After Monday, January 13, a friend of mine posted a Tweet that the most wonderful time of the year had arrived — the time to complain about the Academy Award nominations for 2019’s crop of films. The complaints have hit so hard and fast that much of what I have to say on the subject may seem redundant.
But I can’t help myself. This year I really thought things would change, as I noted the release of a number of strong, well-reviewed movies with female characters at their center — The Farewell (98% on Rotten Tomatoes), Booksmart (97%), Little Women (95%), Knives Out (97%), and some I’ve yet to see, Us (93%), The Souvenir (90%), and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (97%). I couldn’t stop myself from hoping that scores like this would make these movies impossible for Oscar to ignore; surely, even given their long history of honoring man-centered movies, the voters might find just a little love in their hearts for high-quality stories about women.
Of all the movies nominated for Best Picture, only Little Women focuses on female characters. The rest are about men. Some, like 1917, are simply about men — that is, male-character focused, but made without a specific demographic appeal in mind (e.g. The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, and 90% of all war movies, good and bad). Others, like Joker, The Irishman, and Once upon a Time in Hollywood, are not only about men but for men, designed specifically with a male audience in mind. Movies that are about men may exclude women from major roles due to the practicalities of their settings. In movies about men, for men, the exclusion, marginalization, or shallow/stereotypical characterization of women is part of the point. Obviously I’m not going to favor the latter type of movie with my time or money, so this may be a year in which the Best Picture Oscar goes to a movie I have no intention of seeing, ever. Since Little Women‘s chances are slim, Greta Gerwig having been denied a Best Director nomination, I now feel obliged to root for either 1917 or Parasite, both of which I will eventually see.
The all-male slate of Best Director nominees has already been discussed quite a bit, so I’ll keep it brief on that point, and only mention that when protests of the exclusion of women like Gerwig and The Farewell‘s Lulu Wang appeared on Twitter, they were shouted down by Tweets (mostly but not all from men) claiming that the nominees were chosen because they were the best, and quality matters more than diversity, and those of us who thought Gerwig or Wang deserving of Oscar’s attention are just loony leftists who need to “get over it.” I couldn’t help remembering a discussion that had gone on on Reddit Fantasy just a day or two earlier, concerning why so many women have been winning Hugo Awards of late. Quite a few posters suggested the choices were politically motivated, a reaction against the notorious “Sad Puppies” campaign a few years back. So if I understand this correctly–
Only men are nominated for, and have a chance to win, Best Director Oscars for 2019: It’s because they’re the best!
Mostly women have been nominated for, and won, recent Hugo Awards: It’s political.
Maybe that latter view isn’t altogether wrong. Perhaps all tastes, all preferences, have a touch of politics about them. My own preference for a story of a Chinese-American woman confronting cultural differences within her own family as well as the impending loss of a loved one over a fresh serving of Charles-Mansonia may be motivated on a certain level by politics. But if that’s the case, might the nominations for Best Director, as well as the omissions, be political as well?
Take, for instance, one of the most puzzling snubs: the absence of Knives Out from the Best Picture and Best Director categories. Rian Johnson is a man, after all; why isn’t he up there with Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino? The popularity of Knives Out with audiences as well as critics — an original story, not a sequel, remake, or part of a franchise — has surprised and delighted many. Its success shows people do indeed want to see such films, as long as they’re well-made and entertaining. Besides, I have yet to hear a negative word about this movie from anyone whose opinion I have reason to trust. I thought it was a shoo-in. But no.
Instead, Academy voters chose to nominate the highly polarizing Joker and its even more polarizing director, Todd Phillips, who has made a whole career out of making movies about men, for men, and who not long ago claimed that he made a drama largely because he felt his bro-tastic comedies (e.g. Old School, the Hangover series) were no longer welcome in our current “woke” culture. Phillips’ name alone would suffice to keep me away from Joker, since all his movies have one notable thing in common: the view that women exist to make men miserable, either by cheating on them or nagging them or threatening to break up their Bro Gangs or simply expecting love and commitment. In the Phillips-verse, the only tolerable women are prostitutes, since they’ll give men the only thing men truly desire from women — sex — and will expect neither respect nor affection in return. As a review of Old School put it, “women are, if not the enemy, at least the mystery meat.” Based on what I’ve been able to ascertain from both reviews and word of mouth, Joker doesn’t depart from this: the driven-mad protagonist’s evil mother is the root of all his woes.
Why, then, did the voters choose Joker when Knives Out was right there? I have a theory I pray isn’t true. Knives Out exposes the poisonous hypocrisy of a super-rich family as the protagonist, a young working-class woman of color, is forced to deal with them in very dire circumstances. The voters themselves are super-rich, and it may be they saw themselves not in the put-upon, kind-hearted Marta but in the horrible Thromby family. Joker, on the other hand, especially considering Phillips’ “woke culture” complaints, could be seen as a finger in the eye of the #MeToo Movement that has shaken Hollywood to its core. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if at least some voters’ support of it weren’t a teensy bit political.
Whatever the case, I won’t feel the same surge of hope this year if high-quality woman-centered movies appear. It seems clear that the Oscar voters won’t be opening their hearts to films that tell women’s stories anytime soon, no matter how good those films happen to be.
Here’s a relevant video: