Articles - 25th January 2019

The 91st Academy Awards: How Hollywood Choked

Words by Jack King
Illustration by Eleanor Hardiman

It’s more than a year on from Time’s Up and the #MeToo campaign. There are no female directors nominated for Best Director at the 91st Academy Awards, and the leading nominee for Best Picture was directed by an accused sex offender with a decades-long history of scathing allegations. How come, Academy?

The film industry award season has, for decades, strengthened Hollywood’s status as one of the behemoth pillars of Western culture. It’s a glitzy, five-month jamboree: the annual Toronto International Film Festival, held in early September, leads as the starting gun for a studio-led awards clamour. It stretches through the many critics circle awards, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Independent Spirits, finally culminating with the Academy Awards. Tens of millions of Americans – and a much larger global audience – tune in to witness the finish line, one which is decorated with all the pomp and majesty of a medieval court. Audiences have simmered in the past decade, the Academy increasingly becoming seen as self-aggrandising and masturbatory by the middle-class mainstream, an attitude reflected by a rapidly descending viewership.

In the years subsequent to hugely popular progressive movements such as #MeToo, Time’s Up and #OscarsSoWhite, all led by industry veterans and activists who continue to champion equality across the film industry – with the annual awards season, particularly the Academy Awards, perceived as a barometer for change – you would expect for Hollywood to match the wider taste for social progressivism. Academy voters cashed in on the appetite for a dialogue on racial politics in 2017, when Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight – a delicate triptych chronicling the life of a black, gay man in Miami, Florida, at the height of the crack epidemic – took home the statuette for Best Picture. This was a step partially muted by sexual assault allegations against Casey Affleck, the eventual winner of the Best Actor category for his performance in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

At last year’s Academy Awards, Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek and Annabella Sciorra, the three women heading up the anti-sexual harassment, pro-female Time’s Up movement, mounted the stage of the Dolby Theater, as arranged by the Academy, to speak about #MeToo: a symbolicgesture of Hollywood’s progressive shift in attitude towards gender equality.

The Academy’s trend of social progressivism was similarly felt amongst the awards recipients and nominees: Greta Gerwig was a hotly tipped Best Director contender for her work on Lady Bird, and only the fifth woman in the history of the Academy Awards to receive a Best Director nomination; Jordan Peele took home Best Original Screenplay for his scathing racial satire Get Out; and Call Me by Your Name was the fourth LGBT film in history to be nominated for Best Picture, launching Chalamania and cementing queer director Luca Guadagnino as one of Hollywood’s most eligible and in-demand auteurs. This progress was again, however, marred by sexual assault allegations against Best Actor frontrunner Gary Oldman, a controversy mimicking that of Casey Affleck in the year prior.

Indeed, for the most part, the winds of change had blown apart the typically self-aggrandising pomp. The accused Oldman might have won Best Actor, but the hegemonic, patriarchal pillars of Hollywood were still crumbling below the weight of sociocultural change, picking up on the post-millennial switch in Western attitudes and politics. Society was now ready to embrace minorities and launch women through the glass ceiling; and, led by the progressive ideologies espoused by the new, post-millennial generation rising throughout Hollywood – the Chalamets, the Ronans, the Hedges’ – the American film industry would be following suit. Yes, Oldman and Affleck were unequivocal blots, but they were subject to isolated accusations – and, of course, the Academy would react proportionately to the backlash. Right?

Thus a feeling of hope preceded TIFF last year, the atmosphere of energetic activism suggesting that this would be the time that Hollywood would finally get it right. How naïve this has proven to be. Not only has this awards season been disastrous, due to the sheer lack of quality across many of the front-running nominees (Bohemian Rhapsody holds a score of 49 on Metacritic, the lowest of any Best Picture nominee since 2011’s anomalous dud Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; Vice, with a score of 61, would place third on a ‘worst of the decade’ list), it has shown that no lessons have been learnt. They have simply fallen upon closed ears. Favoured is a sense of toxic nostalgia, a yearn to return to a time where minority artists could be placated by awards merited by the oppressor; when Driving Miss Daisy could win Best Picture over a sans-nominated Do the Right Thing, or Philadelphia – a sanitised vision of the AIDS epidemic, directed by a straight man and performed by a straight cast – could be imagined as a righteous, liberal bone, designed to jerk tears out of a heteronormative audience.

One year on from Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek and Annabella Scoirra mounting the stage of the Dolby Theater, there are no female nominees for Best Director. There are no female-led Best Picture nominees. Two writers nominated under the Screenwriting categories, out of twenty, are women – and both share their nominations with men. One may argue that merit trumps equality; that it’s backwards to award a film based on the identity of the filmmaker and not the quality of the picture; but in a year saturated by strong, female-led film projects, the Academy did not lack opportunity. You Were Never Really Here, the fourth feature by Scottish indie darling Lynne Ramsay, took home the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, was nominated for twelve British Independent Film Awards, and is up for Best British Film at the yet-to-be-announced BAFTAs; Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, a Netflix Original release, was considered by a swathe of critics to be among the best films of the year, as was Chloe Zhao’s delicate re-imagining of the neo-western, The Rider, and Marielle Heller’s sublime bio-pic Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Perhaps you’d argue that these releases are too low-key, independent, or artistic to be recognised by the Academy Awards, who are known to award films which fit within the intersection between commercially palatable and critically adored. But this is a season in which Pawel Pawlikowski, a Polish arthouse director, has been nominated for Cold War, which barely scratched a million pounds at the UK box office; and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, a VOD release, continues to be considered a Best Picture favourite. In this climate, can we really say that Adam McKay put in a better directorial performance than Lynne Ramsay? Is it really fair to suggest that Bohemian Rhapsody is more worthy of the biggest film award on the planet than Can You Ever Forgive Me? It reeks of tone-deafness.

Of course, the Academy will be back-slapping over the nominations for Green Book, a ‘feel good’ biopic about a black, gay musician being driven between gigs by his Italian-American bodyguard in the racist, sixties Deep South. It’s a film which has been marred by its own controversy: not only do the two protagonists bond over fried chicken, a less than subtle nod towards antiquated, racist codes, the film has been denounced the estate of Don Shirley, whom Mahershala Ali’s protagonist is based on. The adoring reaction and awards success that Green Book has earned is symptomatic of everything that Jordan Peele’s nightmarish vision of white neo-liberalism in Get Out warned us about.  

I suspect that the 91st Academy Awards will, in retrospect, be looked back upon as a mere blotch upon the Academy’s shiny lapel; a final reach towards an antiquated past, where the voices of minority artists were quietened for a final time. It’s not as if, after all, it’s a year totally devoid of positives: Blackkklansman represents Spike Lee’s first directorial and picture nomination; The Favourite, Roma and A Star Is Born will all go down as Academy-backed classics, pointing towards a bright future of enduring quality. But it’s inevitable that Spike Lee’s offering will be outgunned by Peter Farrelly’s palatable Green Book, and the hypocrisy of ignoring female-led projects remains immensely frustrating.

This is all compounded by the enduring awards success of the commercially strong, yet critically flatulent, Bohemian Rhapsody, which increasingly pulls its nose towards the front of the Best Picture race – another example of tone-deaf ignorance towards the historical suffering of sexual assault survivors. Bryan Singer, the director, holds a history of allegations spanning decades, many of which have just been newly exposed by a scathing article in The Atlantic. The Academy can come back from this – but next time, we have to ensure that they put their money where their mouth is.

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