Marlow: As the Academy and viewing public careen violently toward the inevitable catastrophe that is Oscar night, coming earlier than ever on Feb. 9, where do we even begin to assess how strange and silly this awards season has been?
Kevin: With the season being so short, it’s been especially glaring—confined, concentrated chaos.
Marlow: Our Joker, as it were. And perhaps the ongoing diversity problem is as good a place to start as any. Joker star Joaquin Phoenix recently made headlines with his rousing BAFTA acceptance speech calling out the British awards’ “systemic racism,” saying, “I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here.” Now, while no people of color were recognized among the BAFTAs’ 20 acting nominees, the Academy Awards didn’t fare much better, nominating only one actor of color—Cynthia Erivo for Harriet—and overlooking the likes of Lupita Nyong’o in Us, the cast and crew of The Farewell, and of course, Jennifer Lynn Lopez’s magnetic turn in Hustlers. (Though it looks like she got the last laugh.)
Kevin: And that’s just the tip of the (extremely white) iceberg. Eddie Murphy and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in Dolemite Is My Name. Alfre Woodard in Clemency. Octavia Spencer in Luce. Taylor Russell and Sterling K. Brown in Waves. It never used to make sense to me why some small indie movies make it onto the awards radar when others don’t, but it’s starting to become a lot clearer. There are certain, antiquated ideas among many voters as to what constitutes an “Oscar movie,” to the point that those are the movies that they will even deign to watch before voting.
Marlow: Hellooo, 1917—an all-male favorite of our (incredibly telling) anonymous Oscar voter, who’d thus far refused to see Little Women. The Pete Buttigieg of Oscar picks, to Joe Biden’s Irishman and Bernie Sanders’ Parasite.
Kevin: Stories about people of color—and especially told by people of color—still don’t register as “Oscar movies” to these people. With all due respect to Erivo, of all the performances we’ve listed from people of color, hers is the last I would vote into the acting races. But she made it in because she starred in a by-the-numbers biopic of a former slave—with a giddy embrace of the white savior trope, to boot. It registered as an “Oscar movie.” Joaquin Phoenix is right: it’s systemic racism. And it doesn’t just lead to egregious snubs and failure to recognize worthy talent, but it is a barrier to elevating these performers and directors to the point that they would one day be instinctively ruled worthy of awards considerations by these voters. It’s a racist chicken and oppressed egg situation.
Marlow: I’d have given nominations to Lupita and Awkwafina in Actress, J.Lo in Supporting, as well as Lulu Wang in Screenplay, Director and Picture for The Farewell. But hey, that’s just me! Like you said, the Academy enjoys keeping women and people of color in their place, so it gravitates toward nominating a slave character over, say, a Latinx sex worker who robs rich, white people who look like them, the voters.
Kevin: If, like, Ben Affleck or David O. Russell had directed Hustlers, it would have gotten a dozen Oscar nods. It also wouldn’t have been as good without Lorene Scafaria’s female gaze.
Marlow: I wasn’t as high on Hustlers as a film (it unraveled in the final third for me), but see your point. It’s also why Lupita Nyong’o hasn’t received any awards recognition since 12 Years a Slave, and her non-CGI roles have been mostly provided by directors of color, from Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) to Jordan Peele (Us). The problem is indeed systemic. Another big issue this Oscar season is how compressed it’s been—“confined, concentrated chaos” as you’ve said. Feb. 9 is the earliest Oscars night date in recent memory (last year, by comparison, was Feb. 24, and 2018 fell on March 4).
Kevin: On the one hand, the truncated season, while an exhausting sprint, is a good thing. The political circus that sets up camp on Hollywood Boulevard during longer seasons too often devolves into needlessly crass lunacy. Cutting out the extraneous controversies and smear campaigns that pop up as the awards trail winds on is a good thing.
Marlow: But… where is the drama?!
Kevin: A side effect of that is that I truly think voters didn’t have enough time to see all the movies they should have seen, hence reverting this year maybe even more than others to that “Oscar movie” impulse when it came time to prioritize screenings and screeners. I wonder if some movies’ Oscar success—Jojo Rabbit or Ford v Ferrari, for example—had something to do with the fact that polarizing opinion didn’t have enough time to weigh down their chances; or, similarly, if the incredibly boring rubber-stamping of the same four actors at every precursor ceremony, not to mention the utter domination of 1917, also has to do with the time crunch.
Marlow: I think the time crunch had something to do with it, sure. With the exception of Joker and Scorsese’s one-man war on Marvel/Disney, we were surprisingly bereft of the deluge of piping-hot Oscar-season takes that would have potentially sunk a Jojo Rabbit (because seriously, what the hell is that film?) or a Joker.
Kevin: Let’s not forget Adam Driver storming out of an NPR interview, lest he be forced to hear himself sing Sondheim. My favorite non-controversy controversy of the year.
Marlow: I have deeply enjoyed all the “you shouldn’t be upset that I fucked her, you should be upset that I had a laugh with her!” memes. And between Joker and Marriage Story, a big year for Sondheim on screen (sort of?). The truncated season meant that film writers were by and large defanged, and that actors didn’t have much time to campaign, which, like you said, has led to even more unimaginative groupthink than usual. And the Oscars are once again host-less this year, which I think is a pretty bad move. Last year’s ceremony really ran out of steam in the second half. I mean, how hard is it to have the Steves (Colbert & Carell) co-host, or Tina Fey & Amy Poehler? Why is the Golden Globes so much better at this than the Oscars, with their food and booze and fun hosts?
Kevin: The problem is that award shows are inherently boring. Hosts can do their best to mitigate the slog, but at some point it’s just people in tuxedos and ball gowns thanking their agents for the better part of four hours. But the season itself shouldn’t be a bore, too! There are so many vibrant films and performances to talk about and debate, and the jockeying for awards should be a little scrappy and incite some passion. Even with the season so short, it’s still so stage-managed and controlled, with the whole awards-campaign industry now this ghastly, expensive machine of FYC panels and vanity tributes that has squeezed all the fun out of the race.
Marlow: Not to mention that arguably the top awards publicist has been mired in controversy thanks to her strange Jeffrey Epstein ties. Big yikes.
Kevin: In the year 2020 when there are SO MANY movies and, with Netflix and Amazon entering the Oscar conversation, no excuse not to watch them, people should feel more invested in these awards than ever. It should be a watershed moment for the annual awards season. That there’s been no capitalization on, finally, a non-industry person’s access into the debate after so many years of the “who cares about the Oscars?” refrain is the most damning disaster of the whole thing.