Oscar voters staring down a heavily political decision

If this were any kind of normal Oscar year, pundits would be debating whether the members of the Academy have forgiven Gibson enough to award Hacksaw Ridge several statuettes Feb. 26. (Mark Rogers/AP)

I finally caught up with Hacksaw Ridge this week. Hacksaw Ridge is an American war movie about a devout Seventh Day Adventist who is both a conscientious objector and a battlefield hero. The film has earned six Oscar nominations including best director for Mel Gibson, a man largely ostracized by Hollywood after an anti-Semitic outburst in 2006.

But his new film is reliably sentimental, palatably Christian and safely patriotic – and if this were any kind of normal Oscar year, entertainment-industry pundits would be very busy debating whether the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have forgiven Gibson enough to award Hacksaw Ridge several statuettes Feb. 26.

But 2017 is anything but normal. First of all, with nine nominees for best picture, it’s a crowded field that includes several heavyweight African-American contenders the year after Academy voters got their hands slapped by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

And second, it is such an intensely politicized year, Academy members can be forgiven if they are scrutinizing every decision for its broader implications before voting closes Tuesday. In 2017, a vote for Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins would never be interpreted as a vote for the actress’s fine work in a minor comedy, but rather as a gesture of support after U.S. President Donald Trump called her overrated when she dared to criticize him at the Golden Globes.

Academy members are often derided as a bunch of old, wealthy and middle-brow white men, the intellectual heirs to that bunch of saps who gave an Oscar to How Green Was My Valley instead of Citizen Kane. But this year, you have to feel some sympathy for anybody who has got to decide whether it’s okay to vote for a guy who was accused of sexual harassment (Casey Affleck nominated for a fabulous performance in Manchester by the Sea).

Or whether the power of African-American tragedy is better recognized by picking Fences, Denzel Washington’s proud adaptation of the August Wilson drama set in working-class Pittsburgh, over the subtler portrait of drug-infested Miami in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. Maybe it’s just safer to park a ballot with the inarguable progressive sentiments of Hidden Figures’ feel-good story about the black women who put a man in space. Or perhaps betting on a smart movie about Hollywood (La La Land) would feel like a happy solution – unless that could be interpreted as political retreat. The permutations and combinations are dizzying.

Sure, the Academy members are industry professionals who should be making knowledgeable – albeit subjective – assessments of the nominees’ art, but they don’t call it an Oscar campaign for nothing. On the surface, the marketing of Oscar nominees to Academy voters involves ads offering films “For Your Consideration” and a heap of much-sought-after screeners. But underneath that, there are the Hollywood whisper campaigns sometimes triggered by rival studios attacking the veracity of a biopic or the morality of a star. And sometimes, more fairly perhaps, they are fuelled by revisionist reviews questioning a movie’s themes: Yes, La La Land is lovely, but really, isn’t jazz a black art form and is nostalgia any proper way to revive it? Hidden Figures may be doing well at the box office, but did you catch that devastating takedown of its self-congratulatory liberalism?

As in a political campaign, the pundits also parse the polls – or in this case, the results of earlier awards programs that are considered reliable predictors of Oscar outcomes – and feed information on voter behaviour back to the voters themselves. Yes, La La Land did nicely at Britain’s BAFTAs last weekend, but it wasn’t a sweep. Could its appeal with voters possibly be softening? Notice Hidden Figures’ win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January. There’s lots of overlap there with Oscar voters: Could Hidden Figures be on the rise?

Underneath all this is an unspoken understanding that an Oscar is too big a prize to simply award for art. Somehow, it must also be awarded for humanity, whether that represents a vote for the film’s thematic pertinence to the political moment or for the artist’s upstanding character. Trouble is, this year there is just so much damn humanity going around.


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