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Golden Opportunity

The Oscars can detonate the reductive ‘La La Land’ vs. ‘Moonlight’ narrative and redefine themselves. Why wouldn’t they?

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

The Oscars may not always be important, but they must be relevant. That’s the self-defining property of a televised awards show — in the absence of interest, we can just cancel them all. This year’s show, though, is hurtling toward a conclusion that will satisfy few, infuriate many, and, worst of all for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, leave millions completely uncaring. The front-runners of this year’s race for Best Picture are small or modestly sized films. The other fringe contenders aren’t much bigger. Their box office is humble, but the narratives around them are morphing, which has led to something reductive, or otherwise cloaked in controversy.

With six weeks to go, it is a two-picture race between Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, pitting a story of identity, love, and hope against a nostalgic, moon-eyed ode to Hollywood. (See, there’s the reductive part.) Each film was awarded the top prize in its respective category at Sunday’s Golden Globes; both remain on track to dominate the next month or so of campaigning and prognosticating. And if nothing changes in the next few days, before voting officially closes on Friday, this year’s telecast could suffer greatly for it. Though the more populist Globes were up in the ratings, it wouldn’t shock me if the Oscars to come were among the lowest-rated in history, marking them an increasingly disconnected emblem of the division between movie fans and the industry’s gatekeepers. It does not have to be this way.

This panic happens every year, of course. The Oscars exist in a constant state of social anxiety. The diffusion of popular culture has placed the show — like movies themselves — in a constant cycle of reinvention. Think back to 2009, when the system was officially deemed broken by the powers that be. Back then, the Oscars were going through a particular shrinking pain. Just a year earlier, at the 80th Academy Awards — considered by some movie fans the most enlightened Oscars in decades — prizes were handed out to a fine, diverse, and surprising collection of people that included the Coen brothers, Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Javier Bardem, Tilda Swinton, Brad Bird, and Diablo Cody. But only 32 million people watched the 2008 broadcast, an all-time low, down 8 million from the year before.

The following year, 36 million people watched Slumdog Millionaire triumph over Milk, The Reader, Frost/Nixon, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Remember them?) Two-thousand-and-eight was as satisfying for sincere fans of the movies as 2009 was demoralizing — why have an awards show when so few people have seen the movies in contention and even fewer truly love any of them? These shows represented cognizant lows — a prestigious, film-literate lineup one year, and a noble but unmemorable slew the next. In popular culture, this is death in 24 months. The Academy responded to this trouble with a significant change — in part, it was reported, due to cries of “Snub!” for 2008’s biggest hit, The Dark Knight. The change famously broadened the field, from five Best Picture nominees to 10, in an effort to make the show more inclusive and more approachable to a viewing audience that had become increasingly balkanized, bored, or plain disinterested in Hollywood’s biggest pageant. It was a shift in tactics, not strategy.

That big shift to 10 has been a mixed bag. The first year bore fruit, including nods for a series of movies that might not otherwise have made the five-movie cut, including a Pixar movie; a sci-fi paranoia tale from New Zealand; a Michael Lewis adaptation; a Tarantino movie; a Coen brothers movie; and the biggest box office hit in history. The winner was The Hurt Locker, among the smallest but most admired of the 10 nominees. This hinted at what seemed like a utopian vision of Oscars future — pop and prestigious, living side by side in harmony. It hasn’t been that beatific since. In 2011, the Academy shifted to a kind of sliding scale that could nominate up to 10 films. By 2014, Mark Harris was writing the following:

A study revealed that the number of films that contended for all the year’s awards, not just Best Picture, had actually decreased since the big change. Fewer films were piercing the Oscar bubble, and some critics said that the industry was lopping off its fingers in an effort to leave its fingerprints in more places.

Nevertheless, the Best Picture group in 2014 included genuine, studio-backed hits like Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, and Captain Phillips that led to a ratings bonanza recapturing that early aughts feeling, climbing to more than 43 million.

The boom was short-lived. One year later, on the heels of the biggest telecast since 2004, rumors began to spread that the show would reduce the number of Best Picture nominees back to five. Why? “They tried it, and it really didn’t do us any good,” one source told The Hollywood Reporter. The change was never made. Since that ’14 spark, ratings have dipped in consecutive years once again. Shaken by the #OscarsSoWhite protests and receding into itself, the ratings for last year’s Chris Rock–hosted show plummeted to 34 million people, the third-lowest ever. A less successful business might panic. As always, Hollywood is improvising.

What does all this historical gerrymandering really mean? Well, there is a Ryan Reynolds–shaped conundrum in the middle of this year’s race — how to make an awards show more interesting to at least 8 million more people than the typical 30 million or so who show up every year, regardless? It’s not hard to understand the math here — 20 times more people have seen the bombastic Gravity than have seen the intimate Moonlight. That’s a lot more potentially invested viewers. But movies come in waves — popularity is impossible to predict and that much more difficult to bunch. The Oscars may never see another collection of hits like 2014’s lineup. This year is not 2014, by any means, though there is a way to draw more relevance, more urgency to this year’s crop. It requires cashing out on taste in favor of something potentially shocking.

Tuesday may have reinforced the blueprint for how to do so. On that day, the Producers Guild of America’s Darryl F. Zanuck Award nominees were announced and among them was a wisecracking assassin in breathable combat latex. The PGAs are typically a strong portent of noms to come, matching eight of the past 10 Best Picture winners. So there’s another nod to the Reynolds-starring Deadpool, nominated alongside Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight. This is a robust lineup that includes two movies that didn’t pick up Best Picture nominations at this week’s Golden Globes — Hidden Figures, the no. 1 movie in the country, and Arrival. The Globes’ taste is unpredictable — it’s a better party than predictor. The PGAs are something different.

What Moonlight vs. La La Land threatens is a depressing iteration of awards exhaustion. Gold Derby has La La Land as the prohibitive favorite at 9–2, and if it wins — which it likely will — the criticisms will be as steadfast as they are predictable. A self-pleasuring fairy tale made by and for Angelenos! The satisfied nostalgia baby of a backward-looking industry! Seven Oscars for Seven Bros! Many of Moonlight’s fans in particular, just a year removed from the #OscarsSoWhite outcry, will likely view a La La Land win as a confirmation of their frustrations. White protagonists explain and then save jazz. (There we go being reductive again.) For the filmmakers’ part, this duopoly does not have the swift-boat-style attacking quality of years past. This is not Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan, and the Weinsteins have been diminished, representing just the Dev Patel–Nicole Kidman vehicle Lion. Instead, we are in a friendlier, more open-hearted struggle for supremacy.

“I’ve seen so many of these films this year. La La Land is an amazing film. Manchester by the Sea, amazing film. Jackie, I think, amazing film. They’re all very valid choices,” Barry Jenkins said this week. “And so there’s no reason that any of us should clean up. I think the best version is all of us sharing all these many things. I think there’s a very superficial read of La La Land that does injustice to what Damien’s doing in the film, and it’s convenient because these are tough times to make a superficial read of that film. But it’s like, no, this is America. This is what this shit is. You gain something; you sacrifice something else in the gaining of that thing. I mean, that’s dark stuff.”

Jenkins’s words here are unusual, and commendable. He both (slyly) identifies the criticisms about his competitor but also ably defends its grace and importance. Crafty politicking, and, again, uncommon. This is what this shit is — a wonderful mantra for the Oscar race. However, the PGAs point toward what this shit could be. Regardless of your opinion of Deadpool (I liked it fine), a nomination for the film would almost certainly introduce a bigger audience to the show this year — the sheer curiosity (or outrage) would be enough. It’s not difficult to understand why it made the cut at the PGAs. Ryan Reynolds and the filmmakers fought for years to get the movie — which is, you know, about a smart-mouthed mercenary who is burned in a mutation-activating acid treatment that cures his cancer and then goes on a killing spree to reunite with his beloved — into theaters. When they finally did, Deadpool earned more than $780 million around the world. What producer couldn’t admire that?

Let’s take that notion one step further. Consider Hidden Figures, a spirited and uplifting historical story about three African American women who were instrumental in the rise of the space program in the ’60s. It now plays like a real-time rebuttal of the political rhetoric of the past 18 months — a crowd-pleaser that happens to be the no. 1 movie in the country. In another year, it would seem to be a no-brainer, like The Help or The Blind Side before it, but a late-season release had hindered its chance. Now, with a PGA nod and the wind of financial success at its back, that could change. Expect many nominations for this movie.

But that isn’t disruption enough. The Oscars should just walk blindly into the miasma of the commercial. Last year was the biggest, messiest, and most craven year in movie history. Lean in, Academy. Your dignity is diminished, anyhow. Perhaps a nomination for Rogue One would be a start. Despite a massively successful rollout for the Star Wars “side story,” the story of Jyn Erso and her ragtag bunch of empire-undermining spies has been ignored for awards consideration. Or what about Zootopia, the lauded Disney Animation Studios allegory about a bunny cop battling crime and intolerance in an anthropomorphic world of bigotry and fear? The metaphors are thick with that one, and the movie’s directors are unafraid to draw the parallels to this modern life.

Two months ago, Clint Eastwood’s workmanlike and entertaining Sully seemed positioned for a legacy nod at worst — now that’s less certain. It was denied a look from the PGAs, and the well-crafted but stodgy hero tale feels like a fossilized document of Oscars past. By contrast, Arrival, the Denis Villeneuve–helmed sci-fi epic, has been a surprising hit, pulling in more than $150 million internationally — and its star Amy Adams is, as I wrote last month, one of the most acknowledged (if not rewarded) stars of recent memory, with five nominations in 12 years. Is it a Birdman in the making? No, but it thrives on cinematic will and auteurist obsession.

But let’s get really wooly here — Sausage Party or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are as worthy as Deadpool. So are Moana and Finding Dory. Hell, Captain America: Civil War is, too, if we’re thinking in terms of brand management. The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau’s live-action adaptation, has hardly been mentioned throughout awards season, but it is both one of the biggest and most-liked movies of the year. And if I said the words “Bad Moms” out loud, would you wince?

These suggestions are not aesthetic — the Oscars by their nature satisfy no metric of taste. If I had a vote, you’d see A Bigger Splash, Green Room, O.J.: Made in America, Elle, and Everybody Wants Some!! splashed across my ballot, along with Moonlight, Manchester, and the rest. The goal of the Oscars should be to draw attention to quality work, but that does not mean it should be humorless or without derring-do. And if Deadpool can swashbuckle its way into the narrative, I see no reason Pete’s Dragon or The Accountant shouldn’t.

We have a clear sense of how this will play out already when the nominees are announced on January 24. This is the last moment before 6,000 people in Hollywood can surprise and confound audiences once again. If Ryan Reynolds is worthy, why not Jason Bourne?