On Sunday night — one year after Green Book was awarded the best picture Oscar, and one month after only a single person of color was among the 20 people nominated for an acting Oscar and no female filmmakers were among the five finalists for the best director Oscar — the best picture Oscar was awarded to a film not in the English language for the first time in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards.
What the aforementioned information should remind you of is that the Academy is not a monolith. It is an organization comprising 8,469 individuals. Most of them are still older white men. An increasing number are not. Many of them are brilliant. Quite a few are not. Sometimes their choices surprise and delight us. And other times they do not.
At the end of Sunday’s 2020 Oscars, I couldn’t help but feel that this was one of those times that the Academy — and really all of us in Hollywood — should feel good about it. Indeed, in 1949, when the British film Hamlet became the first non-American best picture Oscar winner, gasps and boos were audible in the room. But in 2020, when the Korean film Parasite became the first non-English-language best picture Oscar winner, Hollywood’s elite stood on their feet and enthusiastically applauded.
How did Parasite — a film with subtitles, without stars familiar to Americans and backed by Neon, a tiny distributor with limited means — manage to sustain its mojo all the way from May’s Cannes Film Festival through February’s Oscars and ultimately vanquish, among others, Universal’s 1917 (the heavy favorite going into the night), Sony’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (which was tailor-made for the hometown crowd) and Warners’ Joker (the most-nominated film of the year and biggest blockbuster up for best pic), an outcome predicted by virtually none of the top-tier pundits?
No one can say for sure, but one can make educated guesses…
1. Parasite is a funny, haunting, bold film that most filmmakers regard as extremely well made and immensely entertaining. And even if its third act genre-switch jars some, its exploration of tensions between the wealthy and the poor is, sadly, timely and internationally relevant. In other words, it captured the zeitgeist.
2. The film’s understated and wryly funny writer-director Bong Joon Ho, under the guidance of veteran publicist Mara Buxbaum, made the rounds and became something of a folk hero (#BongHive), and its ensemble cast was equally easy to root for. (It was a bigger deal than we realized when the cast got a standing ovation just for taking the stage at the SAG Awards, and also when they eventually won the best ensemble SAG Award, which was chosen by a far larger and more populist voting body than the Academy.) The best ensemble SAG Award certainly doesn’t always predict the best picture Oscar, but it predicts virtually all best picture Oscar shockers, from Shakespeare in Love to Crash to Spotlight and now Parasite.
3. More Academy members are probably willing to watch a non-English-language film in 2020 than ever before, in part because such films have been normalized by regular best pic noms in recent years (Amour, Roma, etc.), and in part because the Academy’s recent membership drive — while primarily focused on bringing in more women and people of color — also brought in a ton of people based outside of America, who are used to watching films with subtitles.
In the end, Parasite, in the 100th year of Korean cinema, took home a field-leading four Oscars: picture (a prize previously won by only one other film that had already won Cannes’ Palme d’Or, 1955’s Marty), director, original screenplay and international feature. And, at the post-show Governors Ball, rival campaigners told me that even they were happy for the film and those associated with it, including and especially Neon chief Tom Quinn. Quinn is a genuinely good guy who has championed Bong for years — he handled 2006’s The Host and 2009’s Mother while at Magnolia and 2013’s Snowpiercer while at TWC-Radius — and presided over a clean and classy campaign for Parasite. (Credit must also go to ID’s Buxbaum and the Perception PR team, who never stopped believing that this outcome was possible.)
Besides, most others left with at least something to phone home about: Warners had Joker‘s lead actor Joaquin Phoenix and original score; Roadside had Judy‘s lead actress Renée Zellweger; Sony had Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s supporting actor Brad Pitt and production design and Little Women‘s costume design; Netflix had Marriage Story‘s supporting actress Laura Dern and documentary feature American Factory (though The Irishman went 0-for-10, the second-worst shutout in Oscars history); Searchlight had Jojo Rabbit‘s adapted screenplay; Paramount had Rocketman‘s original song; 20th Century Studios had Ford v Ferrari‘s film editing and sound editing; Pixar had animated feature Toy Story 4; and Lionsgate had Bombshell‘s makeup/hairstyling.
Universal, meanwhile, finished in second place with three wins, all for 1917 — cinematography, sound mixing and visual effects — which is nothing to shrug at. But I’m sure that the first-rate folks behind that film’s campaign are disappointed, if only because so many signs — including top prizes from the directors and producers guilds and the Critics’ Choice, Golden Globes and BAFTA awards — had suggested a bigger showing was in store. Nevertheless, considering how late they received their first print of the film to begin screening, and that they, too, had to sell a film starring nobody that most Academy members had ever heard of, they gave it a great ride.
To me, the main takeaway from Sunday night is a reminder that the present-day Academy is truly unlike any other awards-dispensing body, and therefore Oscar winners — especially in the best picture category in the era of the preferential ballot — cannot be predicted with the same sort of confidence that used to be possible. That new reality is nerve-racking for us pundits (although I can live with my 20 for 24 showing this year), but it ought to be exciting for film lovers who like surprises.