They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Op-Ed: The La La Land Oscars in the Age of Politics
By J. Don Birnam
February 22, 2017

Jist of speech: Donald Trump sucks.

As the end of the awards season draws near and the inevitable coronation of La La Land approaches, the predictability of the top race permits us to do a sort of pre “postmortem” of what the Oscars tell us about the Academy, the industry, and beyond.

The Academy is in trouble. They are at a potential crossroads again and may be shooting themselves in the foot with their choices. And it is the focus on easy controversies like #OscarsSoWhite (which as I’ve argued before is misguided and at the very least misdirected at an Academy that is really just the last link in a chain of prejudice that arguably starts with the audiences themselves), that is obscuring what the real issue is. The Academy is voting itself into quick irrelevance.

When I first started writing this column for BOP in 2014, I wrote an “impassioned defense” of the Academy Awards against criticism that I normally hear each year and grate my ears about the length of the show or about the movies they pick. I argued, back then, that the industry is stuck between the rock of fans not interested in these types of movies and the hard place of critics wanting even more obscure pictures. The outcomes selected by the voters were the best they could do given these dichotomies. I've had to repeat and remake that defense after each show since.

It may be time to revisit this argument. Today, I propose that the Academy may be making a horrific mistake if it anoints La La Land a sweep winner. The world has changed much since 2014. It is a wakeup call for everyone, and a potential problem for them if they don’t do so.

Before I get into my reasons, let’s not be glib about what I mean when I say they have a “problem.” I realize we are talking about the entertainment industry. I do not mean to exaggerate this into some sort of existential or urgent issue, or anything anyone needs to be outraged about. There are a multitude of actual problems with the world. Any “problem” discussed herein is simply fluff and life goes on just the same the moment the final envelope is opened.

A Brief, Relevant History

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is without question a remarkable, impressive institution. Born at the moment in time when the industry sought to unionize and was undergoing massive shifts from silent movies to talkies, it was conceived originally to stop these guilds and centralize control.

Since then, it has undergone various radical transformations, the most obvious of which is to embrace the unions it first demonized, but also the transition to color, the invention of TV and later video/DVDs, and now the Internet. How has it stayed relevant all this time? Awards bodies come and go, but only the Oscars convey that international sense of prestige that they do, no matter how it annoys the Academy naysayers.

One could point to their adaptability. In the 1970s, when audiences were discovering blockbusters and not necessarily flocking to dark movies like Taxi Driver or Dog Day Afternoon, or even The Godfather, the members of the Academy were politically active (perhaps against the wishes of the institution itself). The Oscars were raucous affairs that in one decade alone had a (fake) protest about the treatment of American Indians, Paddy Chayefsky and Vanessa Redgrave facing off over Israel-related issues, Jane Fonda shunned then rehabilitated for her opposition to the Vietnam War, and, most importantly and more fundamentally, a bevy of Best Picture winners and nominees such as The Deer Hunter and, later, Platoon, that spoke to the anxieties of the day.

In the 1990s, the Academy made itself relevant in other ways, mostly by prizing movies that, while sometimes derided by critics, were audience favorites. The triumphs of Forrest Gump, Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, and Gladiator all rewarded movies that audiences themselves had embraced. The times, they were a-changing, and AMPAS’s choices changed with them.

Today, both these formulas are gone. The Academy and the core movie-going audiences have parted ways, with the former ignoring the superhero/comic book films that the latter adores. Instead, the Academy has turned to mainstream critics to see what is acceptable and worthy of their elegy.

That was the case, at least, until The Artist won Best Picture.

The Politicization of the 2016-2017 Awards Season

For reasons too complex to distill here, the tone of the Western world underwent some radical shifts in 2016, starting with Brexit and culminating with the election of Donald Trump. Regardless of one’s views of the desirability of these facts, most would agree that they represent the potential for seismic shifts or long-lasting alterations to the world order that preceded them.

Many in Hollywood do not favor these changes. Vocal Hollywood players, starting probably with Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, started using the podium as a political soapbox. In the last six weeks, all awards shows, even the BAFTAs in London, have featured a bevy of politically-oriented speeches, most of them decrying the policies of the new American administration. Not everyone has reacted well to these developments, with some saying that an actor’s role is to act and be quiet about politics. (As an aside, while conservatives decry the obviously mostly liberal views of Hollywood, we should remember that while most vocal actors may be liberal, the politically successful ones have been conservative ones, netting two Presidents in the last decades).

My take is slightly different. Artists should speak up for their views whatever they may be. We all live in a conjoined society and no one’s profession disqualifies them from participating in the polity’s discourse. But the Academy and Hollywood risk making fools of themselves if all they do is spin a few nice sounding yarns while holding up Gold trophies that reward only self-inspection.

One of the big things that came out of the election is the idea that this or that side of the debate lives in a “bubble.” What more evidence of a bubble would you want than a bunch of privileged folks dressed up in fancy dresses and jewelry self-congratulating while the world faces critical issues? Hollywood would be accused, rightly so, of living in, ahem, La La Land, if they simply stuck to that parade of glitz and glamour. They would be ridiculed as living in the ultimate consummate bubble if they did not speak up at all.

Particularly so when the movie they are set to shower with golden honors is a movie about precisely that bubble itself.

Why La La Land is the Wrong Choice

My friends who do not follow the Oscars as closely as I do never believe me when I tell them that lauding movies about Hollywood is a phenomenon of recent vintage. “Oh, of course La La Land is going to win,” they’ll say, “they love stories about themselves.”

But if you look back at the history of Best Picture winners and even nominees, this was not always the case. Other than Sunset Boulevard, which did not win Best Picture, there are few nominees on the subject of Hollywood.

It wasn’t until The Artist won Best Picture in 2011 that a movie about Hollywood triumphed at the Oscars. Since then, we have seen a movie about the history of Hollywood (The Artist), a movie about the heroics of Hollywood (Argo), and a movie about the future of Hollywood (Birdman), soar to top honors. And now, a movie about all of the above is set to join them.

It rings therefore hollow for the glitterati to spew political invective with their mouths and vote “all is well, all is about us” with their hands. It opens them up, rightly, to charges of “talk is cheap.” If they are so serious about the values of shared experiences and amalgamation of cultures, why not, then, recognize pictures, as they have in the past, that encourage the telling of stories different from these common stories or, even better, tales about contemporary or relevant subjects. By voting these movies for Best Picture they’re not going to change the world. But as tastemakers, they are going to influence the kind of story that gets told and made, which in turn does affect the culture.

I realize there is no obligation for someone with a microphone to use it to advance social or political goals. One of the many interesting points raised by the Best Documentary frontrunner O.J.: Made in America is whether O.J. Simpson had some sort of moral obligation to use his fame to speak out against police brutality against African Americans. I don’t think that this deeply personal and fundamental question allows a straightforward or simple answer.

Similarly, the Academy has no ethical or moral or social obligation to try to promote messages outside of their insular bubble. It’s their awards show and my original defense of them in that sense is unchanged.

But we also have no obligation to care. There is no law or rule that says they will always be considered relevant. Other periods have threatened that relevancy and, in my view, this approach - the one that rewards a movie about them every other year - is one such threat. Indeed, in a recent article about last year's #OscarsSoWhite-provoked "shakeup" at the Academy, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs was quoted as saying that the new members invited to quell that controversy were about relevance.

The Academy faces two unenviable choices: give the people what they want (as in the 1990s) and have a Marvel movie win Best Picture every year, or vote for subtle stories that contribute to how we view the world (as in the 1970s). Their path of choice now, however, is the worse possible alternative. It is to do neither, and thus do nothing, casting themselves as wholly irrelevant. All moviegoing constituencies will soon view them as a group of self-lauding narcissists, not just those who pay scant attention.

What Then?

The diversity of the stories in this year’s Oscar race is to be commended. I don’t mean in the facile way of diversity - skin color or gender or sexual orientation. I mean it in a much deeper sense. These stories span the globe and the ages. There are deeply personal stories of a life’s journey (Lion), stories about the problems that afflict certain segments of the country today (Hell or High Water) or in the past (Fences). There are important stories about triumph over adversity and the invidiousness of racism (Hidden Figures), and stories about the future of humanity and the importance in cooperative globalization (Arrival). And there are stories with much more modest scopes and goals, but still quintessentially different from the stories that you hear told most of the time (Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea).

Faced with this embarrassment of riches, the Academy’s upcoming choice of La La Land is obscene. They don’t necessarily need to pick the one that “sends a message” but they also don’t need to pick one (yet another one) that is all about them all the time.

Not a word of this opinion piece should be read as an attempt to minimize the achievement of La La Land, or the fact that it is a beautiful and creative tale. But let’s not pretend that they make these choices based solely on talent or quality - not when lifetime achievement Oscars abound or when Oscars to pretty young girls are the flavor of the day.

I’m really just stating the obvious. The arc of history bends forward, and quickly. More so today. It is a rapidly changing world in many respects, some welcome, some worrisome. I didn’t even touch here upon the crisis of declining movie-going audiences that Hollywood continues to struggle with.

Faced with these realities, then, what will Hollywood do? Put their money where their mouths are - as figures such as Ms. Streep do - by at the very least with what they choose to dignify as the “Best” of the year? Or be content to string together inspiring and rousing words on a stage, but giving the golds to those Fools Who Dream?

Our stories will go on and continue, our survival does not depend in any respect on what the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences does or does not do. But their survival - that is another story.

I’d love your thoughts. Twitter: @jdonbirnam
Instagram: @awards_predix