When the Academy Award nominations were announced last month, people found plenty of things to be mad about. No Ava DuVernay listed between Wes Anderson and Alejandro González Iñárritu for Best Director. No African-American actors, or female directors and screenwriters, nominated for the first time since 1999. And – perhaps most loudly of all — NO LEGO MOVIE.
(Please note: this article will henceforth have nothing to do with The Lego Movie.)
And when I took a look at the eight best picture nominees, I couldn’t help but feel like two things were also missing from this year’s race.
See if you can find them:
- Birdman – One-time superhero action star stages his comeback on Broadway.
- Boyhood – Boy, grows up.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel – A lobby boy helps a beloved concierge prove his innocence.
- American Sniper – Soldier, brilliant with gun during Iraq war.
- The Imitation Game – Brilliant British scientist helps defeat the Nazis.
- The Theory of Everything – Brilliant British physicist continues to succeed despite his motor neuron disease.
- Selma – Brilliant civil rights leader stages law-changing march.
- Whiplash – Brilliant drummer and his abusive teacher.
The first one is obvious. The protagonists for all these films are men. Women — wives, mistresses, daughters, mothers and a brilliant Cambridge graduate — are sprinkled throughout, and they play integral roles. But, they’re all supporting roles. Carrying their men through wars, disease, racism…or puberty.
The second thing, though, might be a little harder to spot at first glance. Take a look at the words again. “Brilliant” is there a lot, sure. But there are also obstacles– wars, disease, racism and, yes, puberty.
Awards blogger Sasha Stone nailed it on the head when she pointed out that these movies weren’t just about men; they were about “good guys who overcame obstacles to succeed.”
None of the eight men who lead these films are anti-heroes. None are villains. Or descendants of Tony Soprano or Don Draper. Michael Keaton’s Riggan may be kind of a mess, but you still want him to win on opening night.
And he does. They all do. There isn’t a loss in sight.
When Stone realized this, she said that “very little in the Oscar race this year, in the Best Picture lineup, is going to tell you a single thing about American culture.” This is where Stone and I disagree.
I think you can tell a lot about an era based on the movies it deemed with esteem. For example, take a look at the best picture winners of the early 1960s. JFK was in office, the Camelot era was in full swing, and love stories and rom-coms reigned supreme. The Apartment, West Side Story, Tom Jones, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music all took home the top prize by 1965.
But just as the world went through dramatic upheaval, so too did the movies whose names appeared on that final lacquered envelope. America got deeper (and more disillusioned) with Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated within months of each other, civil rights protests were only getting more violent, and, to top it all off, even the president was a liar and had to resign.
There were no heroes, no victories – nothing made sense– and Hollywood responded in kind. The Midnight Cowboy (1969) ends with the title character alone on a bus with no plan, his arms wrapped around his dead friend. In next year’s Patton, the once great U.S. general is last seen walking his dog while a voiceover tells us that “glory is fleeting.” Both of The Godfather films (1972, 1974) showed us how power can corrupt a man, the agent in The Sting (1973) is really a con man, and the nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is the bad guy — while our hero ends up lobotomized.
It’s not a coincidence that Jon Voight trashes the cowboy uniform he wears throughout Midnight Cowboy at the end of the film. It symbolized the death of an American hero at a time when people realized no one was invincible — not even the country herself. Cowboys did reappear on the big screen in the 1970s, but in the form of Spaghetti Westerns (named because many were made by Italian directors). Gone was John Wayne, who always got the bad guy and then the girl. These new Westerns ended in violent, bloody shootouts, and the protagonists, often played by Clint Eastwood, were only out to get a buck and save themselves — not the town or the damsel in distress.
I mention Clint Eastwood because although he is one of the most famous original anti-heroes, his film American Sniper is without one. A number of critics have pointed out how Eastwood streamlined the movie to fit a good versus evil storyline — fabricating two villains known as “The Butcher” and “Mustafa” — and ignored many of the complicated facets of character that Chris Kyle, the title character the movie is about, revealed in his own memoirs.
But the Cliff Notes version worked. American Sniper has made $308 million in less than two months — in just the U.S. alone.
Selma, on the other hand, is the perfect counter-example. Once hailed a major front-runner by critics, Ava DuVernay’s film only picked up two nominations (and missed out on what could have been the first director nomination for an African-American woman) after a handful of historians slammed the film’s portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson. There are many well-written articles that explain the accusations — and the problems with them— in-depth. But to give you the simple version: They claimed the film made the president look like the villain, instead of the savior.
We may no longer be involved in an unwinnable war, but we also have access to seeing the unthinkable, brutal things that are happening all over the globe. We spent a summer watching journalists and aid workers get beheaded on a bi-weekly basis while we were powerless to save them. We have a Congress that only seems to come together when they’re shutting down the government. Even our news anchors, athletes, and the director of the CIA can’t escape scandal.
But whereas TV has dived head-first into the current of this murky contemporary sea, throwing out so many anti-heroes a number of critics are starting to report fatigue, movies have run in the complete opposite direction from the path they took in the 1970s.
This is where I think Hollywood’s own interests come into play. Because the world isn’t the only thing spinning out of control — the movie business is too. Theatre attendance is dropping, studio jobs are getting slashed, execs not only have to compete with cable and Netflix for eyes but now for actors too, and once-upon-a-time sure things like Johnny Depp are more likely to bomb a big budget flick today than bring home a massive opening weekend.
Is it any surprise, then, that Sunday’s front-runner is a film about a comeback in the arts? Or that two of the most recent best picture winners (Argo and The Artist) have also been about the magic of Hollywood?
The people who make-up the Academy’s voters are scared. They’re also 77% male. Of course they want to see some heroes on the big screen.
But I don’t want you to think I’m defending the Best Picture nominees, as great as a number of them are (I’m personally rooting for a Boyhood victory this Sunday). Hollywood has always been slow to learn from television, its younger and cooler cousin. Maybe if it paid attention it would realize American viewers like to see conflict on the screen. They also like to see diversity. Turn on a broadcast, cable, or Netflix original show and you will see strong women and anti-heroes, villains and conflict galore. Shows where, at the end of the day, the good guy (or girl) doesn’t necessarily win.
But in a year where we somehow still managed to put a recovering heroin addict, not to mention three kinds of psychos (wife, wrestling coach, journalist), on the big screen, Oscar only wanted to hang with the heroes.
The Academy hasn’t been afraid to reflect society before. Why start giving us a fantasy now?