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Oscars 2018: the growing backlashes to this year's major nominations

Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards, Timothee Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name, Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water.
Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards, Timothee Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name, Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water. Composite: Fox Searchlight/REX

Much as a political candidate is vetted before a big convention, this year’s nominees for the best picture Oscar have been subject to a battery of litmus tests. As the awards race has been ramped up, the nine films in contention for the night’s biggest prize have attracted more controversy than any slate in recent memory. And to keep with the metaphor, much of the hubbub around these films has been political in nature: for the Academy, winners aren’t so much chosen as they are elected.

All opposition, however, is not created equal. While the pushback against some of these films is founded in legitimate artistic objection, other campaigns seize on bad-faith arguments to undermine a movie’s profile. Some of the reaction could qualify as “backlash” – the equal and opposite response to an excess of hype that brings a movie’s expectations back down to earth. The critics mounting such counter-offensives may deny they’re strategically calibrating, but rather lodging valid grievances that just happen to arrive later in a film’s media cycle. Some debates have arisen from content within these releases, and others from the circumstances of their production. But nobody’s making it to Oscar night scot-free. In the parlance of the Christopher Nolan-era Batman: you can die an ethically thorny creative text in relative obscurity, or live long enough into the Oscar race to see yourself become problematic under public scrutiny.

Future generations of Oscarologists shall closely study this year’s trajectory for frontrunner Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. When Martin McDonagh’s tangled black comedy premiered at the Toronto film festival in September, reviews from the press were widely positive, and audiences bestowed upon it the festival’s coveted People’s Choice award (a reliable predictor for Oscar glory, having gone to La La Land and Room in the past two years). The reception was considerably frostier when the film made its theatrical debut a couple months later: a growing faction of detractors railed against what they saw as excessively lenient treatment from McDonagh for the racist cop character portrayed by Sam Rockwell. McDonagh himself entered the fray, releasing a statement about his “deliberately messy and difficult” morality play.

Major media outlets have raced to place this tidal change in its cultural context, examining how a festival darling and Golden Globe magnet could have incited so much ire. The wisest among them have noted that the press at Toronto was largely white, and that the film’s later exposure to a plurality of perspectives may have revealed nuances otherwise going unnoticed. The cases against Three Billboards have been valiantly and passionately argued, backed with textual evidence and sound logic. If only that rigor was de rigeur.

Some highly specific – read hyper-conservative – circles have seized on Luca Guadagnino’s swooning romance Call Me By Your Name as a new cause for watchdog alarm. Because the best picture nominee centers on one hot summer’s relationship between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), and because these characters are, respectively, 17 and 24, the valiant defenders of Fox News have leapt to the helpless citizenry’s aid. Branding its tender courtship as pedophilia despite Italy’s age of consent being set at 14, the Fox News set, James Woods and professional contrarian Armond White denounced the film and how it reflects on the sexual climate of Hollywood.

Margot Robbie in I, Tonya.
Margot Robbie in I, Tonya. Photograph: Allstar/Clubhouse Pictures

It’s a flimsy argument, considering the mutual respect and tenderness undergirding Elio and Oliver’s love (and at least it’s not “Get Out promotes white genocide” – truly the hottest take of all). But it attempts to blend in with a swell of concern that’s been more appropriately applied elsewhere. Some speculate that the surprise omission of I, Tonya from the best picture category may have something to do with the film’s glib treatment of domestic abuse, or its shaky absolution of its subject. Margot Robbie and Allison Janney made the cut in their respective categories, but the vessel containing their complicated, often contemptible characters goes far too easy on both of them.

With projects that have attracted ire because of real-world matters beyond the script itself, the hard information may be more black and white, but its utility is anything but. What are we – we ordinary folk not permitted to vote for Academy Awards – to do with the awareness that best picture contender Dunkirk was produced in part using prison labor, or that Nolan’s framing entirely erases the numerous Indian soldiers present for the famous evacuation? Do the accusations of plagiarism by French film-maker Jean-Pierre Jeunet or the estate of playwright Paul Zindel against The Shape of Water hold water? Or is it simply a case of over-affectionate homage? How we react is dependent upon a personal moral calculus, but in either case, that this will hurt their chances with the Academy is unlikely.

Dunkirk trailer: Christopher Nolan’s epic second world war film

It’s reprehensible that best actor shoo-in Gary Oldman has an alleged history of abuse and a rather dismissive attitude toward it, but that didn’t stop Casey Affleck from picking up the same prize last year. Loose soundbites from the Academy voting body suggest a split along generational lines, with older voters approaching their selections in a sort of vacuum insulated from outside morality, and younger voters taking the more holistic view that the statuette is given to the person and not the performance itself.

When a film amasses unilateral praise, it’s perfectly natural for the scant few who don’t see the appeal to raise their voice. But that doesn’t excuse the dissenters from the standards to which we hold their fellow critics: namely, backing up bold claims and making basic sense. Behold the spectacle of one Lady Bird detractor politely informing Gina Rodriguez that the depiction of poverty Rodriguez related to was actually not present in the film. Daring breaks from consensus make a body of criticism stronger and more consistently interesting, but as they say at university, you’ve got to show your work.

This article titled "Oscars 2018: the growing backlashes to this year's major nominations" was written by Charles Bramesco, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 14 February 2018 10.00am

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