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Glittering Prizes

by Ross Douthat

The disaster that overtook this year’s Oscar telecast in its closing moments, like so many strange events of the last two years, seemed almost scripted in its wild implausibility. The Best Picture battle pitted La La Land, the effervescent Hollywood musical that’s made a cool $400 million worldwide, against Moonlight, the distilled essence of an arthouse film, about a gay black ghetto kid coming of age in Miami. It was a fraught contest: A win for La La Land would continue Hollywood’s pattern of self-referential Oscar winners but also crown a movie that people had actually attended; a win for Moonlight would elevate art over commerce, redeem the Oscars from their sins against intersectionality, and send a message against intolerance and Donald Trump.

Naturally they both won. Or rather, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, and PricewaterhouseCoopers — respectively icons of a prior generation’s Hollywood and custodians of the Oscar rituals and brand — contrived to accidentally bestow the statue on La La Land, before it was revealed that no, actually Moonlight was the winner. The people online who immediately discerned a (racist?) conspiracy to undercut the Moonlight moment were wrong . . . but on a deeper, subconscious level maybe they were right. It was as if one model of what the Oscars should be — a celebration of stars and cinematic spectacle — had reached out and tried to stop another model, more artsy and politicized and narrowcasted, from sweeping in and taking over.

Both before and afterward there was talk about how this takeover was inevitable. And not only from cultural liberals: Two fine right-leaning film critics, Peter Suderman and Sonny Bunch, wrote different but complementary pieces about the waning of the Best Picture battle as cultural event in which movies that everyone sees and everyone roots for (or against) compete not just for a trophy, but for the claim to represent the cultural zeitgeist or capture the American idea.

Suderman, in the New York Times, praised this year’s Academy nominees for their “narrow, personal focus,” suggesting that the diversity of a fragmented America — from the Miami of Moonlight to the West Texas of Hell or High Water to the blue-collar New England of Manchester by the Sea — makes breadth and diversity among nominees the key to a successful show, more than the broad popularity of the eventual winner.

Meanwhile Bunch, in the Washington Post, argued that the age of mass-market movies that are also Oscar-worthy is essentially over, and that if the Academy doesn’t want to just give statues to superhero movies it needs to accept a new and less culturally ambitious identity: “a niche broadcast aimed at niche audiences who tend to live in urban enclaves and seek out . . . critically acclaimed but relatively unpopular movies.”

But what if the reverse is true? That is, in an era when the movie industry is making fewer and fewer movies that are at once adult, artistic, and appealing to large audiences, don’t the Oscars have a stronger obligation to celebrate such films? If the Academy instead becomes a platform to celebrate niche filmmaking and arthouse fare, then small gems will get more attention, but the incentives to make mass-market movies for grown-ups will weaken even more.

Already, there are ways in which it’s easier to make a Moonlight than a La La Land (or an Arrival, to pick the film that should have won) right now — easier to make an under–$5 million movie with unknowns than a $40 million movie with brand-name stars, easier to pitch a story tailored to a small but reliable audience than a story with a larger potential audience but a higher price and no pre-sold/franchise pitch. Both Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, and Damien Chazelle of La La Land spent a while shopping their projects around Hollywood — but Chazelle spent years longer, and had to make the cheaper, smaller, and therefore safer Whiplash before his bigger project found investors.

None of this is to slight Moonlight, which deserved acclaim — for its artful three-act structure, checking in on its unhappy protagonist as a child and teen and young adult; for its mood and music and palette; and for the (likewise Oscar-winning) work of Mahershala Ali as the main character’s drug-dealer mentor. But it’s not the masterpiece that some of its boosters seem to think. It’s a film doing battle with its own ghetto-life and tragic-homosexual clichés, and the three actors playing its protagonist offer variations on terse woundedness that don’t add up to a full character. It is not a D.O.A. winner like The Artist or an embarrassment like Crash, but neither is it a film that justifies the experience of cinema; it would play just as effectively on HBO.

The Oscars can be only as good as the movies, in the end. There are reasons the Best Picture nominees and winners were aces in the 1970s and very good in the 1990s and have been getting lousier and lamer and more insular of late. It’s not that the Academy can’t go big; it’s that the (non-superhero) pictures have gotten small.

But not all of them, not to a point where the Oscars need to just surrender and become the Independent Spirit Awards. This year, La La Land, Arrival, and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge made almost $800 million between them. People saw them, people liked them, they were grown-up, big-screen, capital-M Movies. That’s a distinctive achievement — and one the Academy should have rewarded by naming one of them the best picture of the year.

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