Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Thoughts on the Oscar Race Part I

I haven’t written anything about this yerar’s Oscar race yet – but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been following along, or that I do not care. I used to care a hell of a lot more – but as I have written about in the past, about 10 years ago, my interest in keeping up with every twist and turn in what often became an ugly season started to wane. I still like the Oscars a great deal – I still keep up with them every year, and like how it sets the yearly conversation about the Best in Movies – even if you completely and totally disagree with all the nominees and winners. It’s still fascinating to watch wins and loses every year, and as many pot shots as the Academy takes for having bad taste, I don’t think that’s entirely true. Afterall, 8 of my top 10 films received at least 1 Oscar nomination this year (Clouds of Sils Maria and It Follows were the ones left out) – and so what if only two of them got in for Best Picture – four of the other Best Picture nominees were in my runners-up section. I don’t need the Academy to validate my choices here – they’re doing so won’t make the films any better or any worse. Anyway, here are some thoughts on the season itself – not Winner Predictions – those will come later.

Oscar Blogging – Good or Bad?
When I was really into the Oscars, I would say that they were definitely a good thing. Yet, it certainly does feel like in the past 10 years, things have gotten wildly out of control, and more and more, that awards season is little more than an echo chamber. The nominees are seemingly drawn from a small group of films that the Oscar bloggers anoint at the beginning of the season – sight unseen – and while it can be easy to fall out of the picture if your film doesn’t deliver (think of Suffragette or Truth or Freeheld this year), it can be very hard to climb your way into the race if you weren’t tapped from the start.

Difficult, but certainly not impossible. I don’t think many thought The Martian was going to be among the nominees at the beginning of the season – but the studio was smart, and got out ahead of the season, debuting the film at TIFF - an odd move for a film that big, but one designed to get people to see it as more than audience movie. It worked. The Big Short entered the season fairly late, and now it may even win the whole thing. It’s not impossible to enter the race if people don’t see you as threat in October – but there’s only so much room for you to do so. So The Big Short gets in, but Creed cannot find its footing – that is in part because the studio didn’t know they had an Oscar contender in Creed, and did in The Big Short, but also in part because the race is half over before it begins.

Just look at the best actor race for example. Leonardo DiCaprio has been the frontunner all year – and he’s going to win (more on that later) – in part, I think, because the narrative that he was long overdue took hold and didn’t let go all year. Never mind the fact that he has been way better in other movies, and his work in The Revenant is not the sort of thing that wins Oscars, he’s winning anyway. The other nominees include Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl – a film that few people actually seem to like – yet he was tapped as early as DiCaprio was as an Oscar contender, and so he is. You can say something similar about Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs (I think he’s the best of the nominees – but it’s not much of a horserace) – a film that tanked at the Box Office, but that had been tapped as an Oscar contender all year. Even Bryan Cranston in Trumbo had made quite a few people’s predictions before the season started. It’s hard to really argue that Oscar blogging doesn’t have an effect on the season – that they’re just reporting what happened – when they can predict four out of five nominees, and the winner, of a major category without seeing any of them.

Still, I’m fairly agnostic about Oscar bloggers in general. Maybe they effect the outcome, maybe they don’t – it’s not something anyone can prove. It’s one of those things, and hey, if you enjoy writing or reading about the Oscars six months a year, have at it.

The fact that, for the second straight year, all 20 acting nominees were white is a major embarrassment for the Academy – and one that they have moved quickly to try and address – by committing to add more minority members to the Academy (doubling the number by 2020) and by, for the first time since 1970, weeding out some of the current membership – not kicking them out of the Academy, but taking away their right to vote for the Oscars if a) they are not a previous Oscar nominee, b) have not been active in the last 10 years or c) been active in three different 10 year periods since becoming a member. Naturally, there are many people who are upset about these rules – try and take anything away from anyone, and they’ll be upset, but to me it’s a move the Academy had to make – adapt or die, really.

It is a shame that most of the people losing their voting rights are older, and are being painted with the brush of being racist, which I don’t necessarily think they are. As the various essays that have popped up in the Hollywood Reporter from people who may be potentially effected by this have stated, they believe they vote colorblind – not voting for anyone based on their race, but instead voting on the basis of the quality of the performance alone. I believe that these members firmly believe this – and I also believe that most of these members are not really racist (are some? Sure – get any 6,000 people in a room together, and you will find some racists).

I also believe, however, that racial bias certainly comes into play. Can you really be surprised that a group like the Academy – whose average voter is a 64 year old, straight white man – who watch a film like Creed, and not be more moved by Sylvestor Stallone’s performance in it, than by Michael B. Jordan’s? Who do you think that voter is going to have an easier time relating to? How is the same voter going to react to a film like Straight Outta Compton – which in many ways is the type of straight ahead, musical biopic they love – except for the fact that’s about young, (justifiably angry) black men, who swear a lot, and perform the type of music that that Academy member probably doesn’t much care for.

Because, make no mistake, the Academy could have easily have found a few worthy acting nominees who were not white – even in films they nominated for other awards. Samuel L. Jackson for The Hateful Eight or Michael B. Jordan for Creed would get my vote over any of the Best Actor nominees. Oscar Isaac or Benicio Del Toro could have easily have gotten in for Supporting Actor (that’s right, this is bigger than just African Americans being snubbed – it’s anyone who isn’t white) – not to mention Jason Mitchell from Straight Outta Compton. Tessa Thompson is at least as good as a few of the Supporting Actress nominees in Creed. I just saw Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, and Teyonah Parris is as deserving a Best Actress candidate as there was last year.

Now, expunging some people from the voting rolls may not make that much of a difference to who the Academy nominates – we have no idea who voted for what. But I do believe that if you cannot meet one of the three criteria set out to keep your voting rights here, than perhaps you shouldn’t be voting for the Oscars anyway. Remember, this is supposed to be the elite group of Hollywood – an award given from your peers, and so if you don’t meet those criteria, can you honestly say that you should vote? Sure, there are probably going to be some surprising people who get kicked out. But waiting for a perfect system before they do anything is the same thing as doing nothing – because there will be no perfect system.

In the end though, the Academy will only ever be able to do so much. The much bigger problem is in the films getting made (or more specifically, not getting made) by black or female filmmakers – not to mention the almost non-existent numbers of films being made by Asian American, Hispanic/Latino American, Native American or Middle Eastern American people in Hollywood. This is still an industry completely and totally dominated by straight white men and that needs to change. And it needs to change at all levels – from executives, to directors/producers/writers to actor to all the behind the scenes people – and even to people who write about the industry – from critics to Oscar bloggers and everything in between. The Academy are taking some good steps – but they can only go so far by themselves.

Rule Changes I Would Make
There have been a lot of suggestions about future rule changes to help with the diversity issues – but to be honest, I don’t like most of them. The one I am fully in favor of –and have been since they changed it – is moving back to 10 nominees for Best Picture – and barring that, back to 5. I liked the two years they went with a full slat of 10 nominees – it really did allow for a wider array of films to be nominated. But people complained about the prestige being hurt, so they went with this “floating” number of nominees, and requirements of having to garner a certain percentage of #1 votes to get nominated, and it ruined the whole thing. Now, Pixar cannot even be nominated when they make a masterpiece like Inside Out. And that’s insane. Go to 10 nominees, and let everyone vote for 10 films – do a sliding scale for example, when every Academy member ranks their 10 favorite films of the year, with #1 getting 10 points, #2 9 points, etc. I know some Academy members complained about having to vote for 10 films in the past – but that’s another way to thin the herd a little bit, because you cannot name 10 films you really liked during the course of the year, then perhaps you didn’t see enough films, and shouldn’t be voting for the Oscars.

What I would NOT do is expand the number of acting nominees to 6, or any other category. I think 10 is fine for Best Picture, but for the rest of the categories, 5 is the right number. If you go more than that, than you may as well throw away 80 some odd years of stats for individual nominees, and the Academy’s history is what makes them special. That is all.

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