#OscarsSoMixed! While President Trump angles to diminish diversity, the Oscars are aiming to increase it. Last year, the list of Academy Awards nominees revealed an even whiter bunch of people than a Republican interns’ meeting. There was an uproar over the blindsightedness, and the Academy started working to expand their color scheme, to the point where I even know a black person who was just admitted into the organization! They also began seeking a wider palette of honorees, and it helps that 2016 was a banner year for movies with African-American themes. To ignore them would have been like sitting there stonefaced during Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech.
Among them: Moonlight is the acclaimed coming-of-age story of a gay black boy, complete with dealers, addicts, bullies, friends, and mentors. Hidden Figures is the more feel-good real story of three brilliant African-American women who helped propel NASA into outer space, despite the gravitational pull of racism and misogyny. (Some of the film’s confrontations are a bit formulaic, but it’s not rocket science to realize this is a moving trip to the moon and back.) Fences is a tough and solid adaptation of August Wilson’s play about a Pittsburgh garbage collector who drives people away with his misguided sense of entitlement. And Loving is a quiet, artful look at the Virginia couple Richard and Mildred Loving, who battled for their right to be a happy mixed-race family in the 1960s (the Hidden Figures era, when blacks had to fight for the right to do a lot more than just get nominated).
Between the four films, there are no fewer than sixteen nominations, and the first three — plus Lion — are up for Best Picture, which is a lovely repudiation to last year’s tally. Other films focusing on people of color could have been included too, like Southside With You (about Barack and Michelle’s first date), Queen of Katwe (also based on a true story, this time about a girl from Uganda who becomes a chess champion), and The Birth of a Nation, the Sundance sensation that was going to sweep the Oscars until people were reminded that writer/director/star Nate Parker was accused of rape in 1999 (though he was acquitted of the charges). But still, the inclusiveness of this year’s nominees is heartening, even if Kevin Hart was mysteriously omitted for Ride Along 2. Here’s my rundown of the only categories people care about:
If Trump is not your president, then La La Land is not your Best Picture. But it’s going to win. A light, escapist piece, the record-tying fourteen-time nominated film references The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Rebel Without a Cause — both better films. In this bittersweet musical, Ryan Gosling’s character is supposed to be selling his soul by performing with a character played by John Legend, but when they do a song together (co-written by Legend), you think, “Yay! Finally, a great number!” Though Legend is in it and there are fleeting shots of a black jazz musician, La La still comes off mighty white (especially this year). It’s also an extremely straight date movie — the rare musical that’s not up my gay alley. But there’s some enchantment in it, and there are two great sequences — one with Emma Stone’s actress character telling Gosling off and another in which what could have been is imaginatively imagined. Like Trump himself, this movie divides people, but it’s no surprise that self-reflexive show biz has embraced it — awards voters love pictures about themselves, like Best Picture winners All About Eve, Chicago, and The Artist.
Also in the category is Hacksaw Ridge, proving that it’s officially OK to like Mel Gibson again. As I’ve noted before, with Trump ascending to the highest seat of power in the country, is anyone still mad about Mel’s messy, drunken behavior 100 years ago? It helps that the film — about a WWII conscientious objector — has been called Mel’s mea culpa. It also helps that he’s not in the film.
Ben Affleck is up for a Golden Razzie (for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), but more happily for the Affleck family, brother Casey is going to win the Oscar for Manchester by the Sea. At the Golden Globes, Casey thanked Matt Damon (a producer on the film) for having vacated the role due to scheduling issues, and Matt looked sick. No wonder — Casey will grab the gold for playing an inarticulate Massachusetts man who inherits his nephew, thereby complicating his own lifetime of dramas and secrets. No one can play a character who has a hard time articulating his feelings like Casey Affleck (especially when Damon — or Sean Penn — isn’t available). Affleck’s sexual harassment suits — both settled out of court — might pose a problem, though he denies any wrongdoing. Then again, so does Nate Parker. But I’m counting on the Oscars to prove they’re racist after all, by letting the white guy off the hook.
Also nominated, Denzel Washington gets credit for promising to bring all nine films in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle to HBO, but he’s already got two Oscars, and that’s the end of that. (He won at #SAGawardssoblack, but then #Grammyssowhite restored things to business as usual.) Ryan Gosling learned to glide his hands across the piano keyboard for La La Land, but he won’t dance into the sky with an Oscar; it’s Emma Stone’s film. Andrew Garfield — Emma’s ex-boyfriend — should basically consider his nomination for Hacksaw Ridge his award. (He’d get extra points for being in Silence, the rare Scorsese film about missionaries, but too many found it a monastic slog.) And Viggo Mortensen gets a “We like you” nod for playing a highly unconventional dad in Captain Fantastic, but as far as unconventional parenting goes, Affleck’s got it all sewn up.
Initially, Natalie Portman seemed like a lock for Jackie — she goes whole hog with the accent, and Oscar loves biopics, especially in acting categories. But she’s already won for Black Swan, and after she did a woman came forward to say she’d done all the intricate ballet dancing in the movie, which wasn’t exactly the way the film’s Oscar campaign played it. Fake news! So no one’s rushing to give Natalie another trophy right now. Jackie is contrived — the first lady always seems to be in a one-on-one conversation — but it’s an arty and beautifully hypnotic exploration of the myth of Camelot vs. the reality of a love-torn marriage, presenting a woman who has no idea how to behave after the assassination, learning as she goes along to become a symbol of maternal grace. A similar movie about Melania wouldn’t have nearly as many textures — what you see is what you get.
So if not Natalie, then who? Ruth Negga is wonderful in Loving, as she ascends to the task of fighting injustice, but there’s still too much injustice in Hollywood for her to win. Isabelle Huppert gets kudos for taking on a role, in Elle, that Hollywood actresses squeamishly turned down — that of a hardened, enigmatic woman who hatches a scheme to take revenge on her rapist. Huppert has always gone to dark and interesting places — no wonder she’s one of John Waters’s favorite actresses. Sophia Loren won for 1960’s Two Women, in which she and her daughter were assaulted. Also winning for playing rape victims: Jane Wyman, Brie Larson, Vivien Leigh, Jodie Foster, Patricia Neal, and Charlize Theron. But they all showed their grief, whereas Huppert’s character doesn’t. She won’t cop the prize — the nomination is acknowledgment enough, a way of saying, “We know you’re not Juliette Binoche.”
Meryl Streep’s aforementioned Golden Globes speech makes you want her to win this category — and every category — just to see her take the podium again, but that won’t happen, despite the genius it took to so deftly portray someone devoid of talent in Florence Foster Jenkins. The winner will be Emma Stone, who is Hollywood’s golden girl, capable of anything, and not your typical ingénue by any means. She’s so good she even makes you overlook the movie’s unabashed clichés, like when her La La Land character does a one-person show and one of the handful of people who turns up to see it turns out to be a big casting director! Like I said, Hollywood loves embracing the fantasy.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali will win for shattering stereotypes and playing a dealer who’s a sort of role model — and they have to give something to Moonlight! And to a Muslim! Lucas Hedges was riveting as the out-of-control nephew in Manchester by the Sea, but he’s too new. Jeff Bridges was fab as the crusty Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water, but he’s too old. (And he’s got his Oscar.) Dev Patel was good as the searching son in Lion, but the little muppet of a kid who played the younger version of his character stole the film. Meanwhile, Nocturnal Animals‘ bully, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, isn’t even on the list, which proves that winning a Golden Globe no longer guarantees you an Oscar (see: Sylvester Stallone) or even a nomination. In this case, Oscar went with the same movie, but a different actor — the intriguing Michael Shannon.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Hooray for black people. Viola Davis is a lock to win for Fences. In real life, she exchanges recipes with Meryl. And in the film — an adaptation of the 1983 play that Denzel and Viola revived on Broadway in 2010 — she captures her character’s hurt and pride as she argues with hubby’s contention that he has the right to play around and she doesn’t. There’s only one problem — it’s the movie’s female lead! Viola won the Tony for Best Actress for this role! It’s a complete sham to pretend she’s supporting, but part of Viola’s performance, I guess, is acting like she’s not the female lead. Fellow nominees of color Naomie Harris (Moonlight) and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) are truly supporting, and then you have Michelle Williams (who has a great scene trying to communicate with her ex-husband, played by Affleck, in Manchester by the Sea) and Nicole Kidman (good as an apparently perfect person who adopts kids to change lives in Lion). Williams would get it if Viola was in Best Actress, but as it is, she’ll have to content herself with being a constantly nominated Deborah Kerr/Amy Adams type.
Damien Chazelle has got this one wrapped up, for La La Land. Well, I did love his last one, Whiplash.
Race-related issues prevail here too, thanks to the inclusion of I Am Not Your Negro (about groundbreaking novelist/essayist James Baldwin), 13th (about intense racism in the justice system), and O.J.: Made in America (about the former football great’s habit of distancing himself from his blackness, until he needed to use it in court). Countering those wrongly imprisoned in 13th is a wealthy man who played the race card and avoided jail — for a while. If the glove don’t fit…you must give O.J. the Oscar.
BEST FOREIGN FILM
If The Salesman wins — and I predict it will — it’ll undoubtedly be the most dramatic moment of the evening. The film’s Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi, has announced that he won’t attend the awards, in protest of the humiliation served his country “with the pretext of guarding the security of another.” Not my president.
See you at the awards ceremony on February 26. At least the speeches will undoubtedly consist of more than just a laundry list of thank-yous.
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