It feels like the most sensible and calming way to begin a piece like this would be to emphasize how the Oscars have never been a marker of merit or talent in the film industry, in part because it’s true. It’s been the way of the land since the Academy was founded: An institution that wanted to find a way to circumnavigate dealing with unions gave itself a series of flashy awards to hand out every years as a means to legitimize themselves, and since then, we’ve been trailing around in its shadows hoping for a slice of glory. That knowledge makes it somewhat easier to digest certain terrible decisions made by Hollywood over the decades. We laugh now at the seeming lunacy of How Green Was My Valley winning Best Picture over Citizen Kane. We wonder what the hell everyone was smoking when Doctor Doolittle got all those nominations in 1968. The bafflement of the infamous Crash victory remains, but we are comforted by the knowledge that the film itself has aged horribly and said win is now widely understood as a mistake. Still, in the immediate aftermath of the 91st Academy Awards, it’s hard not to feel like things went so very wrong somewhere over the past year in La La Land.
While there were glimmers of hope to take solace in with this year’s ceremony — the host-free format was surprisingly successful, women performed well across the board of technical categories, and Spike Lee finally won his long overdue statuette — it was tough to ignore the optics reinforced by two of the biggest winners of the night: Bohemian Rhapsody, which won the most awards of the night, and Green Book, which took home three Oscars, including Best Picture. The two major victors of the 2018 film season in terms of the most prestigious award the industry gives itself were eerily similar in terms of style, tone and intent: Both were biopics where the origin of this narrative came from the surviving members or estates of the central subjects; both delighted in period-appropriate aesthetics; each film featured performances by beloved actors that were frequently described as ‘transformative’; and both faced months of critical slams regarding their historical accuracy, personal agenda, basic film-making craft, and the controversies surrounding their creative leaders. Never mind that there were better-reviewed movies in each category they dominated. Forget the minor details over how said awards will age horribly and what they say about the industry itself. In many ways, you could not have found two more perfect Oscar movies, and the strategy worked to resounding effect.
There are two images from the evening that will stick with me, both of which feel like the strongest exemplifications of how that Green Book Best Picture win will age. The first is of Spike Lee leaving the Dolby Theatre after the final announcement, a moment where an inimitable maverick once again refused to play the game of politeness, even as his colleagues rose to their feet. But more potent than even Lee’s irritation was the look on one man’s face during what should have been the peak of his career. When Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor for his turn as Dr. Don Shirley, the awkwardness of this moment practically radiated from the screen. He was noticeably more somber than he was with his first Oscar win for Moonlight. His speech was gracious, humble, practiced and as good as it could have been, with him making sure to thank Dr. Shirley first and foremost. Ali became only the second black actor to win two acting Oscars, following in Denzel Washington’s footsteps, but watching him in that moment, you couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t want it to be like this. Ali is the lone figure in the Green Book cast and crew who seems to understand what those wins mean and how they’ll look in the near and far future. He has spent months shouldering that heavy weight while his white colleagues basked in the glory. Notably, serial flasher Peter Farrelly never mentioned Dr. Shirley’s name in his two speeches. His life and struggles were merely a soapbox for white men to stand on.
And then there was Bohemian Rhapsody, the little propaganda film that could, a concerted act of historical smudging and smearing of the dead that somehow became one of the biggest movies of the year because we apparently can’t resist a good Queen karaoke session. Rami Malek won Best Actor, as was predicted, and his speech was a PR masterclass. Bryan Singer’s name was never mentioned but his spectre loomed large over the night. How could it not, when the basic act of rewarding this film in the most prestigious terms Hollywood has will inevitably empower him for years to come? The opening of the show saw the two non-retired members of Queen — the driving forces behind the film and its narrative — perform with Adam Lambert, a moment of pure ‘shut up and play the hits’. Perfect message for the film, I suppose.
These awards aren’t about merit but they do speak volumes on the ways that Hollywood, one of the most defining and influential parts of our media landscape, wishes to view itself. Some Oscars feel like they take place on the precipice, dangling between the past and the future. Doctor Doolittle was nominated for Best Picture the same year as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, two films of the bright young new Hollywood that left the crumbling studio system in the dust. Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture in a year where Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated (and don’t think Spike Lee didn’t notice the optics of this year’s wins and how it echoed the past). Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash and we all know why.
Progress in Hollywood is a maddeningly incremental process, and when your voter base remains mostly old white men, they’ll adhere to what they know, what they prefer, and what they want the world to see them as: Heroes. They’ll re-write history, history the truth, smear the living and the dead, and push the insidious narrative of ‘why can’t we all find common ground and just get along,’ as if they’re not the ones dictating to the world who gets to establish said ‘common ground.’ They’ll make sure queerness is presented as sanitized strangeness that will be punished by destiny too.
The embrace of dishearteningly archaic films and their retrograde politics is disappointing enough. It becomes all the more aggravating when you take into account how the competition presented so many opportunities for the Academy to make history. Roma could have been the first film not in the English language to win Best Picture, a story of an indigenous Mexican woman made for a streaming service pushing to democratize cinema. Black Panther could have broken the ceiling for superhero and blockbuster cinema in a way the industry has been hesitant to do so for decades, and the image of Wakanda’s finest taking home top honours would have been an icon for the ages. The Favourite was a prickly period drama that eschewed all the conventions that make said genre more palatable for audiences and it proudly centred women and queerness in a historical narrative. BlacKkKlansman is the sort of Zeitgeist film that would have been a more than worthy winner to represent The Times We Live In. But these are films that have no concern for white men or their need to be the heroes. They are films that task audiences with understanding dynamics of power, privilege and prestige. Who gets to be the heroes and why, and how do we make that fairer for everyone else? Green Book is too concerned with its own smug historical re-write to conceive of such ideas, and Bohemian Rhapsody is designed to sell records and settle scores with a man no longer here to defend himself.
These are films of denial, stories that have planted both feet firmly in the past and have no desire to move forward. As our times change dramatically, it feels depressingly inevitable that Hollywood would respond in such a manner. The various wins for both Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book will not age well. We’ll probably be here this time next year laughing at this lunacy. At least, I hope we will be. Their future isn’t bright, but in the here and now, and the industry that currently shapes so much of how we see ourselves, that’s hard to see.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Universal Pictures