snags of individual grievances. That’s how a movie that wins Best Picture hits all markers — it hits the major guilds because a large consensus likes it in spite of… everything. If the consensus tacitly agrees to forgive La La Land for its white guy who loves jazz, then it will win no matter what. But if there’s a three-way split with other movies that can give uneasy voters more options, then La La land’s backlash could be a problem. If it even resonates at all with voters.

A Best Picture winner is usually liked across the board, even if not loved, and that seems to fit all three of the current frontrunners. All three are highly rated and each has won an impressive share of critics awards. All three of them are poised to win some hardware on Oscar night. This much we know for sure. We expect Moonlight will win Adapted Screenplay at least. Manchester by the Sea most likely wins Best Actor, probably Original Screenplay. And La La Land seems sure to score big in the craft caetegories; it’s cumulative haul could put it in the catbird seat for Picture and Director.

The only thing I can see derailing La La Land right now is what I’ve just written about. This nightmarish election and how it’s made us all feel. How despondent has it truly made us? I’ll use our friend Craig Kennedy’s brilliant Facebook post about the election to illustrate how many are feeling:

The Oscar race for Best Picture has traditionally been about paying annual tribute to the lost, downtrodden male lead. I’ve written about it in the past – the fretter vs. the fixer. Almost always it’s a white male lead. Once, recently, a black male lead (12 Years a Slave). But generally that is how it’s been going. Birdman is a great example of this. Spotlight was less so, though it too was about heroic fixers.

The film this year that best fills that requirement is Manchester by the Sea. If voters are still feeling as lost and purposeless as they have been for the last ten years, this is your winner. Again, Alicia Christoff on Manchester by the Sea could be describing almost every Best Picture winner in recent history — this is your common link between most of the fretters who aren’t necessarily heroes but are nonetheless sympathetic — and it really does nail down the exact forces that drove this election:

Men, as they are depicted in the film (white middle-class men, that is), have caused damage, but they can’t figure out how responsible they are for it, and they certainly don’t know how to fix it. Their guilt is real, but it is unspeakable and implacable. For Lee, it surfaces in dreams, in his construction of a working-class identity for himself as an enacted fantasy of self-punishment, in his careful handling of three five-inch-by-seven-inch photographs of his children in identical store-bought frames (we only see their black-velveted backs, lined up first on his dresser in Quincy and then on his bedside table in Manchester), and in the unprovoked bar fights he starts up, ostensibly to map his self-hatred onto others. That this aggression is rendered as heart-breaking, as a pitiable manifestation of Lee’s longing to feel and to make contact, is an indicator of what is most politically troubling about the film: that it seems to put so much labor — its own and the viewer’s emotional labor, too — into the service of redeeming white male rage, repression, and fragility.

La La Land has been hit really hard — most recently this USA Today piece called The Case Against La La Land, which talks about its backlash and claims:

Even La La Land‘s own awards narrative feels undeserved. The sentiment that La La Land should be honored for simply being an original musical that Hollywood took a “risk” in creating, repeated ad nauseum at the Globes acceptance podium, is not quite accurate. Musicals have had a resurgence in Hollywood in recent years, from the live shows like Hairspray on NBC and Grease on Fox to a weekly original musical in CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Musical Sing Street competed for the best musical or comedy Globe alongside La La Land, and animated musicals Moana and Sing cleaned up at the box office. Additionally, Chazelle wasn’t a risky filmmaker in which to invest, as he was just coming off an Oscar nomination for Whiplash. Gosling and Stone only add to the film’s credentials as two of Hollywood’s most bankable actors with a history of starring in projects together.

The thing is, it’s hard not to agree with some of the criticisms put forth here. Both writers are right. The question is, does that mean the movie isn’t a good movie anymore? I don’t think so. It’s still a matter of preference. Even though Mia may be thinly written, she is still a force of nature thanks to Emma Stone’s portrayal of her. Ditto Casey Affleck. You hardly think about any of these things while watching Manchester by the Sea. You just think you’re watching someone sift through his own undeniable trauma. It is only later, as you begin to think about a movie, can you figure out whether you like it or not. The trick with the Oscar race is getting voters to vote before they really have that time to think about it, to over-analyze and question their first impression, or to be influenced by what others think about it.

The movie that I think benefits from all of this, by the way, is actually Moonlight. I do think Lion and Hidden Figures are gaining traction as forces unto themselves because they are both tear-jerking crowd-pleasers, but Moonlight is the only film that people seem to be rooting for across the board. It’s the one that feels most “important” of the three, and it’s the one that seems to deeply and effectively echo the despair so many are feeling about what we just witnessed with the election. So I won’t be surprised if Moonlight turns out to be the title read aloud when the PGA announces their winner, though in many respects it remains La La Land’s to lose.

If La La Land’s momentum can’t be stopped, if its backlash doesn’t take it down, if we don’t see it stumble in the next few weeks, then the race is over. According to Movie City News’ David Poland and Variety’s Kris Tapley it was already over long ago and all we’re doing now is trying to make the race more exciting or biding our time until the inevitable narrative plays itself out. But there’s another lesson to learn from Nov 8th: Don’t be so sure.