They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

Final Look at 2019 Oscars: Wither The Academy?

By J. Don Birnam

February 26, 2019


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They say history is written by the victors. But, when it comes to the Oscars, it can usually be the also-rans that get to write the story of how a season unfolded and what it means. The ink was not dry on Green Book’s Best Picture win at the Oscars last night , before some in the Film World were already throwing out a dreaded comparison to that horrendous movie Crash, or declaring it one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time. (For a group that includes doozies like Forest Gump, The Greatest Show On Earth, and American in Paris, that is saying a lot!)

What will the story of the 2018-2019 Oscar season be? What will the lessons be? Every year we try to gain new insight into the Academy with its annual list of choices. This year, I propose, we can gain insight into ourselves.

The Academy, in flux, troubled, torn, reflects nothing but America itself. Same as it ever was.

Look at the Good Stuff and Note the A for (Misguided?) Effort

The anger over Green Book’s coronation takes on two interrelated strands. Some find the movie clichéd and simple-minded, a tried and true Hollywood paint-by-numbers picture about two unlikely friends discovering themselves, etc. Others note an even worse problem: the film’s problematic treatment of race, the “white savior” narrative that continues to pop up in many movies at the Academy rewards, and the elimination of a multi-dimensional black character. That is to say nothing of all the backstories about the film’s writers/producers and their political views. Fans, by contrast, note the redemptive message of unity and the overall, undeniable ability of the film to make people laugh. There is no question that the movie appeals to broad audiences as evidenced by its popular vote win at TIFF and its preferential ballot wins at the PGA and the Oscars.

The bottom line is, passions run deep around this one, and the conversation on the Internet turned nasty quickly, with sides pointing “racism” and “white washing” fingers at each other.

Before we get into what the Green Book controversy means, let’s take a look at what other wins tell us about the Academy. The first two biggish surprises of the night went to Black Panther for Production and Costume Design. It had been 30 years since an African-American woman had won a non-acting Oscar. In three minutes, that number went to three with these two wins. Spike Lee finally won a non-Oscar, for adapting the screenplay for BlacKkKlansman. Mexico won its first Oscar ever in the Best Foreign Language Film category, and Roma also made history by being the first foreign movie to win Best Director.

Clearly, the Academy wants to “do the right thing” from their perspective. They want to recognize different kind of films, including fantasy, superheroes, stories from other countries. To think that a movie in Spanish, in black and white, about Mexico, won Best Director. You have to take a step back - that is unprecedented and almost impossible to believe

What explains, then, that the same group of people would select Green Book, a movie many thoughtful people have dismissed as white savior-ish? How could the same group that picked Moonlight go for that?

There are at least two theories you could advance to explain this. One is that they perceive the two types of stories as the same. We complained for years that the Oscar for Best Picture never went to a story with African American themes. It finally did with 12 Years a Slave. There were some complaints that this movie only covered an old topic. But the point is that the Academy could sincerely and genuinely believe that by rewarding stories that deal with racism and other such topics, they are responding to controversies like #OscarsSoWhite. Be careful what you wish for.

The other theory is that the Academy could be, much like America, hopelessly divided into two large camps and a small third group that throws the outcome of close races much like independents seem to alternate between Republicans and Democrats every few year.


The Lesson Is: We Have to Stop Screaming at Each Other

But let’s not forget a crucial point about the whole topic of awards and the Academy. The Oscars are but one stop in a long journey for a picture, for culture to find its place in a broader collective history. We expect greatness at our own peril. Perhaps we got buoyed by something like Moonlight and confused into thinking that this is not the same Academy that picked Crash, that has only given Best Director to a woman once in 91 years despite many worthy contenders, that has only given Best Actress to one African-American woman in 91 years, again despite many options. This is not a group you want to put your hopes for righteousness on, this is not a voting body that has the last word as to what art is valuable, or worth remembering.

It is also not worth condemning the Academy for making selections we do not agree with. It is not that hard to understand why they would not identify a story about a Mexican maid. Respect, sure, but it did not move most of them. Does it have to? Roma was my favorite movie of the year, but I would not presume to tell everyone that it should be theirs, that everyone should have the same reaction. It is not uncommon that in years of a lot of bad news, voters want to feel good. Bohemian Rhapsody, an easy biopic with great, recognizable songs, won four Oscars. It is not too high brow, but the high brow movies perhaps divided their votes. And when they do go too indie, they get criticized as well.

What the Green Book debate does suggest, however, is that the Academy is, once more, but a reflection of our broader society, a snapshot of what America is about now. That is perhaps the main reason to care about the Oscars - they reflect who we are, whether we like it or not.

And the picture is not pretty.

Reports of “brutally honest Oscars ballots” suggest that many Green Book voters became resentful and hardened in their views when they were told that they were racist for supporting that film. In other words, incendiary, identity politics-based attacks on social media etc. may have served only to help, rather than hurt Green Book’s chances.

Does that sound familiar? It sure does, it echoes the 2016 election. Far be it from me to defend Green Book, a choice I will never get behind and will always condemn as too facile. But, if we do not learn how to talk to each other about topics that we disagree about, we will get nowhere, and we could usher in worse outcomes.

The Academy is, in other words, reflecting what is going on in America: we are honestly, finally, sincerely and with mostly good intentions trying to address issues of racial inequality after centuries of invidious discrimination. This is a process that is not easy to undertake as a nation, that is fraught with peril and with hurt feelings, that defies easy reductions. If we think we know all the answers and lord them over others - beware. It is unlikely that we will reach anybody.

I am not talking about trying to convince racist Trump voters to change their views. We are talking about a group - the Academy - that is clearly within reach of being taught new perspectives. The broad result of this and the past three years demonstrate that. So, let’s not turn those people to the dark side by relentless, brutal attacks. Let’s not scream at each other, let’s not scream at people who could be educated to see the complications in these difficult topics.

It also means that, just like the Academy, America is not likely to resolve this complicated issues about race, racism, and our difficult past, without fits, starts, steps forward and back, and pissing off a few people along the way.

The Sordid Topic of Predicting: Predictability Continues & Beware the Internet

When it comes to the more mundane topic of winning Oscar ballots, the years-long trend of predictability is solidifying. With more and more precursors and more and more influence of online chatter dictating outcomes, there is no turning back from this - except, quite ironically, from the biggest prize of the night, given the inherent difficulty in handicapping preferential voting.

Although if you look at my final picks I had a pedestrian 16/24 guesses correct, if you look at my “Could Also Win” selections, I guessed all correct except for Live Action Short, where I could just not fathom a win for the gruesome Skin.

What this tells me is what I have been saying but failing to heed for years: Ignore the buzz/hive mind of Twitter and the Internet. Glenn Close, in particular, was never going to happen. She was in a movie with one nod versus one with ten. Same for the Black Panther tech wins - it felt like they’d reward something else, and they did.

This all means you can do even better if you are willing to go against the grain - smartly.

It’s a Wrap

That is all she wrote folks! Thanks again for following us in this space, enjoy the movie year 2019 in film. We will be back here to do it all again, don’t you worry!

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