The 89th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 26, 23 days from today.
PGA and SAG
Last Saturday, La La Land took home one of the most important awards of the season: the Producers Guild of America award. This victory is important because, as Scott Feinberg points out, “the PGA Awards is the first major awards ceremony of the season at which winners are determined by people who actually make movies” (as opposed to, say, the Critics Choice Awards or Golden Globes). Reasons why the PGA is a close proxy for Best Picture include a similar number of voters (both around 7,000), use of the preferential ballot system and the fact that the final round of Oscar voting has not started. History also plays a part; 19 of the past 27 winners of the PGA prize went on to win Best Picture, though last year’s winner The Big Short fell to Spotlight on Oscar night. It was not unexpected that La La Land won, given its impressive haul of Oscar nominations, critical success and impressive performance so far at the box office (more than $100 MM domestically), but it only adds to the movie’s momentum and inevitability.
(There was a breakfast for the nominees that morning, where producers shared some great anecdotes, including Kevin Costner being told that he was the “fourth banana” in terms of salary in Hidden Figures and a test screening of Lion making grown British men cry.)
The next night, La La Land did not win the Screen Actors Guild award for best ensemble, but only because it wasn’t nominated. Most people assumed that Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea would go on to win the big prize of the night, but it went instead to Hidden Figures. This was really exciting, but doesn’t necessarily mean that Hidden Figures is destined for Best Picture. Only 11 of the past 21 best ensemble SAG Award winners won the Oscar, and Hidden Figures does not have either a DGA or Oscar nod for director; the last film to win Best Picture without nominations for its director was Driving Miss Daisy almost 30 years ago. Frankly, this is good news for La La Land as it eliminates a single, strong alternative.
As expected, Emma Stone won Best Actress for La La Land, Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor for Moonlight and Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress for Fences. Less expected was Denzel Washington’s Best Actor win for Fences. (Many expected Manchester by the Sea‘s Casey Affleck to nab it.) SAG is generally a strong predictor of Academy Awards success; Scott Feinberg notes that only four times in the last 22 years has the Best Actor winner not gone on to win the corresponding Oscar, with the most recent occasion being 13 years ago. The race between Washington and Affleck is incredibly close, and Oscar voters will need to decide whether to give the award to someone who has already won twice or someone who is accused of sexual harassment. Thinking more positively, this is the second time in SAG history that three of the four acting winners were people of color (the last time was 10 years ago, when the awards went to Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland and Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls); this has never happened at the Oscars.
So, La La Land?
It would be very hard to argue that La La Land is not the overwhelming favorite right now. The question isn’t even whether La La Land will win Best Picture but rather how many awards it will rack up over the course of the night. (Vulture walks through how feasible it is that La La Land will tie the winning record of 11 awards shared by Ben-Hur, Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, with Best Actor, Best Costume Design and Best Sound Editing the least likely wins listed.) It is by no means a sure thing, but especially if it takes home the DGA prize tomorrow night, any other film winning would be a huge surprise.
Being the frontrunner inspires a backlash. This year’s backlash, though, feels sort of random. The main criticisms are that…
- La La Land is too light: It’s a musical. People sing and dance. Therefore it isn’t a “serious” movie and shouldn’t win the industry’s top prize. According to Sasha Stone, there was a similar backlash to Chicago, which “began to be hated much like La La Land is beginning to be hated” and was seen as trivial despite being dark. People started pushing The Pianist as the more “important” movie, though it was Chicago that ended up winning. You can’t really argue with the fact that La La Land is a musical or that it’s relatively optimistic, but I’d point out that there’s a lot of nuance there and they don’t all live happily ever after.
- La La Land is racist, homophobic and hates jazz: This is basically three arguments. First, there are no people of color or gay people in the movie and it doesn’t represent all of Los Angeles. (This argument often forgets about John Legend and the fact that there are basically no other characters in the movie. J.K. Simmons is grumpy in a minute of screen time. Ryan Gosling has a sister. Emma Stone has some roommates and a boyfriend. There was an irritating photographer once. None of them really say anything or have any importance to the story. Maybe the irritating photographer is gay. At the end of the day, it’s hard for me to be angry at a movie for having its main characters be white and straight.) Second, having a white person like jazz music is appropriation. (This is so dumb.) Third, La La Land has an out-of-date view on how jazz should be. (Generally, this is the argument for more mainstream news sources, but I struggle to see how having a character have an outdated opinion about a type of music — a character for whom all sorts of nostalgia are attractive — means that the movie is flawed.)
- La La Land is an “Oscar grab” or “easy movie to pick”: People got annoyed at La La Land at the Golden Globes when Damien Chazelle talked about how hard it was to make the film and how “risky” a modern original musical is. No it’s not, they reply. You have Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and the director of Whiplash. Of course this will be easy to get off the ground. This misses the point that the film was in production long before Stone and Gosling signed on and long before Whiplash was made. There were risk-taking producers who put money behind an ambitious project that they could not have known would pay off this grandly. Deadline’s David Poland does an excellent job countering this point in his article “The simple case FOR La La Land,” noting that the team behind the film is a “seriously indie team with smart, young, hungry producers.” (Moonlight is often discussed as a more “difficult” film in comparison, but it was produced by Plan B, which has scored five nominations in the past five years with The Big Short, Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Moneyball and The Tree of Life. It took just a year from acquiring the script to fully finance the film and begin shooting.) In short, as Poland notes, “Reducing any movie to ‘easy’ or ‘Oscar-bait’ is wrong-headed…If La La Land was easy, someone else would have made a La La Land. No one has. It is a miracle, imperfections and all. It is not about the culture of the downtrodden or truly endanger. I get it. But give it the props it deserves and bring on the rebels, the ripples from pebbles, the painters, and poets, and plays. They count too… even if they don’t suffer as much as you’d like.”
Is it my favorite film of the year? No. But I would not be at all upset if it won.
Some other points about La La Land:
- The Hollywood Reporter published an excellent cover on Emma Stone. Highlights include the fact that she quit school in ninth grade to move to Los Angeles after convincing her parents with a “Project Hollywood” PowerPoint presentation, as well as a reminder that she once worked at a gourmet dog-biscuit bakery.
- The Los Angeles Times wrote an article with a lot of great snippets about La La Land production, including inspiration from the Ed Ruscha gas station painting and a story about a dancer who dove through the driver’s window of a car at the end of the opening number so as not to mess up a take. Unfortunately, it has the worst headline of anything I have read this week: ” How many times have you seen ‘La La Land’? Bet you still didn’t know this.”
- According to Sasha Stone, “many of La La Land’s tech nominees are women so the upside of a sweep is that a lot of women will be taking home Oscars.”
- Guys, which “City of Stars” got nominated for Best Original Song. There are two of them in the film: one with Ryan Gosling and the black couple on the pier, and one with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone at the piano. They are both called “City of Stars” on the soundtrack on Spotify. This is confusing.
Spotlight on Hollywood, politics and Donald Trump
Whether or not you think that Hollywood should voice political opinions, and whether or not you think that celebrities speaking out for a cause actually helps, this year’s awards season is already being defined by those in the movie industry who feel it is their responsibility to preach inclusivity and call out recent policies they think do not reflect American values. The most obvious example is Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech, but recent weeks have also inspired similar forms of protest.
The thing that hit closest to home recently was the visa ban. Iranian Asghar Farhadi, who previously won an Oscar for A Separation and who is nominated this year for The Salesman, will not be allowed into the country to attend this year’s Academy Awards. Even if an exception could be made on artistic grounds, he decided that he would not attend, ending a powerful statement with the following paragraph:
However, I believe that the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences. I believe that the root cause of many of the hostilities among nations in the world today must be searched for in their reciprocal humiliation carried out in its past and no doubt the current humiliation of other nations are the seeds of tomorrow’s hostilities. To humiliate one nation with the pretext of guarding the security of another is not a new phenomenon in history and has always laid the groundwork for the creation of future divide and enmity. I hereby express my condemnation of the unjust conditions forced upon some of my compatriots and the citizens of the other six countries trying to legally enter the United States of America and hope that the current situation will not give rise to further divide between nations.
Winners and presenters at recent awards ceremonies have also consistently shared their political thoughts:
- Mahershala Ali: ““What I’ve learned from working on Moonlight is, we see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves. And what I was so grateful about in having the opportunity to play Juan was, playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community, and taking that opportunity to uplift him and tell him that he mattered and that he was O.K. and accept him and, uh — I hope that we do a better job of that. You know, when we kind of get caught up in the minutiae, the details that make us all different, I think there’s two ways of seeing that. There’s an opportunity to see the texture of that person, the characteristics that make them unique.And then there’s an opportunity to go to war about it, and to say that that person is different than me, and I don’t like you, so let’s battle. My mother is an ordained minister. I’m a Muslim. She didn’t do back flips when I called her to tell her I converted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, we put things to the side, and I’m able to see her, she’s able to see me — we love each other, the love has grown, and that stuff is minutiae. It’s not that important.”
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus: “My father fled religious persecution in Nazi-occupied France. I’m an American patriot. And I love this country, and because I love this country, I am horrified by its blemishes, and this immigrant ban is a blemish, and it is un-American.”
- David Harbour: “We will get past the lies, we will hunt monsters. And when we are lost amid the hypocrisy and casual violence, we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the weak, the disenfranchised and the marginalized!”
- Lily Tomlin: “We need to be vigilant and stop certain behaviors so that someone who has not thought something through doesn’t get too far in the process.”
- Denzel Washington: “I think we as Americans had better learn to unite. We have to put our elected officials’ feet to the fire. God only knows where it’s going.”
- Taraji P. Henson: “When we put our differences aside and we come together as a human race, we win, love wins. Every time.”
- John Legend: “Los Angeles is the home of so many immigrants, so many creative people, so many dreamers. Our America is big, it is free, and it is open to dreamers of all races, all countries, all religions. Our vision of America is directly antithetical to that of President Trump. I want to specifically tonight reject his vision and affirm that America has to be better than that.”
The recent turn toward activism has inspired questions about the best way to protest. Getting political at the Academy Awards has rarely been applauded in the past; the New York Times recalls Sacheen Littlefeather, “Zionist hoodlums” and Michael Moore being met with jeers and speeches against “people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda.” While some support cancelling the Oscars, a more popular options seems to be continuing speaking out in speeches:
That’s why the Academy Awards, after 45 years of scattershot liberal protest, are now the perfect bully pulpit from which to address the already glaring moral calamity of Donald Trump’s presidency. Certainly, a balance needs to be struck: The point of the evening is to celebrate the movies nominated, and politics shouldn’t overshadow that. But I do believe that politics can blend with that. America will be watching — in greater numbers, I suspect, than we’ve seen for a long time. And not just blue-state America. I mean Trump voters too (do you think that none of them went to see “La La Land”?), and also swing voters, who may already be feeling a touch of buyer’s remorse, and who may have begun to peel off from the Trump crusade.
What’s required is a way to speak truth — artfully and memorably, the way Meryl Streep did — to the Oscar-night viewers who are movie lovers who are citizens who have the power to change America. What’s required is a moment that can translate into a meme of protest. As a lot of liberals have already begun to realize, the only way to defeat Donald Trump is to fight fire with fire — and on Academy Awards night, that means fighting show business with show business.
- Honest Oscar movie posters: These three sites redesign the posters for Academy Award-nominated films. Highlights include the titles for Loving (“Black Wives Matter”) and Zootopia (“Intro to Racism”), a review for Manchester by the Sea (“This movie made me feel bad, but not nearly as bad as sitting through Batman v Superman) and the tagline for Arrival (“Amy Adams has more chance of actually discovering alien life than winning a goddamn Oscar at this point”).
- Black List: Excellent article in The Atlantic about the Hollywood Black List, an annual ranking of the best non-produced scripts in a given year. It has launched a number of Oscar-winning films, like Spotlight, The Revenant and Whiplash and, at least to some degree, helps give exposure to new, non-blockbuster stories. Definitely worth a read.
- Braveheart: AwardsDaily looks back on the only time in history that a film has won Best Picture without a SAG nominations: Braveheart in 1996.
- Razzies: The Golden Raspberry Awards acknowledge the worst films and performances in a given year. Top nominees were Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zoolander No. 2, which are vying for Worst Picture, and “The Entire Cast of Once Respected Actors” from Collateral Beauty for Worst Screen Combo.
- Interview with Michael Shannon: Vulture talks to Michael Shannon about the Oscars (“I’d better win a damn Oscar if you’re putting me in the Oscar issue! It’s about damn time, Jesus!”) and perspective (“I mean, when you’re there, that night, and you get the award, I’ll bet it feels pretty cool. But if a couple weeks after you got the award, you got kidnapped and taken to Guantanamo Bay and put in a cell, you probably wouldn’t care if you got an Oscar or not.”)
- Interview with Barry Jenkins: Esquire talks to Barry Jenkins about making nontraditional stories (“We’ve gotten so used to certain story forms”) and the black male experience shown in Moonlight (“What I love about that is just based on the media that we receive—the film, the television, the music videos, whatever—in all these representations of young black men, we rarely see that they have the capacity to not be able to look someone in the eyes out of vulnerability and sensitivity. These are things that absolutely exist in the world, but we see them so rarely in arts and letters that they inherently take on this added sort of feeling that is at once intellectual and also extremely emotional because the actors give such true performances.”)
- Oscars so male: The lack of diversity at the Oscars has not really been solved, but the plethora of people of color nominated has put the focus a bit on the lack of women nominated below the line. These two articles go into this a bit more.
- Ways to make the Oscars better: There are some relatively straightforward suggestions in this Bustle list (refining Best Picture, increasing the number of acting nominees), but I do support the addition of a non-gendered Best Motion-Capture Or Voiceover Performance category.
- Montage: Pretty montage of this year’s Academy Award nominees.