Friday, March 01, 2019

The "Green Book" Oscars of 2019

The "take machine" was in overdrive this week after Green Book's Best Picture win at the Academy Awards on Sunday night, and we are finding out what the reaction would have been like if there had been Twitter in 2006 when Crash won.

This year's Oscars joins the shortlist - well, perhaps a somewhat longish list, actually - of Best Picture duds, and on the much shorter list of Oscar travesties. (To understand the difference between those two, just consider the difference between The Artist and Crash, to cite two relatively recent examples.)

As I do every year after the final conclusion of the Oscars, here are my thoughts on this year's season, awards, telecast, and my (mis)predictions of it all, along with a thought or two on next year's Oscars (because awards season doesn't already start soon enough).

The problem of Green Book

The way I see it, there are three issues at play in the problems with Green Book's win. Full disclosure: I have not yet seen Green Book, so I cannot comment personally on the film, but I can comment on the issues surrounding it. As far as I can tell, the three main issues are the quality of the movie itself, the content of the movie, and the context of what it represents in 2019.

Because I have not seen it, I cannot speak directly to quality of the film or the content therein, so I won't spend a lot of time on these two factors, but the clips and recaps I have seen and read seem to indicate what is at best an enjoyable, if flawed screenplay, and a problematic treatment of racism and manipulation of the true events of the story. I do intend to see the movie someday, and perhaps I will be able to comment more then, but for now, I'll leave it at that.

What really makes Green Book's win a problem is its context, as it is much harder to see how Green Book could overcome its problems than, say, Crash or Dances With Wolves or Driving Miss Daisy. Don't get me wrong: those wins remain unconscionable; it's just that it seems like we should (and do) have better metrics for figuring out the problems earlier than we used to.

Green Book had many problems in its campaign, too, including a writer having published racist tweets, a star using the n-word, accusations from the family of the black man in the film, allegations of the director having a himself to females repeatedly in the 1990s, and even a producer sending out letters against critics of the film in the final days of voting. And yet, it won.

I believe in the theory that Green Book's win, like Donald Trump's election, became a convenient avatar for white people to embrace when faced with the possibility of losing power, whether to Mexicans, Netflix, or the "new" Academy - all of which happened to be represented in Roma, the erstwhile almost-winner.

All of this makes Green Book the perfect Best Picture winner for 2019. It's the ultimate in the kind of "you coastal liberals can't tell me what movies to like or how to vote" thinking that allows the Republicans to control red America. Green Book represents a rejection of progressiveness and an embrace of established ideas and systems.

It's a star vehicle made by a studio about a subject to which people can relate, and it's easily the Best Picture that is most accessible and appealing to the "average" American since Argo. It became representative of the Hollywood that was in the same way certain films won in the 1960s or 1990s when the studio system changed significantly.

Of course the Academy can give Oscars to Spike Lee (who apparently was visibly upset and tried to leave during the Green Book producers' speech) and Black Panther and If Beale Street Could Talk and also award Green Book. I read somewhere that it is the ultimate "both sides" movie, and that's about the sum of it.

After the upset wins of Spotlight and Moonlight in 2016 and 2017, it seemed as though the Academy had shifted. The win of The Shape of Water in 2018 was a bit of an eye-roller, but still seemed somewhat progressive; although it confirmed that the Oscars were still the Oscars, it still appeared at least to not contravene - if not continue to confirm - that the Oscars had responded to #OscarsSoWhite and the long-serving conservatism of the Academy.

So Green Book's victory is a problem and yet another mark against the legitimacy of the Oscars. But the question remains as to whether this represents a return to form, or a last gasp of a dying reality (much like the current American government). Maybe the change has already happened, and Green Book happened to coalesce in the one final perfect opportunity to attempt to reassert power. Or maybe the Academy will never change; it's just too early to tell.

(As an aside, Green Book's win is also a testament to the power of the narrative in awards season and how much it can shift in just a couple of months. There really was little reason for A Star Is Born not to have won Best Picture, all things considered, so Green Book is as much a beneficiary of the way these things go as any movie in recent years.)

The rest of the awards and the telecast

Green Book's upset cast a pall over an otherwise enjoyable evening. There were some great speeches and moments, and in perhaps an Oscar first (at least since the expansion of the Best Picture field beyond five nominees), all Best Picture nominees were recognized with an award.

The only other two movies to win in non-specialized categories happen to be the two leaders of this year's "snubbed" list - First Man and If Beale Street Could Talk. In a few years, movie fans will wonder why this wasn't the competition for Best Picture.

Spike Lee winning after three decades for his seventh or eighth best movie - just like The Departed and Martin Scorsese winning in 2006 - was one of the most Oscars-y moments ever, but it was enjoyable nevertheless.

Olivia Colman's surprise victory was delightful (and I think history will look fondly on not awarding Glenn Close for The Wife), as were the historic victories for African-American women for Black Panther.

And I have to say that the hostlessness of the evening actually improved the event. I don't know if it's sustainable, but I appreciated the lack of a forced monologue, unfunny and overlong bits, and the occasional comical interjection in light of a leaner, quicker show. (The relative lack of montages also helped.)

Overall, I give this year's Oscars a B-. Much like a Grade 11 English essay that runs out of ideas and totters toward an underwhelming conclusion, this year's Oscars could have gotten a higher grade, but they botched the ending and proved the wrong point. Unless that point was #OscarsSoWhite, in which case they succeeded masterfully.

About those predictions...

I went a respectable 6/9 on the major categories, which was just below my average of the previous 14 years. I missed Actress - although, to be fair, almost everyone did (though I came very close to picking Colman for the upset) as well as Best Picture and Original Screenplay, which were both won by Green Book.

That leaves me with a five-year-long streak of missing Best Picture and 6 out of 15 since 2005. And it makes me wonder why I keep getting it wrong. Perhaps that is an analysis best left for its own post. At any rate, I can mostly maintain my dignity after this year, as all three of those misses were upsets.

Overall, I was slightly disappointed in my final performance. I should have seen Green Book coming from its combination of People's Choice at the Toronto Film Festival, the Golden Globe for Best Drama, and the Producers Guild of America win, but perhaps I just didn't want to see it happen. That said, I had a bad feeling about my pick as soon as it was published, which is more than I can say for many other misses over the years.


I don't think this year's Oscars or the movies therein will be very memorable in the long run other than the frustration of Green Book's win and the curiosity of Bohemian Rhapsody's dominance. It just wasn't a great year in many ways.

Roma has a shot to become part of the shortlist of "greatest movies to lose the Oscar that actually could have won it", a list that includes 2001: A Space Odyssey; Brokeback Mountain; Goodfellas; Pulp Fiction; and Citizen Kane (among others). When people look back on this year, they will wonder how neither Black Panther nor A Star Is Born won, and Green Book will likely be remembered fairly negatively for what it was and what it ended up coming to represent.

It's always hard to look forward to the next year, since so many of the storylines don't really start until September, but 2019 isn't looking much better than this past year - right now, at least - unless Avengers: Endgame really packs a punch, or maybe the live action version of The Lion King will finally bring Disney a Best Picture Oscar. I suppose there are some intriguing possibilities, such as Jordan Peele's UsToy Story 4, Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (about the Manson murders of the 60s), and a Downton Abbey movie. 

I do find it interesting that two recently ignored female directors both have high-profile projects releasing in the fall: Marielle Heller has A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, and Greta Gerwig has Little Women, so that will make for a fascinating conversation if either or both of those movies are any good. But regardless of what films end up in the conversation, rest assured that I will be right in the thick of it, probably getting Best Picture wrong for the sixth year in a row.


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