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Does an Awards Show Owe Us Anything?

This year’s Golden Globes could be a bellwether for the most unpredictable Oscar race in decades. Does how much we love a work of art matter to the outcome?

A24/Ringer illustration

Predict the Lady Bird backlash.

This has become a routine talking point around the Ringer offices. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to anticipate. Lady Bird is one of the year’s most beloved, critically acclaimed, and financially successful independent films, and it has gained a terrific amount of awards season plaudits: accolades from more than a dozen critics groups; four Independent Spirit Award nominations, including one for Best Feature; an oft-cited Rotten Tomatoes score; a crucial Best Original Screenplay nod from the Writer’s Guild; and four nominations at Sunday’s Golden Globes. For writer-director Greta Gerwig, this is a marvel, almost unprecedented in its unanimity for a young filmmaker. And that’s exactly why my colleagues are wondering when the bottom will fall out. We are conditioned, as awards watchers, to wonder What will go wrong?

In the case of Lady Bird, it has resonated in such specific ways with so many people across different strata of life that it feels as if there is something almost universal about it: Mothers are as likely to respond as daughters, millennials are as touched as baby boomers, and depressive middle-aged men are as vulnerable to its charms as thoughtful young women. It gnaws at notions of class anxiety, social awkwardness, sexual uncertainty, physical discomfort, youthful indiscretion, and Dave Matthews Band nostalgia. Accepted on its own uncomplicated but deep terms, it is a wondrous movie. So, if every single awards campaign that has come before it is to be believed, it’s in trouble.

But I’m not sure there is a fatal flaw in the Lady Bird campaign, or even in the possibility of a Swift-Birding. Maybe it’s too small and personal to overcome a more classical contender like The Post or Dunkirk. I honestly couldn’t say. These things are unknowable. For about 90 seconds last February, America assumed that Hollywood was up to its same old predictable, self-congratulatory tricks when it handed the Best Picture statuette at the Academy Awards to La La Land. And then, well …

Please rewatch that clip if you haven’t seen it in a while; it might be 100 years before a more stirring, disastrous, wonderful moment happens at an awards show again. Moonlight’s win signaled, for some, a sea change. After years of frustration and anger over the composition of the Academy’s voting body, efforts to diversify and revivify the members of each branch led to what some have interpreted as a major shift. If Moonlight — envelope imbroglio aside — could triumph over La La Land, perhaps the Academy really had changed a great deal. “I feel like I won Best Picture,” K. Austin Collins wrote for this site the morning after. It did feel, in some ways, like a personal victory, an earned acknowledgement of progress. I’m personally dubious of sweep of that order, but willing to enjoy its temporary splendor. Though if Moonlight’s win was radical, the rise of then-31-year-old Damien Chazelle’s odd and vivacious movie about jazz was unlikely, too, particularly in a year that included historically typical fare like Lion, Hacksaw Ridge, and Fences. The most celebrated movies of 2016 were not standard. And 2017 did not regress to the mean. The opposite, in fact. There are several movies that filmgoers have connected with on a deeply personal level, perhaps more so than in any recent Oscar race. Consider the Brooksian pleasures of The Big Sick and the urgent, cat-walking-on-the-piano thrill of Get Out, or the intimate, sumptuous sun dappled Call Me By Your Name or the ferocious, politically dissolute Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — people have connected with movies this year, all kinds. That matters. On Friday, a record 11 films were nominated for Best Film by the Producers Guild of America. Which makes the unpredictability of this year’s crop even more complex. There’s a world of possibility ahead. If a movie’s win can feel like winning itself, when do we start expecting that feeling to arrive for all the movies we love?


An important note: Awards shows are frivolous pageants populated by self-important blowhards. This Sunday’s ceremony is usually anticipated as a kind of Drunk Oscars, where celebrities chortle over open-bar cocktails and blasé party talk. Sometimes they get up and give speeches to their peers as a nation looks on, hoping they’ll make a joke about J.Lo’s breasts or taking a Valium before getting onstage. The Globes are a gas, chosen by a collection of unknown, unexamined international operators, their results only marginally notable. It’s a commercial. And yet they are essential, not just as a TV entertainment, but in shaping narrative and setting the tone for the season — in this case, the next two long months before the 90th Academy Awards on March 4.

The Globes functions in a dual role: famously awarding unlikely rising stars in an effort to anoint the next big thing (especially in its TV division), and also acknowledging a life’s work with an extended tribute. This year’s recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille Award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment” will be given to Oprah Winfrey. (Expect a lot of A Wrinkle in Time promotion in the video package that precedes the honor.) The awards are otherwise a bit of a scramble, as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association chooses to split the big prize into two categories, between Drama and Musical/Comedy. So, like the PGAs, there are 10-plus contenders to observe.

Best Picture — Drama

Call Me by Your Name
Dunkirk
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Picture — Comedy or Musical

The Disaster Artist
Get Out
The Greatest Showman
I, Tonya
Lady Bird

A scene from The Shape of Water
A scene from The Shape of Water
Courtesy Fox Searchlight

Each of these movies — OK, not The Greatest Showman — has a claim to Best Picture in March, and also a kind of personal relevance. And this doesn’t account for The Big Sick. Or Wonder Woman. Or my beloved Phantom Thread. Or Mudbound. Or Darkest Hour, which has picked up steam among audiences in diverse markets. Or Sean Baker’s small, mighty The Florida Project, which has drawn some of the grandest praise of the year. There are as many as 15 movies that can lay claim to contendership in March, and most of them are unlikely. The Disaster Artist is the film with arguably the most obvious recent precedent for a win — James Franco’s movie-in-a-movie deconstruction of Tommy Wiseau and Hollywood has more in common with The Artist, Birdman, and All About Eve than any of its fellow nominees. Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water has emerged as a guild favorite, garnering consistent appreciation for a world-class filmmaker who cloaked his monster movie ethic in a period piece romance. (Personally, I thought Del Toro made his Oscar-ish masterpiece 11 years ago with Pan’s Labyrinth.) But let me be frank: The Disaster Artist and The Shape of Water are weird movies. Not just because they are underdog stories, but because of the details of those stories. A fish-man creature being seduced by a mute janitor against the backdrop of the Cold War is not normal. And The Shape of Water is considered by many to be one of the stuffy, prestige-y entrants. We are in for a strange couple of months.


As for Lady Bird, it has its own set of mythologies and history to consider. Prior to Moonlight, there was virtually no precedent for a quasi-autobiographical film’s win for Best Picture. Stories like this are rarely even nominated. Authenticity was the coin of the realm for decades. In years past, the aggression of smear campaigns — think the raft of attempted “corrections” of Ava DuVernay’s Selma in 2014 by a cabal of LBJ-ologists — has cast doubt on the truth, and thus value, of certain contenders. That feels like a vanished moment. The Disaster Artist is almost humorously evasive about the truth of its central figure while pulling off a stunning act of mimicry. Dunkirk feels real and devastating, and The Post feels egg-timered to this exact moment — but they’re also pure moviemaking, engineered around small events in larger stories of conflict. The Big Sick is based on a real marriage and crafted by its participants. I, Tonya was literally constructed around diverging, contradictory interviews of its two protagonists, Tonya Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly.

Hollywood is about to embark on a public reckoning tour, as the presenters and winners at these awards shows will attempt thoughtful, impassioned statements on the series of revelations around sexual assault and misconduct occurring within its industry for many years. The truth, as it were, continues to unravel. Maybe the personal is the only thing that matters to moviegoers, and to voters. And maybe that’s right.