The Oscars Are Fun...If You Forget It's An Awards Show
It’s become a bit trite by now to dismiss awards season as a tedious Hollywood ritual. Every year, film Twitter rehashes its consensus: the Oscars don’t represent the best in cinema, the Academy’s tastes are a big joke, Actor X should have won, et cetera. These complaints usually have a point. Even the most casual observers of the Oscars know that the awards aren’t really about creative excellence. ‘Oscar snub’ has become common parlance in the media, and every year the list of deserving-but-shunned films, performances, and screenplays grows longer. But whoever says the flurry of awards season can’t be interesting probably isn’t following it properly, because it’s much more rewarding to throw all notions of merit out the window and view the run-up to the Oscars as some ridiculous, extravagant reality show.
Yes, the Oscars are a reality show. Probably the first one ever. Specifically, it’s a reality competition show, where prospective winners battle it out for the top prize in Hollywood using late night interviews, profile articles, and elaborate PR campaigns as their weapons of war.
Following awards season is like following a presidential run, but since the stakes are much lower, you can revel in the overblown pageantry of it all. Directors, producers, and movie stars craft narratives that work in subtle ways to convince the 8,000 members of the Academy to check their names on voting ballots. Those narratives end up shaping not just the legacies of the films concerned, but also pop culture in general.
This year, no category has been more fascinating than Best Actress, even though the Academy has reliably snubbed the ceiling-crawling Toni Colette for her harrowing, awards-worthy turn in Hereditary. The spellbinding Yalitza Aparicio is the first-ever indigenous woman to be nominated, and the first Latina in a 14-year drought. Olivia Colman and Melissa McCarthy also gave wickedly entertaining performances that will likely be remembered for the rest of their careers. But since we’re looking at campaign narratives here, let’s shift focus to Lady Gaga and Glenn Close, who are frontrunners because they play the game like seasoned pros.
Gaga’s main agenda on the road to the Oscars has been to convince people of her legitimacy as an actress. There is a glass ceiling for female pop stars who crossover into drama, with many struggling to shake off stage personas.
Gaga’s main agenda on the road to the Oscars has been to convince people of her legitimacy as an actress. There is a glass ceiling for female pop stars who crossover into drama, with many struggling to shake off stage personas that may interfere with Academy voters’ perception of them. It’s not impossible for a pop star to win Best Actress—Cher did it in 1988—but in a place like Hollywood, where women are often pigeonholed into rigid archetypes, it remains an anomaly. For Gaga to get a chance at gold, she had to peddle the right narrative—one that would position her not as a singer-turned actress, but as an actress, period.
It's no surprise, then, that awards season Gaga has jumped at every opportunity to gush about winning the role of a lifetime. Her campaign has subtly distanced her from her pop career, opting instead to cast her as a wide-eyed, can’t-believe-I-made-it ingénue. In most of her interviews, she talks about having dreamed of being an actress since childhood, turning to singing once it became clear that acting wouldn’t work out. She unceasingly projects an attitude of surprise at her success, as if her career was launched yesterday. This is perhaps best evidenced by the notorious “there could be a hundred people in a room” line, which she’s repeated almost verbatim throughout her whole press tour. (Just look at this compilation.) The intent of this spiel isn’t just about giving thanks to Bradley Cooper, it’s about cleaning the slate, creating an illusion of Hollywood magic; like Cooper plucked her out of obscurity and introduced her to the world.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s literally the plot of A Star is Born. Oscar campaigns that harken back to the themes of the movies they promote often pay off in the end, especially if they knowingly target certain groups of voters. The campaign of A Star is Born, a film about a talented, unknown singer who is finally given her big break, has harped on the actors’ struggle, the hard-earned ascent to fame, and the stroke of luck that most aspiring actors can only dream of. Given that actors make up the biggest voting bloc in the Academy (at about 22%), it’s not an ineffective strategy. Just two years ago, Emma Stone took home Best Actress for playing a breakout star in La La Land.
Now, whereas Gaga’s narrative has been about painting her as a Hollywood debutante, Glenn Close has done the opposite, reminding people of her longevity and experience. Close has SEVEN Oscar nominations and 0 wins, the most losses of any living actor. Being that overdue is usually enough to secure a trophy (look at Leonardo DiCaprio), but when initial award shows started handing out their superlatives, the odds didn't seem to be entirely in her favor. So what got her to the front of the race?
The most obvious turning point was that surprise Golden Globes win. Given the Hollywood Foreign Press’ track record of favoring big-budget stars, many predictions had Gaga in lead. Even the show's producers seemed to agree Close’s chances were slim, seating her at the back of the room and reserving the front table for the A Star is Born ensemble. With such glum prospects for Close, it was even more impressive that she managed to milk every last second of her unexpected time onstage.
Glenn Close’s Golden Globes speech was peak awards season politicking. She dedicated the win to her late mother, saying: “I’m thinking of my mom, who really sublimated herself to my father her whole life, and in her 80s she said to me, I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything.” She continued to talk about how important it was for women to find personal fulfillment, then wrapped it all up by explicitly reminding people that she’d been in the business for 45 years.
This accomplished two things: for one, it gave the watching Academy a moment to pause and remember that they’d never awarded Close before. More crucially, however, Close tied in her personal story to the themes of her film, The Wife, which centers on a woman whose husband wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, even though she ghostwrites all his novels. By foregrounding her connections, fictional or otherwise, to women who had existed far too long without being given due credit, Close charged her ‘overdue’ narrative with renewed power.
“I’m thinking of my mom, who really sublimated herself to my father her whole life, and in her 80s she said to me, I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything.” –Glenn Close
And while Gaga gets all the flack for repeating herself, Close has also relied heavily on the same anecdote about her mother throughout her promo tour. Here she is recounting it on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. And on Late Night with Seth Meyers. And on The View. A profile article on Vanity Fair latched onto the story and portrayed her as part of a lineage of unfulfilled women. It’s a narrative that's served her well. Since the Globes, she’s gone on to win the SAG, Critic’s Choice (tying with Gaga), and will likely get her moment on the Dolby Theater stage. It’s just a bit of a disappointment that, after previously being nominated for playing a bunny-boiling mistress, a scheming aristocrat, and an actual man, this is the role that will end up getting her that Oscar credit. But the Academy always awards actors for the wrong roles, and this time, Close will not be ignored.
While situations like this one are a thrill to analyze, picking apart awards season isn’t—as the title of this article suggests—all fun and games. Because once you’ve been disenchanted of the fantasy that the Academy lauds the objective best in cinema, what you’re left with is a public demonstration of how politics and culture collide in a specific time and context. To recognize that the Oscars are a campaign war is also to reckon with its legacy of racism, and how certain films are disadvantaged because of their failure to appeal to a mostly-white Academy.
Though the Academy has made a big show of diversifying its membership in recent years, 2019’s Best Picture nominees betray a certain tension between voters: the films that center around race and racism are often ‘safe’ choices that fulfill a certain inclusivity quota while still catering to the tastes of white audiences. Among the films that were left out of the Best Picture category are Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, a romance about a black couple torn apart by police corruption and systemic racism, and Sorry to Bother You, a deliciously bizzare dark comedy about the commodification of black bodies. Race films that did make the cut, on the other hand, were Black Panther, Blakkklansman, and Green Book. Black Panther does offer insightful commentary into themes of blackness, the black diaspora, and colonialism, but it’s still very much a Marvel superhero movie, and while it certainly deserves the honor of being the first superhero flick to score a Best Picture nom, it’s evident by its $1.3 billion box office that mainstream white audiences enjoyed it as well. The same goes for Blakkklansman. Spike Lee’s biopic about a black cop who infiltrates the KKK is superb, but it’s not hard to see why it, too, was easily assimilable into this year’s batch of nominees. It’s quite light-hearted and funny for a film about racism in America, and while that definitely works in its favor, it’s also what makes it palatable to white tastes.
This brings us to Green Book, which, tragically, falls off the tightrope Black Panther and Blakkklansman tread with such poise. Not only is it a film about race told from the perspective of a white character, it oversimplifies the African-American struggle in the name of telling a feel-good story. And as if that isn’t enough, it also manages to reinforce racial stereotypes along the way. Green Book's narrative has sidelined these glaring flaws by pushing it as a film about friendship, where characters of different races teach each other valuable life lessons and America isn't as complex as people make it out to be. The film’s run has been steeped in controversy, but that hasn’t hurt it on the road to the Oscars. And that’s sadly because it’s the type of race film that takes pains to make white audiences feel comfortable, sacrificing nuance and originality in the process.
Mahershala Ali’s success this awards season is itself a reminder of another racist structure embedded in the Hollywood machine: black actors so rarely win in lead acting categories, so even if they carry the entire film on their backs, campaign strategists relegate them to supporting positions to increase their chances of winning. We saw this happen with Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, Viola Davis in Fences, and now, Ali. Anyone who watches Green Book will see that his performance as the regal concert pianist Don Shirley is every bit a lead role as Viggo Mortensen’s, his scene partner. Yet Mortensen is nominated as lead actor while Ali has been demoted to Best Supporting, and while that most definitely gives him an edge against his competitors, who all have less screen time, it shouldn’t have to be this way.
Whatever the outcome of the Oscars, the bald truth is it’s no longer the institution it used to be. 2019 has made achingly clear that the Academy is growing more and more obsolete, and audiences don’t need an elite body telling them what films to consume. Looking at narratives, however, allows us to gain a better understanding of the zeitgeist, or at least the politics of representation. While some of the circumstances that surround awards season can be their own form of entertainment, others can expose the skeletons of an industry that remains deeply problematic. No matter the case, these circumstances are the true reason to follow the Oscars. And if a truly deserving, unproblematic contender we like does end up taking home the prize, that can be rewarding for us, too.