For most of the time I’ve been covering the Oscars (going on 20 years now) and throughout their 90 year history, getting an Oscar nomination meant something. It meant status. Somehow voters in the guilds felt this. There would be a kind of halo effect that meant certain films or performances would have more of an advantage to win because they had an Oscar nomination.
In a few instances this year, that hasn’t been the case — most notably and surprisingly at last night’s WGA awards, when neither of the two winners were Best Picture nominees and Bo Burnham, who won for Eighth Grade, wasn’t an Oscar nominee for original screenplay. I would just like to say, for the record, that the Academy’s writing branch completely blew it on that score. Eighth Grade is by far one of the best films of the year. It’s at the top of my list, for sure, and one I will be recommending to people forever. But still, from a stats perspective, they way these cards were dealt is more than a little weird.
Here are the disconnects:
Emily Blunt wins supporting actress at SAG for A Quiet Place without having an Oscar nom. Only one other time in all of SAG history has a contender won without an Oscar nom — Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation.
Leave No Trace wins at the Scripter without having an Oscar nom for adapted screenplay. It’s never happened in the era of the expanded Best Picture ballot that the Scripter winner didn’t have an Oscar nomination, and it’s something that has only happened three times in their entire history, with The Hurricane (1999), with A Civil Action (1998), and with 84 Charing Cross Road (1987).
Bo Burnham wins at the DGA (first-time director) without having an Oscar nom for directing. It’s a young category, so no real precedent set yet. But bear in mind Burnham was going head to head with the (un-nominated) director of a Best Picture nominee. All of the three winners prior to this year had Oscar noms somewhere. Alex Garland was the first for Ex Machina, a film that had Oscar noms. Ditto with Garth Davis for Lion and Jordan Peele for Get Out. Eighth Grade was shut out completely.
Bo Burnham wins at the WGA without having an Oscar nom for screenplay and, along with Can You Ever Forgive Me, wins without a Best Picture nomination. Never, in all of WGA history, have both or all of their winners did not also have corresponding Best Picture nominations. In the modern era of the expanded ballot, it is even more strange to not even have one of them be a Best Picture nominee. The WGA had a choice to award at least one of the Best Picture nominees — Green Book, A Star Is Born, Roma, BlacKkKlansman, and Black Panther — and they didn’t. Why? Probably partly because they wanted to push the only female co-writer in the category (see below), or perhaps Black Panther was popular enough in its own way as a statement about race-related bravery that it cut into BlacKkKlansman’s potential lead (this will not be a problem at the Oscars, given that Black Panther isn’t up for adapted screenplay).
It’s weird enough that all of the guilds have given their top prize to a DIFFERENT movie:
PGA — Green Book
SAG — Black Panther
DGA — Roma
WGA — Eighth Grade, Can You Ever Forgive Me
ACE — Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite
ASC — Cold War
There are some reasons I can think of that account for this, and it has to do with what we explored earlier in the season — this idea of shifting and competing narratives that are influencing the race. And those are:
— A push to recognize more women with the respect they deserve — is it any surprise that the Scripter and the WGA went to women writers who didn’t have Oscar nominations? It’s a surprise unless you look at it like they’re trying to send a message or make a point. Part of the point is to correct the Academy’s stubborn blindspot.
— A push to honor worthy films by and about people of color.
— Streaming platforms are breaking through – the question asked is, are they legit? Can the industry honor them? The answer seems to be, at least so far, yes.
Superhero movies — can they legitimately get a seat at the table and be named Best Picture of the year? Well, if their name is Black Panther it looks like they can.
The idea here is that what people vote for makes them look good. No longer, under the Trump era, is looking good defined as “good people doing good things, so we vote for them.” Now it’s more about “how do my choices define me as a narrow-minded white male cog in the patriarchy vs. how do my choices define me as a woke white male busting up the patriarchy?” This is true in the hunt for the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2020, where Joe Biden has a clear lead, but the majority of high status white male tweeters are championing anyone BUT Biden. And it’s true in the Oscar race.
While one might think — so what’s the problem? Why is it a problem that suddenly the majority of white males who control Hollywood are woke enough to shift their choices to allow other people — women, people of color, women of color — to sit at the table?
It isn’t a problem except in how vicious it has all become. It is no longer just championing good films that deserve to be awarded. Going hand in hand with that is the daily ritual of calling someone out, dragging them on Twitter, joining an angry mob out for blood. On the one hand, are we good people doing what’s right? Or are we an angry mob that must destroy anything we see as a threat?
We’re a little of both. What we seem to be doing is destroying ourselves out of fear and panic. Everyone is potentially guilty, unless they’re standing on the side of those doing the accusing. No one on the Right cares about being called out, but people on the Left want to be thought of as good and honorable, fighting the good fight, being pure, inside and out. Thus, we are vulnerable to those accusations, even though we’re all on the same side.
Sidebar: when Donald Trump became President, he was part of a deliberate movement driven by the likes of Steve Bannon and the Tea Party billionaires like the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer to, in fact, destroy the Left’s control of the media, education, and the arts. They had to blow it up from the inside, especially after they saw Obama re-elected in 2012 and all of the fast-moving changes he represented: gay marriage, Obamacare, trans rights, etc. We are at war, in a sense, and our side is not handling it well. We don’t really need them to destroy us. They can’t really destroy us. All they can do is help us use our outrage machine, our impossibly high purity standards, against us. It worked in 2016 and it is still working. This dynamic has reached every corner of liberal life as we watch liberalism itself fight for survival. End of sidebar.
That mass hysteria is shifting how people think about movies, movie awards, how they’re covered, and how they’re talked about, so much so that the artists themselves are constantly under high pressure and scrutiny, especially the ones who win. If you don’t win anything, people mostly leave you alone. But the second you win? Out come the hashtags and think pieces. The liberal left wants to be defined by their choices, their film awards, so that a movie like Roma is Teflon. That film represents exactly how they (still mostly white, mostly male) want to be seen. It is as if they’re saying “See how good and compassionate we are. We aren’t going to allow our country to turn into a fascist state because we are the good guys fighting the good fight. That is what Roma’s win would say about us.” A Black Panther win would also say the same thing. A Black Panther win is almost an offer voters can’t refuse. Sure, it doesn’t have acting, writing, or directing but what it does have supersedes all of that. It has a badge of honor for the liberal left (still mostly white, mostly male) that says “We are not Donald Trump. We are NOT what he stands for. We are WAKANDA FOREVER!”
These narratives at play have upended the Best Picture race completely. It is the most chaotic, unpredictable year I’ve ever seen, even knowing that these various agendas were influencing how people thought of the awards.
The Oscars themselves seem to be a car that’s lost a wheel heading into the final lap. It still moves but just barely.
When you think about how the Woketopians seek to define themselves this year, it’s all over the map. It does seem to be down to “anything but movies by and about white men.” That leaves it down to, perhaps, Black Panther or Roma. We wrote about this a while back too, here and here.
Where the Oscars find themselves at a significant crossroads in what defines cinema and the Oscars. They have, up to now, rejected superhero movies, especially those that are part of what the industry perceives as “ruining” Hollywood. These massively bloated unending movies that take perfectly respectable actors and make them wear stupid outfits and say stupid things as they live out the unending fantasies of 12-year-old boys. Black Panther appears to be the one shimmering exception to the rule — a standout, by all accounts, that does what none of these films seem able to do: tell a good story (my daughter tells me Thor: Ragnarok is the best of the bunch but I’ve yet to see it).
Voters can go with the Marvel franchise — legitimize it and Disney — so that everyone is happy. Money money money, right? Or they can not do that. They can vote for the polar opposite of Black Panther and Marvel/Disney: Roma and Netflix. This is, for Oscar voters in any ordinary year, being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Whatever wins will define the future. Netflix offers filmmakers a chance to make films. Actual films. But are they ready for it? If a Netflix movie wins Best Picture, how does that change the Oscar rules for what qualifies? Will the voters revolt against that dramatic of a shift?
Black Panther has to make history to win. Roma has to make history to win. The only movie that doesn’t have so much history to make to win would be Green Book. BlacKkKlansman would have to win without a single major win heading into the race.
Last year seemed confusing enough, from a stats perspective, but we’ve never seen anything like what we’re seeing this year. There is much to be decided. There is much to be saved. There is much to be redefined. And all of this without an Oscars host to make jokes about it to lighten the mood.
One more week.