Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s naming
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changing – Bob Dylan
You know you’re in trouble when the Hollywood Foreign Press threatens to upstage all of the other voting bodies with its diverse choices, when 90 outsiders have their fingers on the pulse of changing American culture better than thousands of insiders who work in the industry. Today, the DGA named their choices for five Best Directors of the year. They named Richard Linklater for Boyhood, Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Alejandro G. Inarritu for Birdman, Clint Eastwood for American Sniper, and Morton Tyldum for The Imitation Game. They omitted two of 2014’s most memorable films by anyone’s definition, David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Ava DuVernay’s Selma. In case you haven’t been paying attention, that’s the ONLY film in the race written by a woman, and the only film still left in the race directed by a woman. Seeing a pattern here?
The race for Best Picture is mostly settled and has been since Telluride. Nothing came along to really challenge Boyhood, a beautifully made film about the tender upbringing of a young man coming of age in a complicated country. It’s the crowning achievement of Richard Linklater who has been reinventing what can be done with cinema with each new film he’s made throughout his career. Linklater has never been in it for any reason except to make great art. That is worth all of the awards the film is about to reap.
For a while it seemed like Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, which launched in Venice, might be that actors’ movie that could overtake it in a Crash/Brokeback kind of dramatic last act. But Boyhood has proved much more resilient than anyone thought. Next up was the Weinstein Co’s Imitation Game, which did very well with the Telluride crowd, won the audience award up in Toronto, and excited the festival-going demo to no end. It has the stamp of “importance,” a persecuted gay man, without any of the messy gay sex to go along with that. That’s the way the straight world likes it — all tidied up and hidden away. I didn’t think the movie deserved the criticisms it got for that omission, nor did I think the strange story behind the real Chris Kyle was any reason to punish American Sniper. They’re movies, after all. All of that changed, however, when the DGA shut out Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a film that got so much heat in the days leading up to the Oscar ballot deadline. The controversy might effectively knock it out of the competition altogether.
The attacks against the film were so fevered and so intense they made it all the way up to the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, CNN and TIME magazine. Intelligent journalists were “bothered” by the film’s treatment of LBJ, specifically regarding J. Edgar Hoover. It felt personal, this. They were uniting in their defense of a blighted American president who they complained was not given his due in this film. There was a suggestion that the film’s depiction of LBJ was somehow sinister or mean or, dare we say it, ANGRY?
If you’re black you can never afford to be thought of as angry. You have to smile and smile some more and smile yet more times, no matter what people say to you. This is doubly so if you’re a woman. Be nice and SMILE! DuVernay comes from film marketing and knows full well how this sick little game works.
And just how does this game work? It works when Mississippi Burning gets in for Best Picture — in spite of the way it turned the facts inside out and made white men the heroes of a black struggle. It works when a community of voices came together to protest the way the slaves were being portrayed in Gone with the Wind, but instead of it getting shut out, it sweeps the Oscars. Even Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple got in for major nominations, winning the DGA, with controversy following it every step of the way. But Selma? Not so fast, little girl, that’s a US President you’re talking about.
The degree of unanimous protests against Selma were all too creepily timed to hit the airwaves just as ballots were sailing into the hands of not too savvy industry voters who are never really paying attention that closely.
They weren’t catching the wave of excitement Selma’s mere presence brought to audiences – not because history was about to be made with the first black female director in the Oscar race, but because Selma was such a very good film, such a moving film, such a sensual, breathtaking, wholly original work that no one really knew what to do with it. They were scared of it, probably.
It was very unlikely The Imitation Game was going to unseat Boyhood, and less likely that Birdman would. But Selma? That was looking too strong for comfort. Something really had to be done about Selma. Thus, the “controversy” likely gave voters a reason to stay home, and if no screeners arrived in time? So be it.
It isn’t that any of the five DGA nominees are bad. It isn’t even that their decision to honor Eastwood at his old age being able to still direct great war scenes was a bad one. Or that their adherence to the old film awards cliche with The Imitation Game, getting traction for being a film about an oppressed gay protagonist. They’re perfectly fine. It isn’t so much that they were included, it’s what got excluded that makes all the difference here.
I could go on and on about David Fincher not getting in for Gone Girl. Low-level misogyny and disinterest in anything that’s popular with women seemed to put Gone Girl in the “unimportant” pile, no matter that it’s likely one of the few films that reached the public at large, at least this year. That it isn’t an “Oscar movie” is a reminder that this whole dumb circus is a sham because Selma IS an “Oscar movie,” so what’s their excuse this time? They didn’t get screeners in time? They couldn’t get off of their lazy, entitled asses to go out and see what many are calling the most “important” film of the year? Aren’t they all about “important”? Ah but you see, they aren’t. The word “Important” has an asterisk next to it and next to the asterick is the following fine print:
*We here in the industry define important as that which matters to white men. If it doesn’t involve white men or else the white men aren’t the saviors we have little interest in it. We don’t care about anything other than that which makes us feel good about ourselves.
Gone Girl did virtually no FYC advertising. They did not play the Oscar game this year the way the other films did. It would have to succeed on merit alone. If anything can be learned about this year’s race it’s that merit alone means squat. I don’t even think Boyhood would have gotten in without a heavy awards push. Ditto Birdman, ditto Grand Budapest, both in the capable hands of Fox Searchlight.
But Selma did do the campaigning, tirelessly. DuVernay was everywhere. The film was being written about, talked about, advertised heavily everywhere. The Hard No is like an ancient, flaking wall that’s been standing tall for too long; it’s a barrier that holds back everything that’s great about our changing culture in 2015 and what might be coming next. It’s a dream extinguisher, a font of decay that represents an old world. It’s the card game in Sunset Boulevard all over again.
In a year with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, in a year that has been rife with heated debate about civil rights and voter rights, issues which are still far from settled, the DGA puts its head in the sand and forgot that the defining movies in a given year should not reflect the singular tastes of an elitist, separatist entity, but should reflect the broader cultural conversation, the movies that people are really talking about, because otherwise, why bother making movies for the public at all? Why not just make them for your own private little club, a club that has limited membership and strict rules about appropriate content.
This is an important day to remember. The industry will discover, too late probably, that the walls are closing in around them. They won’t exist for much longer because great filmmakers will stop making movies entirely and head to television. All that will be left is that one arrogant rich guy standing in the balcony clapping for the one thing he wanted to see on stage, whether it was good or bad, successful or not.
These voters have given us their choices for best of this year. Some of them deserve it, some of them don’t. The glaring omissions are the only films that were backed by women – the only one written by a woman, Gone Girl, and the only one directed by a woman that had the remotest chance, Selma. Hollywood has given us that Hard No with a fleshy white palm beaming at us from the road not taken, a disappointing roadblock, a needless obstacle.
What they’re missing, and it will ultimately be their demise, is that they are rendering themselves slowly but surely irrelevant. Voices of the many are not interested in an outmoded conversation. They will fly past the awards race stopping momentarily to gaze at the diorama of what the Hollywood industry looked like back when it refused to adapt.
Or as Dylan would say:
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changing
Thursday, the Academy will announce, at last, its nominees for the 87th Academy Awards.