February 28, 2016

Oscars 2016: Will DiCaprio finally win? And will a bunch of white people benefit from Oscar guilt about race?

Oscar Night is sort of the Superbowl for movie lovers, only not really, because the more you learn about the Academy Awards, the more you realise they are ostensibly a popularity contest. If merit does factor into the voting process, it probably accounts for 40% of the decision; other factors that likely go into voters’ decisions: whether the movie was successful at the box office, whether it’s “his or her year to win,” or whether the voter handed his or her Oscar ballot to a spouse, a personal assistant, or a kid, to do the voting “by proxy” as it were.

Consider this: Directors Robert Altman (MASH, Nashville) and Alfred Hitchcock never won Oscars. (They received lifetime achievement awards, but this is not the same as actually winning one.) Actreses Barbara Stanwyck and Myrna Loy never won Oscars. Marlon Brando, whose performance in A Streetcar Named Desire revolutionized acting, was the only lead performer in that movie who did not win an Oscar that year. The Academy made up for it by choosing Brando three years later for On the Waterfront. Brilliant comic actors rarely win, unless they move into dramatic roles (like Jack Lemon or Tom Hanks). (But do check out Kevin Kline’s magnificent Oscar-winning performance in the best comedy of 1988, A Fish Called Wanda). Paul Newman, who gave many Oscar-worthy performances all the way back to 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, was nominated 6 times before finally winning for 1986’s The Color of Money. (Not that Newman wasn’t good, but it was definitely an Oscar of obligation.)

You could almost make the case that Julianne Moore’s win last year for her performance in Still Alice was a “courtesy” Oscar, since Moore had been deservingly nominated five times before. The trouble with that argument is that Moore’s performance is terrific. In fact, Moore achieves a trifecta score with Still Alice: She plays a character with a debilitating disease (the Academy loves those), it was “time” for her to win, and she’s fantastic in the role.

It took the Academy 81 years to award a woman a Best Director prize (Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker). The first black person to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel for Gone With the Wind (1939), much earlier by comparison. McDaniel gives a fine performance (and I think her Oscar was deserved), but it’s hard not to read that win as an endorsement of the kind of roles the Academy believed black actors—and black people—should remain in for eternity. It would be another twenty-plus years before Sidney Poitier would win the Best Actor prize (1963, Lillies of the Field).

Movies about race often win something, though, but usually they’re the kind of self-congratulatory movies about race like To Kill a Mockingbird. I like many things about To Kill a Mockingbird (both the book and the movie), but it lives in a world where the only bad racists are uneducated poor people. The problem of racism was and is much deeper, because there are nice racist white people in positions of power, making laws, enforcing their prejudice with impunity.

Oscar voters often give awards for the good intentions a movie displays. Therefore, Shoah, a 10-hour documentary about the Holocaust, was pretty much a lock for Best Documentary because its subject matter is sacrosanct, regardless of the fact that it takes nearly half a day to watch. (Film critic Pauline Kael ginned up controversy when she criticized the movie's length, and people decided that criticizing the movie equated allying one-self with Hitler.) 

The Academy also loves doling out awards about Hollywood (or acting). Last year’s Best Picture/Director winner was Birdman, a flawed study of an actor’s journey into madness while starring on Broadway in a play he adapted from a Raymond Carver story. 1950 was another good example, where Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve (both movies about older actresses struggling to accept their ages) battled each other for statuettes. Of course, those are both terrific movies, and Bette Davis was robbed, because her performance as Margo Channing (in Eve) is the best work she ever did and maybe the best screen performance by any actress of her day. (I’d put her next to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress, and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, and a few others, probably.)

The big question I keep hearing is: Will Leonardo DiCaprio finally win? Judging from history, DiCaprio is the likely winner under the “it’s his turn” scenario, having been nominated multiple times going all the way back to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The problem is, DiCaprio’s performance isn’t the best of the five nominated. People have reacted strongly to The Revenant because DiCaprio’s character endures so much hellish torment as he pushes on toward his goal of revenge. And because people love DiCaprio, they feel he deserves to win. Actually, Michael Fassbender gives the more accomplished performance, playing Steve Jobs. But I do think DiCaprio will win. 

More interesting/frustrating: The problem of diversity. There were several movies featuring people of color that Oscar could have nominated for acting awards (and more) this year, including Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s underrated masterpiece. That film should be represented in multiple categories (including Best Picture, and Best Supporting Actress for Angela Bassett). And what about Tangerine, a fascinating and vervy indie movie starring two African American trans women?

What may happen is that, out of guilt, voters will pick anyone who worked on any of those neglected movies that got nominations in other categories (e.g. Best Screenplay) (e.g. Straight Outta Compton), even though those particular nominees are white. Of course, all this sparring over race has led to people making a lot of assumptions without any decisive proof. Cinema is incredibly diverse, and the world of cinema is expanding all the time. The Academy will eventually catch up, I think, even if it’s the last major award ceremony to do so. 

Below are my Oscar predictions for 2016:

Best Picture:
Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s won so many other awards from other groups over the past few months, and it’s the kind of movie that would make Academy voters feel relevant. Spotlight feels like a clear-headed choice (and it’s my personal favorite of the nominees), but the Academy voters might choose Max because it’s shiny and big and expensive and, unlike so many similar movies, very good.

Best Director:
George Miller, Mad Max. I can see them giving it to Iñárritu for The Revenant, but that seems unlikely since he just won for Birdman last year. More often than not, the Best Director and Best Picture winners go to the same movie.

Best Actor:
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant.

Best Actress:
If you had asked me a month ago, I would have said Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years, hands down. But after Rampling came under fire for saying that the “Oscars-so-white” campaign was racist against whites, it’s possible Rampling may have ruined her chances. Since Cate Blanchett has already won twice, I’m predicting Saoirse Ronan will win for her appealing, sympathetic portrait of an Irish immigrant in Brooklyn. (Unless the voters feel that Rampling’s performance outweighs her controversy.)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies. The old guys do well in this category. Bale’s already won, and I don’t see people getting behind Hardy or Ruffalo; Sylvester Stallone, also an old guy, is the only other likely winner.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
A tough category this year. I can see sympathy votes for Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her character really suffered in The Hateful Eight, and Leigh is very good and very funny, even though she’s as utterly unlikable as anyone else in that film. I’m really pulling for Kate Winslet, even though she’s already won. Her performance in Steve Jobs is in many ways the glue that holds the film together. She makes Steve Jobs sympathetic, which is no easy task. It doesn’t feel like Rooney Mara’s year (because Carol isn’t Rooney Mara’s movie), and Rachel McAdams, who’s a terrific actress, doesn’t get anything showy to do in Spotlight, so her chances are slim. Alicia Vikander is a possibility, especially because of her strong performance in another 2015 film, Ex Machina.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
The Big Short or Carol. Either The Big Short because it’s gotten so much acclaim (and it’s the kind of thinking person’s movie that gets rewarded with a screenplay Oscar) or Carol because it’s just the kind of prestige picture—about waspy lesbianism—that the Academy responds to.

Original Screenplay:
Spotlight, a movie about journalism, will likely be rewarded here for the Best Picture award it won’t win but should.

Documentary Feature:
Amy, a popular favorite about a compelling and tragic subject: singer Amy Winehouse.

Animated Feature:
I’ll double down on Inside Out.

* I must credit Michael Gebert's book The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards, where I have gleaned a wealth information about the Oscars. His observations about how the Academy votes have certainly informed and shaped my own opinions.

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