How Pigeonholing Oscar Contenders Affects the Race

Illustration by Mario Zucca

Pundits are quick to relegate awards hopefuls to specific slots, but that's not necessarily the way the Academy thinks.

Labels often are just journalistic shorthand, a quick way to differentiate one object from another: When Sony Pictures Classics acquired Luca Guadagnino's new film in advance of last January's Sundance Film Festival, the headline on THR.com read, "Sony Classics Takes Gay Love Story 'Call Me by Your Name'." A rep for the picture immediately called to ask for a headline change. The movie was more than just a gay love story; it was a coming-of-age saga, a tale of first love, etc. etc. But none of that made for a succinct headline and didn't distinguish the movie from dozens of other Sundance pics about sexual awakenings. And so the headline stood.

On the other hand, labels often are just as restrictive and, potentially, dismissive. Phantom Thread, for example, may be many things — a mysterious, somewhat kinky, altogether singular love story — but no one has described it as Paul Thomas Anderson's "straight love story" because, to speak the lingua franca of the moment, it's decidedly heteronormative. Calling Call Me by Your Name a gay love story, while accurate, also could suggest it's a love story that can't speak its name without a major qualifier — one that could turn off as many viewers as it attracts.

The urge to neatly label films in the awards race might be ignored except for the fact that Oscar balloting is beginning — nomination voting opens Jan. 5 and closes Jan. 12, and the nominees will be announced Jan. 23 — and so all those labels that are being attached to films take on an even larger significance. The Post, tweets BuzzFeed's Adam B. Vary, is Steven Spielberg's "first overtly feminist film since The Color Purple." In The New Yorker, critic Brandon Harris declares Get Out "a giant leap forward in the history of black cinema."

Again, accurate descriptions all. But as the pundits start slicing and dicing this season's best picture possibilities, those labels, while they can boost the prospects of their respective films among some viewers, also can diminish their appeal to others.

That's because too much of the punditry assumes the descriptive labels attached to individual titles inevitably relegate each to a specific, predetermined slot — the gay movie, the black picture, the feminist film. And it further assumes that Academy members, instead of responding to the individual merits of each movie, rather will make judgments based on whether a film, clearly stamped with a particular label, successfully promotes a particular agenda.

Surveying the field, Vulture's Kyle Buchanan speculated that in the case of Call Me by Your Name, "pundits may be underrating its ultimate Oscar chances because another gay-themed film, Moonlight, won best picture last year," and, presumably, the Academy won't give its highest prize to two gay films in a row.

For that theory to hold, Moonlight's win has to be viewed as a victory for queer cinema. But since it also was a "black" film, blogger Jeffrey Wells attributes its win to that fact, writing, "Moonlight beat La La Land, of course, because a significant number of Academy members wanted to refute the 'Oscars So White' pejorative that had taken hold a year before." He goes on to argue that since the Academy assuaged its white guilt with Moonlight, it won't opt for Get Out this year, which instead is the "Year of the Ballsy, Go-For-It Independent Woman"— a trend that should benefit films like Lady Bird; I, Tonya; The Post, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and even The Shape of Water.

Such attempts to psych out the Academy's collective thought process ignore the possibility that Moonlight might have won as much for the affecting way director Barry Jenkins told his story as for the specifics of the story itself.

The best movies — and the most deserving best picture Oscar winners — transcend labels. After all, until Francis Ford Coppola put his imprimatur on The Godfather, Paramount thought all it had on its hands was just another gangster movie.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.