Best picture winners: the province of the great white male?

Dear friends,

Hurrah! The 2016 Oscars are just a few days away. In honor of the occasion, let’s look back at best picture winners of years past. Here are the previous 20. Notice anything interesting?

  1. Birdman
  2. 12 Years a Slave
  3. Argo
  4. The Artist
  5. The King’s Speech
  6. The Hurt Locker
  7. Slumdog Millionaire
  8. No Country for Old Men
  9. The Departed
  10. Crash
  11. Million Dollar Baby*
  12. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  13. Chicago
  14. A Beautiful Mind
  15. Gladiator
  16. American Beauty
  17. Shakespeare in Love
  18. Titanic*
  19. The English Patient
  20. Braveheart

(Emphases mine.)

It appears that 14/20, or 70 percent, of them tell the story of “the great white male” – mostly his triumphs and tribulations in a world that simply doesn’t understand him (boo hoo). Note that I have also starred two movies that, while they may not exactly tell the story of the great white male, they prominently feature a heroic white male protagonist.

I decided to assemble this list yesterday after a conversation with a colleague. We were talking about which movies we thought might take the top prize. He was betting on The Revenant or possibly Spotlight, and I was holding out hope for Mad Max: Fury Road.** As we considered Room and Brooklyn, both excellent films, an odd feeling passed over us. We both concluded that these movies, well … they just couldn’t win, could they? It was hard to articulate, but they seemed less grandiose or monumental or something, and not just from a cinematographic perspective. Neither of them felt like a best picture winner.

I am realizing now that the discordance revolved around the fact that both are movies about women. Neither Room nor Brooklyn feel like winners because they are – for this reason – out of sync with past winners. Take a look at the list above. How many of these movies tell the story of a woman? Maybe two? And one of them (Chicago) showcases women as objects of desire, clamoring over fame, beauty, and youth.

This is very discouraging in 2016. How is it possible that movie studios are still this uninterested in female-driven plots? Sure, some popular female-centric comedies like Spy and Trainwreck came out this past year. But why is it that only movies led by white male protagonists are pegged for the ultimate prize for high art in film-making?

(Let’s not even get into the fact that best-picture-nominated movies about women are typically only about white women – that is a whole other dimension to discuss another day…)

Hopefully, the recently announced changes in the Academy’s voting membership will take take things in a different direction. Until then, thinking through these issues has been an important reminder that institutionalized patriarchy runs deep, even within me and the most progressive people that I know.

Prediction: the movie featuring the GREATEST of the great white males will win this year (this means Leo).

**Ironically, the title Mad Max: Fury Road implies that it is a male-centric movie, but it becomes a largely female-driven movie led by a strong heroine.

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So, Hollywood doesn’t love a comeback story?

Adam Sternbergh argues in New York Magazine that Michael Keaton lost the best actor trophy this year for his work in Birdman because the Academy “doesn’t love comeback stories.”

There’s nothing wrong with Sternbergh’s logic per se, but before you can even consider his logic, the argument immediately falls flat on its face for ignoring the gigantic British elephant in the room. Eddie Redmayne won the trophy for starring in a comeback story — perhaps one of the best-known real life comeback stories of our time. A brilliant aspiring astronomer discovers that he has approximately two years to live, and his muscles will start giving away one by one until he can no longer communicate with the outside world. Yet … not only does he continue living for decades to come, but he becomes one of the most celebrated scientists of all time. (Can you hear the Rocky music?)

If I had to guess, Michael Keaton’s loss had more to do with the fact that it was hard to tell whether his acting was good or brilliant or somewhere in between underneath all that … stuff. I found it difficult to evaluate the richness of Keaton’s craft while the colors, music, special effects and swooping camera movements swirled round and round him with increasing speed. Not to sound cheesy, but I really couldn’t get a good look into the character’s soul with that much activity going on.

Whether people thought Birdman’s strong artistic direction was impressive or irritating, most would probably agree that the film was ultimately more about sustaining itself than about telling a great comeback story about its leading man. In fact, I would argue that Keaton becomes more of a centerpiece than a leading man. In his (arguably) best scene of the movie, he’s dazedly jogging through Times Square in his underwear, and the camerawork invites us to see him as more of a object of fascination rather than a real person.

Alternatively, maybe Keaton lost because the voters simply thought Redmayne was better. If you’ve seen The Theory of Everything, this is not a stretch. Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ performances are the standouts in a frankly middling film. Perhaps the Academy decided that James Marsh’s film showcased the archetypal comeback story in a more poignant fashion.

Regardless, there’s really no need to make broad sweeping suggestions that Hollywood is only “supposedly built on delivering rousing narratives” (emphasis is mine). What about Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Jamie Foxx in Ray or even Colin Firth in The King’s Speech? There’s nothing Hollywood loves better than a comeback story.

Frankly, I’m more concerned about the fact that the 2015 best actor nominees featured more than one comeback story about a white man, in an all-white field at that.