Oscars 2015: expert reaction

Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman took home four awards, including Best Picture. Mike Blake/Reuters

This year’s edition of the Oscars have wrapped up, and featured a little bit of everything – from Birdman’s crowning moment and calls for equal pay for women (along with calls for calls home to loved ones!) to a Lady Gaga-Julie Andrews convergence and the sight of Neil Patrick Harris’ tighty-whities.

Our panel of academics have taken a moment to weigh in. Responding to the victories and defeats, while touching themes of race and Hollywood politics, many also point to what was missing from this year’s show.


Birdman Soars

Stephen Benedict Dyson, University of Connecticut

Best Picture winner Birdman is a soaring piece of filmmaking, layered and meta to a dizzying degree. It also had the year’s best Audio/Visual gag, when Michael Keaton’s character walks past a busking drummer on the street who is hammering out the movie’s omnipresent score. Keaton casually tosses him a quarter, and continues through the movie accompanied by the same clattering beat long after the street musician has been left behind. The direction was too flashy for some tastes; I thought the movie had enough heart to see it through.

A few words for the lightly laureled Boyhood. This elegiac film took a long time to make. But for me, seeing 12 years pass in less than three hours drove home how short life is. And I couldn’t have been the only person whose sensibilities are so ruined by Hollywood tropes that I spent the whole movie waiting (happily, in vain) for the terrible turn of events that always accompanies these stories. The verisimilitude, then, was in both the on-screen aging of the actors and the portrayal of normal lives as accretions of quiet joys and draining defeats.


Twenty-something years later: Gen-X at the Oscars

Fabrizio Cilento, Messiah College

They were the underachievers, self-centered and impractical.

Throughout the 1990s, indie filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater gave voice to the overeducated (but often unemployed) sons of fractured families, paralyzed by social problems. An alternative cinema required alternative stars, and some of the early roles played by Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette, Edward Norton, Ethan Hawke, Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern captured the essence of the era’s anti-traditional bent.

When Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu started working within the US industry, he added his intercultural sensibility to the equation in films characterized by a narrative structure comprised of labyrinthine, overlapping paths.

However, there was a sense that Gen-X never flourished, condemned to eternally mourn the loss of River Phoenix, or to age bitterly, like in This is 40 or Greenberg.

Then Beck won at the Grammys, Father John Misty covered Nirvana and what remains of the Miramax-Sundance era had their moment at the Oscars. They were supposed to be having a midlife crisis – but instead they made an aesthetic out of an impending midlife crisis, and produced their most ambitious works. Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood are grounded in years of research, and focus on the themes of real time, image composition, and the heritage of the global new waves.

In the words of Kurt Cobain: Here we are now, (keep) entertaining us.


White and winning…

Kellie Carter Jackson, Hunter College

Neil Patrick Harris should not have corrected himself. This was Hollywood’s whitest night. And not only was this year white, but it was also heavily white male-centric – not surprising, given that 77% of the voting block are white males. So when Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs gave a speech about filmmaking and responsibility, it couldn’t have rung more false.

While congratulations are due to John Legend and Common winning best song, even their win felt predictable. (like, “You people are so soulful!”)

Consider this: what if Boyhood were about the story of Enrique, the Mexican laborer in the film played by Roland Ruiz. What if we saw a film about his growth into adulthood? Instead we watched a white American boy vandalize, drink alcohol, take drugs (without repercussions), complain about his entitlement to his father’s car – and then go off to college.

Booker T. Washington once said, “The study of art that does not result in making the strong less willing to oppress the weak means little.” With voting patterns like this, the Academy may be paving its own irrelevance.

So much for responsibility.


Other worlds

Marissa J. Moorman, Indiana University, Bloomington

Ida – Pawel Pawlikowski’s crisp, quiet drama – took home the Best Foreign Language Film award. The favorite going in, Ida is an arresting tale of a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland who learns of her Jewish ancestry.

It’s one of the few Oscar contenders that focuses on women’s stories (protagonist Ida and her aunt, Red Wanda). The acting is tight, the plot efficient and wrenching. Shot in black and white, with a keen sense of framing, the visual storytelling is as significant as the dialogue. It’s no surprise, then, that Ida also was nominated in the cinematography category, breaching national filmmaking borders with technical flair.

The Best Foreign Language Film category offers an alternative to the usual Hollywood formulas. It’s a chance to confound our common sense assumptions about how race, class, gender, religion and sexuality operate in everyday life. But we see too little of these films. It’s unfortunate, then, that we didn’t see more of Leviathan (Russia), Tangerines (Estonia), Timbuktu (Mauritania), or Wild Tales (Argentina) during this year’s Oscars.

All are important films (Timbuktu just won a Cesar, France’s Oscar), and with the rise of global filmmaking industries that rival Hollywood’s (like Bollywood in India and Nollywood in Nigeria), our shameful national narrowness (#bestandwhitest) shows what navel gazers we are: slow to look outside our borders for new ways to see and represent the world.


Middlebrow prestige culture: keeping things unreal

Catherine Liu, University of California, Irvine

The Weinstein formula of marrying independent film with middlebrow prestige finally reached its apotheosis this year, but Weinstein’s The Imitation Game was outflanked by Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman.

I was rooting for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a film that explores and expands on the meaning of realism. Both Gone Girl and Boyhood dealt with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and address the anxieties of family finance and everyday life. Neither film dealt with race at all.

I blame Harvey Weinstein for the mediocrity and whitewashing of independent cinema, which is far behind network and cable television narratives in dealing with the complexities of gender and race. My son and I are watching ABC’s Fresh off the Boat. (Yes, Asian Americans exist!)

As a side note, Neil Patrick Harris’s emceeing was awful. The transition from Citizenfour’s winning best documentary to commercial break reminded me of this brilliant takedown of 2013 Oscars host Seth McFarlane by Jacobin Magazine’s Eileen Jones.


Indies to the rescue…again

Michael Green, Arizona State University

The 87th Academy Awards affirmed that the gap between what the Oscars purport to stand for (great, bold, creative movies) and the kind of movies Hollywood actually makes (formulaic, special effects-infused blockbusters aimed at teenagers) is wider than ever.

For two decades, the Oscars have appropriated independent movies to fill the major categories, while Hollywood studio films have dominated the visual, sound effects and feature animation categories. Without independent cinema, Hollywood’s biggest awards show wouldn’t even exist.

The broadcast seemed defensive about this from the outset. Jack Black acknowledged Hollywood’s reliance on formula and bottom-line mentality in the opening song, but was quickly shooed off in favor of hokey nostalgia. Liam Neeson protested that Hollywood was more than a comic book factory, while another presenter lamented that the “Industry is becoming more digital every day.”

The President of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, gave a speech on responsibility and the need to protect the right to self–expression (clearly referring to Sony’s hacking last year). She mentioned that movies are for “challenging ideas” and presenting “alternative points of view.” But this is absolutely the last thing that Hollywood movies attempt – or want – to do.

How much longer can Hollywood pretend it makes the kind of movies it wants to honor?


What if Alice were Alan?

Michele Schreiber, Emory University

If you hadn’t given much thought to how male-centric this year’s Oscars were, it probably became clear tonight when the introduction to every Best Picture nominee clip could have easily started with, “Our next nominated picture is about a boy/man who does X.” In fact, this sentence not only sums up the plot of most films made in Hollywood throughout its history, but also all but a handful of Best Picture winners.

We don’t label these films “men’s films.” They’re simply “great films.” However, when a film features a female protagonist, it often acquires a label that marks it as different. During the classical period it was called a “woman’s picture.” Now it’s a “chick flick.” These labels persist despite the fact that the content of these films is often no different from many films featuring male protagonists.

Would a film like Still Alice have been more acclaimed and garnered a Best Picture nomination if it were called Still Alan? Would it be a more “important” story if it was about a brilliant man whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s?

The dismissal of women’s stories into some “other” category is evidence of a significant systemic problem. But it isn’t only Hollywood’s problem to solve. It also lies in the hands of moviegoers who continue to pigeonhole women in film in ways that they would deem unacceptable in their everyday lives.

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