We find ourselves entering the Best Picture race in a dark time when the strength of liberalism has been cut off at the knees by forces that can best be described as diabolical.
You might have had to live through one of these transitions to know know how it will go. I grew up when McGovern lost to Nixon. I lived through the honorable but tepid failings of Jimmy Carter’s term. I lived most of my formative years under Ronald Reagan’s America. Believe me, by the time Bill Clinton came along, we Democrats had become so demoralized from losing one election after another that we were ready to do anything, forgive anything to grab even a tiny bit of power.
But that didn’t last. Bush took over, took us into endless war, crashed the economy over the cliff of greed. That debacle gave rise, at least, at last, to the greatest president in my lifetime so far, Barack Obama. But that triumph wouldn’t last. President Obama’s mere existence in the Oval Office — the reality that a black man could lead this country — so freaked out the crackers and the billionaires who control them that Republican (and Russian) fear-mongers were able to sell socialism as the country’s greatest threat. That helped the GOP take tight control Congress, where they’ve systematically dismantled two centuries of safeguards, standards and norms. Their merciless power grab gave rise to the extremist right wing coup that we’re all now living through.
It’s possible that the extreme partisanship now splitting the country in half has quite a lot to do with the recent ratings drop for the Oscar broadcast. Trump has turned everything into “you’re with me or you’re against me.” Actors and writers, Broadway and the Oscars, he declared, were part of that cultural battle. Hollywood, because it has roundly rejected him — and worse for his fragile ego, ridiculed him — is part of the imagined enemy he targets. Movies were once a place where people of any political persuasion could sit together for a few hours in the dark, to laugh together or dream together without worry of getting mowed down by a gun nut. Nowadays, liberals are glad we can still turn to gracious artists who give eloquent voice to our concerns.
On the other hand, for Trump supporters to watch the Oscars would be a betrayal of their lowbrow cult leader. We can’t expect dimwits who burn their Nikes and sledgehammer their Keurigs to set aside one night a year when they tune in to watch film artists celebrate the best of their film artistry — especially for films that Republican voters have been brainwashed into believing are chock full of librul propaganda. No, until conservatives ever figure out how to make movies that are worth a good goddamn, we can probably kiss the homophobe NRA build-the-wall evangelical Oscar-watchers goodbye. And you know what? Good riddance.
Meanwhile, this shift fits neatly with the way Hollywood itself has pulled sharply to the left. Maybe too neatly for much of middle America to swallow. Have we become too much of an insular oasis? Will we waste time attacking our own allies, policing every iffy thing that is said by anyone ever, in movies, on Twitter, with humor — that hyper-vigilant stance has thus far amounted to nothing more than re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Hollywood, and the Oscars, must for now exist somewhat stranded in that oasis, with anger coming from both directions — the plunderers of the planet on right and the utopia-seeking purists on the left, a strident daily flogging that each side hopes will at last deliver us as born again in the image of opposing extremist leaders. The films that dominate this year’s race will fall into two categories: they will either lift us up as heroes, or else they won’t. How voters respond to these two angles will naturally determine how they vote. Are they feeling angry and full of despair? Or are they reaching for hope and holding onto what makes them feel redeemed?
There is noticeable hesitancy around the Oscar race the past few years, because the end goal isn’t the sum total of enthusiasm and gathering momentum like it used to be. Rather, because of the Academy’s preferential balloting system for Best Picture, the winner winds up being the film with the least amount of baggage, the one people hate the least and like, even love the best. Preferential balloting prevents a wave of last minute enthusiasm — thus far at least, since they implemented it in 2009.
The question will be: will personal stories be enough? Will there need to be bigger themes that unify and unite our oasis film community which has been banished as an outcast from its own government?
In an ordinary year, the harsher aspects of Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman might have felt overblown. The plus-sized racist woman, for instance, might have seemed over the top. But now? Does it still feel exaggerated? Take a look at any Trump rally in so-called “real America” and see if such stereotypes are in fact simply verifiable types. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, still one of the year’s standouts, captures the panic so many of us are feeling about who now has the power to decide what, if anything, will be done to protect us from rising sea levels, melting ice sheets. What then must we do?
Dropping like an atom bomb into the season is Adam McKay’s Vice, which arrives just in time to bring the kind of relief only art can when there are no other means of expression besides violent protests. Maybe to those on the right it will look like yet more leftist propaganda. But to us, in our oasis, it scratches an itch we can’t reach.
In recent years, the preferential ballot has not shown much tolerance for nominating darker materials. Probably the darkest has been Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and maybe Get Out. But now it feels as though there may be a shift in that regard. As we become accustomed to living in the midst of continual catastrophe, perhaps more and more voters will prefer — or could be open to considering — darker films that don’t wrap up neatly with a clear uplift.
Still, there are those films that will be more about uplift than sorrow. I guess you can put A Star in Born in that category, even if ultimately the trajectory of its converging and spiraling arcs are just as depressing as the rest of the prominent films. You know how it is going to end and so all you’re doing is watching that shit go down. But there is something uplifting in Lady Gaga’s performance that is hard to deny. Some will of course try to make it about the #metoo movement, the rise of women and the decline of men. But I’ll give you a tip. We live in a patriarchy. One that has survived for hundreds and hundreds of years. We can pay lip service that this is going to change, but it won’t really change, folks. Not in any of our lifetimes. Besides, pretty hard to say A Star is Born intends to twist its tale to fit 2018 sensibilities when the formula of its plot has been exactly the same three previous times in the past 80 years.
Green Book is the one film this year that does try to offer some kind of healing, to bridge the gap between the two Americans that is widening as we speak. Some will no doubt find fault with that, just as they did last year with Three Billboards. And believe me, taking down a Hollywood movie is a lot easier than taking down, say, a Supreme Court justice or a presidential candidate. First Man surely is more optimistic, reminding us an America of the past that was still racially divided, in the throes of war, but it was an era that reached for the moon at the same time, and envisioned a brighter future for humanity.
Somehow, the one sprouting sunflower that is Eighth Grade arrives from left field — its bright sunny petals shaming the despair that envelopes us every day now in America. One insignificant young woman trying to make her way in the world, awkward body and all. That, along with The Hate U Give, offers up a little optimism for a different kind of future.
The Favourite is as dark as our current moment deserves. Subversive, rotten women doing whatever they have to do in hopes of grabbing onto power. There are a few other films in play that feature subversive women, like Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me, about writer who turned to fraud and forgery to help pay for treatment for her sick cat. Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, plays a cop who does one wrong thing, then spends the film taking pitiless vengeance upon the bad guys. Widows is about the wives of bank robbers who must rise up to finish the heist that their husbands left undone, or else suffer lethal consequences. The Wife is about the true genius being a woman behind the writer, not the writer the world thinks it knows. Even movies like On the Basis of Sex and Mary Queen of Scots are about subversive female power. And of course, Alfonso Cuaron’s gorgeous Roma is about the unheralded matriarchs who run the world by running the families that nurture boys into men.
The last years of the Bush administration produced a great slew of dark Best Picture contenders, The Departed in 2006, No Country for Old Men in 2007, The Hurt Locker in 2009. Maybe now we’re heading into another one of those eras, like the 1970s, when art could tell a truth you could not find anywhere else.
Now that America is in the clutches of corruption, authoritarianism and run by a minority of angry white men funded by remorseless billionaires, deep down this last vestige of male predators must know their time is coming to an end. The clock is ticking down on what used to be. They know it is only a matter of time before the majority rises and takes back power. Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.