Oscars: How Film Contenders Gained Relevance Amid Sexual Harassment Scandals

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As major media and Hollywood figures fall from grace, movies exploring abuse of power seem exquisitely well-timed.

Just a few weeks ago, a particular scene in I, Tonya wouldn't have made audiences blink an eye. The Margot Robbie-starring film about the rise and fall of figure skater Tonya Harding uses real news footage from 1994 (when Harding's ex-husband arranged to have her skating rival Nancy Kerrigan bashed in the knee), and, in one scene, news anchor Matt Lauer comes into view. But by the time I, Tonya was released Dec. 8, the Today host had been fired from his job after multiple allegations of sexual harassment — and his appearance onscreen at the film's premiere drew gasps from the Hollywood audience.

The cascade of headlines about sexual harassment and how men in entertainment and media abused their power, some for decades, is shaping the way we view some of the year's strongest contenders, mostly to the films' benefit. As real-life events enhance their relevance, The Post; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Battle of the Sexes; and (despite the brief Lauer distraction) I, Tonya may look even shinier.

These films do more than accidentally reflect the moment, though. I, Tonya, with its scenes of domestic violence in Harding's background, and Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards, with Frances McDormand as a mother determined to get justice for her daughter's rape and murder, don't draw attention to new problems. They force viewers to recognize that the topical subjects they address have been buried under the surface for too long. These films feed into a process of cultural reckoning.

Two movies set in the Nixon era also hit a nerve today. Steven Spielberg's The Post, with Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee, tackles both sexism and restrictions on the press. Graham is the only woman in a male boardroom, and together she and Bradlee defy the White House to publish the Pentagon Papers, exposing decades of government lies about the Vietnam War. Replace the film's phone call from Nixon's Justice Department, trying to pressure the paper not to publish, with a presidential tweet about "fake news," and the attempt to thwart journalists is eerily familiar.

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Battle of the Sexes deals with gender inequality, depicting the 1972 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), or, as Riggs describes it, "Male Chauvinist Pig vs. Hairy-Legged Feminist." In the film, men's bluntness as they talk about women's inferiority seems archaic; the vision of women struggling for equality is not. Battle and The Post remind us we have been backsliding or maybe were never as far along the road to freedom and equal rights as we might have assumed during the Obama years.

Depressing though those messages might be, the films themselves are bracing and lively signs of resistance, not defeat. As the contender race continues to heat up on the road to the Jan. 23 Oscar nominations, The Post and Three Billboards both look likely to nab noms after landing on a slew of critics' top lists and earning six Globe nominations each. Films about sexual abuse and gender inequality will likely dominate the actress race as well. McDormand and Streep are, and should be, the surest names of all for Oscar nominations, with Robbie a deservedly strong possibility. And linking an awards campaign to an empowering message never hurt.

That doesn't minimize how artistically ambitious and successful some of these films are, especially Three Billboards. McDormand's character, Mildred Hayes, is a fierce, take-no-prisoners woman out for justice. She also is a wrenching portrait of a grieving mother, all the more moving because McDonagh and McDormand refuse to soften her edges to gain sympathy.

But no one could have predicted that the film would arrive at a time of heightened awareness about sexual violence. When Mildred dares to speak out against the small-town police who have stopped searching for her daughter's attacker, that passionate crusade resonates with the #MeToo movement, even if the details sometimes register subliminally. The billboards Mildred puts up, including "Still No Arrests" and "How Come, Chief Willoughby?" offer the kind of questions echoing through the real world as the scope of sexual harassment scandals registers. Why did everyone ignore a pattern of predators hiding in plain sight for so long?

Like all artistically rich films, these layer several themes, and current headlines make some leap out more than others. If the sexual harassment revelations hadn't taken hold, more attention might have gone to the vicious racism of the policeman played by Sam Rockwell. That plot thread would always have been less prominent than Mildred's story. It is there to inform the film's dark picture of how racism is ingrained in many small American towns. But now it is overwhelmed by the issue of sexual violence.

I, Tonya deals with class and fame. Robbie gleefully inhabits a sympathetic but garish character, derided in her elegant sport as Trashy Tonya, and she desperately clings to celebrity. Before the Harvey Weinstein news opened the floodgates for assault revelations, tacky celebrity might have been a more attention-getting strand. Remember when the Kardashians were everybody's favorite punchline? Not so long ago, but it seems like a more innocent time.

Now we're more likely to notice how Tonya's mother and later her husband bash her around. Like so many battered women, she says, "I thought it was my fault." That is only one element of I, Tonya, but it is handled so astutely, is so on the mark in calling out domestic violence, that the theme rises to the top, adding ballast to the film's dark satire.

That astuteness is missing from Battle of the Sexes, which hasn't gotten the awards traction many assumed it would. One reason the film might have landed somewhat flat is its tone-deaf depiction of Riggs as a harmless buffoon. The film takes sexism seriously. King calls out a tennis official who believes "women can't handle the pressure" of competing. She makes a distinction between his bias, which is real and corrosive, and Riggs', which is over-the-top posturing that's part of his macho act. Yet it still sends a shudder to see her joke along, handing Riggs a live pig before the match. He may have been a buffoon, but giving him a pass is off-putting now that sexism seems less a laughing matter than ever.

The Post, unlike the year's other major contenders, was meant to land in this very moment. Spielberg has said he read the script and raced to get the movie out in just 11 months because it speaks directly to attempts to restrict the press today. It is defiantly a message movie, but a rousing one.

Graham and Bradlee risk everything, including the Post itself, by publishing the classified documents in the Pentagon Papers. They could have been charged with contempt and sent to prison. The attorney general had gone to court to prevent The New York Times from publishing more of the documents than it already had.

The film's focus on journalism almost overwhelms its feminist plot about Graham, who grows in confidence and learns to stand up to men who try to tell her what to do. Fortunately, Streep can do more in a single scene than most actors can do in dozens, and many women will relate to her experience of being drowned out of meetings by the men around her who don't value her opinions.

Leaning hard on his main theme, Spielberg doesn't just hint at the contemporary relevance of the press-hating Nixon. The film includes recordings of Nixon's own voice (if he could only see how those tapes have been used) threatening to bar all Post reporters from the White House. That voice takes the country, and the movie audience, back to a past we thought we had left behind.

The film goes full throttle near the end when the Supreme Court rules that the Post can publish the papers, and editor Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon) relays part of the decision to a cheering newsroom: "The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy." The scene is not subtle, but it works. It plays as a rebuke to today's president, who routinely undermines that ideal by calling legitimate news outlets fake. With its social currency and its emotional tug, that scene is also, like others in topical films, an Oscar campaigner's dream.

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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