A Guide to the Oscars in the Age of Late Capitalism

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Brad Avery dissects The 91st Academy AwardsThe 91st Academy Awards are this Sunday, celebrating the “best” in film from 2018. It is without a host, contains a list of noxious film selections, and the attempts it will be making this year at shortening the ceremony’s broadcast have been widely-publicized as nothing short of catastrophic. The cynical business of awards shows has rarely been more front-and-center. Perhaps it is part of this late capitalist era we live in, where our institutions are proven more hollow than hallowed. If the government is held together by shoestrings, why should we expect our awards shows to be any better?

The Oscars serve two primary purposes: for the industry it is a marketing and networking event, so producers can slap a little statue on the DVD box cover with a big number, saying how many awards it was nominated for and raking in rental sales for decades. For consumers, it is wholly for entertainment and gambling.

If you believe an Academy Award holds any value or importance turn back now. Otherwise, here’s your guide to the eight films nominated for Best Picture.

Black Panther

In 1955, a low budget romantic drama scripted by Paddy Chayefsky and starring Ernest Borgnine as a working class Bronx butcher became an unexpected runaway hit. The film, Marty, was a critical success and managed to take the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Producer Harold Hecht saw an opportunity to capitalize on the widespread appraisal and would spend $350,000 (more than the film’s entire production budget) to lobby the industry. In a matter of weeks he created the modern Oscar campaign with aggressive advertisements, ritzy screenings, and expensive dinners for voters. The strategy worked and Marty cleaned up on Oscar night, taking home four statues including Best Picture.

Today, Oscar campaigns can run anywhere from $20 million to $30 million, according to go-to industry journal Variety. Sending screeners to voters can alone cost upwards of $300,000. Online and print ads, industry events, and hosting career retrospectives for nominees all factor in to the final price, and the reward is glory, legitimization, and decades of free marketing if your film can forever join the pantheon of “Best Picture nominees.”

Disney, which seems intent on purchasing its way to monopoly, already owns the Oscars’ broadcaster, ABC Television, and its recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox signifies a centralization of media control. Its $4 billion purchase of Marvel Entertainment in 2009 has proven with time to be one of its most profitable acquisitions of the modern era — generating more than $17 billion to date — but canonical legitimacy has escaped the House of Mouse’s mega franchise. With Black Panther, the company managed to finally make a superhero movie with enough social commentary to resonate, while still upholding the same military-industrial complex that has helped the CIA to overthrow Killmonger’s Wakanda and many real African governments before it. It’s a win-win-win situation: Hollywood boosts diverse voices, Disney makes bank, and the government doesn’t have to worry about actual subversive thought (at least nothing it can’t handle with another Iron Man movie).

It’s among the top half of potential Best Picture upsets but that’s still a long shot. Expect it to take home technical and design awards. At least Ryan Coogler’s next film will put him back in Fruitvale Station mode with a Fred Hampton biopic.

BlacKkKlansman

Though it’s been criticized (as has Black Panther) for alleged sympathies to the systems that uphold white supremacy, Spike Lee’s film is a gut punch with a smelling-salt ending montage for any audience member who was lured into a false sense of victory by its protagonist’s small triumph over an obscure Ku Klux Klan plot.

BlacKkKlansman feels like the type of movie Oscar voters avoid at any costs. Something that may turn a mirror to their own, mostly white voting body. But the last few years, following the backlash of #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy has sought to diversify its voters. It’s a decision that very well may have been why Get Out performed so well last year. While Jordan Peele’s horror film couched the monstrosity of white supremacy in a high concept thriller with a triumphant ending (horror has always been the genre where filmmakers can smuggle radical ideas under the noses of Hollywood suits), Lee’s film features a still-living white supremacist as its villain and ends with real footage of an actual murder. A stark wake-up call from the cop and criminal fantasy Lee lampshades with a mid-film discussion of blaxploitation classics like Shaft.

The conversation around BlacKkKlansman’s Oscar prospects seems to center around a 30 year snub against Lee’s classic Do the Right Thing. If he does manage to pull off an adapted screenplay win, his speech ought to be one for the ages.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bryan Singer is (allegedly) a serial rapist. Remember that on Sunday.

Some Thoughts on Rami Malek

Oscar campaigns frequently weave richer narratives than the movies they promote. Rami Malek is almost assuredly taking home the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury, and part of that is because of the troubled making of Bohemian Rhapsody. With director Bryan Singer fleeing the country midway through production, Malek’s performance gained an even stronger platform — here is an actor who captured the presence of a legendary musician while having no consistent direction to guide him. His ability to mimic Mercury’s stage presence, the Academy’s propensity to award impressions of famous people, and the film’s massive Box Office returns wound up giving Malek the story he needed to seal the deal on his Oscar campaign.

Never mind that his depiction of Mercury off-stage is a goofy mess — a caricature of an artist constantly proclaiming his own genius to himself while the film desperately tries to avoid getting too gay. (Mercury’s depicted as first the victim of an abusive boyfriend while Jim Hutton, his partner for his last years, is sidelined until the final scenes after he’s already been diagnosed with AIDS several years early just in case you thought you might see a healthy queer relationship).

Now, those issues aren’t really his fault, he’s doing his best with what he’s been given. But Malek’s victory will be the result of a masterful piece of storytelling — not the mess on-screen, but the great off-screen performance through the press tours and luncheons and hype machines. Just as Glenn Close is likely to finally win her Best Actress statue for The Wife, not because it’s her finest performance but because she’s “due.” Malek overcame a disastrous production, bad prosthetics, and reporters constantly asking him about Bryan Singer (he got quite adept at abruptly ending interviews) and now he will be praised for his ability to work with choreographers.

The Favourite

The presence of The Favourite among Oscar nominees feels something like a joke. This openly queer film from the director of Dogtooth and The Lobster seems like a parody of the type of easy Oscar-bait period pieces that have readily picked up costume design statues for decades. It’s the anti-Shakespeare in Love. Perhaps it was the detachment of an 18th century English setting that let this sharp, hostile film about power and patriarchy slip through, or perhaps we’re at a cultural moment where the Oscars really are recognizing the shifting dynamics of our politics.

Well, that might be giving them a little too much credit. See next entry.

Green Book

White Americans have been routinely raised to believe that racism is a moral failing of the individual rather than a societal institution from which we benefit at the expense of others. The cause of racism, as Oscar favorites like Green Book, Driving Miss Daisy, Crash, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner tell us, is a lack of communication and a failure of the races to understand one another. These films’ common solution to the issue of racism is the emotional bonding of individuals, the deeply-felt belief that heart-to-hearts will show audiences how racism is illogical and wrong. But this approach is of a liberal rationality that imagines a perfect scenario where we are beholden to fact and where white people learn the error of their ways, admit their faults, and are redeemed through interracial friendship.

In Hollywood, the American South is a cursed land of hostile spirits, like the confederate ghosts in Two Thousand Maniacs! In their view, racism possesses people, corrupts them — it is an invasive demon to be exorcised. Once it is expelled through camaraderie and conversation we can live together in harmony.

This is a lie, of course. Much like the lies about Don Shirley that Green Book uses to tell yet another story of a bigot who learns to be better. We cannot be racist, we have black friends.

Racism is not an external demon: it is an intrinsic component of our system.

In 2014, Steve McQueen’s harrowing 12 Years a Slave won the Oscars’ top award, a triumphant turn for the Academy to celebrate a film that calls out the horrible truth that the foundation of American society has been built on the backs of enslaved black people. But at least two voters admitted they didn’t even watch the film before voting for it, feeling the movie was “important” but not wanting confront the realities of systemic racism themselves.

Green Book seems more their speed. They need to be told everything is okay.

Roma

As modes of production and distribution in Hollywood are uprooted by streaming services, resentment has settled in. AMC and Regal cinemas refused to show Alfonso Cuaron’s masterful Roma as part of their annual Best Picture showcases because the film was produced and distributed by Netflix. European exhibitor Vue International decried the film’s victories at the BAFTA’s as a celebration of a “made-for-TV movie.” Hostilities toward Netflix precede Roma, the Cannes Film Festival banned their productions from future screenings after backlash from French theater owners and unions.

But to secure awards, Netflix produced 70mm prints of Roma (despite the movie being shot on digital) and screened them in limited runs around the country in order to meet Academy qualifications. Now, it is the frontrunner, with Cuaron poised to take his second Best Director statue. It’s confounding to think that this beautiful, naturalist, working class film could become the representation of cold industry in-fighting over modes of distribution, but here we are.

Roma the film is a heart-wrenching song of a silenced woman. Roma the awards horse is the face of a war for the future of the movie industry.

A Star is Born

How the winds change. In October it seemed that the awards had been locked up, with Lady Gaga and Sam Elliott as shoe-ins for acting statues and a Best Picture victory in sight. Now bookies have the film’s odds at +6600, second-to-last just before Vice.

The Los Angeles Times profiled the film’s collapse from front-runner to snowball’s chance. Perhaps it was Lady Gaga, a multi-millionaire megastar who has been an A-Lister since 2008 telling the same Cinderella story again and again. Or perhaps it was the fragile ego of Bradley Cooper and his desperate need to be recognized as the new Clint Eastwood despite also being a multimillionaire A-Lister since 2009. Or maybe it was famous abuser Sean Penn becoming the film’s unaffiliated spokesman? Or simply it could have just got out in front too quickly and people got tired of it.

That song is still gonna win though.

Vice

I liked Vice more than most. But it’s inclusion here is as an also-ran. There’s a strong, transformative lead performance, great makeup (that may well win) and an agitprop political agenda with funky editing. But Adam McKay has lost his comedian-gone-straight narrative from 2015. Christian Bale is losing the Best Actor narrative to Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek.

Vice will appear in haphazardly edited montages and its stars will introduce it on stage with glib comments about power and allusions to Trumpism.

It will be remembered forever as a movie that once was nominated for an Oscar. And after all, isn’t that what this is all about?

The 91st Academy Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, February 24 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC. Tune in early for red carpet coverage to see which entertainment reporter asks the stars wholly inappropriate questions.




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About Author

Brad Avery is a Boston-based writer and journalist whose film analysis has appeared in Vanyaland and Brattle Theatre Film Notes. You can follow him on Letterboxd.

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