When the Biopic is Bloat, Voters Applaud

By Noah White

For the longest time, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been viewed as an out-of-touch voting body, consistently awarding historical biopics and whatever film the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein was able to whip enough votes for. Following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy during the 88th Academy Awards, held in 2016, the Academy responded by adding younger and more diverse voters. Surprisingly, the result seemed to have been felt relatively quickly, when at the 89th Academy Awards Moonlight, a tiny indie film, won over the heavily-favored La La Land, a film reminiscent of the Golden Age musicals of the 60s (Hollywood also loves films about itself). Many of this year’s nominations brought about further, albeit small, evidence of the Academy’s change of pace, though the evening largely played out devoid of any real excitement or shocking victories.

The Academy’s lack of diversity was not felt just in the socio-cultural representation of nominees, it was also felt in the types of films that it chose to honor: primarily biographical, historical, and pseudo-historical dramas (think Gladiator, The King’s Speech, Shakespeare in Love, and Braveheart). Since 1990, sixteen of the Best Picture winners have been historical or biographical dramas (or fictional films, like Forrest Gump or Chicago, that appeal to the same general sentiment). In the same timespan, nineteen of the winners for Best Actor have portrayed historical figures or characters inspired by historical figures — like Matthew McConaughey as AIDS/HIV activist Ron Woodruff, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking (more on that atrocity later), and, this year’s winner, Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. Of course, these performances are usually accompanied by some kind of physical strain or transformation. Interestingly, the awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress are less consistently awarded to such roles, though the general trend is still there, and Best Supporting Actor is normally the category reserved for “weirder” or villainous performances, like Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds or J.K. Simmons in Whiplash. The only villainous performance that has garnered a Best Actor win in recent memory is Anthony Hopkins’s iconic turn as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs. Now, of course, sometimes the best film is the historical one, and the best performance is the one portraying a real person. But the numbers are disproportional to say the least.

Why might this be? One answer is that we, as a culture, still place high value on realism in art. To put it more precisely, perhaps the older generation of Academy voters still views realism as the most legitimate form of artistic impression, especially in cinema. Holding this view about a medium like film would be like a fine-art critic valuing a portrait (however beautiful) over a wonderfully composed (but mundane) still life or a Rothko. Each has its own merits, and personal taste is personal taste, but there is something unfortunate about only paying attention and lauding that which is easy to identify. The voters seem to consistently undervalue other performances because they get so star-crossed reading about the torture actors put themselves under or how similar an actor looks to a historical figure with whom they are already familiar.[1]

This year, however, the Academy nominated — alongside more traditional fare like Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, and The Post — Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a bitter black comedy from Martin McDonagh; Call Me by Your Name, a romantic drama about two young gay men set in the 80s; Get Out, a horror/satire with a biting social commentary directed by comedian Jordan Peele; Phantom Thread, a very weird period romance directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; Lady Bird, a tiny coming of age film by first-time director Greta Gerwig (a woman, notably); and the winner, The Shape of Water, a science/fantasy allegory from Guillermo Del Toro. A lot of these nominees are exciting, some are unexpected in a delightful way, but the diversity is noteworthy.

In terms of Best Actor, this year, only one nominee portrayed a historical figure — a fat-suited Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. Oldman, predictably, won. In general, three out of the five nominees did fit the “traditional” bill in one way or another: Oldman plays a historical character while Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.) and Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread) both have multiple Oscars to their names. The two other nominees, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name), are relative newcomers who turned in significantly more subdued, everyman performances. Quiet, comedic, or everyman performances are not wholly unrecognized in the Academy in terms of nominations, but very rarely do they win the award outright. In fact, in a strict sense, it would seem the only recent win for the portrayal of a downright “normal” person came last year when Casey Affleck won for Manchester by the Sea.

The amount of atypical nominees this year wasn’t earth-shattering, and ultimately the old guard still took home most of the big awards. When it comes to determining a winner, inherently the middle ground is more likely to win out (which is why Moonlight’s victory last year over the broad and digestible La La Land was such a shock, to say nothing of the manner in which it was announced). However, the very presence of a film like Get Out is an indication that the changes implemented in the Academy are taking some kind of root, though it remains to be seen whether or not it is merely a nod rather than a serious consideration. And the Academy isn’t necessarily worthy of praise for doing what it ought to have been doing all along just because of pressure from the #OscarsSoWhite movement.

Coming into this year’s ceremony, there was a palpable feel of excitement. Given what happened in 2017, it seemed that anything could happen. While most expected the acting awards to play out as predicted, Best Director and Best Picture seemed totally up for grabs, at least in theory. There were still odds-on favorites, of course; but the very real prospect of a film like Get Out winning Best Picture was enough to generate some degree of hope. Obviously, the evening was less exciting (for me, at least) than it could have been. The diversity of nominees was ultimately just a reminder that the Academy tends to still give out the big awards to the broader films (there is a surface-level irony that a film like The Shape of Water would be labeled as broad, but it still seems to be the case). This is to be expected; as I said above, the voting pool is large enough that the most palatable fare is probably going to win. Still, a win for The Shape of Water is more exciting and significant than a win for, say, The Darkest Hour or The Post would have been.

Cultural and artistic awards-shows like the Academy Awards are, in terms of actual value, little more than self-congratulatory pageants. To think that they validate or determine the quality of a film, or the men and women who create them, would be an unfortunate misstep. They are not the end-all, be-all; arbitrariness is etched into their DNA. Asking a body made up of thousands of voters with varying levels of expertise, specialization, and socio-cultural backgrounds to objectively determine what is “best” is a tall order, even granting that cinema lends itself to objective assessment, which it really doesn’t. What is deemed as the best film one year, ten years down the line may be derided (Crash), or, worse, all but forgotten (The Artist). And yet. It’s much better to have some unnecessary hand-wringing every February than have no one interested at all in this conversation. There is something diagnostically valuable about the Academy Awards — they allow us to have general conversations about art and social issues, and they allow us a view into what we, as a culture, value in cinema.

[1] At the 2014 Oscars, one of the most obvious and depressing instances of the Academy privileging “big” performances occurred when Eddie Redmayne was awarded Best Actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking. Fine. Good. Sure. I get it. Redmayne gave a very tough and very physical performance. That shouldn’t be overlooked. But hardly anyone at the mainstream level talked seriously about Ralph Fiennes (a Capital-G Great Actor, with an Oscar already under his belt) giving perhaps the performance of his career in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel — a comedic tour de force of deadpan and subtle sadness. There is no reason why we ought to value Redmayne’s performance over Fiennes. Indeed, Fiennes was tasked with conjuring out of thin air a fleshed-out character in the heightened context of a Wes Anderson film. Redmayne, at least, looked like Hawking, and had a definite point of reference around which he could orient his performance. Redmayne’s performance wasn’t even the most interesting portrayal of a real-life figure — that honor would go to Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in Scorsese’s misunderstood The Wolf of Wall Street. Of course, DiCaprio would get his statue a year later for a much more Oscars-friendly performance in The Revenant.

Noah White is a senior Legal Studies major at HBU where he is also pursuing a minor in Cinema and New Media Arts. His primary area of interest is film and cultural criticism. Some of his favorite films are The Social Network, Scream, and Rio Bravo.

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