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Oscars: winning is more about appealing to the middlebrow than making art

Look a little closer, and these Oscars aren’t all they appear to be… Valeriya Zankovych/Shutterstock

As French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, awards like the Oscars convey a kind of cultural capital. There is some sense that they are a measure of worth. An Oscar isn’t money, but it can translate into the financial power to make more – and more expensive – films, and to have them more widely distributed.

But the worth that awards like the Oscars measure is unclear. They are certainly not a popularity contest. If that were so then the best popular film category would not have been announced – then quickly postponed – for this year’s awards. Nor do they measure complexity, bravery or challenging story-telling. If they did, films like Laura Bispuri’s Figlia Mia – which told a brave and complex story about mothers and daughters – would have won dozens of awards globally last year.

Instead, the Oscars seem to be awarded for some shifting blend of popular appeal, accessibility and a set of signifiers which suggest quality. Writer Virginia Woolf once satirised this balancing act as the “middlebrow”.

Occasionally, a film combines the conventional and the complex as Spike Lee did in the 2018 film BlacKkKlansman. It inhabits a popular genre while commenting on it and at the same time making a broader comment about how culture and history work. The Academy has recognised Lee’s feat with a number of nominations. It remains to be seen which nominations will become awards later in the week.

Most often, however, the Oscars are awarded to films that perform the trick of combining popular accessibility with particular signifiers of high culture in less challenging ways than Lee has done. The film which most often sweeps Academy members off their feet will, like Moonlight or The Shape of Water, appear profound without being particularly challenging. Enter, The Favourite.

Nominated for ten Oscars, including best picture, The Favourite nods to a number of film genres: period melodrama, the gothic, naturalism. At key moments, surrealist montage and camera effects suggest the unconscious of the film and the characters. Unlike BlacKkKlansman, however, it doesn’t ask us to think about how these conventions work.

The Favourite, like many films and novels commonly accorded art status, rests on the sexual degradation of women. Think Blue Velvet, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Dogville, Kill Bill II, or almost everything writer and director Jane Campion has made. Often such films include a climactic moment or narrative closure which provides a sense of redemption or revenge, widely lauded as feminine empowerment. But it is the torture and degradation of a central female character which is, again and again, the sign of art in cinema.

It is also a primary form of entertainment in our culture, so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Witness any Wednesday or Sunday night crime slot on any major television channel. Running through The Favourite is a picture of feminine sexuality, and lesbianism in particular, that is monstrously abject, manipulative, dysfunctional and abusive.

Films often present rich and interesting alternatives to history, suggesting all kinds of complex possibilities. That is one role of imaginative story-telling. We ought to ask, though, what happens when we take a reasonably competent and politically engaged monarch and reimagine her as a doddering, physically repulsive, melancholic narcissist, pathetically in thrall to a manipulative lesbian lover who swashbuckles about with one gothically shrouded eye? The historical Queen Anne did not own rabbits. There is little or no evidence that the loss of her many children, her supposed “failure” at feminine reproduction, unhinged her.

None of this misogynist retelling is unusual or remarkable, in film or elsewhere. What is remarkable is how very little anyone has spoken or written on the presence of these depictions in The Favourite. The film’s feminine characterisations have been almost universally received as “strong”, “empowering” and “central”. How is it that, at a time when the world is thinking so much about representation, so few people have understood these representations as a problem? Enter the idea of “art”, repackaged for the middlebrow.

In the final moment of The Favourite, there is another generic borrowing (from 1970s pornography this time) when we see the sign of Anne’s pleasure on Abigail’s face. When this image is montaged over in surrealist fashion with proliferating rabbits, we do not have to think very hard to understand the connection director Yorgos Lanthimos is making.

The techniques that Lanthimos uses here also have meaning. In suggesting the style developed by surrealist filmmakers such as Maya Deren and Luis Bunuel, this moment tells us that the film is art. It signals what Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin called a “genre of expression”, a structure that in itself carries meaning and value, apart from its content. We see these techniques that signify art and, like the middlebrow Woolf described, we stop asking questions and thank the critics who packaged it all up for us and told us what to think about it.

Lanthimos’ 2009 film, Dogtooth, did the unexpected at every turn in terms of narrative and genre. It was equally concerned with bodily abjection and intimate violence, yet failed to secure the Oscar it was nominated for. The Favourite reproduces a confused collection of film genre clichés and homophobic misogyny that is tiresome in its predictability. It continues to collect plane loads of awards around the western world. Using Woolf’s middlebrow satire, these two films alone might tell us a great deal about what exactly a picture must do to sweep the Oscar board.

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