Is it the merging of SAG and AFTRA that has led this group to look more and more like rebels? Is it that their membership is by far the largest voting body in the awards race? 150,000 compared to 15,000 for DGA, 6,000 for PGA and Oscar. Whatever the reasons (and there may be several) for the past two years in a row, this populous and populist group has been generating incredibly interesting, outside-the-box nominees (no La La Land in ensemble?) and winners (2 awards for Idris Elba last year). Tonight those triumphs included African American roles in every category except Best Actress. Most people who cover the Oscar race will tell you that what we witnessed tonight won’t matter because La La Land is on track to break all kinds of records come Oscar Night. And that’s one way to look at it if all you want to be is “right” about the final finish line. You could say that, feel nice and cozy, turn out the lights, lock the door and go to bed. Or you could rejoice in the recent strides we see Hollywood making, trip the light fantastic, and imagine a world where a movie like Hidden Figures could indeed win Best Picture.
We’re not so easily satisfied around here. I’m still covering the Oscar race right up until the bitter end so there is no point telling me to clock out early. If you’re betting money, of course, the safe course is to go with La La Land all the way down the line. But if you want to dwell in a world of other possibilities… well, let’s take a look, shall we?
If Hidden Figures were to win Best Picture it would normally have to have a Best Director nomination at a minimum. It doesn’t. The last movie to win Best Picture without either a DGA or an Oscar nod for director was Driving Miss Daisy. But that film just kept winning, even though its director, Bruce Beresford, was never nominated stateside. (He did get a BAFTA nod, but oddly enough that was full year after it’s Best Picture win). What Driving Miss Daisy was, though? A massive box-office juggernaut, that’s what, and quite an enjoyable film at the time. In the years since, it’s been criticized for its “magical negro” element — but such terminology didn’t even exist until Spike Lee coined it a decade later. Driving Miss Daisy was a huge box office success, hitting high on the box office charts in 1989 with a worldwide total of $145 million — adjusted for inflation that sum would be $308 million today. Not too shabby for a independent production with a budget of $7.5M.
Hidden Figures and La La Land are now running neck-and-neck at the box office, each tipping past the magic $100 million mark this weekend. Both are arguably box office phenomenons. Both had relatively modest budgets. La La Land has the higher critics scores and the overall respect of the mostly male industry. It has a passionate fanbase and is virtually universally beloved. So it’s hard to argue that it won’t win on Feb 26th. Even if La La Land had been nominated for Outstanding Ensemble tonight, Hidden Figures very likely might have beaten it anyway; Hidden Figures is built to be an ensemble. If that had happened then La La Land might have followed the path The Artist took in 2011, losing to The Help at the SAG Award and then becoming unstoppable.
There are only two forces that could propel another film to top La La Land — and as I’ve said, this is not likely. First we might factor in the fallout from Trump’s horrendous first week in office. Second, the woeful lack of diversity and balanced inclusion in Oscar’s history. Sure, if three out of four African American actors win Oscars a month from now, perhaps that will ease the voters’ conscience enough so they award La La Land across the board in all the other categories. La La Land very likely gets another boost from DGA on February 4, and again with the BAFTAs on February 12. No other film has even a remote shot to top it on either of those nights.
Final Oscar ballots go out the day after the BAFTAs, and that is that. Many pundits like David Poland, Kris Tapley, Greg Ellwood have been saying the Oscar race was already over in September, after Telluride. And they’re probably right. But to take a cue from the film itself, here’s to the fools who dream. Foolish as it may seem.
It was quite a moment of reverie tonight to imagine, ever so briefly: what if. What if Hidden Figures did manage to earn enough votes in the capricious preferential ballot to actually win Best Picture. Wouldn’t that send a more powerful message from Hollywood to the world about who we are and what we stand for at this precarious moment in time? Or is that message more assuredly sent by La La Land: in which we will hold tight to our dreams, no matter what? In La La Land, there are no other considerations to lend much gravity. There is no segregation, no bullying, no homophobia, no poverty, no racism — no substantial obstacles at all. It’s a pretty world with pretty people whose dreams come true as long as they’re smart enough to recognize an opportunity and grab it. It’s easy to see why so many people reach for La La Land, as a comforting tale they feel sure about, in tough times when the real world is anything but. I don’t think Hollywood much likes feeling bad about itself. It likes to feel good about what it puts out there in the world and that is what La La Land is. A magic mirror. A happy miracle. A dream within a dream within a dream.
The truth is that the Oscar voters aren’t going to need their artistic creations to shame Donald Trump. This day and age, they’ll be able to do that themselves, every time they get to the mic, every time they open twitter. What is happening right now in politics still leaves most of our lives untouched (for the time being) and isn’t likely to impact how they vote, even if it seems that it would have to, particularly to those of us who can’t shake off our sense of doom. No, we can expect that with coast-to-coast protests about the Muslim ban, discrimination and hate foaming up everywhere, and an activist public determined to resist, the Oscar voters will be looking to send their message in alternative ways — using the global public stage to get their message out, one fiery acceptance speech after another.
After a year as unpredictable as last year, it seems like the Oscar race should reflect that instability — but actually, the opposite could be true. Despite some impressive shakeups, there are few places in America more attached to the status quo than upper-echelon Hollywood. They’re really quite predictable, because consistency is what they bank on. Consensus voters mostly behave the same way, year in and year out, and certainly week to week. Since La La Land won the preferential ballot at the Producers Guild, we should assume that it really can’t lose. There is no good argument to make for La La Land not winning. Whenever I try to think of one I come up blank.
But I will say that there once was an Oscar race that did represent something much bigger than the insular world it represents now. And in that world, a movie with three African-American math nerds living during an era of segregation and oppression managed to push forward and make their dreams come true. Both La La Land and Hidden Figures are about reaching for dreams. In one world, the idealized world, the only obstacle is fear itself. With all of the privilege and possibilities laid out for the taking. A world where no one frets about the electric bill or worries about seeing someone recoil from the coffee pot you’ve touched because of the color of your skin. The other world, the one we live in, is brimming with all those concerns and more.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t swept up in both films — and in Arrival and in Moonlight and in Hacksaw Ridge and in Lion and in Manchester by the Sea and Hell or High Water. These are all excellent films and fully immersive. It’s just that I’ve always come at film awards with the idea that they should mean something more to cinema history than the stories they tell. Most of the time they don’t, which is why Oscar-winning Best Pictures tend to fade and be forgotten just a year after they win.
Alright, so let’s say it again: Nobody in their right mind thinks Hidden Figures will win. But it sure was something to watch that cast take the stage tonight, was it not? Here’s to fools who dream indeed. Foolish as it may seem…
What else did we learn tonight? Best Actor has suddenly become a real cliffhanger. Casey Affleck will win the BAFTA where Denzel Washington isn’t nominated and both will head into the Oscar race with no one knowing how it might shake down. I do think at this moment in time, Denzel has the momentum for a variety of reasons, but mainly that his work in Fences is unequivocal. But he does have two Oscars already so they might want to spread the love a little. That seems like a coin toss to me at the moment.
But Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali are locked and loaded for wins. Manchester by the Sea will have to do battle with La La Land for original screenplay, and now it appears Hidden Figures is going to challenge Moonlight for Adapted Screenplay. The popularity of Hidden Figures means that it will very likely need to win something on Oscar Night. If it isn’t going to win Best Picture in an 11th hour shocker (which it might), it could take screenplay.
All in all, I feel like this season has been an embarrassment of riches. Great movies, inclusive films, brilliant performances. No matter what transpires over the next four weeks, there isn’t much to complain about.