As three members of the Hollywood Foreign Press took to the stage in their virtual ceremony to officially apologize for having no Black members on their roster in all of their history, some people applauded the action because it looked like progress – great wrongs addressed and righted. Some shifted uncomfortably on their couch at home, believing they were watching an institution forced to pander to a hive mind that demands compliance and virtue signaling. Still others laughed at the absurdity of it, putting this much pressure on the Golden Globes, of all things, to suddenly be as respectable as the Pulitzer and Nobel Peace prizes. Hey, great for the Globes, right? What’s next, the Razzies?
Then came the BAFTA nominations, with its new ballot process meant to correct the “racist” voters whose presumed previous bias has led to mostly white nominees throughout their history, but especially lately, when the focus has been the most intense. Juries comprised of an as-yet unannounced names, only some of them BAFTA members, winnowed down the long list to determine the nominees, the idea being that their perspective would be helpful to a group of people whose tastes themselves are examples of ignorance and the white male patriarchy. They ended up delivering a very inclusive list of actors and directors such that the headlines could not help but praise their choices. Oscar Twitter followed suit, as their status would likely be measured by their reaction to it. Some used the opportunity to talk about how refreshing it was to see unexpected nominees, in response to how stuck and repetitive the awards race has become. Others believe the consensus that forms is bad, and not wrong because it is far too narrow by the end of it. No one really had the desire to complain or criticize, at least not anyone who had a job to lose.
The Oscars are the next major awards body that will be carefully monitored to see how well they all pass the test demanded of them this year by a generation that seems to have decided “good” means “correct.” “Bad” often meaning not inclusive, offensive, insulting, or just plain white. Too white. All white. If the Oscars pass, all will be right and fine with Twitter. Even though the loudest of the influencers are mostly privileged, mostly white, highly educated kids, they will feel the sense of fairness they fight for everyday online, and no icon or institution is too powerful. This is not unlike any new generation that came before them; there has always been the desire to tear down what the past generations built. The difference is that now there are mega corporations, politicians, and a massive media machine that jumps when they say how high. They are the future, economically speaking. Even Coke and Oreo cookie have to be on board.
If the Oscars fail the test, that will be the only story heading into the awards, as it was with the Globes. Yes, even this year where there is barely an Oscar race, barely enough movies to choose from, all laid out in front of a freaked out, exhausted, traumatized nation – The Oscars’ future will depend on how these nominations go. Will they be “allowed” to continue to choose their nominees or will that privilege be revoked after too many bad choices.
There is no market measurement to help decide worth this year. Usually, where Hollywood is concerned, money CAN talk. If a movie makes enough money, like say The Trial of the Chicago 7 or News of the World it enters the awards race as a formidable contender, as Black Panther once did. But take out the market’s deciding power and clout and you’re left with — twitter and the media establishment that feeds off of it. That means The Trial of the Chicago 7, for example, will be heading into the Oscars race as the most popular film in the race that probably isn’t going to win.
Best is, of course, a subjective thing, and popularity doesn’t mean most money made. The Hurt Locker still beat Avatar. 12 Years a Slave still beat Gravity. Moonlight still beat La La Land. That $100 million box office take may be a thing of the past where Best Picture is concerned, mainly due to the preferential ballot.
There are three films directed by women in the race this year, two by women of color, at least that is how it seems right now. This will be history making, but I imagine if any of them miss in the Best Director category, or two out of the three, there will be hell to pay.
At some point, however, the Oscars, if they’re to survive at all, are going to have to STILL be the awards body that can be counted on to vote for the BEST –even if that means their tastes don’t 100% align with the rules of “equity.” Because we are measuring something essential here. We are measuring our personal tastes, what we love, what we respond to, what moves us.
Only time decides actual worth. Judging films by how “right” they are, how “correct” they are rather than how “good” they are is a risky proposition for a group that ostensibly tries to award “best.” Even if films contain elements that are disagreeable, don’t they have enough value that their flaws can be forgiven? Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one example. Would anyone agree to banning that movie or deciding it isn’t good because of Mickey Rooney’s unfortunate Asian stereotype? Does anyone believe that Gone with the Wind is a worthless piece of garbage because it truly does glorify slavery? Does anyone think Scent of a Woman isn’t great because the main character constantly sexually harasses women?
My daughter has been raised in the religion of “woke” and thus, watching movies with her often requires explanation – sometimes it’s extremely awkward to explain why a movie is great if it has something like Paul Newman smacking Charlotte Rampling in the face. But the Verdict IS GOOD. It’s really good. What happens when new generations watch, say, A Streetcar Named Desire? Where in the past a movie might warrant a feminist studies thesis essay now it could be removed from the film library of a major streaming platform if it is deemed offensive enough. So I have to point out to my daughter when I know something “problematic” is about to arrive in a movie and I prepare her for it and explain it to her.
Here is an example: I was showing her one of my favorite films of all time – Breaking Away. I find it such a wonderful watch. You fall for all of the characters and it contains a great message about achievement in a town that discourages it. There is a homophobic scene in the movie – quite clearly. A gay character shows up wearing a pink shirt and says in a very silly voice after bumping into one of the male characters, “Hi there, do you want to roll some balls?” There is no doubt this is a clear cut example of homophobia in a film that was a Best Picture nominee in a time in our country where homophobia was the norm. Does that render the entire film worthless? Or does it just mean that understanding the context of a bygone era is required?
An explanation is required even if a “problematic” actor shows up, of which there are many. Like Kevin Spacey who gives two of the greatest performances I have ever seen in Se7en and in Glengarry Glen Ross. The former is pretty much unassailable otherwise. The latter is a movie no Gen-Z should watch unless they’re unprepared to hear nonstop things that are offensive. Is it a great movie? YES. It is. It is a great movie.
As we know, the past is full of injustice everywhere, in everything in this country, and in most countries, going back as long as there have been humans and cities. But we also have great movies that have survived through the generations, like It’s a Wonderful Life and Body Heat and Cooley High. We have all of Kurosawa’s films and Bertolucci and Almodóvar. We have Truffaut. We have Lina Wertmuller. We have dazzling artists throughout history who THREW DOWN. And did not worry back then as much about offending people. We have KUBRICK. We have BERGMAN. We have their work – and that work has stood the test of time because it is GREAT. It is just something you know when you see it, or you watch it over and over and you realize why it’s great. But that thing about movies – that thing about greatness – that can never be, and must never be, taken away.
At their best, this is what the Oscars do. They reward BEST. How do we know this year what those movies really are? We don’t. We will have to wait to see if which vaunted ones are forgotten and which neglected ones are rescued by time. But we do know how people respond to them. I don’t personally believe in punishing people for their tastes, or in scolding the BAFTA voters for responding incorrectly. There is no correct response to art. Policing it, micromanaging it, shaming or condemning “wrong think” when it comes to telling the world what you love is wrong.
Great movies translate. They make their way through culture that evolves and survive if they are good enough. The opposite has yet to be proven true: that films that are “correct” enough are not only actually good in the years they win awards but will remain good throughout history.
I would imagine many voters in the Oscar race right now are ruminating on this very question – the question of worth, of what we talk about when we talk about “best.” They will think about it when they hear the nominations tomorrow. They will think about it when they fill out those ballots. The press, though, won’t be chasing this dilemma. They will have one agenda and one agenda only: to appeal to Twitter by focusing only on whether or not the voters met the requirements for inclusion and diversity – whether to punish or celebrate.
Either way, after tomorrow we’ll be looking for the winners and no longer the nominees. Some doors will close and others will open. In all of it, we should never forget what the whole point of any of this is supposed to be: to find the best no matter who made the movie. It is my hope that, in addition to being excited about the sure-to-be inclusive nominees tomorrow, that those who cover the awards remember the other part of it, the greatness part of it, and why that, more anything, justifies the existence of the awards at all.