Oscar Noms Shed Light on Academy's Fears About a Rapidly Changing World

Wesley Allsbrook

Perhaps fearful of their own evolving culture, voters this year have celebrated films about men coming to terms with their age and growing irrelevance.

Parasite’s most heart-pumping moment is not its twisty second-act reveal, a slapstick rush to conceal deceit or a chaotic spurt of violence. These elements, of course, render Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-nominated tragicomedy a wild and thrilling film. But I first truly bore the weight of Parasite’s emotional anchor during what started as a comic scene, where an affluent tech exec and his prim wife cuddle on their couch, unaware that their household employees — an impoverished family who have bamboozled their way into their cushy positions — are hiding underneath their coffee table. As their congenial chauffeur Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) listens on, the couple casually discuss the driver’s supposed offensive odor.

The wife asks if it’s "poor people" smell, or "old people" smell. "No, no," her husband replies. "How should I put it — maybe the smell of an old radish pickle? Or that smell when you’re washing a dirty rag?" I immediately felt as crushed as the humiliated chauffeur. Later, when Ki-taek notices his employer reacting to the stench of a worse-off victim of the class wars, his pent-up anguish culminates in a bloodletting frenzy.

Parasite is one of many films this Oscar season that encapsulates the fear and rage of feeling left behind in a society built around the binary of the haves and the have-nots. These bodily odors stand in as a metaphor for the unseen and uncontrollable shibboleths that determine one’s place in this social system, even if education or experience should otherwise override the circumstances of your birth. While Bong vivisects the beating heart of class stratification in South Korea, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Todd  Phillips each examines the lives of dissatisfied white men who feel forgotten in a culture that promised them lifelong comfort — if not exactly outright success. (Even Ford v Ferrari and Marriage Story, about an engineering race between two carmakers and a contentious cross-country divorce, respectively, tap into this theme of terrified machismo.)

In my mind, it’s no coincidence that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — a voting body that, as of December, is 68  percent male and 84  percent Caucasian — chose to canonize these particular films while virtually ignoring other critically lauded (and female-directed) films such as The Farewell, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Hustlers. Simply, they are reifying their own fears about displacement.

Viewed individually, Parasite, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman and Joker each has something unique to add to the ongoing discourse on male aging, mental health and/or social isolation. (Statistically, elderly men are the people most likely to die by suicide.) Parasite indicts an economic system in which a graying man has to scheme his way into a job just to survive. The Irishman studies the misery and regrets that come late in life. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood makes heroes out of two washed-up TV actors. And Joker sees a mentally ill man break under unrelenting ridicule. Each work is meticulously crafted and dizzyingly entertaining. But beaded together, this string of films looks like something else: a swan song lamenting a more inclusive future for filmmaking.

Four years ago, in response to outrage that the Academy had nominated an all-white selection of actors for the first time since 1998, board members voted to increase membership to diversify its voting body. (In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Academy’s was 94  percent white and 77  percent male and held a median age of 62 years old. The numbers eight years later are technically better, but not astoundingly so.) #OscarsSoWhite protested this homogenous group of cultural sentinels who seemingly hand-selected films that frequently centered on familiar and comfortable narratives, ones that favored white saviors, physical transformations or recycled suffering. With the rise of this "new class" of Oscar voters and the recent push for more women and people of color behind the camera, it’s ultimately no shock we ended up with a bunch of nominees about men grasping at their last hopes for social significance.

This year, #OscarsSoWhite resurfaced when the Academy honored many of the acting and filmmaking veterans they’ve been nominating for more than 30 years, snubbing the exciting work of directors like Greta Gerwig and Lulu Wang and actors like Song, Awkwafina, Jennifer Lopez and Zhao Shuzhen. Although it’s obviously not a conspiracy that nearly half of 2020’s best picture nominees bristle against a changing world, it does appear as though voters see their own private psychodramas reenacted in these tales. If I can personally empathize with soldiers risking it all in 1917, despite the fact that I never served in World War I, is it too much to ask Oscar voters to relate to women fighting to become artists, or immigrants returning to their homeland to say goodbye to an elder relative, or erotic dancers who gleefully scam the wolves of Wall Street?

This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.