I know right about now I’m supposed to hop aboard the outrage train that Sam Elliot criticized Jane Campion for making a movie about the American West. But it’s like the film Don’t Look Up – when you have babies dying in hospitals in Afghanistan and Ukrainians running for their lives, not to mention Americans struggling just to put food on the table and get their kids a decent education in this country, how can what someone says on a podcast matter that much?
Why it matters is that it will finally give people a reason to fight and vote for The Power of the Dog. It was a gift by Sam Elliott. He just doesn’t know it.
The Power of the Dog is one of the best films of the year, and an absolute masterpiece by one of the most talented directors the film industry. It stands on its own merits. It doesn’t need a pity vote. Campion is one of the rare female directors who is every bit as good as her male counterparts and isn’t treated like she is at a disadvantage because she was born female. She has never accepted that narrative and has never needed to. If her films win Best Picture it will absolutely be because it deserved to win and not for any other reason.
Campion is also the first woman to be nominated for Best Director twice. In a town and an industry where the only thing that seems to matter is “firsts” and pushing identity as the most important aspect that drives a winner, she has that walking away. Do you know how many male directors have two or more nominations? A lot. But women never do. Campion is the first.
It is a testament to her talent and her film that people aren’t even talking about this aspect of it. They don’t have to. The movie stands on its own. So if I was going to say anything about Sam Elliot’s comments it would simply be that: she has earned enough respect to be criticized. If they don’t respect you they don’t criticize you.
The Power of the Dog was an awards monster heading into the race. The awards coverage machine had decided that it was down to two Telluride gets, with Belfast being the other. They were so good that no film really came along to knock them from their perch. At least, that is how we all saw it going down. So why then has the conversation shifted to CODA? And does the conversation even matter?
Well, the tl;dr is that we have to wait for the Producers Guild to tell us which way the race is headed. They got their ballots in hand on January 27th and their deadline is in five days. It’s possible they will catch the CODA wave or it’s possible they won’t. The other thing I know for sure about this year, because it’s true every year, the Best Picture winner tells us about ourselves. It is about capturing a moment in time. This was true all through Academy history and it is true today.
If the credo is to disallow any films by or about white men, then that will be reflected when we look back in time at things that don’t make sense. Belfast is a film that would win hearts in any other time, except this one. What people vote for now defines who they are. Who they are matters right now more than it ever has. This was especially true during the last four years, when whatever people voted for has been scrutinized and judged like never before. Hollywood is, right now, living through a new kind of Red Scare or Black List, where just being white and male is seen by many as a liability. And if being white and male is a liability, voting for anyone white and male is a liability by association.
True of Nomadland, true of Parasite, true ever since the Green Book win sent shockwaves through the industry in a way we’ve never really seen before. As Clarence Moye has said, the Academy was changed after Green Book and so far they haven’t gone back to just picking the film they like best. They often now seem to be choosing movies based on what it says about their purpose.
The Green Book debacle has put voters in a place of constant self-judgment. Are they making the right choice? What choice will be rewarded? What choice will be condemned? The Academy has always taken incoming when it comes to their choices. They have always been condemned by critics especially. But what we’re living through now is different.
It’s a little like this:
So they are always looking for a way out of the conundrum of having to satisfy the needs of the social justice police on Twitter and picking a movie they actually just really like and think is worthy of being named Best Picture of the Year.
The Oscar coverage hive mind on Twitter has somehow now decided that CODA will win now that it has won the SAG for ensemble, along with Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur. It is an incredibly moving film with a strong message and it is definitely one that Film Twitter approves of because it is directed by a woman. It is a big deal that a film with a predominantly deaf cast is doing this well in the Oscar race. It’s great for people who have disabilities to see themselves on screen, just as it would be for any other marginalized group.
But if CODA wins, it will be the first film to win since the 1930s with just three Oscar nominations. It has no editing or ACE Eddie nomination. It has no DGA or directing nomination. And if it wins all three of its Oscar nominations, which it would probably have to win, it would be the first film since the expanded ballot to clean sweep its awards. CODA is very much like Hidden Figures, which also won the SAG ensemble and came into the race with the same three nominations, only Supporting Actress instead of Supporting Actor and didn’t win any of them.
If you’re asking me if it deserves to win Best Picture of the Year up against Belfast or The Power of the Dog or even Dune or Licorice Pizza I’m going to say that no, it doesn’t. That isn’t to say it’s a bad movie. It isn’t. It’s a good movie. But its win would tell me more about what people are afraid of than what they actually love.
So why is CODA suddenly taking the place of The Power of the Dog or Belfast? Well, because Belfast did not win the SAG ensemble award and The Power of the Dog did not win the Scripter. That has signaled to the hive mind that there is something wrong with these movies even though the Academy has not yet voted for them and won’t until March 17th, which is a long way away.
For a long time there was an ongoing narrative that the Academy might not be ready to give Best Picture to Netflix. That it would be admitting defeat in the war between theatrical and streaming. But what’s funny about that is no one ever thought the same thing about CODA and Apple. CODA is still thought as the “little movie that could” even though Apple is richer than any movie studio, even Disney. They sit atop the pile when it comes to money and power and reach.
But it is kind of ironic that CODA, which has only earned about $1 million in theaters, is seen as the “little movie that could.” The only thing that has held Apple back all of this time was the prestige factor. Well, that seal has been broken.
You think Disney is big? Look at where it sits compared to Apple. Yet Apple is so good at controlling their own image it never comes up. People don’t think of them as what they actually are.
Where Netflix stood by Dave Chappelle Apple fired Anthony Garcia Martinez after employees found a memoir he’d written was “misogynistic.” They wanted him out because of a book he once wrote. Apple complied. Netflix didn’t. Is that how you play the game of appealing to this crowd? Probably.
Leaving themselves out of it, not making it about Apple winning, has been an effective strategy. It definitely flew under the radar, so much so that awards voters barely noticed it until SAG put it on the map.
Everything is changing really fast and people are barely noticing. They are too busy chasing the latest outrage on Twitter to notice what will be written about in the decades to come if there is anything left. You have bigger studios like the WB (Dune, King Richard) and Focus Features (Belfast), United Artists (Licorice Pizza), Searchlight (Nightmare Alley), Disney (West Side Story), and an independent like Janus Films, competing alongside Netflix and the biggest and most powerful brand in the world, Apple. And theirs is the “little movie that could.”
But that’s because the two frontrunners were somehow thought of as not finishers. People are starting to notice CODA, and what it feels like to watch CODA win. That feels good to many of them. They are doing something useful with their futile selves, finding purpose in a world gone wrong. If they can do this one thing they can wake up in the morning with pride. They don’t have to wake up feeling like they did something wrong because Twitter and Vanity Fair and the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are scolding them.
But is that any way to pick Best Picture of the Year? No, it isn’t. When people look back at a win like that they wonder how that movie with three nominations beat, say, The Power of the Dog with 12? It will seem like the strangest thing ever unless you know this year, you know the voters, and you know the tastemakers. Then it makes sense. When we look at everything that’s going wrong in the world and in this country then it makes sense because it reminds these voters of who they want to be.
The truth is that, with a preferential ballot, any of them CAN win. Right now it’s just a matter of getting voters to position them to the top of their ballot. Granted, right now CODA will have no problem getting there. It will have lots of numbers 1, 2, and 3 votes which could put it over the top. But if it’s going to win it has to win Screenplay. And that would mean CODA becomes the first film in the era of the expanded ballot to “clean sweep” at the Oscars.
I can’t let go of Belfast because, quite frankly, it filled me with hope. It was the only time in this entire year I felt hope. Such is the power of art, I suppose. But it depends on who you are, how that movie touches you. While it’s true that The Power of the Dog winning would be unusual on a preferential ballot, its win would make history too, not just because a woman brought in a record 12 nominations but because Netflix would get there first. They’d kick down the door and suddenly a wider world of opportunity waits for everyone. That’s true of Apple too in a sense but with Apple you’re really looking at a much different level of money and power.
But we’re circling three movies when it’s possible another movie might win the Producers Guild and thrust the race in an entirely different direction. Every movie in this era needs a reason for people to vote FOR it. They can’t just lazily cast a vote. They have to work hard to order their preferences. That tells them what they really think when they sit down to fill them out.