Mass formation is the flipside of mass hysteria. Both are ways whole groups of people are afflicted in one direction or another, both affording greater chances for survival. We’ve seen mass hysteria afflict Hollywood and the awards race for about seven years now. What usually follows from mass hysteria is mass formation. That means everyone falls in line partly out of fear, but also to be part of one movement, one people.
The last time mass formation hit the Oscar race was in 2020 when Nomadland began its march toward victory. No one would have dared to take away that win. It was the first time a woman of color was to win in Picture and Director. After accusations that La La Land was “racist” in 2016, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was racist in 2017 and Green Book – well, that was when hysteria reached its peak. Or so we thought. It turned out there was much farther to go – BAFTA would change their voting, the Globes would be canceled, and by 2020, the Academy Awards had to make sure nearly every face on camera was a person of color. They did this to be good people but they also did it out of fear.
The industry is still majority white, majority male. While that might eventually change over time, America is still a majority white country. There is only so much you can do when the demographics mean there are more white people in the population.
I bring this up because the mass formation we’ve just seen with the film Everything, Everywhere All At Once is both inexplicable and unprecedented. It feels more like a religious movement than it does an awards race as the film and its actors have been elevated in a way that feels god-like. It’s a phenomenon some understand and some don’t. Some are going along with the mass formation because they think it’s the right thing to do. If one group picked another movie, for instance, would they be called, as someone said to me on Twitter about the BAFTA, “white supremacists”? Does choosing this movie, even if they don’t really like it, mean they feel safe? Probably.
Mass formation also took hold in 2012 when Ben Affleck was denied a nomination for Best Director. That set into motion something unlike I’ve ever seen in the Oscar race but it felt similar to this year. Argo and Everything have won the same awards, with Everything also picking up the hipster Spirit Award vote that Argo would not have qualified for.
That year, like this year, was slightly bizarre to watch. Once you understand the psychology behind it, however, it is somewhat easier: voters vote for people that will make them feel good. At the moment, what feels good is to make history of some kind with your vote. White male driven entertainment isn’t going to cut it. Argo would be chewed up and spit out by the same community that once fell in line behind it.
Everything Everywhere isn’t ONLY winning because it’s a non-white movie and voters fear being seen as either out of touch or racist, many of them, probably most of them, genuinely love the movie. For some, the movie is on par with a kind of religious rapture. But I still see it as my job to stand outside the consensus — or not fall in line with mass formation, just as I try to resist the temptation to fall into “mass hysteria.” These are two sides of the same coin.
The conversation is ongoing in Hollywood. And there isn’t ever going to be a time when it doesn’t matter anymore. Meaning, for award shows especially they’re always going to be measured by how equitable they are. They have no other means by which to measure success now that they’ve essentially cut themselves off from the general public. In the past, money talked. At the moment, it isn’t even so much about awarding people of color — for instance, Black Panther or The Woman King might have been nominated, since both made money and presented all Black casts. But it is more about intersectionality. At least this year.
But chasing the high means you have to keep changing up the dosage. Where before, honoring films with Black female leads or by Black directors felt like big change, now they’ve moved on to “gender neutral” acting categories and films with strong LGBTQIA themes. The spine of Everything, Everywhere All At Once is a mother going through all of these crazy experiences to finally learn to appreciate and love her gay daughter and her long suffering husband.
But I think what’s resonating isn’t so much the storyline of the gay daughter, although that has Film Twitter bedazzled and enraptured, it’s the idea that both of the females are non-white, with Michelle Yeoh being an older woman heading up a kind of superhero movie. That’s not just a race/gender swap, they’ve thrown in age too. And that makes people feel good because they’ve never seen it before. They feel like they’re doing some good in the world by awarding this film.
As long as the directors aren’t overtly offensive as alpha males (they don’t appear to be), this film serves the community well.
What it feels more like to me is Slumdog Millionaire. That year, I remember thinking, and probably saying, that voters felt like they were helping impoverished kids from India whenever they voted. It was a movie that everyone loved seeing win awards, even though it was directed by Danny Boyle — a white male. I’m not sure how well that film holds up but it was a phenomenon that won more awards than any of the other mass formation winners, like Argo or Nomadland.
That was also the year my friend David Carr decided he didn’t want to cover the Oscar race. There was nothing more mind-numbing for him than covering a year where everyone fell in line and voted on the same film. It was much more interesting with years where there was an intellectual challenge involved, like The Departed vs. Little Miss Sunshine. In a year like 2008, and this year, the voters tell you who they are and what they care about. And what they care about is mostly confined to what Laurie Anderson would call “a perfect little world that doesn’t really need you.”
At any rate, like Nomadland and CODA, this is the post-2020 movie they are standing behind as a whole, the film they have chosen to represent the best 2022 has to offer. Even if there were better movies (there were) they can’t build the same kind of mass formation, or religious movement, that this movie can. Most of them are too white, too male, too traditional, too heterosexual, too conventional.
The only question now is whether the film will make Academy history with 3 acting wins, along with Best Picture. Ordinarily, I would bet no, but in a mass formation, anything is possible.
In the end, Argo would win just 3 awards – Picture, Screenplay, Editing
Slumdog Millionaire would win all but two Oscars – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Song, Sound Mixing.
Two things to consider:
1) in the era of the preferential ballot, films don’t usually sweep. They divide the technical with the writing and directing. And if you noticed, both Argo and Slumdog did not win any acting awards, though both had won the SAG ensemble. The acting awards alone will take EEAAO over the top in terms of wins. The big question will be whether two tech monsters like All Quiet on the Western Front and Top Gun Maverick will crowd it out in the crafts categories like Editing and Score.
I would say it wins between 4 and 6.
Here are the charts: