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The most prized films of the 2020-21 awards season seemed to show America its true face, puncturing a fantasy of perennial optimism. Movies like Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Minari, Judas and the Black Messiah, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami, The United States vs. Billie Holiday and even Borat Subsequent Moviefilm each confronted the myth of the American dream; 2020 was a year of medical, cultural and economic turmoil that left many real-life people on the brink, and this year presented new social challenges in that wake of those omnicrises.
The Great Resignation. The so-called “labor shortage.” The work-from-home question. As people around the world continue to rebuild and reevaluate their lives following the pandemic-related upheavals of the past two years — examining what they really want professionally and personally — it comes as no surprise that 2022’s burgeoning best picture race contends with the nuances of ambition and upward mobility. A majority of the films submitted for Oscar consideration this year feature characters seeking a better life for themselves — either power, money, fame or a chance at stability. The leads in each of these films must ultimately cope with the sacrifices of their ambitions.
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely” appears to be one of the prevailing themes of this year’s Academy Awards race. In the medieval period pieces The Tragedy of Macbeth (directed by Joel Coen) and The Last Duel (directed by Ridley Scott), noblemen who feel owed their due — land, titles, authority — end up retaliating against the royals they see as obstacles. In Macbeth, a war hero (Denzel Washington) is goaded into regicide so he can ascend the throne and ends up bloating into a despot. In The Last Duel, a war hero (Matt Damon) continuously wages go-nowhere legal battles against higher-ranked gentry until his wife’s alleged rape presents him an opportunity to exact swift revenge against the many men who had diminished him.
But feudal power isn’t the only type of corrosive force. The innately gifted lead characters of Scott’s crime drama House of Gucci, Aaron Sorkin’s Hollywood biopic Being the Ricardos, Sean Baker’s comedy Red Rocket and Guillermo del Toro’s neo-noir Nightmare Alley all let their ambitions take hold of them in destructive ways. In Gucci and Ricardos, Lady Gaga and Nicole Kidman respectively play charismatic, business-minded women whose attempts to mold their husbands and raise their fortunes end up leading them to tyrannical behavior. By seeking control and an outlet for their intellect, they end up driving their husbands away.
Like Gucci‘s murderous Patrizia Reggiani, Red Rocket‘s porno pimp Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) and Nightmare Alley‘s shady carny Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) also manipulate their way into exclusive cliques and hatch cons that lead to tragic consequences for them both.
Not all of the protagonists at the heart of this year’s awards race fly like Icarus too close to the sun, however. Some survive rough circumstances and use their ambition as a tool for good — for education, for glory or to save their communities. In George Clooney’s coming-of-age drama The Tender Bar, a vulnerable young Long Island boy (Daniel Ranieri and Tye Sheridan) bonds with his bartender uncle (Ben Affleck) and takes refuge at a local pub, eventually lifting himself out of his chaotic home life by attending an Ivy League university. Similarly, in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s sports drama King Richard, a Compton father (Will Smith) coaches his two tennis prodigy daughters and networks his way into elite athletic circles to lift his family out of poverty.
These crowd-pleasers remind audiences that ambition shouldn’t be a dirty word that we only associate with hucksters and hustlers. The striving young men at the heart of the musicals In the Heights, West Side Story and Tick, Tick … Boom! just want to live in a better world. In the Heights‘ bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), sick of Manhattan gentrification, longs for his beachside homeland in the Dominican Republic and becomes laser-focused on saving up for his triumphant return. NYC gentrification also impacts West Side Story‘s romantic lead Tony (Ansel Elgort), who’s trying to reform his life after serving time in prison for violence against a rival gang member. His nemesis, Bernardo (David Alvarez), an immigrant from Puerto Rico, just wants to find his place in the U.S. like the European emigres who came before him. Tick, Tick … Boom!‘s Westchester-bred playwright Jonathan (Andrew Garfield) has had more privilege than those other three men combined, and so his desires are more existential and perhaps less relatable: He doesn’t seek home but a sense of acceptance as an artist.
Sometimes, though, ambition isn’t about a dogged pursuit of self-esteem or self-identity but saving one’s family legacy. In a number of this year’s films, protagonists seek to rewrite or escape the wrongs of the past so they salvage their loved ones’ futures. The conflicted parents of Belfast and Spencer, for example, recognize that the environments in which they’re raising their children — a colonized city being torn apart by religious infighting, a psychologically terrorizing royal family — are potentially dangerous and seek sanctuary from their terror, even if that means disrupting the lives of everyone they love. The children of The Power of the Dog, Dune and CODA, on the other hand, know what it means to grow up with trauma and will do everything in their power to save their remaining parents from having to suffer degradation any longer, even if that means making hard, even terrible, choices for survival.
And what’s wrong with wanting a little bit of that pie for the sake of it? Licorice Pizza‘s charming teen actor turned entrepreneur, Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), doesn’t care if he’s kiddie clowning in front of a camera or shilling for water beds, as long as he’s collecting the cash at the end of the day. He knows it will impress his would-be girlfriend (Alana Haim), anyway.
Love is a life-changing force. Ruthless determination might even be stronger.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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