Agenda-obsessed Oscars make a hashtag of it - again
In choosing the worst Best Picture in a decade, the post-MeToo industry showed it can't make head nor tail of itself
The Academy Awards is sometimes described as Hollywood’s annual group selfie: a chance for the film industry to show itself off to what it believes to be its best advantage. The by turns baffling, infuriating and glorious 2019 edition was the kind where half the subjects’ heads are out of frame and a thumb was covering the lens.
Having said that, you couldn’t help but smile when Olivia Colman’s beaming face was unexpectedly dead centre of the shot when she won Best Actress – a moment that also qualified as an all-time-knockout Oscar upset, since it meant that long-assumed front-runner, Glenn Close, left the Oscars ceremony empty-handed, for the seventh time.
If that result left some people wrong-footed, it was only in tune with the wider mood. The 91st Oscars showed us an industry that couldn’t make head nor tail of itself – two years into its messy #MeToo reckoning, still wrestling with issues of representation, four years after the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, and generally swamped by unflattering hashtags. The seemingly unchallenging Best Picture winner itself, Green Book, was hardly an apolitical choice.
This tale of black concert pianist Don Shirley and his Italian-American chauffeur, Tony Vallelonga (known as Tony Lip), learning the value of mutual respect and alternative perspectives on a road trip through the Deep South of the 1960s, felt like the pick of voters who’d like to pretend that nothing has changed since the days of Driving Miss Daisy in 1990, when films could purvey neatly tied-up, feelgood messages about race relations.
But for every Academy fan of the film, you’ll find another to denounce it as myopic and fraudulent – another case of middle-aged white men making everything about them, even stories about institutionalised anti-black harassment.
In 2019, Green Book’s facile and evasive approach to the subject should have been obvious: it’s an entertaining enough watch, thanks to its two charismatic leads, but a thoroughly dismal head-in-the-sand Best Picture winner; undoubtedly the worst since Crash in 2006.
Both Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix-backed prestige piece Roma and the superhero blockbuster Black Panther were more deserving alternatives, which also better reflect the shifting cinematic landscape. In the end, both matched Green Book’s tally of three, with Cuarón’s film taking Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film, as expected, and Black Panther accruing a trio of craft wins: Production Design, Costume Design and Original Score. For an illustration of an Academy at war with itself, look no further than that.
In such febrile times, wasn’t there a single contender that everyone could rally around? Funny you should ask. Months ago, some of us assumed that that role would be filled by Bradley Cooper’s barnstorming remake of A Star is Born: instead, it fell to Bohemian Rhapsody, whose four wins from five nominations made the critically derided Freddie Mercury biopic the closest thing that the 2019 field had to a consensus choice. Bohemian Rhapsody’s Oscar success points towards a haplessly contorted Academy membership: it’s a film you vote for to “celebrate” the life of “a gay man and an immigrant”, as Rami Malek suggested in his Best Actor acceptance speech – or, as he very conspicuously did not, to express your relief that a film whose director is sacked during the shoot, then accused of child molestation, can still be a box-office hit.
Perhaps, in the end, that was the key to A Star is Born’s downfall: it might be obviously superior to Bohemian Rhapsody in every imaginable respect, but heart-on-sleeve melodrama isn’t much use to voters who have become frantically preoccupied with which agenda they’re going to push. (That may have also counted against Close, whose role in The Wife, as the unsung spouse of a celebrated writer, would have been at home in a Bergman film from the 1950s.)
Ironic, then, that it was Cooper and Lady Gaga’s performance of Shallow, A Star is Born’s lone prize-winning asset, that gave the 2019 ceremony its only iconic, non-Colman episode. Taking up their positions on stage without an introduction, and with the backing band already strumming the opening chords, the two sat at a grand piano for a live duet of the film’s signature track. For the final chorus, Cooper joined Gaga at the keyboard, leaned in to share her microphone, and nuzzled her head like a sympathetic golden retriever.
This, surely, was an Oscar moment that will be replayed and relished for years to come, long after Green Book has receded into the mists of pub quiz trivia, and the Academy’s present compound psychodramas have passed.
On a night of performative emotions, this tiny potted performance – perfectly acted to the last – felt perversely like a moment of truth.
– © The Daily Telegraph