Oscars 2019: Nice film beats best film – is it 1989 again?

Dr Yannis Tzioumakis is a Reader in Film and Media Industries in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Communication and Media

29 years ago, on 26 March 1990, the Academy Awards ceremony for the 1989-1990 season was eagerly anticipated by industry and cinephiles alike. Major Hollywood studio Oscar hopefuls had failed to generate a real buzz. Oliver Stone’s Tom Cruise-starring Born on the 4th of July had secured 8 nominations including one for its superstar actor who was lauded for his transformation as a paraplegic Vietnam veteran, but the film had failed to match Platoon’s raw energy a few years earlier. Ed Zwick’s civil war drama Glory had received 5 nominations but none in the key categories and had been criticised for foregrounding the story of a white lieutenant when the film was focusing on the story of the first ever all-black soldier platoon. Tim Burton’s synergy-driven Batman, hailed by many as the first blockbuster of Conglomerate Hollywood following the massive merger between Time and Warner Communications, was ignored at the awards even though it cleaned up at the box office. And the case was the same for James Cameron’s The Abyss, which was also ignored with the exception of certain technical categories.

Then there were some solid Hollywood films that got strong reviews and attracted audiences but lacked certain elements that were perennially seen as Oscar bait even if they had plenty of other films going for them: Field of Dreams, Parenthood, Black Rain, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Steel Magnolias, Some of them received nominations in a few key categories (mostly acting and screenplay) but lacked the “whole package” that would help them be seen as real contenders that could win multiple awards.

The same goes for a few other Hollywood productions, which had a strong artistic pedigree and an auteur filmmaker at their helm. Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and Paul Mazursky’s Enemies, A Love Story received several nominations but again were not deemed strong enough to challenge for the main award, while Milos Forman’s Valmont was all but ignored. But this category had arguably the strongest film in the Oscar race: Dead Poets Society. With respected Australian auteur Peter Weir at the helm, a bravura performance by Robin Williams, and a host of fresh faced young Hollywood talent (including Ethan Hawke) Dead Poets Society seemed to have everything: excellent reviews, strong box office, an uplifting story; it was what Hollywood could do best and fit the bill perfectly to become the big Oscar winner.

The real excitement however was coming left field and outside of traditional Hollywood. 26 year old Steven Soderbegh’s sex, lies, and videotape had won the Palme d’Or the previous May and was being hailed as a major achievement in independent film, while also doing spectacular box office business for a marginal production. Spike Lee’s confrontational Do the Right Thing had generated a lot of debate about race relations in the US and had done strong box office too (it was also released by Hollywood major Universal which was unusual for the kind of film it was). Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot boasted a tour-de-force performance by a young Daniel Day-Lewis and a lot of marketing support by up and coming Miramax which also represented sex, lies, and videotape as well as another strong contender coming across the Atlantic, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, with 5 nominations. Miramax was also nominated for what looked like a certain bet in the category of foreign film, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.

However, at the night of the awards the Oscar for Best Picture went to Driving Miss Daisy, a story about how an elderly white lady in the Deep South (Jessica Tandy) eventually develops a strong friendship with her black driver (Morgan Freeman), putting aside all her racist prejudices and recognising that deep down they were both humans and could therefore connect in ways that were, at the beginning of the story, unimaginable given the colour of their skin.

Produced by Hollywood royalty (David Zanuck, son of long-serving Twentieth Century-Fox head Darryl Zanuck) the film was directed by Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford who had not been nominated for Best Director, causing a number of industry jokes about the film having directed itself! Jessica Tandy also received the Oscar becoming the oldest ever actor to be recognised by the Academy, while an Oscar for best Makeup brought the final tally for the film to 3.

The evening ended on a high! The liberally minded Academy’s choice reassured the public that whatever social problems exist – including racism – can be resolved with compassion and understanding among individuals, therefore dismissing more confrontational and radical examinations of such problems such as that put forward by Do the Right Thing as viable approaches for mainstream America.

As for the excitement coming outside of or from the periphery of Hollywood, it was limited to a handful of awards: sex, lies, and videotape received the Oscar for Best Screenplay while Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker got acting awards for My Left Foot.

Fast forward to 24 February 2019 and the picture seems remarkably similar.

The major Hollywood studio films failed to ignite a lot of critical interest and do strong box office figures. Key exceptions Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born were undermined by the controversy surrounding the former’s director, Bryan Singer, who was fired from the film before it was completed and (not surprisingly) was not nominated in the Best Director category and the fact that the latter’s director-star Bradley Cooper was also not nominated. Adam McKey’s Vice got good reviews but in the eyes of many was seen as a virtual repeat of his 2016 The Big Short, a star-studded political drama presented in an entertaining way, which arguably makes it lose it political punch. It received several nominations, did worse at the box office than The Big Short and come the pre-award period it failed to gain any traction as a frontrunner the awards.

Although Batman was ignored in 1989, The Black Panther received several nominations, especially in technical categories and a rather unsurprising Best Picture nomination. After the Academy failed to create a new Oscar category that would recognise popular films that traditionally hold little artistic merit (in other words Hollywood Blockbusters) and that otherwise would not appear at the Oscars, there was only one thing to do to highlight its appreciation for the significant critical and enormous box office success of this film. This was to nominate The Black Panther for Best Picture but with zero chances of receiving the actual award.

Again like in 1989, the excitement came left field. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Yorgos Lanthimos The Favourite had been nominated for 10 Oscars! Despite strong recognition by Hollywood, including an Oscar for Best Director for the star-studded Warner Bros picture Gravity in 2014, this time Cuarón was nominated for a Mexican production focusing on the life of a family in Mexico City in the 1970s. Shot in black and white, with no stars, the dialogue predominantly in Spanish and with a duration of 135 minutes, the film was certainly not mainstream fare. This potentially explains that Cuarón could not get funding from Hollywood and turned to streaming giant Netflix, with Roma becoming the first ‘Netflix original’ to be nominated for Best Picture. Ever since the announcement of the nominations it was seen as a firm Oscar favourite.

The Favourite, on the other hand, came from Greek art film director Yorgos Lanthimos who made the film for an Irish production team and the participation of mostly British actors. An irreverent take on Queen Anne of the Stuart family, the film was lauded both for its tour-de-force visual style, 3 female actresses’ strong performances and a queer sensibility that extends beyond its representation of lesbian sex between the Queen and her two favourite companions.

And then there was Spike Lee with his also irreverent Blackkklansman, a film about a black underground officer infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. The film was seen as a return to form for Lee whose films in recent years had not achieved critical and commercial success.

There were also many small films with potential such as If Beale Street Could Talk with African American actress Regina King receiving attention for her performance while Pawel Pawlikowski’s nomination as best director for Cold War was arguably the biggest surprise, also attracting attention for being for a film financed and released by another streaming platform Amazon Studios.

All these unconventional nominations and nominees were seen within a context of extremely strong calls for Academy reformation in order for it to become more diverse in terms of race, gender, ethnicity and age than it has been historically. With hundreds of new members joining the Academy the last 3 years and with an increased visibility, certainly, for African American nominees and winners in same period (especially 2 years ago when Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight controversially beat La La Land, it was clear that 2019 could have been the year when diversity would impact more forcefully the Academy Awards, when it would extend beyond African American visibility to capture other races and ethnicities, when it would recognise non-normative gender and sexuality representations, when – why not – it would finally embraces some of the radicalism of contemporary culture.

It did not! In a virtual repeat of what happened 29 years ago the Best Picture Award went to Green Book. The film tells the uplifting story of a well-educated African American classical pianist (Mahershala Ali) who hires a rough-hewn Italian American driver/body guard (Viggo Mortensen) to look after hims as he performs in the Deep South. Enter prejudices that are revealed as such, a development of a bonding between the two men and a realisation that the two men can learn from each other.

The film was directed by Peter Farrelly, one half of the Farelly brothers who made their mark with gross out comedies There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber and Me, Myself and Irene and represents a slew of filmmakers who turned to more ‘serious’ fare (as is also the case with McKay who made his name with successful comedies including The Hangover film series).  A small film but with well-known stars that was released by Universal, Green Book seemed to be Oscar-bait on account of its old fashioned approach to race relations that had proved to work with the academy in years past.

But with only 5 nominations in its pocket, the absence of a strong auteur behind the camera, who was not nominated for the Best Director award and, more importantly, produced and released within a contemporary socio-cultural context that finds race relations in the US at a critical point, Green Book’s victory was no just a shock! It was an anachronism.

If Driving Miss Daisy’s victory in 1989 was a shock, this was mostly the case for the more liberally minded audience that was anticipating the indie film outburst of the 1990s and the inroads of popular foreign films supported by Miramax and other specialty distributors. This is especially as

over the course of the following two decades the Hollywood majors would focus more and more on blockbuster films and their box office potential and leave the prestige of the awards to small films and companies like Miramax

Green Book’s victory in 2019, on the other hand, should come as a shock to everyone. Despite the calls for diversity, the Academy’s reformations, the influx of new blood, the increasing visibility of African Americans, in the end when it came to formal recognition by Hollywood, the process was business as usual. Or to put it in an often repeated saying in the context of the Academy Awards – the Oscar for Best Picture rarely goes to the Best Film. It goes to the ‘Nicest Film’. And Hollywood has always had a way of doing ‘nice’ and recognising ‘nice’. As a result, despite being frontrunners and showered with other awards before the Oscars, Roma and The Favourite didn’t really stand a chance of winning the big award of the night. They cannot be described as ‘nice’.

It looks like then that Hollywood is not yet where it thinks it is or where it thinks it needs to be following all the criticisms and reformations of the recent past. Despite taking concrete steps, its ‘culture’ has not shifted, or if it has shifted, it has certainly not taken the radical direction that Roma and The Favourite represented in this year’s awards. Of course cultures (in any context and not just the media industries) neither change easily nor produce radical results, if they ever do. It takes the influence of a number of factors, strong efforts from various parties and institutions and the overcoming of established practices and processes that are often considered ‘normative’ for a culture to really change.

But if few expected the victory of the radicalism of Roma or The Favourite, fewer expected the return to 1989 that the victory of the ‘nice’ Green Book – and that includes a lot of industry members who have actively pushed the envelope in terms of the kinds of films that can be made in American cinema if the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s.

A year after 1989 the big Oscar battle for Best Picture was again between the best film (Goodfellas) and nicest film (Dances with Wolves). The latter won then too. We will now see if this will be the case in 2020.

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