- Words Louis Rabinowitz
The Oscars marked a tumultuous ceremony this week by awarding Best Picture to CODA - but are the awards really pointing in the right direction?
In enough time, it might be easy to forget who won at the 2022 Oscars. A ceremony that few were set to remember wound up being memorable for entirely different reasons, only tangentially connected to the films that were being commemorated. Whether that’s a bad thing or not is an entirely different question.
Chaos and contradiction were themes of the Oscars long before we were spending all our time debating Will Smith and Chris Rock. The Academy was evidently in a state of profound anxiety in the build-up to the awards, making a series of harried decisions that felt like desperate stabs at commercial relevance after a ratings low point last year. Eight technical categories were cut from the broadcast and stitched in in truncated form, hosts were back on the menu after a couple of years off, the blockbusters that missed out on awards attention like Spider-Man: No Way Home honoured in glorified social media polls. A series of weird and confusing choices for presenters, like DJ Khaled and Tony Hawk, trailed the awards beforehand. Then, on the night itself, the awards revealed another trump card: endless nostalgia plays, with tributes and cast reunions of James Bond, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, and, uh, the 1992 cult comedy White Men Can’t Jump. Anything, really, other than the movies themselves.
The issue, as Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri shrewdly put it, was the Oscars’ habitual self-loathing, stemming from the difficult-to-avoid reality that it doesn’t really seem as if the awards have turned out the way that the Academy have wanted in the last few years. A highly welcome response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversies of the mid-2010s was a vast diversification of the Academy’s voting base, with far more of an international base invited into the tent. It was a decision that paid off richly in the thoroughly deserved Best Picture win for Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight in 2017, an intimate and sensitive film about a gay Black man which triumphed over the much more traditional old-Hollywood homage La La Land. 2020 offered the Parasite storm, where Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece rode a wave of universal acclaim to become the first foreign-language title ever to win Best Picture. The wins for Moonlight and Parasite were triumphs of the new Academy, a perfect representation of what widening the criteria for great cinema can mean.
The Academy, though, has reacted to these victories with panic. Two years after Moonlight, the same Academy would hand Best Picture to Green Book, a film acclaimed as a much-needed salve for Trump-era racial tension but which presented a laughably simplistic remedy deemed palatable to mainstream audiences. The impulse to award politically relevant films remained, but Green Book – written and directed and told from the perspective of white men, and far lighter in tone than Moonlight – felt a reaction to worries sparked by the Moonlight win, an urge to signal to the world that the Academy wasn’t just a place for arty, ‘pretentious’ indie drama. After all, Green Book’s main rival that year was Roma, a black-and-white Spanish language period piece which ticked off all the signifiers of Arty Cinema.
It felt as if similar impulses were at work at this year’s ceremony. For much of awards season, the momentum was with The Power of the Dog, a moody neo-Western drenched in homoerotic subtext from auteur Jane Campion. Critics and cinephiles alike loved it, but it was far from feel-good. Never mind that the film appeared to be performing very well on Netflix – the instinctively twitchy response was clear. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast emerged as a natural competitor, a film which revisits the Roma formula for the Irish Troubles but with a bright and sunny tone influenced by its young protagonist. Yet at the last gasp, a real contender emerged that stole the thunder from both, and indeed stole Best Picture in a victory that turned from long shot to fait accompli in a week.
CODA, this year’s Best Picture winner, actually comes from what had been a pretty beleaguered subgenre of awards contender: the Sundance heartwarmer. The Colorado-set festival had often been a place for mainstream films with a little indie charm to make a dry run before finding a massive audience – think Juno or Little Miss Sunshine as the archetype – but the festival’s funnel to the Oscars had dried up of late. CODA, then, is a totally full-throated revival, a gentle and uplifting dramedy about the hearing child of a fully Deaf family. It’s a film which played to the cheap seats, telling a familiar coming-of-age story in broad emotional strokes, and the reason for its victory is obvious: it made people feel good, while The Power of the Dog left viewers feeling emotionally conflicted.
That’s far from a bad thing. The temptation to chalk CODA as another Green Book is obvious but faulty. The latter film ventriloquised Black struggle to explore racism so meaninglessly it verged upon harmful, whereas CODA is genuinely interested in the Deaf experience and has already, through the not-undeserved victory of Troy Kotsur as Supporting Actor, broken boundaries for disabled representation in the industry. It’s difficult to imagine a viewer loathing a film as unassumingly sweet and nice as this. However, there’s something a little unsatisfying about a film winning the top prize in the industry on those terms alone.
The Best Picture category this year was stacked with brilliant examples of what contemporary cinema can be. West Side Story charged the familiar musical with thrilling new life. Dune rendered an unadaptable brick of a sci-fi novel into an engaging and visually accomplished epic. Drive My Car – which somehow crept into Best Picture – built to an incredibly moving conclusion over its careful and thoughtful run-time. And The Power of the Dog earned its prior frontrunner status, offering a hypnotic and layered deconstruction of the Western with a career-best performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. All these films had their detractors, of course. Yet measured alongside CODA, it’s difficult not to wonder whether the distinction between the Best Picture winner and the rest was that CODA was deemed both mainstream and feel-good, and the competition failed one of those two conditions.
CODA’s win would have ruffled few features if that was what audiences expected from the Oscars, but it’s shown in recent years that it’s unafraid to honour films with a smaller target audience. The criteria for what Best Picture means seems to flip constantly between “most acclaimed” and “most likeable”, with crossover between the two exceedingly rare – perhaps only Parasite, which functioned as a brilliant mainstream thriller, has done it in recent years. Would the slow and meditative Nomadland have won if the Academy was craving a heartwarming family film? Would CODA win in a year where taste skewed more indie-highbrow? There’s little to no consistency, an indicator of an awards ceremony in a profound state of identity crisis that seems to lurch from new approach to new approach in constant reaction to itself.
Perhaps the anxiety stems from the awards’ inability to reconcile themselves with the mainstream of the mainstream: the world of blockbusters. Despite all its proclamations about mainstream appeal, the Academy have proven to be just as twitchy about honouring big action cinema as they are about small indie films. Joker and Black Panther earned Best Picture nominations, but only through stated aspirations for greater meaning and social relevance, and Dune’s only triumphs this year were in the technical categories that the Academy had implicitly declared to be nerdy and irrelevant by refusing to fully televise them.
For most billion-grossers, the door is shut. There was an exceedingly brief moment after Spider-Man: No Way Home’s opening weekend where chatter started up about possible awards attention to honour its box office success, but it never took root, and the result was a nomination list where the modestly successful Dune was by far the biggest hit. In classic Academy style, the organisation circumvented this issue through creating the ‘Oscar Fan Favourite’ and ‘Oscar Cheer Moment’ categories for public voting. The obvious objective was to work Spider-Man in through the back door and get the year’s biggest movie a moment on the broadcast. In equally classic Academy style, this was a laughable failure, which proved to be emblematic of the awkward compromises the awards seem fixated upon. The contests were seized by the ultra-ardent fans of the director Zack Snyder, and both were won by Snyder’s Army of the Dead and his director’s cut of Justice League. The Academy’s presumptive dream of a standing ovation for Spider-Man was replaced with the cold reality of a confused audience witnessing The Flash Enter The Speed Force.
It’s difficult to tell where the Oscars can go from here, but it’s clear that their search for identity is set to continue. The Academy’s embarrassment about the idea that it could be awarding little-seen films seems to be the defining factor now for how the awards conduct themselves, and as long as that continues, we’ll have awkward and messy ceremonies like Sunday’s. Maybe in time the Oscars will learn to like themselves in the present day rather than dreaming of a time twenty years ago where Best Picture winners were guaranteed box office hits. It’s clear, though, that will take a long while.