The awards should be ‘Favourite Picture,’ ‘Favourite Actor,’ and so on. ‘Best’ has no defensible meaning in this context.
The Oscars: super-mega awesome or irrelevant?
Our pop-culture panel rolls out the red carpet for a critical look at the 2016 Academy Awards.
By BRIDGET STIRLING
For this month’s pop-culture panel, we couldn’t miss the chance to talk about the Oscars with three University of Alberta film lovers: Liz Czach, associate professor with the Department of English and Film Studies; Cristina Stasia, director of instruction with the Peter Lougheed Leadership College; and Edmonton author, podcaster and former U of A writer-in-residence (and proud alumnus) Minister Faust. From the #Oscarssowhite controversy to the feminist cred of Mad Max: Fury Road, our panellists had a lot to say.
On whether the Oscars still matter
CS: They’re an index of certain social politics, but they have little to no connection to box office or the cultural impact of films. I mean, one of the most impactful franchises ever, that had a huge impact on our understandings of femininity, to an extent masculinity, certainly to spectacle, and which changed the game for a lot of action films was the Hunger Games franchise, and Mockingjay. You see none of these movies ever nominated. So when we’re looking at box office, or what people are actually watching, these are pretty left-field.
MF: Of course they’re relevant. They’re relevant because, if millions of people are watching this awards show, it’s relevant to all of them who are watching, and it’s relevant to the people who’ve seen all these movies. Just because I might not like some films, or maybe I hated all these films, or I’ve never seen any of these films, that’s just me, and that’s the part of the audience that I represent. But I think sometimes these things are confused with whether these films deserve recognition.
LC: I think it depends who you’re assuming that audience is. As a film studies professor, I do talk about these films and what got nominated and whether people have seen them. In that rarefied circle, they do get talked about. It’s not necessarily the same things I talk about if I’m hanging out with a friend and we’re dog-walking. We might be talking about what we’re watching on TV. So different things are relevant in different registers and communities.
MF: This isn’t engineering, where you can actually measure things objectively, like this is the number of amperes. This is purely about how art makes you feel. That’s all that art is—it makes you feel things. And if you like what it makes you feel, you say it’s good. But that’s a lie. It means you like it. Which is why the awards should be “Favourite Picture,” “Favourite Actor,” and so on. “Best” has no defensible meaning in this context.
The Revenant's Leonardo DiCaprio is a favourite in the Best Actor category this year. But is he really the best?
On why some movie genres get excluded
MF: There have been lots of big blockbuster franchises that don’t get nominated. At the same time, I was happy to see Mad Max: Fury Road got nominated, so there’s not a complete exclusion of those, but this also speaks to a bias against science fiction and fantasy.
CS: And action films. And that fact that action films are always overlooked, that idea that action movies are dumb movies for dumb people. There are certain genres that are continually invalidated, whereas some of the most exciting work in sound mixing and editing, it’s in action, it’s in sci-fi, it’s in fantasy. But those are genres that are also a little newer than some of the genres, romantic comedies and dramas, that have been around since those first Academy Awards.
LC: The other thing that’s always missing is comedies. The Oscars traditionally reward middlebrow dramas. That’s what they continue to reward, for a middlebrow white audience.
CS: And there’s been a switch, because some of the first Oscars for best picture were comedies, particularly romantic comedies, which of course looked very different—no Katherine Heigl, no Seth Rogen—great, witty, smart romantic comedies that explore gender politics in interesting ways. It Happened One Night won, and that was huge. We saw films like that win. It shifted really with the demise of the studio system. We lost that recognition of comedy as art.
On Oscar’s problems with race and gender
CS: The people who get to vote—it’s not people of colour, it’s not women. The majority are privileged, white, straight men who are picking these films and are the majority of Oscar voters. And that’s a problem, because being a voting member in the academy is for life. So if we’re looking at our history and the history of the Academy Awards when they started, that population hasn’t really changed because it’s for life and they’re not admitting a lot of numbers. They have made some effort to address that by increasing opportunities for membership for people of colour and for women, but it’s a very incremental change. So we’re seeing these lifetime members who’ve been around since the beginning of film, and they’re making these choices. You see that reflected in the films.
MF: As well intended as anti-racism and anti-sexism are, they are automatically failures because they are trying to get people not to be bad, not to disrespect people, whereas the solution is to show people being super-mega awesome. Once you do that, it’s hard not to be impressed by people, and once you are impressed by them, then you have a tendency to respect them, like them and listen to them.
LC: I’m going to counter that just a little bit, in terms of the idea of showing that you’re super-mega awesome—you have to have the opportunity to show that you’re super-mega awesome. That’s where the problem lies, that opportunity not being given to women and people of colour. Ultimately, I came here today with one thing to say about the Oscars, and that’s pretty much it. We can talk about how this is really not representing what’s going on, but in some ways, it is representing what’s going on. Because if I were to say, “Name five performances by black actresses in a studio-released film,” could you come up with five? It is all about production, and these films are not being produced, they’re not being greenlit, they’re not being given the opportunity. The talent is there in terms of Asian actors, Indigenous actors, black actors, women directing, all of that. They’re not being given the opportunities.
CS: When you have people of colour in lead roles as directors or even a powerful actor or actress, you see that the editors and the sound mixers and cinematographers, they start to look a little bit different. They bring people up, they help shatter that ceiling.
CS: If we look at the films that feature African-American casts in any significant way or trying to tell African-American stories, the films that get nominated and the films that win, are ways that white people feel comfortable seeing African-Americans. They’re often not films that even are largely successful with African-American audiences, and they’re films that tell stereotypical stories. You brought up The Help earlier, and oh my gosh, does that film make me crazy. The story of this white woman who goes in and the drunk blonde woman character, Celia Foote [Jessica Chastain], she’s kind of this drunk, nervous housewife, and she’s cared for through the whole film by “the help.”
MF: She’s mammied.
CS: She’s totally mammied. Like, she has a mammy. She’s an adult white woman with a mammy. This is super-romanticized, and we don’t see any black men in the film except in negative ways as abusers or as absent fathers. There’s no good constructions of black masculinity, and the saviour, of course, is the white woman. She ends up being the help that they didn’t know they needed. It’s so problematic. And it’s always like that with the films that get recognition from the academy. If we look at a film like Precious—I’m not even talking about the quality of the films or anything. We’ve got 12 Years a Slave, well, we’re comfortable with seeing African-Americans portrayed as slaves. That’s something that the academy can get behind. Precious, the welfare state, the impoverished black teen mother figure.
MF: Also, the darker you are, the more evil you are.
CS: Completely! Django Unchained, which portrayed incredibly violent black masculinity, and again the saviour figures were white. The Blind Side, which is just another white-saviour woman. The Color Purple, again. Monster’s Ball, which everyone was really excited about in 2002, the first time a black actor won for best actor and a black actress won best actress, Denzel Washington for Training Day and Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball. There was a lot of excitement because she was the first black actress to win an Academy Award for a leading role, and that is amazing, except let’s think about what the film is about, which is a black woman who falls in love with a white supremacist prison guard.
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Monster's bawl: Halle Berry wins the Oscar for Best Actress in 2002.
MF: Well, go back to 1989 and this divide can also be seen—Driving Miss Daisy versus Do the Right Thing. No one is talking about Driving Miss Daisy decades later except to say, “What a crock of shit.” Whereas Do the Right Thing is a cultural touchstone.
CS: There have only been three black directors nominated in the academy. That’s insane. There was Precious and 12 Years a Slave and Boyz n the Hood. And Boyz n the Hood is a film that has saturated pop culture, it’s something people reference, but of course it didn’t win. 12 Years a Slave was the one that finally won.
LC: We’re not really that far advanced from the times when white actors would have their eyebrows taped to look Asian.
CS: Like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
On combining Best Actor and Best Actress
CS: We gender performance categories because we’re really comfortable with gendered performance. We tend to understand gender through performativity. When we look at an actor, we see him as a man, not just as a person, and an actress as a woman, and so we use these categories to keep them separate. It’s the one place, the acting category, where really you could combine them and you could have equal numbers of men and women. You could just combine them to best actor. These categories continue to binarize how we understand gender.
MF: But without a best actress category, my guess is that the overwhelming majority of female actors would get overlooked. Let’s just imagine that in a particularly shitty year in Hollywood, there are only five women who got film roles. They would all at least get nominated. So now, every awards season of Oscars, there are at least five women who get nominated for this top award—which is, let’s remember, a critically important economic driver. This opens up employment opportunities as well as bumps their pay grade. So that makes sense to me. I think it would do a great disservice to women to get rid of that category.
CS: What makes me uncomfortable, though, is this term “actor” and “actress.” We’re portraying actress as a subset of actor. And even the order that they’re announced—we save the biggest awards for last, and that’s always best actor. They’re hierarchized. So we at least need to say “best female actor,” “best male actor.” Because as long as we keep actor as a gendered term—we don’t say poetess anymore. We don’t say authoress anymore. We don’t usually say stewardess anymore either. We’re still treating it like actors are male, and if you’re a woman, you can be an actress. But your performance then is always gendered, your occupational role is always gendered.
MF: They could solve the “save the best for last” by just alternating year to year.
CS: I wait every year for them to flip it. Every year.
On the virtues of the Bechdel test
MF: It’s one useful tool.
LC: It is useful.
CS: Because if you look at the films that don’t pass the test—I have my students do this. We applied the Bechdel test to the Best Picture winners from different years, from the ’50s, the ’70s, every decade, and nothing passed.
MF: To me, one of the ways the Bechdel test is useful (and maybe needs to be expanded) is it speaks directly to employment: the film had to hire at least two women. And I’d like to see, well, is it a feminist film if there are no women on screen but everybody behind the scenes is a woman? I’d say absolutely, because this directly addresses employment. Did you get a job, did you get to join the union or the academy as a result of getting this gig? In the conversation about who’s made things better in American life, the name that should be named all the time is Spike Lee. He did so much to break people not only in front of the screen, but to get them jobs that got them into their various craft unions and get them as voting members of the academy. And of course on screen, prior to Spike Lee, you almost never could see a movie in which two Africans kissed.
CS: Other than in blaxploitation.
MF: Blaxploitation, that’s right, or one of them had to be a sex worker.
CS: And your point about Spike Lee is so important, because look at blaxploitation: it expanded the roles for black actors on the screen, but also there was a commitment by the directors of blaxploitation to hire the stunt people, the costumers, the grips—every role was filled by African-American people.
LC: I think that what we’re seeing on screen, in every category, is really indicative of what’s happening behind the screen as well.
MF: Who greenlights?
LC: Yes, who greenlights—and even women who have made it into top-tier positions in the studios are greenlighting the same kind of crap that the men do. It’s not a big feminist leap forward.
CS: And just to bring us back a little bit to comedy, where we’re seeing that glass ceiling starting to crack is in comedy, but it’s not recognized. We’re seeing comedians like Amy Schumer and Melissa McCarthy, but of course they’re never nominated or recognized. It forms this other category where we see a lot of female labour that goes unrecognized.
LC: There’s a lot of other issues. There’s the representation of race, but also aging women. You can’t get a job after you’re 40.
Two women talking with each other about something other than a man: Amy Schumer riffs on being a woman in Hollywood.
On the small screen vs. the big screen
LC: It’s interesting, I’m a film scholar, but more and more of my colleagues and friends are watching TV shows. We are in the golden age of television. I don’t want to say that film is irrelevant, because I’m still moved by a lot of films, but I see more interesting and exciting things happening on television. Or at least moving quickly.
CS: Television is more accessible and affordable, which is why it’s hierarchized, where film is better, it’s more elite. Television, that’s in our living rooms and people can access it in different ways.
LC: But I think that’s really changed, especially with streaming, because there aren’t commercials, people are watching it. And the whole idea that these TV shows are cinematic, of course, they’ve been cinematic now for 15 years. Quality television came in a long time ago. The fact that they have super-high production values and look better than a lot of feature films—people are responding to that.
MF: Movies have lost a lot of that prestige, and I think that some of that prestige is going, from a writer’s standpoint, to the emphasis on this new term, showrunner. So now we live in an era when people who are at least insider enough to know the term showrunner are seeing that TV is the writer’s medium, whereas movies are for directors.
And so people who really love story and not just spectacle—and mind you, I love spectacle—but I’m a writer, so I love story and character interaction and complexity. And the thing is, when you can deliver stories to people when they want to see them, you don’t have the same need to deliver the super spectacle that has to cost $350 million to make and has to bring in a billion to be considered profitable. So you can take way bigger risks with niche programming.
I think what’s also going to happen with movies—the only way to get people into theatres is to continue to deliver what the small screen can’t. So movies will have to be even more spectacular, which will reduce that level of prestige where this is for some kind of intellectual depth. Which is perfectly fine—for me, there’s no good reason to go watch an intimate documentary on IMAX. It doesn’t gain anything. In fact, it loses something. Whereas Mad Max: Fury Road, which I loved, there’s no way that’s going to play as well on a smartphone as on the big screen. That would be foolish.
LC: I want to get back to your point about the directing, that the Oscars celebrate the director and television celebrates the writer more. The other great thing about television is as a writer, you get that narrative arc that you can develop season after season. And you see some shows really come into their prime in their fifth season. So that’s exciting and not always limited by 90 minutes, or The Revenant, two and a half hours, they’re kind of pushing the outer limits, but there’s only so much you can do.
MF: To me, films are for a promiscuous audience. You can go to bed with a film for two hours and it’s done, whereas if you prefer a long-term relationship, you can have that five-year experience.
LC: Until you break up. Until you’re like, you’ve lost me this episode. That’s it. I’m out.
Best Picture picks?
Mad Max: Fury Road will have a good night Feb. 28 if our panellists get their wish.
CS: I want to see Mad Max win. One, it’s an action film, and it’s been too long since an action film won, and it pushed the action genre in really interesting ways. You also saw women fighting and working together at different ages, and you saw women working and fighting with men, and usually we see female action heroes in isolation and male action heroes in isolation, so I really liked that. And also, the editing in that film—mind-blowing. And the sound mixing, and women were involved in that. I want to see the wins for that in Best Picture but also in the technical categories.
MF: From a writer’s standpoint, it’s novel because we get to see women doing all of these things. I hope that it will be so successful that it will no longer be novel. It will be so successful that we can yawn at it. Also, from a filmmaking standpoint, I abhor digital technology, and that’s why I want to see practical effects blow the ass off of digital technology the way this film did. The practical effects are so stunning and achieve things that I’ve never seen digital effects do. I couldn’t believe while I was watching it, how nervous and scared I was constantly. And that’s the phrase that I love: “That’s why we go to the movies.” To get an experience we can’t get anywhere else on that giant screen.
LC: I’m not going to weigh in on who I think should win and who I think will win, because I’ve only seen four of the films. I’m kind of a purist. I want to see all the films before I weigh in. I appreciate how strongly you have both come out in favour of Mad Max: Fury Road, which I really liked. I don’t know—Best Picture? If I had to choose Best Picture for films last year, I would come up with a different list and want to choose from a different list.
MF: When I say I want it to win, I emphasize that again, I don’t say best because I don’t believe in best, and second, because I haven’t seen the others, I can’t make that claim, even if best existed. I want to see it win because I believe that if it succeeds, it’s proof of concept for the other things I want to see happen in movies.
LC: I can totally see your arguments. I would love to see a different list. Mad Max: Fury Road should still be on it; there’s some deserving films in here that got nominated.
CS: Brooklyn is a wonderful film. It’s lovely.
LC: Well, I feel that way about a lot of them. I liked Spotlight to a certain extent.
CS: That might be the upset.
LC: That was the one I thought was the frontrunner, but now it seems like The Revenant has really picked up a lot of steam and chatter. Which I am still resistant to going to see.
If the film I enjoyed the most last year was on the list, then I would go for it, but it’s not. It’s a film called The Lobster. It’s a Greek director, an Irish-American-Greek co-production shot in Ireland. This biting satire about coupledom and people coupling. I just love this film. I don’t know if it’s going to get released in Canada.
CS: Have you seen Chi-Raq?
MF: Spike Lee’s most recent film.
CS: It’s like Lysistrata.
MF: Set in Chicago.
CS: It’s so smart. It’s so smart. It’s such a shame that it’s not on here. And that Bridge of Spies is.
Editor's note: The panellists' conversation has been abridged and edited for clarity.