My daughter and I have a frame of reference for a certain type of movie — it’s the “one special boy” movie, since almost every movie is about that. One special boy comes of age. One special boy is rescued by his hidden magic or hidden genius or hidden talent. One special boy is recognized, is a hero for a day, saves the world, saves the day. One special boy gets the prettiest girl in town. One special boy must fight his way out of a predicament. That special boy becomes a man and then it’s “one special man.” Men are spoonfed this delusion by Hollywood, or at least they used to be until Disney and other animated studios like Studio Ghibli turned it, ever so slightly, around. Disney, this year, has Rogue One, Moana, Zootopia and Finding Dory — all hitting the top of the box office charts, and all not about “one special boy” but the exact opposite: “one special girl.” Imagine that.
For one shimmering year, as the projects that rose to the surface on what would have been the eve of our country’s first woman elected president, on the heels of our first black president there is evidence of an America that once was and might have still been. We have films like Hidden Figures, Arrival, Jackie, Loving, Nocturnal Animals, La La Land, Florence Foster Jenkins, Fences, Miss Sloane, Love & Friendship, Christine, and 20th Century Women. That is not nothing. Probably only three of these are guaranteed a spot in the Best Picture race, maybe four. But it still shows that someone, somewhere cared about women enough to make these movies, to buy tickets to these movies, to prove that women can drive box office too.
In Moonlight and in Manchester by the Sea the female characters also provide leadership and guidance when the men can’t. In Moonlight, there is room for the both the broken woman (Naomie Harris) and the leader (Janelle Monae). And in Manchester by the Sea, the film is flooded with complex female characters — mothers, girlfriends — but none so pivotal as Michelle Williams who plays Casey Affleck’s wife. Even though he is broken and can’t be mended, she isn’t. If anyone should be unable to get over the deaths of children it’s their mother, trust me on that one. She doesn’t get over it, but she goes on with life. He can’t. Part of that is because he feels responsible for a horrible accident. How can he live with himself? In fact, he barely can. He mostly can’t.
I love the strength and roles of motherhood defined in Lion. We really only get to know the adoptive mother portrayed by Nicole Kidman, but we do see and understand the sacrifices of Saroo’s biological mother. Her importance, and his Australian mother, help to shape Saroo — and really, keep him from falling apart.
La La Land is really about a guy who’s stuck and a woman who isn’t. It’s about one special boy who meets one special girl and then stupidly loses her and lives to regret it for the rest of his life. In Loving, Ruth Negga’s Mildred Loving is the reason laws were changed to no longer forbid interracial marriage on a federal level. 20th Century Women is a “one special boy” movie but there isn’t anything he does that rescues any of the characters. Rather, he learns from them.
It isn’t that the men are irrelevant or weak or unnecessary. It’s that there seems to be more attention paid to their female counterparts this year. Perhaps La La Land, Arrival, maybe Hidden Figures are the only films headed for the Best Picture race that will have Best Actress nominees. The rest of them either might not make the cut, or really only have supporting female characters, or maybe they won’t get nominated at all. Some of the strongest female performances of the year might not see their films nominated, like Natalie Portman in Jackie, Isabelle Huppert in Elle, Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane, Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures (although I do think that will be nominated).
The Oscar race no longer drives cultural norms. Big studio movies do, which is why the strides Disney is making ought to get some kind of a special prize for potentially shaping the minds of little girls and little boys for generations to come. But for what it is, this Oscar choices remain representative of our culture nonetheless, even if the selections dramatically departs from box office returns more than ever before.
The miracle this year is Arrival, from Paramount, headed for $100 million, wherein a smart woman saves the world. It isn’t a surprise that many a dudebro scratches his head that a movie would be about a woman who makes her own choices and can do the job better than any of her male counterparts. After all, they’ve been conditioned to see films where the man in charge makes all of the important decisions and the women are there to help him get to the place he deserves to be. Just as powerful and surprising is Hidden Figures, where three African American women are also called upon to do the job better than their male counterparts seem able. Here it’s just as wonky as Arrival is with linguistics: math, engineering, space travel. This is a side of America most of us never knew — and never knew enough to find out about. What we see when we look back at that era is segregation. We do know that there were women and young women who had to attend school in the South accompanied by armed guards because the white people in control were so afraid of losing their power, their right to ownership, their place in the hierarchy. Hidden Figures is about that struggle — beautifully, openly, deliberately.
We all know how this goes by now. By the time we get to the Oscar race, we’re probably not going to see a lot of female-driven movies nominated because that’s just how it goes. Most of the time, voters can’t help but pick what they like, what strikes a chord and since this voting body is 70% white and male, they tend to go for movies about white males. There are a lot of good ones this year, like Sully and Hacksaw Ridge and Silence. It would be great to see them have a variety of choices this year instead of the one thing.
We can chew and debate the specifics, as political correctness went a bit overboard in 2016, giving most people no option but to either tune it out or turn violently against it (Steve Martin’s tweet about Carrie Fisher is a great example). But there is no denying — and the election proved it beyond any doubt — sexism, hatred of women, whatever you want to call it is alive and well and currently eroding the foundations of America. Why wouldn’t (white) men think themselves anything but the center of the universe when Hollywood, the gaming industry, and the advertising world tells them they are from birth? Why wouldn’t they feel entitled to all of that power? Why wouldn’t they think they and they alone could have beaten Donald Trump — all of them stepping forward and claiming they could because of course a woman would blow it but no man would. So many formerly respectable Hollywood cool-bros also revealed themselves to care more about their ideological angst than the future of the country, indeed the future of the world. After millions of women and specifically women of color voted for Hillary to the tune of a three million plus advantage in the popular vote, there was lament on how we dropped the ball on white working class males – that 100,000 or so of angry white dudes who flipped their votes from Obama in 2012 to Trump in three battleground states. That’ll show her, eh fellas? That’ll show ’em all.
So we enter an Oscar nominations period where voters will have watched movies and formed opinions and are given Oscar ballots that ask them to mark down their favorites. Will they vote with their hearts? Will they try to vote more politically? No one knows. An entire year comes down to what happens in the next two weeks. Oscar ballots are sent out on the 5th of January, just a few days hence, and must be returned by January 13th. After that, the envelopes are sealed, and one of the most painful years on record will have its history somehow preserved and echoed when the Oscar nominations are announced at last on the 19th.