Five years ago seems like a lifetime in this news cycle, but remember 2012? When it came to end of year accolades, three films dominated the conversation – Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty. Of the elite triple-punch, Silver Linings was the outlier – the lightest and most apolitical, it was an independent romantic comedy that made over ten times its budget that goodwilled its way into eight Oscar nominations, including snagging a spot in all four acting categories (the first film, in a startlingly relevant piece of trivia, to do that since Warren Beatty’s Reds in 1981).
That left Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, two sides of the same coin. Argo was based on a feel-good, hooray-for-Hollywood story of an CIA agent (Ben Affleck, also director) rescuing six American embassy workers from 1979 Iran under the guise of making a film. Zero Dark Thirty was a dramatisation of the ten year-long search for Osama bin Laden following September 11, largely focusing on the character of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who loses herself in the search. The former film is jovial, where CIA meetings boast as much snappy repartee as a heist movie; the latter a gruelling, investigative look on the role of torture and patriotism in the search.
Zero Dark Thirty was pegged as a frontrunner before it was unveiled, but was also plagued from the outset. 2012 was then-President Barack Obama’s reelection year, which spilled into the conversation of Zero Dark Thirty. Opponents of the Obama Administration said the film was perfectly timed to support reelection and was in favour of the use of torture, before alleging the filmmakers were given access to classified information. A Senate Select Committee was launched to review the information, before being dropped the following February. Once primed to dominate, Zero Dark Thirty received five Oscar nominations and took home one in Sound Editing (Argo received seven nominations, winning three). Argo was the entertaining version of CIA history, Zero Dark Thirty was not.
Times have changed since 2012. Back then, it was still somewhat taboo to make a political statement at an awards show – any declarations about Zero Dark Thirty’s controversy would’ve been out of turn. But now, there’s an urgent imperative to politics, and award shows have become a sounding board for change. There’s a word buzzing around – division. Accepting an statuette at the Oscars (or Golden Globes, or any other stop on the six months long awards season tour) isn’t just a moment for thanking parents, pets, and inspirational teachers anymore, it comes with a responsibility. It’s an expectation so great that Jimmy Kimmel felt the need to say this in the opener to this week’s ceremony: “I’m not the man to unite us, but can it be done”.
But in these tumultuous times, who will unite us all? Look at the Oscars and you’d say Meryl Streep. It was Streep, on a high after receiving her 20th nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins, who received the biggest ovation of the night when host Jimmy Kimmel joked that she’d been “phoning it in for 50 films”. But the ovation wasn’t just a show of solidarity for Streep, who’s now been a towering Hollywood legend for nearly four decades, it was an act of desperation. It was a sign that the night was itching for a rousing catharsis like Streep’s January declaration of witnessing a performance of heartbreaking evil that “made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth”, a sign for the gloves to come off like at the Golden Globes and confirmed, once and for all, that to be a celebrity in 2017 is to be political.
However, despite the arms race of discourse on everything La La Land, 2016-17 awards season passed with little of the action of the likes of 2012. The (dramatically different) frontrunners were pitted against each other in a referendum on taste, politics, and morals and became straw men for political divide, but it was a war rarely waged off screen and in the real world. Everything was up for grabs – for La La Land there were debates on everything from the politics of its love for jazz, to cries that making a $30 million original screen musical isn’t difficult (it should be noted that there have been few original Hollywood musicals since the likes of Yentl in 1983, and that filmmaking in 2017 is largely budgeted at $1 million or $100 million with little in between). Ripe for an upset.
La La Land unluckily walked into cognitive dissonance as it charged forward. Unease of rewarding fantasy in a time that’s anything but. The film, after all, is a tribute to Hollywood’s best, brightest, and rosiest time. In a dire election year, audiences wanted escapism and uplift from simpler times (La La Land has now made over ten times its budget, with no sign of slowing down), not a dire reminder of how swept-aside history could repeat. But what are the implications of doing that now, exactly? A year ago, when Spotlight took home the top prize, the outcome of November 8 seemed like an unrealistic absurdity. How could the Oscars go from a tribute to hard-working journalists who hold corrupt organisations to account to fanciful when the situation was even more perilous? Wouldn’t that be merely ignoring the real world in favour of another self-referential celebration?
The Oscars are struggling with relevancy more than ever, with controversy about the diversity of the organisation being the main sticking point. Viewership has progressively fallen since Titanic’s big night in 1998 as well, as the show rewards less blockbusters and more independent films (we’re now steadily in the age of the lowest grossing winners ever), a state that saw the Best Picture field be expanded in 2009 from a solid five nominees to anywhere between 5-10. Another mercy dash was made in 2016 after a second year in a row of all white acting nominees – 271 industry members were invited to join the Academy in 2013, 276 in 2014, 322 in 2015, and a record-breaking 683 in 2016, with 46% of last year’s invitees being women and 41% being people of colour. But there was still doubt about whether that could move the needle that much in a single year.
On the surface, it didn’t. The ceremony remained as buttoned up as ever, speeches passing without much fanfare aside those from acting winners Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis, documentary feature winner Ezra Edelman, and foreign language feature recipient Asghar Farhadi, who hinted at politics indirectly. Edelman spoke about racially motivated violence, and Ali, Davis, and Farhadi about various forms of empathy. Farhadi was a victory snagged at the last minute, The Salesman rocketing past German comedy Toni Erdmann in the conversation when he was denied access to the United States. The tone of the night was best summed up by small, unnoticeable things, miniscule acts of rebellion. It was the lilt in Salma Hayek’s voice when saying “when to challenge authority” while handing out the award for Best Live Action Short, and Gael Garcia Bernal saying that “as a migrant worker, as a human being, I’m against any form of wall that wants to separate us”.
But it was a fanciful, joyous ceremony of performative politeness, one that started unusually with Justin Timberlake singing the Michael Jackson-influenced song nominee Can’t Stop the Feeling, and kept the same buoyancy for the rest of the proceedings. It was the usual – the opening monologue suffered from being too long, and at times a running gag where Kimmel continually ribbed Manchester by the Sea producer Matt Damon felt too much like an indulgent in-joke. But La La Land began to lose a few categories it was the presumed winner in (sound and screenwriting being a few), a quiet sign of what was to come.
Upsets at the Oscars – ensemble drama Crash, musical Chicago – are usually delivered decisively. There’s an air of complacency when the final award is reached, for everyone is sure they know which name is on the inside of the envelope, only to be shattered by gasps of surprise in a welcome moment of electric spontaneity. Such a climax didn’t come, for close to three minutes the victor was the presumed, before La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz returned to the microphone and uttered words that brought the ceremony crashing to earth and made history: “No, no, there’s been a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture.”
The dust is still yet to settle on those eight muddled minutes on the Dolby Theatre stage, and this will be talked about for years to come (as I’m writing this, a full-blown CSI-like investigation has delivered a blow-by-blow of the happenings backstage, complete with photographs). It also remains to be seen if the win is something purely reactionary, or a merciful sign of true change. In the future, the winner from this year’s ceremony could change. It could remain Moonlight, which went from a $1.5 million film that didn’t have a distributor in Australia until December to a Best Picture winner barely two months later; or it could be Hidden Figures, the box office smash which was declared by the public to be the rightful Best Picture winner last week and looks to be the film that will leave the lasting impact for starting a movement to give voice to the voiceless. Similarly, it could be Arrival, the enigmatic sci-fi film which unexpectedly gained resonance when it was released days after the US election (it went home with a single win from eight) and could likely be the film remembered for capturing the mood in those final days of 2016. Or, it could be Janelle Monae, the celebrated singer-songwriter and producer who made her acting debut in 2016 in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, winning Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards for the latter.
But regardless, questions linger: was it a bad moment for Moonlight, with director Barry Jenkins unable to deliver his planned speech in the flurry, the film ultimately robbed of it’s moment to be suspensefully announced and ascend to the stage joyfully to let the full gravity of the historic win to be absorbed and celebrated? It was a much deserved win that needed more than a hasty, disbelieving handover after a snafu. Moonlight is a first, the first LGBT film to win, particularly resonant after Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash in 2005, and Carol was shockingly omitted from the top two prizes last year; as well as being the first winner from an African-American director, as well as the first starring an all black cast. Or is it good, because now Moonlight’s victory will likely be the most memorable of the decade? Or is it bad, because it reduced the films to the point that one always had been in competition with the other? Or have the films now been liberated beyond the bounds their imagined war, allowed to exist on their own?
However, as history was made and the stage was hastily turned over, one thing was for certain – at last, the illusion of the Oscars was shattered. It was an event completely unrehearsed. Guests got out of their seats, looked on in shock, talked to the people behind them, and filmed the event on their phones in a moment of stunning disarray. It was now a ceremony in the year 2017, where politics are no longer poison, and the face of the Oscars is perhaps finally changing. “Even in my dreams, this could not be true. But to hell with dreams, I’m done with it, cause this is true,” Jenkins said. Moonlight’s victory is a story that has only just begun.