by Sasha Stone and Ryan Adams
A friend of mine said to me the other day, “two of the biggest box office hits of 2017, one directed by a woman and the other by a black man.”
And yet, anyone who spends time in the bubble of awards season knows that neither Wonder Woman nor Get Out is expected to find open arms for a Best Picture nomination. It’s confounding. It used to be that the Oscars were proud to reflect some of Hollywood’s biggest successes in addition to the films the critics praised, especially when the planets aligned for well-made films that satisfied audiences and critics alike. It’s not that critics were ever ignored. Critics have always mattered when their praise was too effusive to ignore. Believe me, whenever that happened, studios made sure audiences coast-to-coast knew it. But back then, unless a studio blurbed a review on a movie poster, most moviegoers never saw a word of those reviews. In those days, if critics reception and audience enthusiasm were at odds, studios were happy to accept the opinion of ticket-buyers — and include those moviegoers in the Oscar equation.
It’s easy to look back at a Best Picture nominee like Love Story and smirk, but after earning $136 million on a budget of $2 million, all an Oscar voter needed to feel good about marking it on their ballot was a nod of approval from a small handful of people — and there was Roger Ebert awarding Love Story his coveted 4-star review. Before reviews were widely accessible to most moviegoers, it didn’t matter as much if big city critics gave a film mixed or lukewarm reviews. Nobody who didn’t live in NYC would ever see those reviews. And very few people who watched the Oscars had the foggiest clue what Pauline Kael thought of a Best Picture winner.
So the objectives of the Oscars and critics used to be different. Part of the reason the Oscars existed was to help promote Hollywood creativity, while critics knew their juiciest reviews were often the ones where they could rip a movie to shreds. 40 years ago this contentious battle was far easier for studios to win. No young couples on dates in the 1970s were scrolling their smartphone screens to check a movie’s “score” before buying a ticket. Because the Oscars themselves were the industry’s ultimate seal of approval.
Today that’s all changed, and the internet is what changed it. Now, due to a few key factors, the relationship between the Oscars and critics is more fraught with conflict. Part of this is the democratization of film reviewing, much of which falls outside what used to be seen as traditional film criticism, in the strictest sense. We now have hundreds and hundreds of self-proclaimed critics, rather than a few dozen voices in print who had worked their way up the chain of journalism to be paid by a few dozen prominent newspapers and magazines. The internet has also brought us social media insta-pinions, the scourge of “review aggregates” that convert thoughtful analysis into blunt numbers, and purity warriors with the power to make or break a film with a hashtag. The Academy’s own decision to shorten awards season by moving all the dates forward 4-6 weeks has only worsened the rush to make snap judgments, based on a dizzying deluge of scores and box-ticking prerequisites. Now, as harried Oscar voters and Oscar watchers look for ways to get a handle on awards season, the industry often finds itself on the same side as the culture of film criticism. An ongoing conversation that involves critics and fans and bloggers and filmmakers, an informed consensus that at last might arrive with exciting conclusions in the hands of awards voters, would seem like an ideal scenario. At least it should be, but too often it isn’t.
There will be something very wrong if Jordan Peele’s Get Out isn’t named one of the best films of 2017. It is so unique, memorable, and groundbreaking, there is no way that true movielovers will look back at this year and not remember it being a very big deal. Lest we forget, some of the biggest and best movies in film history have been in the horror genre, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho or John Carpenter’s Halloween. Yes, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist were nominated for Best Picture, but can anyone think of a film that kicked a hole through the veneer of culture like Get Out has done? Jordan Peele took the undercurrent of race relations in America and turned that tension into a tale of compelling suspense, ultimately transforming the nation’s anxieties into a terrifying masterpiece, all the more forceful since it’s the vision of a black writer/director and shown to us from the point of view of a black protagonist. In watching Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington warily navigate a distinctly white world where he seems to be warmly welcomed but he senses something is seriously off-key, we cringe along with him at every plonked note of “liberal and woke” pretense. What first appears to be the familiar amusing territory of a fish out of water romance — a boyfriend thrown into awkward surroundings — soon becomes a nightmare that Chris knows is unfolding, becoming aware of omens of dread that no one else sees, or will even admit exist.
For all its astute wit and deft handling of touchy issues, we know a film like this still has to make it through the white male gauntlet to break into the awards conversation, meaning nobody can feel resentful or guilty while watching Get Out. A lot of older white voters will probably have to try to squelch their unease or shapeshift its message in order to frame it from a perspective where they feel fully comfortable. Can voters manage that? Check out the reviews to see that virtually all the critics already do:
As I tired to make clear in the opening of this post. it’s no longer enough that Get Out broke new ground, redefined a fresh spin on its genre, and earned $175 million at the box office. Or even that it has a 99% score on Rotten Tomatoes. If white male voters can’t be down with it, it isn’t getting in. We know which movies they will likely be down with, and they’re all great. Dunkirk, The Shape of Water, Darkest Hour, Call Me by Your Name, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri are very Oscar-obvious films, although all of them — every single one of them — could be released any other year and they would still be as well liked. Get Out is a film that expresses a palpable fear that crystallizes an urgent reality of our lives right now in America. A movie this effective would resonate in any year, but it hits us with special impact in 2017. Many of the films on this year’s Oscar docket vibrate with an undercurrent of Trump panic: sexual assault, fascism, homophobia. But none of them do what Get Out does to address America’s low-hum hornet’s nest of racism, long hidden or denied just beneath the surface, now kicked into the open as an aggressive swarm by the Racist-in-Chief inhabiting the whitest White House in generations.
Wonder Woman offers us another sort of story altogether, but it does so with unique cultural resonance of its own. It’s a sad but enlightening commentary on America’s disconnect that a thrilling movie based on the globe-spanning milestone of female empowerment from 75 years ago happened to become a massive success the same year that we saw the first woman in our history claim a major party’s nomination for president. It’s even more heart-breaking when that woman had her moment of glory stolen by a racist, sexist homophobe with the help of a racist, sexist homophobe on the other side of the world.
It is not just a very big deal that Wonder Woman is the first of its kind, believe it or not, the first immensely successful superhero film to center on a female offshoot of these multi-billion dollar franchises. Perhaps because Catwoman fell flat in 2004, nobody had the balls to try such a thing again for a dozen years — or perhaps someone finally realized that a movie like this needed a director who has a lot more going for her than mere balls. Patty Jenkins has given us a heroine who flings herself headlong into battle in ways we have never before seen in a film like this, and audiences flocked to see it to the tune of $400 million and counting.
Let’s put to rest what Jim Cameron keeps trying to say: that Wonder Woman is a step back because Gal Gadot is so gorgeous and she wears a short skirt to showcase her sexuality. Well, first off, you can’t make Wonder Woman and erase the character’s inherent sexual power. Women own their sexual power and have every right to brandish it, no matter how often men try to take it away. We know it’s a superpower that each of us is born with. We know it because we feel it, and we know it because we see how men react to it. Why would anyone want to take an inherent superpower away from a superhero? Whether or not he likes to admit it, Cameron’s Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, Linda Hamilton, was was a toned sexual fetish-object in her own right. It says a lot more about Cameron than it does about her that he felt compelled to write her character as a mentally incapacitated headcase, so unable to “handle” the truth about humanity’s future and so ill-equipped to make any man understand her that she depended on the rescue and protection of her preteen son to get the apocalypse-prevention ball rolling. And let’s not forget it’s her son who was, of course, “Mankind’s Only Hope.” Does anyone see that as any kind of inspiring role model for young girls to aspire? I sure don’t. We see you, Jim Cameron. You like strong women up to a point, but there’s always another point just past that where a guy has to enter the picture who will ultimately do the heavy lifting of saving the day.
So that’s where we stand. In order for both Wonder Woman and Get Out to get Best Picture nominations, we know they will each need to earn roughly 200 to 250 first place votes on Oscar ballots. That means there have to be enough Academy members either willing to go to bat for these films to make a statement, or enough who truly and rightfully feel that these films are their number one favorites of the year, in order for them to have a seat at the table. Knowing the past behavior of Oscar voters, it may appear that the chances are slim of this happening for Wonder Woman, while the odds for passing that threshold for Get Out might be a bit stronger.
That said, we should remember that 20% of current Academy members have only been members for less than two years, so we haven’t yet got a good measure of what they might do. One thing’s for certain: if the race for Best Picture reflected the actual year in American film — the way it used to do 40 or 50 years ago — there is no doubt that two of the most successful movies of the year, Wonder Woman and Get Out, would be on that list.
It’s a damn regrettable shame that the AMPAS cut back its ballot to five slots for Best Picture. Surely, with ten available openings — the way it was in 2009 and 2010 — voters would feel the spacious freedom to recognize a wider range of films, including movies that have won over moviegoers alongside films that are more in keeping with the personal dramas that veteran AMPAS members cherish.
Ironically, Hollywood studios are making fewer and fewer of those kinds of movies, so it falls on niche studios and independent distributors to cook up and serve movies to Oscar voters that the Oscar voters will like. Think of it like a special request meal menu on an airplane. Almost everyone gets the regular food, but a large number of older Academy members will only be able to digest the kosher meal options or those dishes without too much spice or other upsetting flava. So year after year they not only get what their sensitive diet demands, they refuse to consider tasting the delights that everyone else is eager to sample. Fine for those pampered elders, but it sure makes a bland buffet for the rest of us.
This is the big and small of Oscar season we’re in now — the age-old push and pull of pop culture transformation vs. elitist status quo. In a more perfect world, there would be ample desire to honor movies that are tailor-made to Oscar taste, as well as films as diverse as Get Out, Wonder Woman, Beauty and the Beast, Blade Runner 2049, The Big Sick, War for the Planet of the Apes, and anything else that crosses over between both populism and elitism, like Dunkirk, and the upcoming The Post and Downsizing. There used to be a time when, for example, the Spirit Awards represented independent film and the Academy represented, more or less, studio movies. But the advent of DVD screeners and the evolution of Hollywood has transformed that dynamic, and now the lines are blurred between prestige Oscar fare and films that were once relegated to arthouse crowds. Last year Moonlight won both groups. The year before, Spotlight won both. No big studios would ever have invested in those two movies yet they turn out to now be the kinds of films Oscar voters end up liking best.
Ideally, the Best Picture race would draw on the best from both worlds. Then the films that only critics and industry voters know about it, see and like, would be in the mix with all the excellent work Hollywood studios are doing on a larger scale, movies that are routinely ignored under the system of only five nominees rather than ten.
If the Academy could honor big studio movies too, then wouldn’t that inspire studios to keep making good movies rather than always relying on branding and franchises? Wouldn’t we all be winners if that happened?
What incentive is there to even bother trying to make great films if the industry’s highest honor continues to ignore efforts to raise the artistic bar for blockbusters when it comes time to name the best of the year? Isn’t it a better idea to keep a hand on both branches of the same tree? Especially at a time when streaming is excelling with so much serious adult content, the “specialty meals,” that have made Amazon Studios and Netflix such exciting powerhouses. In many ways, there are more opportunities than ever before for filmmakers of every stripe to make money making movies and to carve out incredible careers for themselves.
In the final analysis, if the Oscars fail to recognize the achievements of movies like Get Out and Wonder Woman and other groundbreaking hit films, then who else will? If the Academy relinquishes its mission to recognize the best that cinema has to offer, then the Oscars risk looking moribund and losing future generations of moviemakers and moviegoers. That would be the loss of 90-year-old icon that none of us wants to face.
Potential nominations for Get Out:
Best Actor (Daniel Kaluuya)
Best Original Screenplay
Supporting Actor (LilRel Howery or Bradley Whitford)
Supporting Actress (Alison Williams)
Potential guild nominations:
Potential nominations for Wonder Woman:
Potential guild nominations: