clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Oscars in a Post–Harvey Weinstein World

An industry rocked by the Weinstein saga, changes to the academy, and a ‘Moonlight’ effect could make for an unusual, unpredictable Oscar race

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

In February, after the Academy Awards’ fever-dream Best Picture mix-up, Barry Jenkins strode upon the stage and clutched the award in his right hand before saying a few words. “We didn’t do this, you guys chose us,” he said, thrown but steady. “Thank you for the choice, I appreciate it.”

But Jenkins didn’t actually win the award. It was the producers of Moonlight, Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner. (In addition to winning, the trio’s names have also been emblazoned in meme history.) It is already forgotten to time, but Romanski spoke first, briefly, before handing off the microphone. If you watch the clip again, you’ll see that the director’s instinct was to offer the moment to Kleiner, who declined to speak in favor of Jenkins.

The Academy Awards ceremony is the only public act of artistic prize-giving that grants its highest honor not to the artist but to the facilitator. When what is deemed the year’s best film is announced, the official recipient of the Oscar is the movie’s producer or producers, not its director. One hundred years on, Hollywood is still a town that rewards power above all else. Jenkins’s acceptance was an anomaly, an acknowledgement of the absurdity of the moment when Moonlight became enshrined. Who else could conjure the dignity, the decency to speak on it, but Jenkins? Typically, the second-to-last face we see on the Oscar telecast, before the host sends us off, belongs to someone slightly more anonymous, behind the scenes, a person with access to money and power. Usually someone white, typically older. Someone like Harvey Weinstein.

The reason most people know who Weinstein is in the first place is very likely the Academy Awards, where the longtime producer and movie mogul is among the most thanked figures of all time. He ranks alongside Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and God. All of those figures are, well, creators. Weinstein is not. Though he historically looms large at the ceremony and in its dogfight campaigns to victory, he is but a glorified green light—a proverbial mover and shaker. But his films have won 81 Academy Awards. And now Weinstein, often portrayed in the press as a brutish and brash film enthusiast who could make or break movie dreams, has been officially ejected from the film community, civilized society, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, if not in that order. After reporting in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and elsewhere revealed accusations of and financial settlements related to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape over more than 30 years, Weinstein has been expelled.

The many accusations against him and their aftereffects have been the industry story of the year, persistent whispers that grew to an unignorable roar. It is one of the more extraordinary events in recent cultural times, the dismantling of a feared and loathed operator who nevertheless persisted at the forefront of his industry, especially at its most hallowed gatherings. Weinstein saw a unique value in accolades and honors—prestige, for the man born of a diamond cutter from Flushing, Queens, represented proof of success. No one can look at an Academy Award and suggest failure. To Weinstein, acquisition has long been the coin of the realm. He sought ownership: of the narrative, power, prizes, and reportedly, far more than that.

So it is fitting that this year, the first after Moonlight’s stunning triumph, will be the first without Harvey Weinstein since the early ’90s. The Oscars have found themselves in a convulsive fit for the better part of a decade, desperate to reclaim their primacy as the ultimate signifier of achievement in American arts. The actions have been varied, from expanding the Best Picture nominee pool to as much as 10 in 2009 to outgoing Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs’s recent efforts to diversify the voting body. And in some respects, it has worked. Moonlight’s win was highly improbable, just the second by a director of color in Oscar history and the first without the backing of a major movie studio’s marketing might. In years past, Weinstein often stood as a bulwark against the studio campaigns, warring against them with tactics many considered underhanded—a kind of Swiftboater for these movie times. In 2002, Weinstein reportedly conducted a smear campaign against A Beautiful Mind, undermining the veracity of the real-life story of the mathematician John Nash. In that instance, he failed. But those tactics have often worked—in the past decade, the Weinstein Company has 10 Best Picture nominations, and two wins, unprecedented success for an independent movie company.

The Weinstein Company had one ostensible contender this Oscar season in The Current War, about the battle for the electrical industry in the late 19th century, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon. Since the Weinstein scandal broke, that movie has been pulled from the schedule completely. It is reportedly akin to Weinstein’s other recent fare—movies like Lion, The Imitation Game, and Philomena—polite, genteel Oscar-friendly true-life stories. Many have speculated that one of the reasons the accusations against Weinstein finally became public and so resounding is that the producer has experienced a diminishment in standing in recent years. We are many years removed from Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Pulp Fiction, or any of the other audacious films he championed some 20-plus years ago. Once the disrupter, Weinstein now appears to be another in a long line of domineering but weakened tycoons with monstrous predilections forever cast in a shadow of his own monstrosity. The movie business never need meet another Harvey Weinstein again—but it does need a transfusion of new and talented facilitators.

Could this be the year that some of them emerge?

Last week, the opening bell of awards season officially rang. As usual, New York’s Gotham Independent Film Awards nominations were first out of the gate and recognized the usual collection of critically acclaimed, complex, and intriguing films. Most of those movies won’t make it to Oscar night. Foremost was Get Out, Jordan Peele’s “social thriller” about a black man visiting his white girlfriend’s parents’ home for the weekend, which earned four nominations. Get Out is unequivocally one of the most celebrated films of the year—another massive box office success from Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, grossing more than 50 times its $4.5 million budget, and the owner of a 99 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. Among movies released this century, virtually none can claim that twin success.

Jordan Peele at the Hamptons International Film Festival 2017
‘Get Out’ director Jordan Peele
Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Hamptons International Film Festival

It has one other thing going for it: it is remembered. Get Out, and its attendant moments—the Sunken Place, “Gimme those keys, Rose!”—have transcended typical blockbuster transience and taken a place in the memories of the people who saw it. It’s an instant classic. It needs that—Get Out is already eight months old and few films released in February are ever nominated for Academy Awards, let alone those made by black first-time writer-directors like Jordan Peele, and in the horror genre no less. Blum is almost certainly preparing an Oscar campaign and Peele is going to be game for the long siege of Q&As, galas, and baby-kissing that an endeavor like this demands. He’s a charming, insightful talker—that matters. Just this weekend, he could be seen discussing the film’s origins as a pre–Donald Trump treatise on the falsity of the end of racism in Obama’s America.

Get Out has no precedent at the Oscars, but neither did A24’s Moonlight. Some have begun to insinuate that Moonlight’s success will help Call Me by Your Name, the gay coming-of-age drama set for release in November from the gifted Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino. Like Get Out, CMBYN already has some memes of its own. And for this sensuous, elliptical film to succeed, it will need all the virality it can muster. It was nominated for a Best Feature Gotham alongside Get Out, as well as Sean Baker’s candy-colored The Florida Project, Josh and Benny Safdie’s jet-propulsive Good Time, and the forthcoming I, Tonya, about the life of figure skater Tonya Harding, starring Margot Robbie. I suspect the latter three won’t make it to February’s lineup of films, but crazier things have happened. Call Me by Your Name almost certainly will.

One such film that likely will as well is Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s 10th feature-length movie and the one that feels most keenly attuned to awards recognition. Nolan’s films have been nominated for just three Oscars, a surprisingly low number for a director with as significant a standing in the consciousness of filmgoers at large. (At The Ringer, we devoted a whole week to his work when Dunkirk was released.) Dunkirk is a visual marvel that ticks many of the awards season boxes: under-recognized master working on a passion project that is also a period piece that happened to be hugely profitable. Dunkirk—with all its unnecessary time-skipping and visceral derring-do—is a virtual lock come awards season.

Less certain, though no less interesting, is The Big Sick, the year’s annual feel-good, humanistic Sundance dramedy, which tells the true story of comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani’s complicated and wrenching courtship of his eventual wife (and co-screenwriter) Emily V. Gordon. The Big Sick was purchased by Amazon Studios at Sundance and has the same plucky contender aura as Little Miss Sunshine—a small movie that makes people happy to have seen it. Amazon guided Manchester by the Sea to two Oscar wins last year, and its film arm has been far more successful and far less wracked by controversy than its television department. The Big Sick is the kind of film that big-studio boutique units like Fox Searchlight have shepherded to awards success in the past. Whether Amazon can do the same is not yet known.

The other movies that will likely challenge it through the year’s final two months are far stormier and more traditionally at home this time of year. These include Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, which portrays Winston Churchill scheming in darkened chambers during the same Battle of Dunkirk that Nolan depicts; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which features a scorched-earth performance by Frances McDormand as a mother grappling with her daughter’s murder; Phantom Thread, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s largely unseen drama about a 1950s fashion designer played by Daniel Day-Lewis, in his final performance on screen; and The Post, which is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Kay Graham during the battle to print the Pentagon Papers. On its face, that will be hard to beat—the most decorated director, actor, and actress of their generation working together for the first time on a story about political and journalistic truth at all costs that will quake with modern-day resonance.

Get Out vs. The Post would be the kind of intergenerational, establishment-upstart battle that could propel the Oscars to a kind of profundity, two movies that are issue-driven and craft-focused, as concerned with skill as ideas. It’s a showdown that Oscar has thrived on in years past—one upon which Harvey Weinstein staked his name. It was Weinstein’s Shakespeare in Love that toppled Spielberg’s presumptive favorite Saving Private Ryan nearly 20 years ago, a victory that was perceived as the underdog upending the institution and established Harvey’s reign as the enfant terrible of awards season. All these years later, we know that was at best a false prophecy and at worst something far more grave—a coronation for a vicious, assaultive powermonger. Hollywood rarely moves in a straight line toward progress—it’s closer to a circle, closing loops. 2017 cannot change what came before—but it is a new day.