I caught bits and pieces of the Oscars on Sunday while working hard on my novel. And based upon what I saw, heard and read both during and after, I can’t help but think this may have been the single most contentious year in the award show’s history.
The spectacle felt like it managed in someway to rile, vex or anger almost everyone at some point. And I don’t mean in the funny, early Family Guy way. Several political statements were made, ranging from Selma and racial diversity to pay gaps for women. Edward Snowden winning an Oscar for best documentary and a somewhat brow raising comment from Sean Penn involving Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and a green card.
But to be fair, at least these statements were somewhat counter balanced by moments of emotional connection. Such as when J.K. Simmons pushed the audience to call their parents. Or when Dana Perry called for suicide awareness, and Graham Moore encouraged kids who are struggling to fit in and find a place in life to stay weird.
And then there were the good old fashioned disappointments, such as The Lego Movie not even being considered for best animated film (which went to Big Hero 6.) And despite an incredible showing at the box office, American Sniper lost to Birdman for best picture, which dismayed conservatives who loved Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper’s biopic about Sniper Chris Kyle.
I’ve actually seen both films. The fact that American Sniper is a biographical film kind of tempers my response, and not because it’s bad. It’s a fantastic film. But I loathed myself whenever I enjoyed watching it, as my conscience struck me with a rolled newspaper, shouting, “These events actually happened! How the hell can you say you are entertained by this movie?” Eastwood has crafted his best movie yet. But by walking the non-fiction line, the film demands respect that curbs one’s enthusiasm.
But I digress.
It is actually an intriguing coincidence that Birdman is about former superhero actor Riggan (Michael Keaton) who is trying to put together a Broadway performance to prove he can create art. The movie follows a pattern of high-personal drama storytelling, as the play’s previews always find a way to go wrong, inciting powerful, stressful and volatile reactions from the actors and producers involved. Riggan in particular wrestles with his alter ego Birdman who whispers old glories in his ear, and constantly urges him to return to the camera. All this, while play critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) desires to destroy Riggan’s efforts out of hatred for “movie star frauds,” adding to the already intense pressure.
That last point seems to hit a sensitive nerve both in the movie and reality. After the Oscars, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn addressed some quips against superhero films that happened during the award show.
I feel that Gunn is only giving voice to a frustration that has been mounting for sometime in the film industry. As John Scalzi correctly pointed out in 2008, no superhero flick has ever been nominated for best picture. But against his prediction then that The Dark Knight might be nominated, the aforementioned fact remains true even today. Although Heath Ledger did posthumously receive the academy award for best supporting actor that year, it does feel like superhero movies aren’t exactly respected.
Guardians of the Galaxy is intriguing because it’s a great, fun and very successful film that has nearly reached cult status. I actually like it even more than The Avengers if you’d believe it, perhaps because Gunn united an ensemble cast built on no prior movies and still totally nailed it. Yet at the same time, many of the film’s fans love it a little too passionately, somehow giving it 110%, A+++. Thus despite how good the movie is already, they still found a way to make it impossibly overrated.
This is not a knock on Guardians of the Galaxy. I will probably catch its sequel opening day with a smile on my face. It’s just that the fans need to calm down a notch.
But it’s worth discussing. Guardians of the Galaxy was packed full of aliens who felt more human and more emotionally deep than most other characters we’ve seen on the big screen. Science fiction, horror and fantasy can be even more potent than drama, because those genres force us to explore the human reaction to events, technologies, politics and peoples that we may never normally interact with. So why is it that some look down on the mere attempt to explore our potential in a theoretical and thoroughly fictional context? Is it because they want the fiction to always mirror reality, for the masses to know the cultural elite’s struggle to make it in the industry?
I could certainly believe that latter point. In 2011, the films The Artist and Hugo both revolved around the struggle of an actor and movie director respectively. And both films did very, very well for themselves with the academy, as well as other award ceremonies. The insinuation that the winners should be those who best reflect the personal strife within the industry only adds fuel to the fire, and raises the timeless question of how we should define art.
But before I close out, I will say that Birdman was a very good film. Did it deserve best picture? I can’t even say. There’s no question in my mind that it deserved the nomination. But I will say it’s almost ironic… that the winner depicts some of the frustrations and grievances that Gunn, and many other genre defining directors, bear.