When I first started Oscarwatch.com back in 1999 Bill Clinton was on the way out. The Oscars still cared about middle America, both in terms of the movies they chose and the telecast itself. “Getting political” at the Oscars was frowned upon. No one really liked it then, debatable if they like it now, when Hollywood “gets political,” not at the Oscars, not on Instagram, not in the movies they make or the candidates they endorse. But one thing is for sure: Hollywood and the Oscars are overtly political now and they do not shy away from it. So much so that the Oscars telecast is often political in every way, which has likely led to, at least partly, a rating drop. This, in addition to an industry that has become more exclusive and more insulated over time.
It was clear that the Clintons were very much “in” with Hollywood back in 1999. After 12 years of the Reagan era, two terms under Reagan and four more years of HW Bush, the left was ready to rise up once again. Things would change right around 2000, both because of the rise of the internet and because of the election which handed W. Bush the presidency on just 500 or so votes.
But before we get to that, let’s talk about where America was culturally. I see the waves of history a little bit differently than those laid out by Strauss and Howe in their fantastic book The Fourth Turning, or Williams and Drew’s Pendulum – both of these books look at 80 year swings in western culture that go from awakenings through to collapse. According to the Fourth Turning, we either just lived through one or about to live through something much, much worse:
The Fourth Turning, despite Steve Bannon’s interest in it, is not a right wing screed but quite non-partisan and written in 1997, a few years before I started my site. To these folks, we are living through a crisis that last swept through the world in and around 1943. You had the lead-up, a global pandemic and WWI. You have the Great Depression in the 1930s. You had the rise of fascism, socialism and communism and eventually Hitler and WWII. But you also had Japanese internment camps here and eventually the Red Scare before things wound down again. Now, they believe, they are whipping back up again and predicted much of what would happen in 2020 from way back in 1997.
But here is how I see it from that point on, though I figure I could probably make this case going back further if I knew history a little bit better. I see it like:
Trump’s America (or whatever is coming next).
I think the last big overhaul of culture and politics was in the wake of JFK whose adoration took on such a magnitude that it influenced everything that followed – film, politics, science, education, fashion, etc. He was shot, which only intensified the adoration. This would dominate American culture until Ronald Reagan in 1980. In general terms, the country shifted dramatically from the optimism of JFK’s America towards something that felt more regressive, and thrust the country into conflict that would eventually result in the silent majority rising up to put America back on what they thought was a more secure and comfortable track. Culture was moving too fast, much like it is now, and that often leads to people to reach for what they know rather than continue on the road to discovery of what they don’t know. Either way, the country was more than ready for Reagan in 1980.
Reagan really did influence so much, both in terms of yanking America in a much more conservative direction, a kind of Top Gun attitude of “greed is good” and yuppies and making money, buying homes, etc. I think the Clintons were born of this era. They were Democrats but they were corporate Democrats. They didn’t inspire a cultural revolution the way Obama would in 2008. But before we got there we had to get through the year 2000-2007.
The first year I covered the race it was Gladiator vs. Traffic vs. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Gladiator seems to me a perfect film for this era. It was also one of the last of the blockbuster crowdpleasers to win Best Picture. This would have been a year when everyone was exciting about watching the Oscars and everyone, for the most part, knew the movies in the race. You had big stars like Julia Roberts, Russell Crowe and Benicio Del Toro. By the end of this era, Best Picture winners would take a darker turn (my personal favorite era for Best Picture winners): with Crash/Brokeback in 2005, The Departed in 2006 and No Country for Old Men in 2007. You could probably include Million Dollar Baby in 2004, perhaps even Return of the King in 2003.
The Oscars pushed their date back around 2003, which shifted everything back and put the Oscars forever in the hands of film critics, bloggers and industry voters – eventually making movies into hot house flowers to be carefully cultivated and grown specifically for the Oscar race while Hollywood headed in the direction of massive blockbusters to make money by appealing more to international audiences, but specifically China and South Korea, the two biggest markets outside the US.
By the time Obama won the election, the country was in a better mood, as you can see by Slumdog Millionaire winning in 2008. Obama’s cultural revolution was like Reagan’s and JFK. It changed everything. It changed how we see movies, how we see Hollywood, how we award films, how we listen to music, read books, talk to each other online. Right about this time social media was beginning to build its alternate reality and two generations would come of age as internet/social media/smart phone natives. Obama was the first President to use Twitter in a way that helped him win. Trump would be the second. Obama represents, to my mind, the half of the internet that sees itself as a force of good, while Trump represents the side that pushes back against everything that side represents.
The short way of saying it, per my own philosophy, is that Obama is the “virtue signal” and Trump is the “Breitbart troll.” Those who became “social justice warriors” on the left on sites like Tumblr, did battle online with those who went and evolved inside 4chan and Reddit. Thus the two movements would come to define the era we’re living through now and are easily identified anywhere you go by how people identify themselves. We wear virtual buttons or we follow certain people or we tweet out a singular ideology that shows our followers who we are and what we believe.
In the Obama era, films were most definitely inspired and influenced by his history making presence as the first Black President. That meant we’d see the first woman win Best Director and Picture with The Hurt Lockr in 2009. The first film by a black director to win in 2013 with 12 Years a Slave. The Oscarssowhite hashtag would be born around 2013 and with that the rise of call-outs on Twitter, “cancel culture” and eventually Donald Trump would rise up representing the other half to oppose all of it in 2016. The Obama era is easily measured and tracked in the best Picture race. It was still going on when Trump took power, because the reaction to Trump was very much along ideological lines that saw Trump as the racist reacting to Obama, the first Black President. That is surely one way to look at it and the way most on the left do look at it. This is why there was such a strong reaction to Green Book Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and, frankly, any films that were directed by and starring white men.
This battle between Obama’s America and Trump’s is still raging, by the way, with no end in sight.
Just for fun I used the graphic for the Fourth Turning and added the Best Picture contenders to it to see if I could see any patterns in how the history has gone and what won Best Picture.
We’re in the Winter Crisis right now, perhaps headed for some kind of World War III, or maybe Civil War. I can see tensions rising in other parts of the world over various things. We are either headed for an FDR kind of government, wherein there is a massive shift towards even bigger government in the post-pandemic world, or we’re headed for a different kind of rescue package, a Ronald Reagan type of President to push back on the extremes in culture rising on the left; if we were only talking about economics or policy that would be one thing, but as you can see from a glance at Twitter that we’re talking about a lot more than that. Wars over identity, gender, inclusion, how we define our history, whom we deplatform, big tech censorship. There is a lot going on in this country.
I personally believe that unless the Democrats – meaning Biden — push back on what is happening culturally, we will be setting ourselves up for Nixon to Carter to Reagan type of scenario, with Biden as Carter, not FDR. If he and Harris move closer to the center then perhaps the will reign much longer. But we’re still a long way from that.
The films in the Obama era, as you can plainly see, very much center around a compassionate hero – even one whose song is not sung. The Artist, Birdman and Argo are all exemplary of that. But you can also see that they center around a singular male protagonist all through that era too, which was one of the things that eventually forced the Academy to change course with its inclusion mandate.
Given how Hollywood has reacted to the Trump presidency – in that it turned guys like Rob Reiner into extremely angry warriors on Twitter – I expect that the films might start to reflect that anger and rage and that it will take time to work them out of our system before we get back to films that are feelgood or forgiving. I don’t think America is ready to let go of Trump just yet, either in terms of the white hot hatred on the left, or in terms of needing a strong leader to combat the left on the right. We appear to be headed for some kind of war.
The last time we went through a Winter crisis was when the Oscars first began. That’s how long it’s been since then. Weirdly enough, we even had the expanded ballot all through that first period. Maybe it means something that Gone with the Wind was such a huge success at that time, or Hitchcock’s Rebecca, films with complicated females leading them as opposed to male heroes – but they were also movies about a dying world, the effort to hold on to it and the forces of the future pushing against it. After the crisis – the next phase came the Utopian vision of American life, the 1950s. That time period mirrors much of what has come before now, the one that JFK was born out of but that he also disrupted. Nixon’s rise as Eisenhower VP seems to be an effort to yank America back to what it once was, before JFK, before the 1960s.
Once we come out of this crisis — Strauss and Howe target that date around 2030 — we will likely live through a more united, peaceful time wherein we will once again start to build a Utopia, which will then be disrupted, break apart and a new Winter Crisis will be upon us in the year roughly 2100. Isn’t that all kind of nuts? It is to me.
None of us will be around by then. As of 2021, we know we are in the thick of it for a while and we’re going to be living through very difficult times in the coming years. I am not sure the Biden years will be extremely influential in terms of Best Picture, but I suspect that Kamala Harris’ rise could have some impact in how the awards are decided.
Mostly, though, the Academy, the industry and those who cover it should start to figure out where they want to head in the longer run, both in terms of streaming platforms, studios, theaters — and in terms of whether or not they really want to keep committing only to the insular progressive left.
I think America is trying to hold onto the Camelot of the Obama years. I do not know whether this is possible or not. After all, you can’t return to Camelot.