It’s Oscar season, which means my blood pressure is about to go through the roof.
In fairness, I garner a lot of genuine pleasure from this annual storm in a teacup, and with the world in such a political mess, getting over-invested in which millionaire gets a little gold statue is my idea of a mental holiday. Every year, we face the same problems and we argue whether or not the results of the Academy Awards really matter. I always have the same answer: Yes and no. They matter in that they offer a pretty accurate representation of the narrow ways in which Hollywood works and the people and projects they favour. That doesn’t mean the films that win are necessarily the best of the year, nor does it set in stone the works we’ll revere in decades to come. Hitchcock never won Best Director but there’s not a single person in the industry who would rate him below Tom Hooper based on that.
There are writers who make their living predicting the results of these awards all year round. From the morning after the ceremony, and often even earlier than that, these people dive head first into an unchanging narrative of what films are considered worthy for the spot. The criteria for doing so is as constricting as Hollywood itself. The work presumed to be future Oscar winners tend to be the very definition of awards bait: Mid-budget dramas, most often based on true events, with showy lead performances and something ‘important’ to say. There are exceptions – opening up the Best Picture category to up to 10 films made room for some worthy surprises, like animated and foreign language films – but more choice didn’t lead to change of the formula itself.
The Danish Girl has received mixed reviews, with a few raves for Alicia Vikander, but a more muted reception for Eddie Redmayne. The Tom Hooper directed drama, centering on trans icon Lili Elbe, has featured on very few critics’ top 10s of 2015, and has received an absolute mauling from trans writers. Nevertheless, practically every review of the film mentioned its pitch perfect status as awards bait, with even the most critical stance admitting it will probably be nominated for a bunch of Oscars. Indeed, Redmayne and Vikander have Golden Globe and BAFTA nods under their belts, and it’s looking increasingly likely that they’ll make the grade come Oscar nomination morning. It’s just been readily accepted that, regardless of quality and grossly inaccurate representation of history, the work is worthy of Oscars.
Compare this to Tangerine, another 2015 release centred on a trans woman. The low budget indie release, entirely shot on iPhones, follows two trans women of colour who are sex workers on Christmas Eve in LA. The film received rapturous reviews, particularly for its leads, who are both trans, and has a higher Metacritic score than The Danish Girl. It’s the first film with trans actors to get any kind of awards campaign, thanks to the Duplass Brothers and with a little help from Caitlyn Jenner. I would love to see it get some nominations, but I’m painfully aware that the odds are stacked against it. A raw, funny, sad and vibrant story featuring two trans women of colour is less likely to be seen as an important film than a historically fraudulent mess starring a man in a dress.
This is nothing new. It’s one of Hollywood’s most effective business strategies. Oscars bring recognition, and further awareness leads to increased box office returns. Harvey Weinstein turned the Oscar campaign into a fine art of unavoidable marketing, tailor-made prestige dramas and good old fashioned aggression. His push for The Imitation Game – a film I truly despise – focused on rewarding the film as a way of honouring the memory of Alan Turing, although a better way to do that would have been not to rewrite history to screw him over. Position a story as important and inspirational, and there’s added pressure to reward it for being so. The same goes for films of epic scale and detail. Extravagant costumes, lavish sets, hundreds of extras – if it looks like a lot of work went into it, you should reward it. Shakespeare In Love, anyone? There’s little room for genre films, animation, work not in the English language and anything with any kind of idiosyncratic vision.
That’s not to say that prestige biopics and historical costume dramas can’t be deserving of such praise (one of my all-time favourite films, Amadeus, epitomizes these Oscar tropes, yet it’s a truly amazing film). The problem comes when such films are all that we get come awards season, and the narrative of pushing them as worthy of the highest recognition betrays their inherent quality as a piece of art.
The average voter in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (AMPAS), who decide the Oscars, is a 69 year old cishet white American man. Less than a third of the new members invited last year were women or people of colour. That makes a huge difference. Hollywood continues to be a haven for cishet white dudes in baseball caps, while women, people of colour and trans people struggle to get a semblance of recognition. Couple that with a board of voters who decide which films are worthy of the title ‘Best’ based on the narrowest of criteria and it’s no wonder we see the same people and the same stories win year after year.
“Worthy” stories seldom centre on anyone but cishet white dudes. Last year, out of the 5 Best Actress nominees, not only were all of them white but only one of them starred in a film nominated for Best Picture. The film industry long ago decided that the universal appeal lay in stories about cishet white men blowing up things or struggling with genius. We can’t even get Rey in a Star Wars Monopoly set: How the hell are we supposed to get the Academy to pay attention to work like Tangerine?
Stories like that of Lili Elbe, Alan Turing and various civil rights activists are ideal awards bait, but only when told through the prism of privilege. It’s not enough for Elbe’s story to be bastardised and softened to appeal to a cisgender audience unwilling to acknowledge the radical reality: The leading role itself has to be twisted to fit a cisgender man. Selma may be a truly brilliant film, but there’s no Nice White Man helping to lead the civil rights cause, so no Oscars (and boy does that snub still sting).
History can’t even be told as it happened for the purposes of awards bait. It’s not worthy enough until there’s a posh white dude in a suit telling you it’s important. The ego of the privileged has to be sated before the statuette can be handed over, and if you complain about the lack of inclusiveness in the process, they’ll remind you of the success of 12 Years A Slave, as if one film can make up for 80 years of exclusion.
I truly believe that our culture will improve exponentially when we drop the practice of awards bait and the accompanying façade of worthiness based on what we perceive to be important. I don’t see that changing any time soon, just as I can’t imagine Hollywood ever deciding to stop fetishizing posh white English men from private schools as the ideal of Britishness. Change takes time, but it needs to happen quicker. Box office returns consistently prove the hunger for inclusive stories made by a broader range of creatives, and with the Oscar ceremony ratings dropping, the Academy would do well to offer its viewership something they really desire. Great art doesn’t come from an arbitrary group of executives deciding it’s important. Sadly, great business often does.