The Academy celebrates movies with values like empathy, inclusivity, with a few courageous people taking on systemic abuse by a powerful organisation – values that it itself would do well to celebrate.
*UPDATE (February 29, 2016, 1045 IST)
And the Oscars go to…
BEST PICTURE: Spotlight
ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
ACTRESS: Brie Larson, Room
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
DIRECTOR: Alejandro Iñárritu, The Revenant
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: The Big Short, Charles Randolph and Adam McKay
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Spotlight, Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy
DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Amy (Asif Kapadia)
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Son of Saul (László Nemes, Hungary)
ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen)
CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Revenant, Emmanuel Lubezki
COSTUME DESIGN: Mad Max: Fury Road, Jenny Beavan
FILM EDITING: Mad Max: Fury Road, Margaret Sixel
MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: Mad Max: Fury Road, Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin
ORIGINAL SCORE: The Hateful Eight, Ennio Morricone
ORIGINAL SONG: “Writing’s on the Wall”, from Spectre, music and lyrics by Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Mad Max: Fury Road, Colin Gibson (production design); Lisa Thompson (set decoration)
SOUND EDITING: Mad Max: Fury Road, Mark Mangini and David White
SOUND MIXING: Mad Max: Fury Road, Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo
VISUAL EFFECTS: Ex Machina, Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington and Sara Bennett
ANIMATED SHORT FILM: Bear Story (Gabriel Osorio, Chile)
DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Pakistan)
LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM: Stutterer (Benjamin Cleary)
Is there a more exciting film than George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road from last year? It was a mishmash of many genres and yet something organic and undoubtedly swashbuckling. It is David Lean meets Steven Spielberg. Imagine Lawrence of Arabia taken over by the spirit of Indiana Jones. Now how many movies could do that? Fury Road may have been filmed in the desert but it reminded you of summer, winter and spring – the blockbuster season and the Oscar season rolled into one. The so-called cerebral married the so-called visceral in the most enticing fashion. People thronged to the theatres for a second viewing because this time, they wanted to get the sound. It was art packaged as an entertainment capsule and there isn’t a drug more potent than that. The question is, will the Academy bite?
But the Academy may have bigger problems than that. One popular trivia (and it is huge, hardly trivial) about Mad Max: Fury Road is that there was no shooting script. It was all storyboards and the result is ingenious. The Oscars event though is in dire need of one. In the past decade the event has been marred by stale humour, uninspiring masters of ceremonies, an unctuous almost grovelling attitude towards the industry and its celebrities. Especially compared to the irreverent chutzpah of someone like Ricky Gervais or the ultra entertaining pair of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes.
Last year’s Neil Patrick Harris did little to assuage this syndrome and there is a laundry list of failed names from James Franco and Anne Hathaway to Seth Macfarlane and Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. The last unlikely yet memorable host was probably Hugh Jackman who brought in his musical talents to the ceremony. But the Academy has remained steadfast in its snobbery and developed a nasty habit of slipping up by way of overcompensating. In short, the Academy has behaved like the regular privileged white male.
Missing the point on ‘Black Lives Matter’
And that is why the only reason to tune into the Oscars this Sunday is Chris Rock, host of the 88th Academy Awards. In its frantic search for an antidote, the Academy has returned to a trusted veteran in comedy, not only someone who is more than capable of doing the job but someone who has aced it once already. Chris Rock now needs no introduction. His stand up routines, his films, his writings and performances – it is all a Google and YouTube search away. Knock yourself out. But while doing that, you may notice a pattern. The top 5 videos on YouTube filtered by number of views will be titled in permutations and combinations of “black people”, “interracial dating”, “black people vs niggaz”. That’s what brings us to the elephant in Dolby Theatre at this year’s Oscars.
So to quote from another great Oscar nominated film – in their desperation, has the Academy turned to a man they don’t fully understand? The #OscarSoWhite controversy has been the burning issue since the nominations were announced about a month ago. A host of black artists have been passed up in the nominations and this isn’t out of the blue. Last year, Selma‘s snub in major categories created a stir. Directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma told the story of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march and was a distinct film about black lives.
One year on and this has only gained more prominence with calls for what should really be Humanity 101, the movement of Black Lives Matter, a product of the string of brutal violence committed by the police against black people. What gets lost here is the regular playing field for normal stories about normal black people. A historic account like Selma or a life of struggle like 12 Years A Slave gets accounted for because they fall under the incredible column. Stories full of zest for life, triumph against all odds or calls for revolution.
But when we say Black Lives Matter, we are insisting on something very basic. This is why a film like Ryan Coogler’s Creed matters. This is why Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq matters. Everyday stories about everyday black people presented by black artists in a white industry. These are the artists caught in the vicious circle of a blindingly white Academy self-congratulating its elite year after year. Black Lives Matter must permeate into the arts as Black Films Matter and Black Artists Matter, and this shouldn’t be confined to films featuring MLK Jr. or a slave in the nineteenth century. It should also be about present day stories from the south side of Chicago or about Apollo Creed’s son in 2015 or the N.W.A chronicles from Compton. Fun fact: Samuel L. Jackson – to count whose famous films from the top of your head you’d need two hands and two legs – has received a sum total of one Oscar nomination. That too from way back in 1994 for Pulp Fiction. The question is, what will a self-aware Chris Rock do with all this? He tweeted a 15-second clip as part of a cryptic tweet on Friday and all the clip had was 15 seconds of TV static. The hashtag in the tweet was #blackout.
Waiting for DiCaprio
Before that, there is one more elephant in the room. Leonardo DiCaprio going for that elusive Academy Award, his millionth attempt. So far he’s ticked all the important pre-Oscar awards, coming away as the winner in each one of them. That he’s a strong favourite is an understatement but who wouldn’t love an upset, a shocker. Remember when Mickey Rourke swept all the pre-Oscar hysteria in similar fashion, only to sit back and applaud Sean Penn going up the stage? Stranger things have happened. Who could do a Sean Penn to DiCaprio this year?
If the Academy voters were to be adventurous, they have to go for Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs, a film and performance every bit adventurous. The biopic also missed out on a nomination for screenplay for Aaron Sorkin – quite stark considering how the pages just jump on to the screen. Maybe they exhausted their edgy vote with a nomination for Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (though Sorkin’s would have been up for adapted screenplay). Both the actress categories have a great mix of veterans and greenhorns. There is Cate Blanchett and Charlotte Rampling going against Saoirse Ronan, Brie Larson and everyone’s favourite star, Jennifer Lawrence.
The category though looks like a head-on collision between Cate Blanchett for Carol and Brie Larson for Room. A win for Saoirse Ronan though would be as endearing as her film, Brooklyn, sure to catapult the young star to the big league of performers. Kate Winslet has notched up wins in some of the major awards so far but her category – supporting actress – is a little too close to call. Going for her second win, she’s there along with Jennifer Jason Leigh against the younger lot of Rooney Mara, Alicia Vikander and Rachel McAdams. A pleasant surprise would be Mara winning it for her measured performance in Carol. Sylvester Stallone winning Best Supporting Actor over Mark Ruffalo would be like Rocky beating Network, Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men back in 1977… which is to say, it is happening.
Beating the exclusion
Staying with elephants, the Academy does have a delicious mix of elephant and termite art this time. Last year, there was a clear line between the artsy favourite Birdman and popular favourites like Boyhood and Whiplash. This time the audience battle seems to be between Spotlight and Mad Max: Fury Road with Alejandro González Inárritu’s The Revenant and Adam McKay’s The Big Short waiting in the wings to spoil the party.
Spotlight flashes the bulbs on good old investigative journalism in the era of Twitter, BuzzFeed and click baits. Tom McCarthy’s film – on the Boston Globe’s team of journalists uncovering a scandal of child molestation and the Catholic Church’s involvement – works like a procedural and incorporates visual motifs to highlight how devilish activities are practiced right under our nose, and how they are covered up. Mad Max: Fury Road may have a character called Doof Warrior with a flame throwing guitar providing soundtrack to a war, but in a small imperfect world, wars are fought on paper and in silence, by heroes braving suppressed chaos through a rigorous trail and cautious determination.
Spotlight harks back to an old world filmmaking (think All the President’s Men) that compliments its reminiscing of old world journalism. It celebrates values like empathy, hard work, inclusivity with a few courageous people taking on systemic abuse by a powerful organisation. Values that the Academy would do well to celebrate on Monday.