In the last 17 years that we’ve been covering the Oscars the world has changed. The country has changed. Television has changed. The film industry has changed. Here is what I’ve learned: The Oscars don’t always address change. Much of the time, they prefer to dwell in the rear view mirror, a time when voters imagine things were better, not worse or even if they really were worse we have all agreed to remember them as better.
Some of the strongest films circling this year’s Oscar race for Best Picture touch on the very things that are terrifying people in known and unknown ways. We are living through a millennium shift, and have been since this site began in 1999. We’re still so deep in it that we can’t really see what kind of impact the turn of the millennium has caused on our culture. We can see it through Oscar’s eyes. We can remember that in 2000, Gladiator won Best picture. Russell Crowe was a champion. Fifteen years later, Ridley Scott is back in the Oscar race but this time his hero is a lost man in search of solid ground.
When this site first began watching Oscar 17 years ago, we were heading into two terms of the Bush presidency. That reign impacted cinema and the Oscars in significant ways. Sometimes very directly, with Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker in 2009 and James Vanderbilt’s Truth in 2015.
Through two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, then two terms of the Obama presidency, the internet, blogging and social networking have replaced the traditional ways we broke news, and how we get our news. Almost everyone would agree that there are good things and bad things about it. Hollywood is on the fence, as last year’s Birdman win confirmed. Love Twitter? Hate Twitter. Twitter is here to stay. We all have to improvise, adapt and overcome or we will be left behind.
The internet’s rise, along with groundbreaking visual effects, video games and virtual reality simulators has given humans a way to interact as an avatar — a self that is not really themselves. They hunch over their keyboards and leave nasty comments. We blog ferociously from our own living rooms bypassing traditional publishers and taking it straight to readers. We take selfies everywhere. We are full blown narcissists who celebrate who we are every day. We are the sum total of the effects of capitalist-driven advertising. It’s no wonder the film industry continues to pick films about lost or desperate men, like Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash, and Million Dollar Baby. This is millennium panic with no end in sight.
The way the country has been permanently changed by the wars brought on by 9/11, the increasing anxiety of impending doom as the natural world collapses around us — because of us — the helplessness of watching it all go down with no immediate plan to fix it. All this is manifest and reflected in the kinds of stories voters align themselves with. Not critics. Not the Hollywood Foreign Press or the Broadcast Film Critics but the thousands of voters who vote in the large guilds and the Academy.
Last year’s winner Birdman identifies that angst directly. It did not exist anywhere except the film industry where large amounts of voters identified with what it was saying about Hollywood, art, and the business of art. It simultaneously and reluctantly acknowledged that it’s all about Twitter and viral videos while also showing disgust at how everything has changed. Boyhood could have never been that movie for Hollywood because, let’s face it, they could care less about some punk coming of age. How does that resonate at all when the vast majority of Oscar voters are older than 60?
When you have that many people deciding things, it’s easier to spot check intent and identification. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how this story is being written. The question then remains — will this year be different?
If it won’t be different, then to find Best Picture we have to go out in search of the lost men. It may be harder to figure that out right now, with so little hard data to work from. What we have so far are films way outside that paradigm. They address relevant issues that occupy the minds of people outside the Hollywood loop. They are tackling big issues, some of them, and they are stories that are bigger than the ailing heart of a failed dreamer.
2015 has already been and will continue to be an unusually strong year for female-driven films. It is probably beyond the limits of believability to think a woman-led film could win Best Picture. It hasn’t happened since 2002. Still, are there any films with a female in the lead that won’t be deflated by critics before they get to the guild stage? Are there any Black Swans, Philomenas, An Educations, Winter’s Bones? Maybe. Are there any Chicagos? Doubtful.
Still, it’s hard not to be lulled in to the story of a women-driven film triumphing at last, on the eve of maybe the first female President of the United States. Carey Mulligan stars in two films about women. The first is Far from the Madding Crowd wherein she must choose between three suitors. She also stars in Suffragette, a full blown woman joint — written, produced, directed by and starring almost all women. It is about women putting it on the line and fighting for the right to vote. Good intentions alone will not push this thing through the gauntlet, which is comprised almost entirely of men — from the critics to the bloggers to the industry voters. Suffragette might barely squeak through but it is far from certain as a winning film.
Carol, Todd Haynes’ magnificent, beautiful love story is really about gay rights. More to the point, it’s about gay couples being free to live openly without having to hide who they are. This will eventually lead to the federal law that allows gay marriage, something we’ve all just lived through, and something the Republicans continue to fight against each day. That war has already been won but the battle rages on. Can Todd Haynes finally get the recognition from the Academy he deserves? Maybe. But you still have to imagine a good amount of voters putting Carol on their top five. If you can do that, it’s in.
Brooklyn is a film about a young Irish woman who must choose between two different men and two different countries. The film is anchored by the performance of Saoirse Ronan. Since so many already love the movie, men and women alike, this seems like a sure bet to become one of the favorites by year’s end, at least so far. But can it win?
Ex Machina is one of the best films of the year and is about women in so much as it speaks — shouts — metaphorically to the way women are trapped and molded to fit a certain list of desirable traits. It is absolutely a take on what Hollywood has become. How exciting is it, then, when the robot escapes. That power is out now. Still, can Ex Machina win? Not likely.
The three films staring women that have the best shot to win would be George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, Lenny Abramson’s Room and most likely, sight unseen, David O. Russell’s Joy.
Each of these films has a winning path laid out. Mad Max because it is just all kinds of cool and would help the Academy evolve, not that they would take that opportunity. Room because it is a satisfying story well told, one that can appeal to lots of people across the board. And finally, David O. Russell’s Joy because first, he’s kind of overdue for a big win at this point, and second, if any woman is at the top of the game for women and men right now it’s Jennifer Lawrence. The two together could prove that they’ve not only got the race sewn up but will also help break the streak of films about lost men winning Best Picture.
The narrative doesn’t seem to be working in favor of a female-driven film, at least not yet, unless you count Joy. The narrative taking hold right now is that it’s Spotlight’s to lose until a Rocky-like film appears to topple it. That film will either be a big film that is too accomplished to ignore — like The Revenant, perhaps. Or it will be a more generally and broadly likable film that voters feel compelled to choose because it is too likable to ignore.
Spotlight is, right now, heads and shoulders above the competition both in terms of perception and because it is really that good. It is as carefully made and exacting as the story at the heart of the film. Hurting it is that it has been praised to front-runner status which puts a bulls eye on its back and makes it vulnerable for a Rocky-like phenom to overtake it. We won’t know how it’s going to go until the Producers Guild announces its winner at year’s end. That gives a lot of time — too much time — to sift through the potential winners we’ve seen and those still coming up.
However voters decide to define themselves for 2015-2016, one thing is clear: it is going to be a while before we find solid ground. Perhaps this is why Hollywood and the Oscars are so stubbornly married to the notion of one white straight male protagonist as the default for getting broad ideas across and expressing the human condition. Perhaps it is the loss of solid ground that makes this industry so intent upon preserving it in the realm of fantasy. If we aren’t gazing back at how great we once were, heroes who overcame obstacles to light our way, we are comforting the failures, whose own glory days have long since fled.
If you’re asking me point blank if I think the films about women will get in I would have to answer no. No because by the time the voting rolls around the critics will have finished off most of the films starring women — either by giving them middling reviews (“It was underwhelming”) or by simply hyping films that don’t star women. I am thinking that probably when all is said and done there will be at the most two or three films with women in them and the rest will be filled with the usual. I say this because it makes common sense. The voters are overwhelmingly male. They almost always choose — except for once in a while — films that resonate with them, about their stories. Since women are perfectly happy watching movies about men they help drive that narrative.
We have so many films left to see — how they land will determine how this Oscar year is defined. We are in an area of I don’t knows. One has to be comfortable with that and accept that it’s a wide open race where anything can happen.
Either way you slice it, whether they end up in the game of Oscar or not, it is heartening to see this many films at all with women in the lead. Maybe it means things are starting to shift. Maybe it means the storytellers are coming from everywhere now, that those stories are only getting bigger. They call out to us from the future, and they’re only getting louder.