Cue a veritable outcry from film twitter, the (now familiar) clenching of buttocks from the Academy, and a shrug from the general public. In a year of not being able to make any logical decision, the Academy’s Best Picture of 2019, despite its broad popularity, is deemed another in a long line of misguided judgements. But why the outcry?
Passionate rebuttals of Green Book’s awards haul were posted almost immediately after writer/director Peter Farrelly picked up the golden statue – the critics/cinephiles who wrote them knowing the Academy’s intentions all too well. Justin Chang’s vehement takedown in the LA Times delves into the myriad reasons why Green Book deserves the vitriol directed at it on social media. The whole piece is well-argued, despite his hatred of the film (which differs from my own opinion), but I can’t quite believe how seriously writers such as Chang are taking the Academy – an organisation who has shown itself to be consistently out-of-touch with the industry it feeds on, placing more importance on the glitz of the red carpet than the craft it supposedly champions. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule – Spike Lee and Olivia Colman’s awards were accompanied by understandable praise. But the recent #oscarssowhite and #metoo social campaigns only serve to highlight the sluggish speed of change in Hollywood. If the Academy has lost its touch, then why pay so much attention to its award shows?
(By the way, I am fully aware that by writing a piece of my own, I’m also feeding into this particular intellectual frenzy.)
The reason I’m fascinated by this issue is not because I like Green Book (I’m pretty non-plussed by the whole thing to be honest), but rather I’m confused by what those people complaining about the Academy’s choices are hoping to achieve – the horse has bolted to some extent. Do critics or the film-going public actually want a system where the movies they love are only legitimised by the praise of Beverly Hills’ finest bunch of Old Farts?
Green Book is the kind of film that would’ve won a Best Picture Oscar in the 90s. It’s got good performances that raises the script, yet its approach is tediously conservative and disregards the facts of its real-life story. But it isn’t, in my opinion, as malicious as some people might have you believe. That’s not to say its success wasn’t a slap in the face to the wave of worthy race dramas in 2018 such as Blindspotting, Monsters and Men, BlackKklansman and If Beale Street Could Talk. It was. All four of those films have new things to say about race in modern America, and crucially were told by diverse filmmakers. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for a white filmmaker like Peter Farrelly to tell a story about race, but it’s been done plenty of times before and clearly – judging by the phenomenon that was Moonlight – audiences are ready to move on with the conversation. Giving Green Book the main prize feels like giving a donkey first place at the Grand National.
This split in opinion is not just reserved for Green Book but other big winner Bohemian Rhapsody who has also been dogged by damning takes criticising its manipulative and cliched retelling of real events (whilst picking up four awards). Robbie Collin recently weighed in for The Telegraph, rejecting the adoration heaped on Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury, his fun adamance flying in the face of popular opinion. Chang acknowledges this long-time cynicism from critics regarding the Oscars, citing similar ‘upsets’ to Green Book – Crash and Driving Miss Daisy at the top of the pile (or bottom, depending on your outlook). Perhaps we’ve been blinded by the promise of the past couple of years where deserved (and unexpected) films have won Best Picture. Moonlight and The Shape of Water seemed to beckon in a new age of diverse and genre-infused winners. Are the Academy conservative or progressive? They can’t seem to make up their minds. Voting preference seems to be floating between its older, mostly white, male members and its newer membership boosted by an influx of young progressive talent – the former reluctant to concede its influence to the latter.
So, not only is opinion split in the movie-going public and the ‘criterati’, it’s split in the Academy too. Nothing displays this more than the to-ing and fro-ing of the Academy’s bizarre decisions over the past year. They clearly wanted to look ‘down with the kids’ and honour Black Panther, but proposed a new ‘Popular Film’ category so it could give it an award without looking like they’d bowed to Disney. This decision was back-pedalled almost immediately after its announcement due to public scrutiny, along with its decision to give out a number of awards during ad breaks. Polarisation seems to be rife everywhere, stretching to other areas of the industry too – The Last Jedi a prime example of how a film can, quite severely, split audiences down the middle. The most noteworthy assertion in Chang’s analysis centres on this very current sense of tribalism:
‘Maybe “Green Book” really is the movie of the year after all — not the best movie, but the one that best captures the polarization that arises whenever the conversation shifts toward matters of race, privilege and the all-important question of who gets to tell whose story.’
The people that I often go to the cinema with just happen to be the three closest women in my life – my mum, sister and girlfriend – none of them cinephiles. I saw Green Book with my sister, Bohemian Rhapsody with my girlfriend, and A Star is Born with my dear mum. They bloody loved all three, with no thought for the way they were told or who was telling them. And whenever I get too caught up with the minutiae of the industry I often try to look from their perspective – they literally couldn’t care less about the Academy. So perhaps there’s a third category to this polarisation of opinion – the ‘Don’t Give A Shit’ category – I think I might adopt it.
Such knee-jerk, impassioned articles like Chang’s help feed into the supposed ‘prestige’ attached to the Oscars and therefore authenticate their influence. Just as the league table of film festivals shuffle and reshuffle over the years, perhaps we should all decide to disregard the Academy for now. No, seriously. Next year, let’s decide to make the BAFTAs the top awards show. Think about it. Most of the huge American tentpole movies shoot in London now, so physically and figuratively Hollywood will have come to Blighty. We can have a literal throne on stage from which Olivia Colman doles out awards like they’re Knighthoods. All in agreement? It’s time for the Oscars to pipe down and give way – the ultimate showbiz abdication.