They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
The Sony Leaks: Politics, Oscar and Hollywood’s “Women Problem”
By J. Don Birnam
December 23, 2014

You're wearing too many clothes compared to the other guys.

Like all political campaigns, each year the Oscar race has its fair share of dirt and tricks lobbed around. On top of that, there are always rumblings about the lack of strong role for women and a good place for women filmmakers in the industry and the award season. This year, it is possible that the scandals and the woman-problem have intersected in the form of the Sony leaks and their effect on the Oscar chances of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. Indeed, politics and the Academy Awards are not new, whether we like it or not. Lest there remain any doubt, President Obama weighed in to say Boyhood was the top movie of 2014.

Today I’ll discuss women issues, politics, and the Academy Awards after updating the state of the race with the latest precursor awards.

Quick Precursors Update

Although no more guilds will speak until after the New Year, a large number of critics have named their top movies since we last spoke. Boyhood remains far ahead of the pack, racking up about three quarters of the critics’ top prizes so far, winning top kudos from critics’ groups from Detroit to Austin to San Francisco and Chicago. Nevertheless, Birdman is showing some signs of life, winning a few awards here and there, recently from Las Vegas, Kansas City, and Phoenix. A smattering of other best picture awards have gone to Nightcrawler and Snowpiercer.

The critics are, by contrast, all over the place when it comes to the acting races. While Julianne Moore’s “overdue” narrative seems to make her an impossible Best Actress favorite, critics have gone as often for her as they have for Marion Cotillard and for Rosamund Pike. Similarly, while JK Simmons seems unstoppable for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Ed Norton (Birdman) and Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) are showing up repeatedly in the critics’ lists. True, Michael Keaton is winning most critics’ awards for Best Actor - but critics’ awards don’t involve campaigns like the Oscars do, so that race is not a foregone conclusion either.

Interestingly, Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu has won almost as many critical awards as Boyhood’s Richard Linklater. Could a record-breaking third year in a row with a Best Picture/Director split be in the offing?

Finally, the Broadcast Film Critics Association - a large group of critics that hands out its awards the day the Oscar nominations are announced - announced their nominees. The biggest story there is that maybe the BFCA is the new Golden Globes. They could not resist giving Unbroken and Angelina Jolie nominations in major categories, keeping alive that movie’s fading Oscar chances. Of course, Birdman and Boyhood also had strong showings with 13 and eight nominations respectively, and The Grand Budapest Hotel received a whopping 11.

The Sony Leaks

On to the topic du jour: politics and the Oscars. The Academy Awards are no strangers to controversy. One year, a producer of The Hurt Locker was banned from the ceremony for supposedly violating AMPAS’s so-called anti-campaigning rule. The Oscars are a prestige event but also a money game. Expensive consultants are hired to run costly campaigns, so people are bound to get down and dirty. And that’s just the campaigns themselves. In past columns we’ve already explored politics at the Academy Awards, from Michael Moore’s Iraq-related “Shame on you, Mr. Bush” to Marlon Brando’s “Protest of the Film Industry’s Treatment of the American Indian,” to Vanessa Redgrave vs. Paddy Chayefsky on Palestine and Israel.

This year, the controversies so far are not of the campaigners’ direct making. As you likely know, on December 9th, Gawker released several gigabytes of e-mails they had obtained from a group that had hacked Sony Pictures’ systems. The hack was political and implicated international relations. North Korea has been named by the FBI as the perpetrator of the hack, which was in retaliation for Sony’s North Korea satire, The Interview (which, in a somewhat shocking concession of defeat, Sony has agreed to postpone).

These leaks were not specific to the Oscars, but they have touched upon an Oscar story and involved two key players in Oscar campaigns. Scott Rudin (the Oscar-winning producer of No Country For Old Men) and top Sony exec Amy Pascal (who has participated in the Oscar campaigns for Moneyball, The Social Network, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Hustle), exchanged e-mails in which Rudin calls Angelina Jolie a “minimally talented spoiled brat,” berates her for delaying (in order to film Unbroken) her participation in a Steve Jobs biopic Rudin was interested in, and chides her supposedly “childish” behavior. Whoa.

Oscar scandals usually hurt the target movies’ standing among voters who did not want to vote for or reward “damaged” goods. Arguably Unbroken - already clinging to dear Oscar life after its Golden Globes miss - is further damaged as the world is now aware of its dismissal by two powerful industry and Academy members. But no publicity is bad publicity, and I theorize that in this case the scandal can help Unbroken if Angelina receives at least a sympathy vote from those who feel that Rudin and Pascal’s attack on her is unfair, or if audiences, now tantalized by the leak’s scandal, show a heightened interest in the movie.

We will never know, of course, exactly how Unbroken would have done with or without this leak, but it is an interesting question to ponder. Ultimately, it seems as if the movie’s award fate rests in the hands of audiences. A strong showing will make it harder to ignore.

Hollywood’s Women Problem and Politics

The broader question raised by the Rudin/Pascal e-mails is whether Jolie is being treated unfairly for being a female actor-turned director. Ben Affleck, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Warren Beatty and Kevin Costner get a free pass, the argument goes, but Angelina is not allowed to break out of her role as a pretty face or to make a movie about a quintessential male topic, war. She is therefore labeled a brat when she embarks on a passion project, and the movie gets dissed.

Rudin and Pascal seem to me the brats here - their e-mails include tasteless jokes about Obama’s movie preferences being all black-related - but I do think it is fair to ponder whether women filmmakers face steeper odds in being respected.

There is no doubt in most people’s minds that women face it tougher in Hollywood overall. We saw last column how almost one out of every four Best Picture winner includes a Best Actor win, whereas only one in every eight or so includes a Best Actress win. The big movies that the industry goes for tend to center around men. The stories our culture tells and embraces are stories about men. And it’s not just awards. Despite the fact that movies catering to female audiences - like the Hunger Games and Twilight series - continue to do defy box office expectations (this year, Gone Girl and Maleficient, along with Mockingjay, did remarkably well), studio execs (mostly male) still believe that women are only interested in the rom-com genre. It’s not just teenage-fare, either. Blue Jasmine and Gone Girl are hardly teen flicks.

But what of women filmmakers specifically? You likely know that only four women have received Best Director nods and only Kathyrn Bigelow has won. Mahnola Dargis recently wrote in the New York Times that when Bigelow won in 2009, only 7% of movies were directed by women, and that she hoped Bigelow’s win would change this. Today, however, only 7.6% of movies are directed by women, as Dargis reported, so the problem appears to remain intractable. The opportunities for women to direct are simply not there. Indeed, no woman cinematographer has ever taken home an Oscar. Given that cinematography is one of two obvious stepping stones for women to become directors (the other being editing), it should be no surprise that few women directors are to be seen. Women aren’t even being trained as directors. Hollywood’s women problem, thus, spans all aspects of moviemaking.

The other story stirring the pot in the Oscar world this year is the possibility that if Angelina gets in as a Best Director nominee, she could make history along Ava DuVarney if the latter also finds herself a contender for Selma. The possibility that for the first time ever two women would be nominated in the same year is tantalizing and may prove too tempting for the quirky-minded and likely liberal Directors Branch to resist. Cherry on top: DuVarney would be the first non-white female nominated in this prestigious category.

The immediate political question that these facts engender is what role “affirmative action” of sort should play in giving out awards. Should DuVarney get more votes because few women and few racial minorities get recognized by the industry and the Oscars? Should Viola Davis have won Best Actress over Meryl Streep because Meryl had two statuettes at that point, double the total (now triple) the total number of Best Actress awards won by African-American women (the lone win going to Halle Berry)? When Barbara Streisand exclaimed, “The time has come” before revealing that Kathryn Bigelow had become the first woman to win Best Director, was she misguidedly injecting politics into the Oscars? And when the people behind the 12 Years a Slave Oscar push ran “It’s Time” ads (no film directed by an African American had won Best Picture before last year) were they unfairly “playing the race card”?

A definitive or even remotely satisfying answer to these questions would not be reached if I devoted the entire rest of the awards season to exploring them. I will offer a few conflicting thoughts that I have always had about this topic, on which I remain mostly but not entirely undecided. First, in my ideal world, awards would be given out strictly on merit. I despise the “overdue” Oscars, or the Oscars given because a good campaign was run with a cute little dog (The Artist). Indeed, prominent conservative racial minorities argue - not without some merit, in my honest view - that giving recognition not on the basis of merit but on the basis of the person’s gender or race demeans the award and its recipient. When we look back, wouldn’t we prefer to say: “that movie won because it was the best” and not “that movie won because ‘it was time’”? Worse, should an “objectively” better role or movie lose out to one involving women or a minority?

However, let’s face it: awards are not given out strictly on merit. This occurs for various reasons, the most innocuous being that merit is entirely subjective. So, to pretend that any group of voters, even the illustrious (Ha!) Academy members, can tell us what is objectively “best,” particularly in art, is sophomoric. And, as we have seen, politics play into awards constantly and consistently. A campaign released a story about the fact that the psychiatrist’s home in The King’s Speech was used in a gay porno shoot. President Obama somehow decides to speak up on his favorite movie of the year (has he seen many, I wonder? Even the three hour Boyhood?).

More specifically, the industry and audiences are quite content to give out awards to actors and filmmakers on the basis of a whole gamut of variables with little or no connection to talent, including, most relevantly, on the basis of a past history of perceived unfairness towards the particular performer. Martin Scorsese was “overdue” was the argument for The Departed (he was, I agree). Sandra Bullock and Kate Winslet were overdue, they said. Then there are the awards we give out based on popularity. “I love her,” I hope she wins, is heard from voters to audiences to Oscarologists alike (myself included - joy at wins by Meryl Streep or expected wins by the likes of Jessica Chastain or Julianne Moore are but a few personal examples). And does anyone actually think that The Artist’s Jean Dujardin was the Best Actor in a year featuring Brad Pitt in Moneyball and Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?

So, if we accept that awards (a) are not – cannot - be solely about merit; and, as a corollary, (b) are given out for silly reasons including rewarding an individual for perceived past slights, then, surely, giving credit to an entire segment of the population in the face of a long history of past unfairness towards that group should be both palatable, more meaningful and hopefully even as transcendental than the former reasons.

I’m not saying the Oscars should look to award women and racial minorities until the numbers are evened out (it would take them over a century to achieve this). And, if I had a ballot, I would like to think I would fill it out mostly on merit. I merely mean that the time has long passed for the supposedly liberal bastion Hollywood to open its eyes to other stories beyond the straight-white-male narrative. In a year where a film appealing precisely to that, and with men in its name (Boyhood), is about to take the top prize, we simply cannot deny that stories about men have a natural advantage. Boyhood has resonated very well with men (including being named the top movie of the year by both New York Times film critics, and the President himself), and men make up more than three-quarters of the Academy. Boyhood’s win is poised to mark yet another link in the endless chain of male-domination in Hollywood.

So, if alongside yet another coronation of the triumph of the male, we manage to sneak in a few votes for a brave, tireless, and ambitious female actress turned filmmaker, and some for a charming, talented, and fascinating young African American female director, would that be such a bad thing? On the contrary, I posit, it is arguably the right thing.