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Is ‘Moonlight’ the Beginning of a Change in the Academy?

Wesley Morris and Sean Fennessey talked the stunning Oscars upset on ‘The Bill Simmons Podcast’

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There is virtually no precedent for Moonlight winning at the Academy Awards. As Sean Fennessey wrote, "There has never been a film with a budget that small, a cast that unknown, a story that personal, a box-office haul that modest, and an origin that unlikely to be bestowed with the highest honor in the film industry." Will this year be remembered as the year the Academy changed? Fennessey, The New York Times’ Wesley Morris, and Bill Simmons discussed the upset on The Bill Simmons Podcast.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

‘Moonlight’ Sets a New Precedent

Bill Simmons: I’m always mad at whoever wins the Oscar, and this year it was like, "Wow they did it." [Moonlight] was the most effective movie I saw the whole year and it actually won, this is great.

Sean Fennessey: Not a lot of people saw Moonlight, though. And so this was the lowest-rated Oscars of the last nine years, which is something that people had been kind of talking about in the last few months. There’s no precedent for a movie this small winning. A movie with a budget this small, with an unknown cast, with a filmmaker making only his second film, set in a place that people had never seen [onscreen] before. There’s so many factors that go into the Moonlight win that make it so extraordinary, so unlikely.

Simmons: Not to mention it was the discovery of a gay boy becoming a gay man.

Fennessey: Yeah.

Simmons: You left that part out. That just won the Oscar.

Fennessey: It’s unbelievable.

Wesley Morris: I am equally shocked.

Morris: And you know I think the circumstances under which it won kind of sucked because there’s a whole paragraph that you have to get through to get to what a monumental event that was. And what it says about the people who decided to make it happen, the voters in the academy. The number of precedents that it establishes or shatters. It’s from a studio that I would say basically has come out of nowhere. A24 is having some of the best taste in American film distribution.

A Weak Field and an Obscure Voting System May Have Made the Difference

Morris: It also says a lot about how broken Hollywood is. This has nothing to do with how great a movie Moonlight is, but it’s also really worth noting what those nine movies were and where they came from and who was in them. There was a time when Fences would have been satisfied with having Denzel [Washington] and Viola [Davis] nominated.

The idea that it’s a Best Picture nominee — that’s not a judgment against that movie’s quality, it’s just to say it was a pretty weak field. I would say that Fences probably skated to that Best Picture nomination because those people in the academy had to put something on their ballot.

Simmons: This is, like, year seven of more than five films?

Fennessey: Yeah, 2009 was the first year.

Simmons: It almost makes it easier for a movie like Moonlight to sneak in. If it’s five nominees, I wonder what the threshold is. Every year we talk about this and this goes back to William Goldman writing about it a million years ago, but they don’t show us the votes. I don’t understand why. I think it would be really interesting to find out: "Oh, Moonlight won by seven votes."

Fennessey: I think that’s in play.

Simmons: Or here’s the breakdown, or "Moonlight only had 17 percent of the vote and it won." We don’t know. I’d like to know. This seems like relevant information.

Fennessey: There are a lot of complications with the voting. The rules are fairly arcane, where if a movie doesn’t get a certain percentage of first-place votes then you start rendering the second-place votes for a movie.

Simmons: I would like to know that stuff, though. This seems important.

This Year Could Just Be an Anomaly

Fennessey: I think Wesley’s right, though. This a weird, very anomalous year. Like the fact that La La Land — which is a very strange, unlikely front-runner — was thought to be such a juggernaut that it tied the all-time record for most nominations is bizarre. It’s a postmodern musical made by a guy who loves the films of Jacques Demy and is obsessed with jazz. That movie has no business being a front-runner at the Oscars.

Simmons: Or making $350 million and counting! Who would’ve guessed that either.

Fennessey: It’s bizarre. But I think in some ways this is weirdly one of the best things that could’ve happened to La La Land in people’s memories because now it has resumed a little bit of an underdog reputation. But nevertheless, I think that’s true of not just Fences, Wesley, but Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, these movies that are pure Hollywood spectacle but oftentimes would be on the outside looking in of a prestige conversation. They would be maybe six or seven or nine in the conversation but because there are nine opportunities [they were nominated].

Is This Good for Movies?

Simmons: This is a good thing, right? For movies. Or does this have no impact whatsoever?

Morris: I think this is a good thing but it is indicative of a bad thing. I think this is a really good thing for a studio like A24, I think it is a good thing for people who produce and subsidize our movies to really believe there is some kind of audience for a movie that does not star famous people, especially famous people like Denzel Washington — famous black people. I think it is good for movies that aren’t about anything larger than just being alive. I mean, that’s another thing that’s unprecedented as far as I can remember, like a movie that’s not about Hollywood, that isn’t about war, that isn’t about something that happened in real life from the headlines and is just about people living lives [wins]. I’ll have to look but I can’t recall. Maybe Driving Miss Daisy, crazily enough.

Fennessey: You know what I think it is, Wesley? I think it’s actually Crash, is the last time there was a —

Morris: I was gonna say, but that doesn’t really count, does it? It does count but it doesn’t count. Because it’s about an issue, right?

Fennessey: It’s a pat-yourself-on-the-back movie but it doesn’t fall into that traditional war, biopic, movie about Hollywood trifecta that a lot of Best Picture films fall into. That’s interesting.

The Voters Might Be Smarter Now

Simmons: So one of the things that’s happened in sports the last five or six years, which I’ve talked about and written about, is that the sophistication of the internet and all the people writing about what was actually good and it’s actually prevented us from MVP and rookie of the year and coach of the year [mistakes]. All those kind of disasters — you don’t have massive mistakes with the MVP anymore. There’s so much written about it, and I think the voters don’t want to look bad. They are also more educated I think than they used to be when they read this stuff. And like, "Oh, it’s actually not that good that he’s averaging 30 points a game because his plus-minus," and I wonder if that’s starting to happen with the Oscars. I don’t know how old the people who vote for this stuff are —

Morris: Old.

Simmons: Well, yeah, but it just seems like the sophistication has to be up because you think about it, like, La La Land wins cinematography, right? Doesn’t win screenplay. [Kenneth] Lonergan wins screenplay and he should’ve won screenplay because it was a better screenplay than La La Land. La La Land wins best song, La La Land wins best director, I’m fine with that, that movie was extremely well directed. Emma Stone wins best actress, it’s defensible.

Fennessey: Sure.

Simmons: But on down the line there was no outrageous pick, and I wonder if that’s where we’re headed for the Oscars.

Fennessey: Well, here’s my interpretation of that. I think that you’re right that in the core six categories for most serious film fans this is like, this was a pretty good outcome, right? You can go down the line and just say, "I feel good about all of these." The academy obviously in the last 12 months has made a lot of moves to diversify the voting body. They’ve added more young people, they’ve added more people of color, they’ve added more women, they’ve added more international winners. I think that that’s part of the reason why this happened, but I think that the other part of this reason is just that this was a weird year.