We’ve never seen anything like this year’s Oscar race, and probably not in the ways that you might think. On the one hand, the Academy is working to build itself into the voting body it wants to be, which is to break free from its past, free from what Harvey Weinstein and Miramax shaped it into, free from it being solidly white, and free from being solidly male. It wants to still be relevant and vital in the modern era where everything is changing so fast. Big movies are getting bigger. Franchises are producing movies like Black Panther to erase the stigma of what we think about when we think about superhero movies. With both black writers and directors in the race, and a woman in those categories, it looks like they are becoming the change they seek.
There is something else happening, and that something is shifting the comfortable ground we’ve all become too accustomed to walking on. We are a divided nation under Donald Trump. There isn’t a day when those of us on the Left aren’t scrambling to regain some of the power that’s been seized from us, regain the upper hand, some amount of control. This dismantling of the titanic liberal left has been a long time coming, was well orchestrated, and had an end goal in mind — the revolution happened, but it happened on the Right.
One of the ways we exert control now is by policing our own side, running ourselves through purity tests to make sure we’re as right as we can be, to never offend anyone, to out those who threaten to keep the village pure and righteous. We do this on the Left because we can’t do it on the Right. So much so that all we seem able to accomplish now is to watch movies get targeted, shunned, exiled. We believe that this will somehow bring us closer to enlightenment, further away from Trump. The evil that was birthed the day he was elected can’t ever be let out because if any one of us shows even the slightest hint that we’re like him, we too become suspect. We could be that evil too.
And so it is with this fear that the strangest Oscar race in my twenty years covering it is coming to its long last exhale. In ten days it will be a story to be told in retrospect. Lessons learned. We put a lot of investment in our ability to see things before they happen, to know the unknowable. We’ve built a whole industry around it, putting value in those who can guess right, or guess the upset, or fall in line with the status quo. We’re shamed when we’re wrong, celebrated when we’re right. We all know on some level that this no way to evaluate something as subjective as art. It was one thing when films were horses in a race, or players in Survivor. It’s a whole other thing when films become political candidates. Which is least offensive? Which is most pure?
What I like about the frontrunners in this year’s Oscar race is that they’re all offensive in their own ways. While some bend towards justice — The Shape of Water, Get Out — others bend in a different direction, shining a light on a path not yet known — Three Billboards and Lady Bird. In three of these movies, women are the anchors. Women drive the stories. Women are nominated for Best Actress in three films that might win Best Picture. We can’t forget about the movies that spring from a different time in history, a better time perhaps, when we could say with certainty that we all knew who the heroes were. Even Trump supporters would have known. We can all agree that we fought on the right side in World War II. Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, and even The Post remind us of the heroes we once were.
The only pure hero in the acting categories predicted to win is Gary Oldman playing one of the most influential heroes of all time, Winston Churchill. What can be said about the others? Alison Janney as a twisted, dark, alcoholic mother who pushes her daughter Tonya Harding to achieve great things, to shake the trappings of poverty, of being born as an undesirable. Janney, playing against type, illustrates perfectly the underneath — people many of us not only don’t notice but would quickly sweep into the dustbin on Twitter in hopes of eradicating them from our species. Even poor Tonya Harding can’t escape our pointing finger — SHE’S A TRUMP SUPPORTER someone once screamed, as if our focus on someone who voted for Trump means that we have invested in the evil and thus, we ourselves must be purged.
Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell portray two of society’s discards inflicting violence for irrational reasons on people who don’t deserve it. The dentist hardly deserved to have his thumbnail drilled through, not to mention the billboards salesman being beaten and thrown out a window. That these actors could go there, that they could even attempt to look at imperfect, erratic, dangerous people who are supercharged with rage is what makes them stand out. There are only so many ways to play pious and good. Actually, there is just one way.
There is an element in our rating of art this year that lives in fear of letting that evil in, the evil we fear every day of our lives, that our country will surrender to Trump and undo all that Obama and previous Democratic leaders struggled for decades to build as the reshaped our nation for better equality. We stand bewildered and shaken to watch come undone all that we loved about ourselves and our country while Obama led us for eight years — our beacon of hope for a united future. I don’t know if art can survive in a sanitized environment. Jordan Peele’s Get Out shows us that no matter how we build our facades, our legacies based on an original sin will be exposed one way or another. Get Out dares to hold up a mirror even to the most woke among us and asks us to think about who we are vs. who we say we are.
Greta Gerwig, a likable person, chose to tell a story about an unlikable girl who breaks all of the rules because she can’t really do it any other way. She clearly wishes she was someone else, with a different name and a different house, a different boyfriend, a different town. She runs from who she is until she finally realizes that who she is is just the starting point. While it might seem like this is not that weighty compared to the other themes, it is its own quiet revolution when you look at how millennials are kind of blowing up America, starting with its origin story.
Only one film, of those that CAN win, has no ambiguity about good or bad, right or wrong and that’s Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water — which pulls no punches in launching a direct attack at Donald Trump’s brutal immigration policies. It is perhaps subtle, and you might not make the connection until you listen to Del Toro speak. As a Mexican, he’s right up there with Vicente Fox in terms of calling out Trump’s racist policies and rhetoric towards immigrants. Even still, wouldn’t you know that our culture finds offense in nothing so much as Sally Hawkins’ sexuality. It weirds them out that she finds sexual satisfaction in the creature from the black lagoon. Maybe it even weirds them out that she masturbates. But in a culture that rejects her — because of her age, because of her occupation, or because she can’t speak — the amphibian asset SEES HER. The Shape of Water is a true story of love, of finding that one connection in a million where you can be seen and understood. It aims its weapon right at Trump’s heart.
We’re down to the 11th hour here, as voters must now decide which film they can live with as their favorite. The stats still say Three Billboards has this thing in the bag, and that it could win on the first round — how many other movies can you think of that won the Audience Award at Toronto, the Globe for Picture and Screenplay, Actor and Actress, SAG Ensemble plus Actor and Actress AND the BAFTAs for both British Film and Film? I can tell you with certainty that it’s never happened. Only four times since 2000 has BAFTA and SAG agreed: Slumdog Millionaire, Return of the King, The King’s Speech, and Argo. Those are some first round winners you can be sure. But. But. But.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”