So just like that, after half a year of predictions and precursors, campaigns and controversies, another Academy Awards ceremony has been and gone, and a new set of films and individuals enter the history books as the winners of the 88th Academy Awards. In 2016, with the huge amount of public discourse openly questioning the blinkered perspective of the academy, it makes sense to view winners as a reflection of the Hollywood institution’s own values and biases rather than as any objective measure of quality. With this in mind, I’d like to strike a balance between considering some of this year’s winners in light of their individual merits (albeit by comparing them to some of their fellow nominees), and by seeing how they relate to broader trends of what the academy typically deems worthy of consideration. How might we look back on these winners in five, ten, even fifty years’ time, once the concerns of our present moment have died down and we’re left to look closely at the films themselves?
Let’s begin with Best Picture. In recent weeks, Spotlight, the early presumed frontrunner, seemed to be losing momentum as a win for The Revenant in this category became more and more likely a prospect. This meant that Spotlight’s eventual victory had the feeling of a mild upset. Yet the film ultimately serves as simultaneously a typical and an unconventional choice for the top prize: typical for its narrative emphasis on a serious topical social issue and unconventional for its specific handling of that issue. A film that deals with the historic exposure of a systemic child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is immediately liable to be considered worthy of Academy attention, and a great deal of the film’s awards campaigning involved underlining its perceived social “importance” as a work that brings attention to the issue of institutionally tolerated sexual abuse. But the film is more a paean to the procedures of investigative journalism than a social consciousness film; it does not simply (excuse the pun) spotlight the chosen issue, but details how it was painstakingly investigated and brought to public attention by a team of reporters at the Boston Globe newspaper. Tonally, it reflects this emphasis by shying away from the conventions of issue-led Hollywood filmmaking to opt instead for an admirably low-key approach, relying upon an ensemble cast in which no one individual takes on the familiar roles of crusading hero or noble victim (despite the casting of stars including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams). The central characters of Spotlight are a network of individuals committed to carrying out their professional duties, and like them, the film does not become overwhelmed by the emotional heft of the subject it brings to attention. It refuses to sensationalise, and in this and its related use of its ensemble cast, it emerges as a quiet departure from the type of storytelling, if not quite the type of story, we tend to see rewarded by the Academy.
A more typical development when viewed through the prism of recent Oscars history was the attendant split between film and director prizes, with Alejandro González Iñárritu winning Best Director for The Revenant over Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy. The Revenant, in the wake of a much-publicised, epically difficult production and an impressive box-office haul, had swiftly gathered up the momentum to assume frontrunner status in both this and the Best Film races. However, it now fits into a pattern emergent in recent years of the spectacular, blockbuster-adjacent big-budget film taking the director prize, while a smaller-budget film “based on true events” and with greater perceived social value takes Best Picture. This occurred with the film/director splits of 2013, when Best Picture went to 12 Years a Slave (Dir: Steve McQueen) and Best Director to Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity, and 2012, when Argo, (Dir: Ben Affleck) won Best Picture and Ang Lee was awarded Best Director for Life of Pi. I describe these recent Best Director winners as ‘blockbuster-adjacent’ because of what I see as an awards-conscious squeamishness on their part to situate themselves as “mere” entertainment. Their spectacular stylistic achievements are to varying degrees offset by heavy-handed attempts to qualify their status as art and The Revenant is perhaps the worst example of this thus far. It is a formally immersive, narratively simple survival tale bogged down by embarrassing attempts at worthiness; its efforts to contemplate the nature of man and the ethics of revenge (often through familiar stylistic cues lifted from other films) are shoehorned into what would, without them, be a better film but a less likely awards contender.
It feels like a shame that, if the Academy had to go for a visually spectacular winner in one of the big two categories, or even another film about survival and revenge in a Western-influenced landscape, they didn’t plump for Mad Max: Fury Road. The Academy’s level of admiration for this film was demonstrable in its sweep of six of the technical awards (including the all-important Best Editing), remarkable for a franchise blockbuster film. But it would have been particularly gratifying to have also seen George Miller pick up Best Director for orchestrating the film’s bonkers post-apocalyptic landscape so assuredly. If The Revenant is a spectacular genre film that wants you to think that it’s actually Art, Mad Max: Fury Road shows you can do both. It’s an unrelentingly exhilarating action film focused on a patriarchal overthrow that manages to create a potential future world at once fully realised, completely singular, and relevant enough to contemporary society to be cautionary, even allegorical. It’s arguably the film in the Best Picture field most representative of what can be achieved in the cultural landscape of 2015, with some competition from The Big ShortMad Max: Fury Road also manages to feel years ahead of what the academy’s engrained notions of taste and value could perceive of as a great film full stop (as opposed to its undeniably great technique existing within their realm of recognition). If Spotlight is the film that redefines (if only for a year) what kind of storytelling nets major Oscars, then Mad Max is the nominated film that most pushes the medium of film forward, in terms of both the stories being told, and how we can tell them.
The notion of storytelling is also particularly pertinent to this year’s acting winners. The winning performances in the male acting categories both seem to have been overshadowed by extra-textual narratives, an all-too-regular occurrence when it comes to Oscar decision-making. The award given to The Revenant that really grabbed attention was its widely-predicted Best Actor trophy for Leonardo DiCaprio, who was carried to victory by two inescapable narratives driving Oscar talk this year. The first was his perceived overdue status: this was DiCaprio’s fifth acting nomination and sixth overall, and yet only his first win. The second, which doubtless also contributed to the film’s Best Director prize, revolves around the much-publicised arduousness of the film’s shoot and the elements braved by Leo and co. in bringing the film to the screen. Note that neither of these narratives tell us anything about the quality of the performance. In both instances it is DiCaprio’s endurance and not his skill that is being affirmed.
The truth is that there isn’t enough meat to DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant to discuss it as any major achievement. Complicated acting is not required when the character exists primarily as a body on screen present in order to undergo all manner of physical trauma. DiCaprio is at his best when he works with his movie star charisma (as he did in the double whammy of The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013), not when he pushes against it as in The Revenant. And yet the lack of strong contenders in the rest of the Best Actor field this year made DiCaprio’s win all but inevitable. Rather than consider the merits of Bryan Cranton in Trumbo or Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, I’d like to propose that a higher quality, more imaginative and, yes, more diverse Best Actor line-up could have been drawn up from the films that were elsewhere on the Academy’s radar this year but had their male leads passed over: Tom Courtenay in 45 Years, Michael B. Jordan in Creed, Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight, Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies and Jacob Tremblay in Room.
The Best Supporting Actor conversation was also dominated by another perceived frontrunner with an irresistible overdue narrative. Sylvester Stallone’s nomination for Creed, returning to the character who earned him his first (and most recent) nomination 39 years ago (for the first instalment of the Rocky franchise, of which Creed acts as a covert remake as much as a sequel), cemented his comeback status and was heavily predicted to lead to a win. A Stallone victory would have played into a longstanding tradition in this category of awarding older veterans who’ve yet to win a competitive Oscar, including recent winners Christopher Plummer (for Beginners, 2011), Morgan Freeman (for Million Dollar Baby, 2004) and Alan Arkin (for Little Miss Sunshine, 2006). And yet Stallone was beaten to the gold by Mark Rylance, an esteemed stage actor relatively unknown to the American public, for his performance as a Soviet spy detained by the U.S. Government during the Cold War crisis in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Rylance’s win was one of the year’s biggest upsets, and, much like Spotlight’s Best Picture win, it is interesting to have seen the low-key contender triumph over a far showier rival. Rylance is the intellectual choice to Stallone’s emotional one; there is no value judgment underlying this statement - if anything, it’s a contrast that serves to underline the inherent silliness of comparing such vastly different types of performances. Stallone works from the forty years we have had with Rocky Balboa in Creed, and uses our collective emotional attachments - to the character, to the actor, to the aging body on screen - to build an extraordinarily rich portrait of a man we thought we all knew. Rylance’s performance is necessarily more withholding, more closed-off. His wise decision to underplay a character whose emotional life remains at a distance, combined with a relative lack of screen time in a pivotal role (he disappears for long stretches of Bridge of Spies, whereas Stallone is present throughout Creed) offers the viewer more to interpret, with his contemplative manner and soft-spoken speech refusing to pinpoint for the viewer any one way of accessing the character. Ultimately, either performance would have made a worthy winner, but Rylance’s win shows that quiet, delicately shaded work can still find favour with voters in a category that, in recent years, has tended towards rewarding far louder roles and performances (including last year’s winner, J.K. Simmons in Whiplash).
As opposed to Actor, the Best Actress category was an embarrassment of riches this year with all five actresses richly deserving of their peers’ attention. Yet despite the high quality of the field, Brie Larson managed to dominate awards season with her winning performance in Room. Larson’s role as a woman who has been abducted, held captive, and routinely raped in the titular room before escaping after seven years with her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), inherently draws viewer sympathy, and broadly fits within a tradition of rewarding actresses who play victims of abuse (sexual, emotional, psychological, physical) that stretches back at least as far as Jane Wyman’s portrayal of a rape victim in Johnny Belinda (1948) and Ingrid Bergman as a tormented wife in Gaslight (1944). But to view the victim archetype as the primary reason for her victory would be to deny the specificity and depth of Larson’s own achievements, particularly in the first half of Room. Interestingly, Larson is given the most space to create and interpret this character when that character is at her most literally constrained. The first act of Room, set entirely in the bunker Ma and Jack are held within, shows how Joy/”Ma” constructs and preserves a sense of normality for the sake of her son, who has no real knowledge of the outside world. This entails a second performance within the diegesis. Larson must express both Ma’s performance of normality within exceptional circumstances and the anger, fear, strength, hope and intelligence that this performance masks, and she cannot be commended enough for how extraordinarily she manages this.
Through no fault of her own, however, the performance becomes less interesting once Ma and Jack escape, as the film’s structures of point of view relinquish themselves almost entirely to Jack, and Larson is reduced to playing a series of relatively static and separated emotions that seem more directly tied to notions of victimhood. I do not begrudge Larson the Oscar given how great her achievements are in the initial scenes of Room, but she does not carry as much of her film on her shoulders as two of her fellow nominees, Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years. These two actors remain the primary focus of identification and viewpoint for the entirety of their respective films and accordingly are given a broader range of emotions and actions to perform. A reward for either of them could have been a nice reminder to Hollywood that there is a difference between female leads and female protagonists, and that the latter continue to be in short supply. However Larson is no slouch, and the fact that she can still be said to be a worthy winner solidifies what a good year it was for this category.
A related issue brings me to this year’s Supporting Actress field, which has already been covered on this site so rigorously by Zoe Shacklock that I will keep my own thoughts brief. I think the best performance in this category is the one given by Rooney Mara in Carol (criminally left out of the Best Film category, by the way), but she is so clearly both that film’s lead and its protagonist that it seems unfair to have nominated her in supporting. Either way, Alicia Vikander was the winner here for her performance in The Danish Girl, which has been met with similar accusations of category fraud. Vikander’s win for this particular performance, in the kind of supportive wife role that is a particularly prevalent archetype in this category, seems even more wasteful in the light of the response to the film, ranging from lacklustre to hostile, and the minimal response to the win itself (Have you heard anyone express any opinions, apart from the aforementioned, on Vikander’s win yet? Do you think any of us will ever see or talk about The Danish Girl again?) Vikander’s award caps a remarkable year for the busy actress, who will no doubt go on to considerable further success; as with DiCaprio, I expect history will be kinder to the performer than the winning performance itself.
Thus this year’s winners collectively constitute a reminder of both what the academy likes to (or feels it can) reward, and the inconsistent relationship of these choices to (my own entirely subjective view of) actual quality. Wins for Spotlight and Brie Larson show that a winner that in some sense can be deemed a typical choice is not necessarily an unimaginative or undeserving one, and the wins for the former and Mark Rylance indicate that quiet work can be awarded despite the academy’s longstanding attraction to the spectacular. The positive (albeit capped) response to Mad Max: Fury Road suggests that the film’s status will only rise with time, but the brief burst of enthusiasm evidenced in wins for Leo and The Revenant may not age well when we return to the film itself. Overall, the mixed bag is probably the best we can expect from the Oscars (and it carries over into other winners this year that I have not had time to discuss here: Ennio Morricone for Best Original Score good; Sam Smith for Best Original Song bad). But no doubt many of us will return to it, half-resigned and half-hopeful, around this time next year.