It probably didn’t come as too much of a surprise to people yesterday when the Oscar nominations were announced and James Franco’s name was not among the five men getting nods for Best Actor. There has been too much negative talk about him over the past few weeks, stemming from allegations of sexually inappropriate and exploitative behavior, to have been terribly shocked by the news. I cannot speak to the truth of those allegations, but I can wonder about their influence on the work he has done and the recognition for it.
Have the Oscars become more about the performer than the performance? If someone behaves in a deplorable manner, does that exclude him or her from being honored for brilliant work? In short, have the Oscars become too political?
It seems to me that, in the current climate, the answers to at least the first two questions has become yes, and that the ongoing rise of the #MeToo movement has altered the way we look at the industry and those working in it. Because of that, I think the answer to the last question is also in the affirmative, though the difference there is that, in this case, it’s been a much more gradual trip.
If there is a recent line of demarcation here for the politicization of the Oscars, it’s almost certainly the #OscarsSoWhite movement that began a few years ago. I was always fascinated by this, and have written about it before, because I thought it misplaced. In my mind, anger about the lack of quality roles for people of color — a totally legitimate and genuine concern in this industry — should have been aimed at the studio system, rather than the Academy. Likewise, the constant criticism about the lack of female directors on major motion pictures. It’s a fantastic thing that Greta Gerwig became the fifth woman to be nominated for Best Director, even while it’s a total crime that she’s only the fifth woman to be nominated for Best Director, but that has everything to do with the films being released, rather than the ones being recognized, because the latter can only reflect the former. No quality films starring people of color or directed by women, no Oscar noms. Make more of the former, you’ll get more of the latter, as this year evidences.
So it’s not like a lot of good hasn’t happened through this process. This year, not only did four people of color get acting nods, but two of the five directors are minorities and Jordan Peele is the first African American to get three nominations (writing-directing-producing) in a single year. On top of that, this year has seen the most female nominees in history. All of these are great steps forward that would not have happened had the Academy Awards not become at least a little bit politicized.
However, there is political and there is Political, and while the first one can be very beneficial, the other can be something else entirely. I’m not going to sit here and try to tell you that James Franco deserved a Best Actor nomination more than, say, Denzel Washington (though I happen to think he did), but I would wager a rather large amount of money that, if the news about Franco’s alleged past mistakes and poor behavior had come out next week instead of two weeks ago, he’d be in that slot and Denzel would be watching the ceremony from his couch.
And that’s the part the troubles me. Again, I’m not here to parse out what Franco did or didn’t do, and I’m not victim blaming. This has nothing to do with the women who have accused him. It has to do with what the Oscars have become, as opposed to what they are supposed to be. My understanding of the Academy Awards — as I think it is for most people — is to recognize the very best in a given year of cinema. Not the best people, but the best instances of work by actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, and so on.
Just a year ago, Casey Affleck won the Best Actor Oscar for his terrific turn as a grieving man in Manchester by the Sea. This, despite the fact that he had twice previously been sued for sexual harassment, and settled both cases. Now, are you going to tell me that, had the movie come out this year, he still would have won? That he would even have been nominated? Because if you think that, I have some prime farmland to sell you in Zimbabwe. I am all for the #MeToo movement, and firmly believe that it’s long overdue, but when the awards that are supposed to be about the films and the artists who make them instead become about other things entirely, then we’re losing something in the process.
There has long been a complaint of politics in the Documentary branch, and when this year’s shortlist of potential nominees came out, those complaints got louder, because films about hot-button issues were recognized over movies that many doc branch members felt were simply better. Yesterday’s nominations didn’t quiet those shouts at all, and I read several different social media threads decrying the results, wondering why certain filmmakers were being recognized, rather than the films themselves.
This is, essentially, the same thing as the Franco issue, only reversed, and it’s equally as troubling. The Academy needs to make a decision moving forward about what, exactly, the Oscars represent. They are either going to comment on where we are as a society and what we need to do progressively to make the world a better place, in the process punishing people who have not always behaved in the best fashion, or they are going to continue to recognize the very best in a given year of cinema.
Based solely on yesterday’s announcements, it’s perfectly clear that they cannot do both.