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Hollywood movies often seem to exist in a netherworld, removed from the political goings-on of the day and the great social and economic forces roiling the nation.
Unlike television, whose lower budgets and relatively quick production schedules allow it to respond on a dime to contemporary events, film lumbers like a locomotive, traveling vast distances from conception to completion, only slowly gathering steam and hardly ever shifting course. The fevered subjects that make a writer’s blood boil and lead to issue-driven scripts hardly ever are the ones that hold sway when those scripts reach the finish line in theaters. Politics is all well and good offscreen, but onscreen it stinks like an old fish.
That’s why movies so rarely are topical, even when they might seem to be. For anything that’s truly cutting edge, look to TV — and even then, comedy and talk shows, rather than longform drama.
The films in the running for this year’s Oscars are no exception. Any contemporary political message we read into them likely is coincidental.
Hacksaw Ridge may appear to address our concerns following two recent, globe-changing wars, but its origins date to 2001, before either of those wars had taken place. That’s when producer Bill Mechanic first commissioned a screenplay about World War II combat medic Desmond Doss, perhaps thinking about the success of Braveheart (which he co-financed as a Fox executive) rather than the Afghanistan and Iraq combat zones that would reshape our notions of military engagement.
Similarly, Fences, which has been swept along in the jet stream of the Black Lives Matter movement and warmed in the embers of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, was written decades before either of those came into being, when August Wilson began developing his 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which would see a major 2010 Broadway revival before making it to the screen.
Topicality, schmopicality. Movies and politics rarely share the same bed.
That, at least, applies when they’re in the development phase. But once a film comes out, it’s a whole other matter, and pictures with any kind of substance inevitably get caught up in the public debates of the day. They become litmus tests for people’s feelings about everything from race to religion, from sex to the state of the world.
Because of that, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selects this year’s best picture on Feb. 26, it inevitably will be influenced by the turmoil that has come in the wake of the presidential election. Each movie will have to reckon with awards voters’ feelings about Trump.
Does that mean the famously liberal group will opt for the film with the strongest liberal message? No. Judging from the recent spate of awards shows, exhaustion has set in. As with audiences at large, the evidence indicates that Hollywood favors escapism.
That’s why La La Land, with its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, has emerged as such a strong contender in the past few weeks. It sidesteps every issue that’s weighing on Hollywood liberals and urges them instead to dream and to recall a time when it was bliss to be alive and to be young was very heaven. Observe La La Land’s trajectory — from its debut in late August at the Venice International Film Festival, through Telluride and Toronto, past its record-breaking seven wins at the Jan. 8 Golden Globes and on to its victory at the Producers Guild awards — and you’ll see how it has gained momentum. The worse things have seemed in the country (at least from a liberal point of view), the better they have been for the musical.
Same with Hidden Figures. Its upset victory Jan. 29 at the SAG Awards, where it took the best motion picture ensemble prize, wasn’t such an upset at all, but rather an affirmation that voters want the upbeat. They’re looking for a movie that validates their beliefs, not a reminder of the difficulties those beliefs still challenge.
That’s one reason why Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea and Fences have somewhat faded as contenders, even though many see them as equally well-made films. Their messages were complicated and even contrarian, when voters want to keep complication and contrarianism at bay.
The same rationale applies to SAG’s acting picks, the foremost indicator of the Oscars. Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali may have played a drug dealer, but is it possible to imagine a more decent and dignified one? So his character sells narcotics, but otherwise isn’t he the perfect father figure/boyfriend?
As for Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, the Fences stars may well be starring in a hardscrabble story, but they’re also screen icons whose very presence is reassuring, at a time when liberals oh so need reassurance.
Emma Stone put her finger on this point when she was named best actress for La La Land at the SAG Awards and used her acceptance speech to acknowledge a community that’s “bringing people joy and making them laugh and giving people hope.”
Such think-positive sentiments will win friends and influence Academy voters, even more than usual. That’s because in tough times, Oscar goes soft. In the aftermath of 9/11, only one best picture nominee skewed bleak — In the Bedroom. The others were all bright-eyed, at least when it came to their ultimate messages (Gosford Park, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge and the winner, A Beautiful Mind).
Historically, the worse Hollywood has felt (and the worse the world around it has looked), the better escapism has fared: Busby Berkeley musicals and Shirley Temple flicks flourished during the Depression.
Those pictures may have avoided the politics of their day, but they still sent a clear message, the one that will likely triumph at the Oscars: Everything’s going to be all right. In feel-bad times, feel-good films are fine.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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