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The State of the Race: Is This the End of the “Oscar Movie”?

One day we can be watching All the President’s Men and the next day there’s a story about Dustin Hoffman and sexual harassment. Kevin Spacey is being stripped of his International Emmy. Harvey Weinstein is banned for life from the PGA and tossed out of the Academy while police detectives in Paris, New York, and Los Angeles are investigating him for sex crimes. This is where we are on Wednesday, November 1, 2017, one month before the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review names their choices for the year’s best films.

The fall of Harvey Weinstein is serving a purpose for Republicans who want to reshape America as a Steve Bannon apocalyptic “docudrama.” Hollywood turned its nose up at Bannon, who could never have Harvey Weisntein-ed his way to the kind of diabolical vise grip he has now in politics. Now Bannon, in turn, is waging a devious war under the radar, attacking Hollywood by teaching it how to attack itself. If Vladimir Putin wants to destroy American democracy, Bannon wants to destroy American culture by recharging dreary narratives that dictate American bugaboos, like “liberal Hollywood” and the “Lamestream Media.” It’s the perfect kind of manufactured reality for a guy who doesn’t make documentaries that tell the truth — he makes propaganda films in hopes of breaking the population free from its cultural touchstones.

In short, the Republicans kind of have us all by the balls heading into Oscar season. How easy it will be for them, including our “President,” to write off the Oscars as a den of iniquity, an unholy house, a shelter for rapists and perverts. Seems so familiar, doesn’t it? Like the early days of American cinema and show business where religion and art battled it out: decency, righteousness vs. truth, discovery, freedom of expression. We are about to launch right back into that war, with Hollywood in the most awkward position of defending the indefensible.

At the same time, there’s a wealth of very good movies out this year that are being neglected or shunned for one reason or another, and few of those reasons seem to make sense. Detroit, written and directed by white filmmakers, is suddenly decried as a story that never should have been told by the only people who wanted to tell it, and The Beguiled is not a film anyone can talk about without being made to feel guilty.

The films that seem to be capturing some kind of heat right now — though mainly with the awards watchers and critics, not so much with the industry yet — are those that are flirting with darkness. Get Out is a film about hidden racism that only the protagonist can see. I, Tonya is about how a woman born into abuse and poverty can only do so much to break free from it — her background is an anchor around her neck. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is about how a mother’s anger and grief over her daughter’s murder motivates her to burn it all down, literally. Severe poverty is on display in The Florida Project, which juxtaposes Disneyworld and homeless children.

World War II is directly confronted in Mudbound, which exposes how America fostered its own version of racial cleansing with its treatment of its black citizens for decades after the Civil War ended. Telling this story against the backdrop of the war we waged to free Europe drives home the point that the soldiers fought alongside each other only to come home to a country that accepts one type of soldier and rejects another. Isn’t so much of that still going now, under Trump? Don’t we have an administration that does not see its black citizens as having the same equal rights that its white citizens do? If they don’t overtly express that attitude, they certainly express it in a more subtle but nonetheless effective manner. This is the America they are trying to build, the Steve Bannons and the Robert Mercers and the Donald Trumps: a white America, the America that existed before the Vietnam War, before the Civil Rights Era, before feminism.

Guillermo Del Toro’s exquisite The Shape of Water is about that America too, embodied in the performance of Michael Shannon who really does personify Trump’s America: fear what you don’t understand, hate which doesn’t look like you, make love with people like you, live only among those like you. The Shape of Water is one of the few films that offers up a brief respite from the misery of this oppression — it says love can spare you from it if you find a way to escape.

With Call Me by Your Name and The Battle of the Sexes we have two films that are about sexual identity, about coming of age as a gay man and a gay woman, and how the culture around them reacted to their embrace of their reality. One is more critics-friendly than the other, for sure, but the other is a surefire crowdpleaser that really is coming at exactly the right time. Battle of the Sexes is that rare Hollywood film that, along with I, Tonya, affords its female protagonist the opportunity to be something other than a girlfriend, wife, or mother. That would also be true of The Post starring Meryl Streep and Lady Bird starring Saoirse Ronan, about a young woman on her way to being something.

Finally, the war epics Dunkirk and Darkest Hour loom large as dueling depictions of a brutal war against Hitler when Great Britain was backed into a corner and had to fight its way out on the hunched and weary shoulders of Winston Churchill. Darkest Hour is about intellectual strategy and Dunkirk is about the military strategy of how to get 300,000 soldiers to safety. In both films, though, the threat of Hitler and his meth-amped unstoppable Nazi army was really the last time America saw a clear cut definition of good and evil. There was only one side to be on, and that was the side that fought the fascist dictator who murdered six million people on his way towards trying to turn the world into the Aryan nation. Well, now we see the quest for an Aryan nation is bumping up against our national identity once again, not just here but in a wave of fascism threatening other countries as well.

Oscar heat is a strange thing — you can feel it when it’s there, as it so clearly is with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I, Tonya, The Florida Project, and perhaps Lady Bird. But sometimes it’s hard to tell what that really means in early November. Does it mean this is what the critics like? Yeah, probably. Does it mean this is what people who watch the Oscars think is good and therefore it should go all the way? Not always. Think: Nightcrawler.

One major win can completely shift the race in a different direction, just as one scandal can derail it. If we were already at the mercy of the hive mind and outrage culturem where are we going to be now, with one story after another upending our film gods like Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey? Does this now mean All the Money in the World is shelved? What will it mean when any film starts to get the frontrunner curse? Will it become a target of whatever its weaknesses are when is smashes up against an intolerant and angry public sick of the same old shit, like La La Land last year? You better believe it.

Navigating through the waters of controversy is not going to be easy in the next few months. With a changing Academy in terms of demographics and a surprise winner from last year, no one really knows yet how this will play out. But the controversy that shadows the race cannot be underestimated. The anger in a movie like Three Billboards will have a resonance this year that it might not have had last year. Even Call Me by Your Name will be hotly debated if it gets awards buzz in light of recent events. Every aspect of a film will be examined to see if it lives up to the tough list of requirements we demand from our art now: good people behind the movie? Are the themes in keeping with what matters? Is the casting diverse? Will the acting races be mostly white?

As the early awards begin to take shape, there will be conversations around them that shift the race in even a different direction. If you step outside the insular bubble of Oscar watching for a minute, try to zoom ahead ten years and look back in hindsight at 2017. What will you see? Do you see a film that was a statement of the world we’re living in right now? Do you see any kind of referendum on Trump? On Weinstein? All of the people who were harassed, assaulted, raped and intimidated by Harvey Weinstein will perhaps be taking the stage on the big night — walking out to give out awards, being seen by the entire industry and those watching at home. The sheer scope of how big this scandal is and its impact on these awards is immeasurable.

If Harvey Weinstein had any significant impact on the Oscars, it was that he helped create the “custom meal” (or you could say the “custom meals on wheels”) that fed the voters exactly what they wanted so that they never had to really endure the flavors of other kinds of films that weren’t to their liking. Good people doing good things in a harmonious world that was fair. The “Oscar movie” comes from this directive. Shakespeare in Love beat the innovative Saving Private Ryan and it was as if to say, “It doesn’t matter, we like what we like.” (I am fond of Shakespeare in Love but I recognize it is not the towering work of cinema that Spielberg’s is). The King’s Speech beat The Social Network, and it’s clear even now that only one of those movies has had any lasting impact. The Artist beat Hugo, Scorsese’s masterful but complicated ode to cinema. And that was the last gasp of Harvey Weinstein, giving voters a confection of love and a bit with a dog.

Moonlight’s win last year showed that anything is possible where the preferential ballot is concerned. But the last time a movie won Best Picture with an ambiguous, or even depressing ending was in 2009 with The Hurt Locker. Before that, The Departed and No Country for Old Men seem like Best Picture winners out of a different time than the one we’re living through now.

The only thing that seems certain is that things have changed. Dramatically. Suddenly. Maybe permanently. There is no more Harvey Weinstein in the Oscar race. Netflix has one of the best films of the year testing the waters with the Oscars. A guy who made a movie with an iPhone last year has a movie that could actually win Best Picture. Get Out could come along and win and make Oscar history with the first black director taking home a statuette. If our minds are open to the possibilities, the possibilities become endless.