Moving Pictures
Feb 10, 2023, 06:28AM

Century of the Superlative (Part II)

The Academy’s routine failure to award excellence, black or otherwise, should make it a club that no one in their right mind would want to join.

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This is the second part in an ongoing series. Read part I here.

It used to be that people would act surprised if their film was nominated for an Oscar. Now it’s a shock if it’s not nominated, especially if the people behind it jumped through all the requisite hoops set forth by the Academy, from stark physical transformations (The Woman King) to the extensive For Your Consideration ad campaign (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever). The 2023 Oscar nominations received the usual backlash: no female directors nominated, few nominees of color (even fewer black nominees), and a list of nominees that reflects the Academy’s mostly white, AARP-eligible voting pool.

Not that any of these criticisms are wrong, but from the perspective of someone outside Hollywood, it’s hard to take them that seriously. Notice the way The Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood writes about the film’s lack of Oscar recognition: “For any hater out there hoping to gaslight and say maybe we just weren’t good enough, you can’t argue the facts of our A+ Cinemascore… or the 94 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, or the number of top 10 lists including AFI and National Board of Review. We’re going to pass $100 million at the global box office, which is groundbreaking and historic.” Talk about a sore winner. Apparently being the millionaire director of a successful film isn’t enough, and anyone questioning whether this success entitles one to Oscars is a gaslighting hater. (Also, not for nothing: citing your film’s Tomatometer score as proof that your work was somehow shortchanged by the Academy is a pretty bad self-own.)

Here’s an honest question for Prince-Bythewood: had The Woman King been nominated for Oscars, would that suddenly legitimize the ceremony? The Academy’s routine failure to award excellence, black or otherwise, should make it a club that no one in their right mind would want to join; this is, after all, a ceremony whose top prize has recently gone to crap like Green Book and Nomadland. But to make the issue about quality is to miss the point entirely. The Academy is just one part of a much larger critical-advertising apparatus, whose appreciation for cinema only extends as far as studios are willing to bankroll. To lobby for Oscar recognition, or publicly decry the lack thereof, is to lend even more power to an institution that doesn’t deserve it, to the detriment of the very thing that these awards are meant to honor.

Like all institutions, the Academy operates under a certain amount of conventional wisdom. A near three-hour, dialogue-heavy drama starring Cate Blanchett is a sure bet for nominations. The same goes for anything Steven Spielberg directs. Conversely, conventional wisdom dictates that certain films will go unnominated, even highly acclaimed ones; for example, it comes as no surprise that my favorite film of last year, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, went unnoticed by Academy voters. What’s clear is that the outrage over who gets nominated and who doesn’t has as much to do with breaches of conventional wisdom as anything else.

How else does one explain the investigation into Andrea Riseborough? After a grassroots awards campaign, Riseborough received a nomination for Best Actress for her performance in To Leslie, a much smaller film than any others nominated for major categories this year. This prompted an Academy investigation into her campaign efforts, which included endorsements from famous friends like Gwyneth Paltrow and Edward Norton. Lil Rel Howery—apparently a real person and not a character on a bottle of barbeque sauce—voiced his support for the investigation, saying there should be more like it. “What the problem is, if I could be honest about her campaign, I feel like she knew who the members was,” Howery said. Singling Riseborough out for individual lobbying seems a little unfair, since the same is true of many other prospective Oscar nominees, who commonly do promotional interviews with and receive endorsements from their Hollywood peers. The only difference in Riseborough’s case is that she and Momentum Pictures didn’t promote the film through the established channels, and even more significantly, they didn’t spend ungodly amounts of money on their promotion.

Howery seems even more frustrated by a separate breach of conventional wisdom. Asked which actress should have been bumped to make room for Viola Davis (an Oscar winner and three-time nominee), Howery replied, “I’m not going to say anything, but it’s a movie nominated as a Razzie,” referring to Ana de Armas’ performance in Blonde and the Golden Raspberry Awards—the only award ceremony with more contempt for cinema than the Oscars. I remain unimpressed by Blonde, but there’s something a little exciting about the faux pas of a performance nabbing both nominations, especially one that so firmly straddles the line between good/bad, respectable/trashy, Oscar-bait/bargain bin.

It’s worth mentioning that Razzie winners and nominees have a long history of critical reappraisal and cult resurrection. Showgirls, winner of the 1996 Razzies for Worst Picture, Actress, and Director, is now widely regarded as a masterpiece. The same goes for Tsui Hark’s Double Team, for which Dennis Rodman won Worst Supporting Actor in 1998. Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground, which he nabbed Worst Director for in 1995, may not be a great movie by the Academy’s standards, but it’s still one of the weirdest action films ever released by a major studio, a movie I’d much rather watch than any of this year’s Oscar contenders. And while I haven’t yet seen Triangle of Sadness, it’s safe to say there isn’t a single joke in it that will make me laugh harder than the titular hero of 1992 Razzie winner Hudson Hawk decapitating someone and quipping, “Looks like you won’t be attending that hat convention in July!” (Why July? The odd specificity is part of what makes it so funny.)

The Razzies may seem like the Oscars’ mean-spirited cousin or evil twin, but they’re worse: the most poisonous elements of the industry hivemind writ large. It doesn’t bother me if people give awards to shitty movies. What does bother me is when people, consciously or not, dogpile on a particular film, actor, or director for seemingly no other reason than to hop on the bandwagon and reinforce the critical consensus. It’s how masterpieces like Showgirls, Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, and Tough Guys Don’t Dance (all Razzie winners) get mislabeled in the first place, but much more importantly, it’s a way to shame and humiliate people who are mostly just trying to work. Professional actors should fucking hate the Razzies, not reaffirm their malignant existence the way Howery does.

Groucho Marx, one of many cinematic icons to never receive an Oscar (save for a lifetime achievement award, the closest thing Academy has to a mea culpa in absence of past recognition), joked he’d never join a club that would have him as a member. Groucho’s long gone, and his showbiz successors, lacking his humility and keen sense of irony, continue chasing after a carrot they were never meant to catch. It used to be an honor just to be nominated. Now anything less is a Big Willie-style slap in the face.


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