The fiasco at the end of last year’s Oscars – which will undoubtedly feature in host Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue in this year’s ceremony in Hollywood on March 4 – was a perfect reflection of the nature of the competition for Best Picture. In case you don’t recall, presenter Warren Beatty was handed the wrong envelope, which held a card printed with the name of Emma Stone, who minutes earlier had won the Best Actress award for her role in “La La Land.” Plainly confused, Beatty passed the card with Stone’s name and movie on it to his co-presenter, Faye Dunaway, who immediately proclaimed “La La Land” the winner. Only after all the producers and cast of “La La Land” had joyously taken the stage was the error spotted. “Moonlight” was declared the rightful winner, and the “La La Land” team tried to hurriedly leave the stage, only to collide with the producers and cast of the winning film, who were now delightedly making their way up there. Awkward.
Beyond the embarrassment it caused, this incident was a classic because something happened at that Oscars ceremony that hadn’t happened in many years, perhaps ever. What really made the ceremony unique last year was that the winning film, Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” was, in my view, truly the best American film to be released in 2017.
The Oscars are often derided for biased selections that do not faithfully represent the state of American filmmaking. However, there have been years in which the list of nominees for Best Picture and the choices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, have bordered on the ridiculous. This occurred for the most part at times when the American film industry was in crisis, such as the early 1950s. To hit back at the young medium of television, which was keeping audiences at home, Hollywood began producing epic-scale movies designed to provide an alternative to the entertainment on offer on the small black-and-white TV screen. These movies were usually nominated for the Oscar, because even if they were critically panned, they were still box-office hits. Thus, for example, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” won the prize in 1952, even though John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” was widely thought to be the most deserving. (The film did earn Ford his fourth Oscar as Best Director, though.)
Hollywood went through another crisis in the 1960s, with the collapse of the classic Hollywood film system. Then, the Academy came to the aid of the big studios that had invested many millions in their movies – only to see a large percentage fail to live up to financial expectations, bringing the studios to the brink of disaster. In 1963, when there were still just five films nominated in the Best Picture category, one was “Cleopatra,” a critical and financial failure that attracted interest mostly due to the scandalous affair between its two stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The 1967 nominees included the roundly panned musical “Dr. Doolittle,” and in 1969, “Hello, Dolly!,” also a big disappointment, was in the running. At least none of these three films won the award for Best Picture.
Another complaint about the Academy has been that its members prefer to play it safe and avoid voting for “problematic” films. The 1967 Oscars exemplified this notion: “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde” were both among the Best Picture nominees that year, but the award went to “In the Heat of the Night.” Although the latter is historically important for addressing the topic of race relations in America, its portrayal of this subject is unduly flattering, and the film as a whole is far less important and accomplished than the other nominees.
In the same vein, looking back now, it’s hard to believe that the 1977 award for Best Picture went to “Rocky” and that John G. Avildsen also picked up the Best Director award for that film. This was in a year when the list of nominees included “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver” and “Network.” Another case in point – 1981, when the heartwarming “Chariots of Fire” took the prize over the sterling “Reds,” whose subject, American communists, apparently made Academy voters a little uneasy (though they did see their way to voting Warren Beatty Best Director).
This tendency also came to the fore at the 2006 Oscar ceremony, when strong favorite “Brokeback Mountain,” one of the best movies of the past couple of decades, lost out to “Crash,” which dealt very schematically with class, ethnic and gender tensions in American society and conveyed a superficial message of unity (though Ang Lee did pick up the Best Director award for “Brokeback Mountain”).
A rare thing
This history makes one appreciate this year’s list of Best Picture nominees. Of the nine on the list, the only one I’ve yet to see is “Lady Bird.” Its director, Greta Gerwig, is only the fifth woman in the history of the Oscars to be nominated for Best Director (two of her four predecessors were not Americans: Lina Wertmuller from Italy and Jane Campion from New Zealand; and only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won). The eight that I have seen are quality films, though of varying degrees of merit. The list includes five good movies with real cinematic power: “Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “Phantom Thread,” “The Shape of Water” (which garnered the most nominations – 13 – of any film and just opened in Israel) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
If it were up to me, I’d give the award to “Three Billboards.” Though it earned rave reviews, its chances of taking the prize were diminished when its writer and director Martin McDonagh was left off the list of Best Director nominees, though he is nominated and heavily favored to win in the Best Original Screenplay category. To date, only one film, “Driving Miss Daisy,” has won Best Picture when its director (Bruce Beresford, in that case) was not nominated.
While last year’s list of Best Picture nominees reflected the uproar of the previous year when there were protests about how the Oscars were “too white,” this year’s list is primarily about quality, and that’s a rare thing in Oscar history. Competition with television might again have something to do with it; viewing options have expanded exponentially, and numerous TV shows of impressive quality frequently draw more acclaim, media attention and viewers than many major film releases. Still, one can’t help but note the amount of ethnic diversity among this year’s crop of nominees. Of the nine Best Picture nominees, there is one film, “Get Out,” about race relations in today’s America. Its first-time director, Jordan Peele, an African-American, is nominated for Best Director, and also competing with McDonagh in the Best Original Screenplay category. Of the 20 Oscar-nominated actors, four – a lead actor and actress, and a supporting actor and actress – are black. There are no actors of Asian background on the list. Overall, there have been very few Asian actors ever nominated for Oscars. Japanese actress Miyoshi Umeki made history in 1957 when she won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Sayonara,” which starred Marlon Brando. And Taiwan-born director Ang Lee has won two Oscars (for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Life of Pi” in 2012).
Mexican filmmakers have been prominent at the Oscars in recent years. If Guillermo del Toro does win Best Director for “The Shape of Water,” as many are predicting, he will follow in the footsteps of Alfonso Cuarón, who won for “Gravity” in 2013, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who won two years in a row, for “Birdman” in 2014 and for “The Revenant” in 2015. I note these ethnic facts because the Oscars, now marking their 90th year, serve as the calling card for the American film industry, which aims to provide not just entertainment, but art, to demonstrate its connection to American society and culture in general, and to convey a global message. Sometimes, its striving for these goals ends poorly, the result just illustrating how much pretense is involved in Hollywood’s most prestigious and glamorous celebration. And sometimes, as happened last year and will likely happen this year too, the attempt to realize these goals is much more admirable.
Some maintain that Oscar nominations and wins do not properly represent American cinema in terms of its connection with the audience. This year some complained, for instance, that “Wonder Woman,” which was a far bigger hit than any of the Best Picture nominees and received mainly positive reviews, was not nominated. But with the policy that currently guides the Oscars, a film like “Wonder Woman” didn’t stand a chance.
This year’s Oscars will be notable for another reason. Prior to the main ceremony, there is another ceremony where lifetime achievement awards are given out to eminent figures in the film industry, and two of the choices this year are particularly worthy. One award will go to the superb actor Donald Sutherland, who surprisingly was never nominated for an Oscar, and another will go to the great French director Agnès Varda, who turns 90 in May. Her wonderful documentary “Faces Places” is nominated in the Best Documentary category. The choice of Varda is especially impressive, considering that most of the audience watching the Oscars at home, as well as many of those present at the ceremony, have probably never heard of her.