The 2019 Academy Awards

Spike Lee Oscars.jpg

By Zeke Trautenberg

The highlight of the 2019 Academy Awards was Spike Lee’s rousing acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay. Lee acknowledged the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of slavery at Jamestown during Black History Month: “1619, 2019, 400 years. 400 years our ancestors were stolen from mother Africa and brought to Jamestown, Virginia, enslaved. Our ancestors worked the land from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night.” He also he gave thanks to his grandmother, the daughter of a slave, for sending him to college and film school. He ended his speech by exhorting the audience, in the face of the 2020 presidential election, to be on “the right side of history, make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing!”

The shocking low point and out-of-touch-Oscars moment came at the very end of the ceremony when Green Book won Best Picture. Director Peter Farrelly, speaking in a dull monotone, declared that his film is “about loving each other despite our differences.” His remarks only underscored the notion that the film is a racial reconciliation fantasy, and contrasted sharply with Spike Lee’s vigorous condemnation of racism and bigotry.

Although Lee’s speech and joyful reaction to his win made the ceremony, the buildup to the 2019 Academy Awards portended disaster. A proposed popular film category shelved soon after it was announced, a ceremony without a hostan uproar over the proposed elimination of categories from the live telecast, and years of declining ratings. An adrift, out of touch, and tarnished leadership at the Academy parallels an industry undergoing rapid and difficult change, marked by Disney’s pending merger with Fox, the growing power of Netflix, and the halting progress of the #MeToo movement.

Notwithstanding the lack of a host, the show kept up a relatively brisk pace compared to the slog of past years. The prototypical musical opening featuring Queen + Adam Lanza did not bode well for the ceremony. “We Will Rock You” left this reviewer with a cold heart and an icky feeling of fremdschämen for Javier Bardem’s vigorous head bobbing. However, the short opening monologue by Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, and Maya Rudolph was a more favorable omen (last year, Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue lasted eighteen minutes).

Some presenters made a more favorable impression, including Melissa McCarthy’s The Favourite-inspired gown replete with puppet bunnies, Trevor Noah’s riff on the “Wakanda Forever” catchphrase from Black Panther, and Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson’s flirtatious takedown of racism. The same could not be said of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s intense eyes-locked-in-forever-passion rendition of the chintzy ballad “Shallow,” which threatened to bury the first row under a treacly tsunami of Diva tears.

Several themes stood out at this year’s Oscars. First, the border wall. A number of presenters singled out the wall for scorn. On this point, Javier Bardem declared in Spanish: “There are no borders or walls that can restrain ingenuity or talent.” Of course, borders and wall do all of these things, but preaching movies as a profitable panacea to borders is a perennial Oscar truism. 

Second, despite the #MeToo movement and the Academy’s recent moves towards creating a more diverse membership, the top awards and nominees did not reflect this rhetoric of inclusion. No women-directed films were nominated for Best Picture, nor were any women nominated for Best Director. Moreover, Brian Singer, the director Bohemian Rhapsody, who stands accused of serious sexual assault offenses, loomed like a phantom over the ceremony. The return of the stars of Wayne’s World served as a shallow effort to draw attention away from Singer’s absence.

Third, Roma’s wins for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film encapsulates the Netflix’s powerful place within the industry. Although it has 139 million subscribers worldwide, Netflix lacked this crucial marker of Hollywood acceptance. Although it fell short of winning Best Picture, the streaming giant’s concerted and profligate publicity campaign made it seem like a preordained winner.

The Oscar awards were the usual grab bag of the well-deserved (Olivia Colman’s win for Best Actress) and painfully off the mark (Green Book). Despite nominating many worthy films, the Academy—as always—overlooked many of the year’s best and most exciting films, including Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Ari Aster’s Hereditary, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and Lucrecia Martel’s Zama. The Oscars are over. These great movies are waiting.

Photo: Getty Images

The 2018 Academy Awards

2018 Academy Awards.jpg

Me Too and Hollywood’s Big Night

By Zeke Trautenberg

The Academy Awards are Hollywood’s Swarovski crystal-bedazzled barometer of the film industry and the culture at large. This year, the Me Too movement and revelations of abuse by the producer Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men in Hollywood served as the backdrop for the awards. Even before the ceremony began, Me Too was front and center in the form of Ryan Seacrest, the host of E’s red-carpet show. Seacrest is facing allegations of sexual harassment by his former stylist. In a move that reassured no one, E aired the coverage on a thirty-second tape delay, allowing the network to cut away from any uncomfortable moments.

Whereas Seacrest’s presence reflected the entrenched power of alleged harassers and abusers in Hollywood, the onstage appearance of the actress Annabella Sciorra, a survivor of Weinstein’s abuse, represented a symbolic recognition of the damage done by sexual harassers and abusers in Hollywood. In the most moving and symbolically powerful moment of the evening Sciorra, standing next to her fellow actresses Time’s Up declared: “This year many spoke their truth.”

Jimmy Kimmel reprised his role as a genial and self-aware host. He poked fun at the stars and acknowledged the Me Too movement, joking: “If you are a nominee who isn’t making history, shame on you!”. Among the history-making nominees was Rachel Morrison, the first woman nominated for Cinematography in the ninety-year history of the Oscars. The Chilean film Una mujer fantástica, which tells the story of a transgender woman (played by Daniela Vega) dealing with the loss of her partner, also broke ground with its Best Foreign Film win.

Reprising a joyful moment from last year, Kimmel brought Gal Godot, Armie Hammer, Emma Stone, Guillermo del Toro, and other Hollywood stars to a movie theater across the street from the Dolby Theater where they surprised an audience mid-movie. However, the visit to the theater carried a deeper significance, reflecting anxiety about the disjuncture between films recognized by the Academy and those favored by the movie-going public.

The only surprise at this year’s show was Jordan Peele’s win for Best Original Screenplay for the social satire-cum-horror film Get Out. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, with its broad allegory of outsiders in an unforgiving world, was a fitting winner of the Best Picture award. However, Coco, which won the award for Best Animated Feature, a transnational production with stars from across the Americas that represents a profitable and inclusive future for Hollywood.

Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

The 2017 Academy Awards

Mark Rolston/Getty

Mark Rolston/Getty

Hollywood’s big, crazy night

By Zeke Trautenberg

For the minute it lasted, it was the coronation of a film tailor-made for Hollywood’s insatiable desire for self-affirmation. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, the original outlaws of New Hollywood, announced that  La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s twenty-first century musical, with its gauzy story of jazz, Hollywood, and the unwavering ambition of beautiful people, was the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture.

It soon became apparent that something was awry. Another envelope was brought on stage and smiles turned to disbelief. A dazed La La Land producer informed the audience that Moonlight was the real winner. It was, as the critic Calum Marsh observed on Twitter, a moment straight out of the maudlin dreams of Chazelle’s film: “In true form, La La Land only won Best Picture in a fantasy moment shared between former lovers imagining wistfully what might have been.”

The stark differences between the empathetic and ambiguous Moonlight and the effervescent and tidy La La Land added to the shock. After the #OscarsSoWhite controversies of the past two years, the image of the largely white producers and cast of La La Land quickly exiting the stage, and making way for the largely black cast of Jenkin’s film resonated with cultural symbolism.

Still disconcerted, Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, hoisted the golden statuette. “Very clearly, even in my dreams, this could not be true. But to hell with dreams — I’m done with it, because this is true. Oh, my goodness,” he remarked before a stunned audience. Despite Jenkins’ celebratory words, the circumstances of the victory were unfair to the cast and crew of Moonlight. They were deprived, through carelessness, of the chance to make the case for their film and fully exalt in the limelight.

I now hope that this challenging film about a gay black man coming of age in America, with its value affirmed by the Academy, will find an audience among the millions who see-sawed between delight and horror at this brief episode of Oscars madness.

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)