Last week, I went from giddily reading reviews of I, Tonya and glorying in the possibility of Margot Robbie becoming a true contender for a Best Actress Oscar to rolling my eyes and groaning over the inevitability of months of such chat in the space of about fifteen minutes. I found myself simultaneously anticipating and dreading the tried and tested cycle of awards campaigning that Robbie and the film will undoubtedly participate in should the movie’s chances hold steady into next year: The interviews, the red carpet conveyer belt, the hilariously faux-ponderous actor round-tables, the pages of For Your Consideration ads in the trades, and of course, the Film Twitter wars. Technically speaking, we’re into the second official month of the liminal period that has been designated awards season, and already I’m left wondering if we can either speed up proceedings or just bring it to a complete halt so we can revel in the calm before the storm. Other people have sports; I have the Oscar race, and frankly, it’s exhausting.
Of course, most pop culture hot take merchants such as myself are well aware that awards season in the movie world is a year-long spiral from which we shall never escape. Savvy studios start the process in January as Sundance kicks off, months before the previous cycle’s Oscar ceremony has even been broadcast. This year, Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Call Me By Your Name, Dee Rees’s drama Mudbound, and the indie rom-com The Big Sick made major splashes at the festival and led to a whole new series of possibilities for awards season.
Obviously, awards aren’t the be all and end all of cinema. Alfred Hitchcock is not a lesser director than Tom Hooper simply because he never won an Oscar. Neither has David Lynch or Spike Lee or any woman aside from Kathryn Bigelow. Sometimes, bad films win Best Picture and it has nothing to do with merit or quality. Really, no one body of people, regardless of its size or diversity, can act as the ultimate judges of the best in any field. There will always be dissenters and extenuating circumstances and occasionally there are just stupid people with bad taste making all the choices. Every year, it’s ridiculously easy to get caught up in the spiel and forget that the movie you love being overlooked by a group of mostly 60-something white men isn’t the end of the world.
Awards aren’t good for judging quality, but they are an excellent bellwether for how the industry that tries to dictate the cultural tastes of the world sees itself. Looking at the Best Picture nominees of any given year is a striking way to see how Hollywood views its output in terms of prestige and craft, as well as the wider issues of trying to appeal to wider audiences while holding into an increasingly outdated notion of what’s considered ‘worthy’ of awards. The awards season spotlights the industry’s continuing sexism - men get roles as troubled geniuses and inspiring leaders; women get the thankless task of being those supportive spouses - and racism - white saviour stories flourish while the people of colour at the heart of them are silenced or seen only in the broadest of stereotypes. Trans people are nowhere to be seen in Oscar season unless it’s in the form of cis people in crude drag repeating the same tragic tropes, while stories of people living with disabilities are almost exclusively shown as near pornographic displays of overcoming the odds, all centred on able-bodied actors whose process becomes the stuff of actors’ fantasies. Watching the movies reveals a lot about our world, but not as much as how the industry who makes them decides to pat themselves on the backs for doing so.
That’s all very important, but it’s a process that can aggravate as much as it illuminates. When you know the drill, it’s hard to ignore seeing the same narratives play out repeatedly with little to no interrogation of what that means. You get angry watching cis men repeatedly play trans women and spew the same lines about how tough it was for them but ultimately inspiring, all to the backdrop of smug applause; you hurt your eyes from rolling them so hard at yet another ‘method’ performance that does nothing but push a falsehood that ‘hard’ and showy acting is always worthy of rewards, regardless of the result; you resist the urge to smash your keyboard as vomit-inducing profiles are written about beautiful actresses who were oh so brave to put on weight or go without make-up or don heavy prosthetics to do the basic tenets of their job. Certain stories are dictated to be awards possibilities simply because they replicate these damaging problems, and little thought is given into how repeating these claims without questioning them helps to exacerbate the entire song and dance. Often, there’s no respite from this, as the discussions start the moment the film is announced. By the time the winners are announced, the whole operations feels overdone.
That doesn’t even get into the pantomime that is campaigning: The ads, the ceaseless cutesy talk-show interviews, the round-tables where everyone has to pretend they’re not all crawling through the mud in desperation to get their hands on the same statuette. One of the most baffling parts of the season for me is the unspoken rule that everyone has to pretend they really don’t care about winning. Everyone has to be effusive about their work but downplay their own ambitions, yet they can’t outright say they don’t care about winning because that would be rude. They do every interview, every photo-shoot, the SNL guest-hosting gig, the occasional paparazzi walk with their spouse and/or kids, and they practice those speeches until they’re tattooed on their brains. Sometimes they even engage in a little whitewashing of their own past, as Casey Affleck successfully did when he got the industry to quietly overlook some inconvenient sexual harassment allegations while he pushed his away to Best Actor gold. But hey, the performance was good and that’s all that matters, right?
As tiring as this all can be, and as much as it can make film discussion a reductive process, there’s a thrill to jumping through all those hoops and finding yourself genuinely surprised by the results. This year, the win for Moonlight opened up immense potential for awards season which could make the cycle that much more exciting (and harder for those who call prognosticating our job).
It was all but expected that La La Land would win Best Picture, partly because seasoned awards prognosticators were familiar with the pattern - the juggernaut versus the underdog; two films loved by audiences but one with that extra razzle-dazzle of Hollywood sparkle that the Academy just can’t resist. La La Land had made more money, it had major stars in it, a soundtrack you could hum to for days, a bevy of critics’ awards under its belt, and the allure of its flashy technical achievements. When Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced the winner, most of us had already prepared our post-Oscar autopsies, explaining the decision that made most of us shrug but unable to argue against the inevitability of it.
And then something happened: It hadn’t won, and the film we’d all said was amazing and deserved to win but never would took home the gold.
Once we all got over our collective shock from witnessing the Oscar moment that would be played for decades on blooper reels, it became clear that Moonlight winning Best Picture wasn’t just a great moment for the film and all who loved it; it signalled a major shift in how awards season did business, and how much tougher it could become to declare a sure-fire lock for next year. We’re in the post-#OscarsSoWhite age, where audiences are louder than ever about the industry’s prevailing bigotry and refusing to accept the status quo. The Academy has promised to double its female and non-white membership by 2020, and the bloc of new voters who took part in this year’s season clearly made a difference. The elephant in the room that is the downfall of Harvey Weinstein further exposes the industry’s rot and how often it takes form in awards season. Dare I say it, change is in the air. It may make it harder for us to predict the winner, but frankly, it’s the kick up the backside awards season desperately needs.