Bong Joon-ho poses with the Oscar for Best Screenplay for "Parasite" during the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party (Photo by Rich Fury/VF20/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
Artillery Row

Oscars so woke?

Predictability and cyclical trends at the 92nd Academy Awards

The biggest surprise of this year’s Academy Awards – the 92nd – was how predictable it all was, until the close. The quartet of actors – Joaquin Phoenix, Renee Zellweger, Brad Pitt and Laura Dern – who had won every previous award going continued their winning streak, and made the speeches they were expected to. For the self-described ‘scoundrel’ Phoenix, who had taken previous opportunities (at the BAFTAs) to rail against a lack of diversity and to call for action on climate change (at the Golden Globes), it was a platform to lobby for animal rights. For Zellweger, it was a reminder, after several years out of the spotlight, that she remains a force to be reckoned with, and Dern made a heartfelt speech of thanks to her parents, the actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd. And perhaps the most popular award of them all went to Brad Pitt, for his almost indecently charismatic performance in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Pitt, who somehow has never won an Oscar before, charmed and displayed his old-school Hollywood star credentials.

Most of the technical awards went as expected too, with strong showings for Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917 in visual effects, cinematography and sound mixing. However, its greatest glory was anticipated in the Best Film and Best Director categories, to join its triumphs at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes and others. It therefore came as a shock that the three biggest awards of the night – Original Screenplay, Director and Film – all went to the South Korean film Parasite, which has been on its own path of acclaim since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. The delighted director Bong Joon-Ho became the second filmmaker to win Best Director for a foreign language film (after Alfonso Cuaron won for Roma last year) and he paid glowing tribute to two of his fellow nominees, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, even as he established his own place in the filmmaking firmament.

Yet what made Joon-Ho’s win so significant was that it marked a dividing line between old-fashioned ideas of what films ‘ought’ to win Oscars, and contemporary expectation of which ones ‘should’ be award-worthy. Trends have been cyclical. In the Eighties and Nineties, the pictures that won the most accolades were a mixture of earnest character-focused dramas and sweeping epics. This continued up to around 2004, when Return of the King won an impressive 11 Oscars, all of the awards that it was nominated for.

The Academy, with a membership then largely composed of middle-aged and elderly white voters, liked big, mainstream films with spectacle and drama, often based around a big star performance. It is not hard to see why the likes of Braveheart, Gladiator, Titanic or Dances with Wolves did so well, nor why The English Patient or Unforgiven (more intellectual versions of the genre) were rewarded. The influence of Harvey Weinstein was also paramount. Films like Shakespeare in Love and Chicago stormed to victory thanks to his hands-on influence and energetic lobbying. And then everything changed.

2006 was probably the turning point, when the hand-wringing racial issues drama Crash won over the much-acclaimed gay romance Brokeback Mountain, to widespread horror. Since then, Best Film has often gone to the film that the Academy apparently feels most comfortable recognising, rather than the best one. Thus the not-bad George VI drama The King’s Speech triumphed over The Social Network, Guillermo del Toro’s unusual The Shape of Water took the award over Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and, in perhaps the most egregious snub of all, the Coen Brothers’ overrated No Country for Old Men overcame the magnificent There Will Be Blood.

There will be some people who genuinely adored The Artist or Spotlight, but their honours felt more like a nod of approval rather than a real affirmation that these were the best films released in their respective years. And, in the last decade especially, the pressure on the Academy to recognise diversity and the woke movement has been considerable. There was inordinate controversy in 2016, the so-called #OscarsSoWhite year, in which no BAME actors were nominated for major awards, and so it was no surprise that 7 of the 20 nominees the following year came from BAME backgrounds, although only Viola Davis won, for Best Supporting Actor. This was also the year in which Moonlight won over La La Land, although the infamous moment when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced the wrong film ended the whole awards ceremony farcically, rather than triumphantly.

What made Joon-Ho’s win so significant was that it marked a dividing line between old-fashioned ideas of what films ‘ought’ to win Oscars, and contemporary expectation of which ones ‘should’ be award-worthy.

At a time when being seen to recognise diversity is all-important, there was much grumbling from the film critics’ fraternity at this year’s Oscar nominations, with only Parasite and Little Women meeting with complete approval from many. The likes of 1917, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and Joker were dismissed, tacitly or explicitly, as ‘too male’, ‘too white’ or, in the case of Hollywood’s jaw-dropping and revisionist ending, ‘too misogynistic’.

None of this is to say that Parasite did not deserve its success. Certainly, it is one of the most unusual and interesting films ever to have won such widespread acclaim: a near-uncategorisable combination of Hitchcock, Kubrick and Alan Ayckbourn, it is simultaneously a tense domestic thriller and a sardonic commentary on issues of class and status. One might almost describe it as Upstairs, Downstairs with ultraviolence, if this was not too glib a description. Its success has pacified many of the critics who were preparing to carp angrily had 1917 and Sam Mendes won their awards, as expected. (It has also come as a surprise to bookmakers, who were offering odds of 5-1 on Parasite as recently as last week.) A film that has dealt with social issues and contains South Korean actors has triumphed over a predominantly white and male-based war epic, which, like Dunkirk a couple of years ago, would undoubtedly have won Best Film had the make-up of the Academy been closer to two decades ago.

It is hard to overestimate the extent to which Oscar voters, who are now younger and more diverse, dislike being seen as old-fashioned and reactionary. While the BAFTAs gave 1917 several major awards, there was anger that it won both Best Film and Best British Film, apparently frustrating a worthy winner in the latter category; Parasite winning Best Film and Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, by contrast, was welcomed and seen as its due. BAFTA’s lack of BAME nominees was also much-criticised, leading none other than its patron Prince William to make a stern speech, saying ‘we find ourselves talking again about the need to do more to ensure diversity in the sector and in the awards process – that simply cannot be right in this day and age.’ At a time when his brother’s choice of a mixed-race wife – and an actress, to boot – has led to its own controversy, he might be accused of a lack of self-awareness, but the point has been made. Any institution that produces a ‘hideously white’ short list can now expect criticism, whatever the merits of the films.

There have always been tokenistic awards, and inferior films or performances given accolades because of a sense of it being ‘the right time’. Few would now argue that Driving Miss Daisy or Oliver! were really the best films of their year. Instead, they happened to recognise the zeitgeist, whether that was for a preachy film about black and white relations (in the same year as the considerably more angry Do The Right Thing) or a lavish musical about orphans, and the Oscar was theirs. Yet these did not run the gauntlet of social media anger, or a sense that a near-riot could be sparked by supposedly the ‘wrong’ picture being given the greatest accolade.

The films that make the most money at the box office today are special effects-soaked superhero films based on comic books, which largely do not trouble the main awards categories, although Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker now makes him the second actor to win the main accolades, after the late Heath Ledger a decade ago. Yet the box office disappointments of such films as Justice League and Cats, which received dreadful reviews, show that critics can still be hugely important, thanks to the Rotten Tomatoes system of a review being certified ‘fresh’ for positive, and ‘rotten’ for negative. While I have written elsewhere on The Critic about the role of criticism in contemporary society, there can be no doubt that many film critics – left-leaning, socially engaged and very active on social media – are reviewing pictures based on their own criteria for what should and should not be acceptable.

In Britain today, we no longer have the conservative likes of Alexander Walker and Christopher Tookey in influential roles on daily papers. Most of the major critics in print and digital media are impeccably liberal, unafraid to ‘call out’ perceived failings in cinema and happy to pursue vendettas against filmmakers who do not fall into their preferred categories. Matthew Vaughn, the director of the Kingsman films and producer of Rocketman, has attracted especial opprobrium because of his unashamed conservative views, which have made him a controversial figure in an industry where the likes of Ken Loach have always been welcomed. But his films make money, and so he continues to make them, against the wishes of many.

It is this intolerance and dogmatism that means that awards for the likes of Parasite become totemic standards in the culture wars, rather than deserved recognition for an excellent film. Had 1917 won instead, one can imagine that there would have been near-endless moaning about its lack of diversity (one Sikh soldier has a brief appearance) and perceived old-fashioned outlook, despite the bravura filmmaking involved. But for now, the woke can pat themselves on the back. The right film – ‘their’ choice – was awarded top honours, by men and women who did not want to be perceived as antediluvian. The battle has been won for another year. And we shall see what 2021 brings, although those of us who hope that the best film wins – regardless of its political or social worthiness – may have to prepare for further disappointment.

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