And to think, we thought last year’s Oscars were unusual. Only six months ago, it looked as if the biggest drama this year’s ceremony could offer would be endless jokes about mixed-up envelopes and retracted acceptance speeches. Now, the movie industry is in a phase that would have once seemed unimaginable, even to people who have made billions from turning Kevin James into a movie star. Instead of throwing his annual pre-Oscars party in LA and strolling through the week like a self-satisfied God admiring his creation, multiply-accused rapist and former uber-producer Harvey Weinstein was last sighted getting smacked in the face by a member of the public in a restaurant in Arizona. Few falls have been harder and faster. For almost 30 years, Weinstein shaped the Oscars arguably more than anyone else by lobbying for his films with infamous dedication – claiming 81 Academy Awards in the process. He made the Oscars seem cool, by shepherding through films such as The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction, and he made them seem hopelessly mediocre, by bulldozing through tedious schlock such as Argo and Chicago. It is striking that his sudden absence from the event coincides with consideration of the first movies made under the tenure of President Trump. Like Trump, Weinstein was a notorious bully who frequently defended other bullies and worse (he was, for example, a very vocal defender of the child-rapist Roman Polanski). So, it will be fascinating to see if, over the next few years, film-makers take advantage of the fact that, while they live in a country in which an accused predator is president, their movies are no longer produced by one.
Meanwhile, the movie industry has spent the past few months openly reckoning with the long-accepted if rarely acknowledged truth that Hollywood is constructed on a system of sexual exploitation, reliant on the complicity and silence of those who work within it, and just because it has always been done this way does not make it right. It is depressing that it still feels shocking to acknowledge this out loud, like pointing out the emperor is not just nude but has been openly humping the servants and no one ever seemed to care.
If the Oscars are even a tenth as important as they emphatically insist they are, then this year’s event has to be a bellwether of change. If not, they will slip yet further into irrelevancy, something only for the old, the white and the out of touch. This has been a problem for the Oscars for some time. Former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Cheryl Boone Isaacs has spoken often about wanting to make the Academy itself – that is, the people who vote for the awards – more inclusive. Which she has, sort of: the year before she assumed the presidency, Oscar voters were 94% white and 77% male. Last year, they were 91% white and 76% male.
Of the many extraordinary things about the exposure of Weinstein, perhaps the most surprising is how what could potentially have been a movie industry-centric scandal became an international movement. It has revealed sexual exploitation in industries around the world and seized the imaginations of the public, male and female, who are now working through their own pasts and renegotiating sexual mores of the present and future. Hollywood, and to a certain extent the Oscars, is supposed to reflect the culture, and here we have a story that began in Hollywood and became the culture: if the Oscars don’t represent that, then they will look even more ridiculous than the time they gave the best picture award to Crash instead of Brokeback Mountain.
The nominations this year show some awareness of that, while still betraying residuals of old habits. Darkest Hour and Dunkirk fulfil the de rigeur period-drama quotient. The Post while seemingly a feminist movie, is exposition-heavy silliness and was only nominated because Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, made it. It is a damn shame that it edged out The Florida Project, a genuinely original movie about class in the US. No film has captured the American zeitgeist like Get Out, and Jordan Peele got his deserved nominations for best film, best screenplay and best director. In the Oscars’ 90 years, he is only the fifth black film-maker to be nominated for the latter prize, just as Greta Gerwig is only the fifth woman to be nominated in the same category. Her film, Lady Bird, which – with its careful examination of female vulnerability and agency – is a properly feminist movie and a delight at that. Call Me By Your Name has rightly been adored by audiences, who no longer consider gay love stories outside the mainstream. Phantom Thread is an interesting exploration of male sociopathy, which also feels relevant.
However, the big winners are likely to be The Shape of Water – AKA Splash with magical realism – and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a movie that is only watchable because of Frances McDormand. These feel like the compromise options, the middle ground between traditional Oscar choices and the new generation of film-makers engaging with the mood of the moment. The question will be whether the Oscars can go to the next level and start giving prizes to the truly relevant films. Because, like a certain shark from a movie Spielberg made long before The Post, there are only two options now: move forward or die.