It’s a sign of how radically the world is changing that China has remained silent about Chloé Zhao winning Oscars for Best Film and Best Director for Nomadland. One might expect that a movie about a class of poor Americans living in mobile homes would be highly congenial to a regime that wants to portray its citizens as prosperous and happy while the United States sinks into economic ruin and despair.
In a normal world the Chinese press would have been ecstatic about a young director who quotes a poem in Mandarin during her acceptance speech (“people at birth are inherently good”) and has the kind of hair-do that was fashionable during the Cultural Revolution. Instead Beijing remained tight-lipped, banned TV relays of the Academy Awards ceremonies and enforced a code of silence in the Chinese and Hong Kong media. So why?
The immediate answer is so weird it suggests there is no relief in sight from the great diplomatic divide between China and the west. In an interview in 2013 Zhao allegedly described China as “a place where there are lies everywhere”. Eight years later that is sufficient to get her Oscar triumph expunged from Chinese news outlets.
Politically and culturally this is a spectacular own goal. Where the Chinese could and should be celebrating they have retreated into their now-familiar stance of hostile paranoia, fuelling reactionary, anti-Chinese sentiment in America and Australia.
This was one of the highlights of the most overtly political Academy Awards in recent memory. Of the eight nominations for Best Picture, two dealt with the divisive politics of the 1960s (The Trial of the Chicago 7, Judas and the Black Messiah); two looked at a man coping with a disability (The Father, Sound of Metal); one lacerated male attitudes towards women (Promising Young Woman); another followed a Korean family who relocate to the midwest (Minari). Nomadland was a semi-documentary study of chronic poverty in the Trump era.
Racism and social justice were prominent in the mix. The only film to buck the trend was David Fincher’s Mank, a stylish black-and-white bio-pic of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the legendary Hollywood scriptwriter who wrote the screenplay for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, and argued with the director over the credit.
Fincher’s film met with rave reviews at first appearance but was gradually reeled in by more ‘worthy’ contenders. As he sat watching events unfold on Awards night, Fincher must have felt relieved to secure Oscars for Cinematography and Production Design.
The greatest controversy was saved to last, with the award for Best Actor going to 83-year-old Welshman, Anthony Hopkins, instead of Chadwick Boseman, the talented black actor who died from cancer last year at the age of 43. What made the announcement especially inflammatory was an unusual rearrangement of the order of proceedings which made Best Actor the final presentation of the night. It seemed set up for a grande finale in honour of Boseman.
For many viewers the award was a tragic anti-climax but it should not detract from the power of Hopkins’s performance as the demented, demonic old man in The Father.
Boseman was nominated for his role as the trumpeter, Levee, in George C. Wolfe’s Netflix drama, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This movie, like The Father, was a film adaptation of a play but its stage origins are far too obvious. Boseman is the star of the show, with Viola Davis as Ma Rainey another stand-out. It’s harder to love the stilted speechifying that goes on in scene after scene, as if every actor was trying their hand at a Shakespearian soliloquy.
In brief, Boseman put in a barnstorming effort in a movie that never hit the heights. Although many critics seemed outraged that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was not included in the nominations for Best Picture it would have been a clear last choice. It’s hard to win a race when your vehicle is not up to standard.
Ma Rainey’ managed to win two Oscars, for Makeup and Hairstyling and Costume Design. Among other critically acclaimed films that didn’t make the short-list for Best Picture, one could mention Kelly Reichert’s First Cow, which gets its Australian release this week; Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always or Kitty Green’s The Assistant.
First Cow is a slow-moving tale of early America, Hittman’s movie a docu-drama about a teen abortion, and Green’s film an oblique take on the sexual politics of the workplace. All three movies have their fans but they are the kind of features that will never appeal to the average cinema-goer seeking distraction on a Friday night.
One of the side-effects of the global lockdown is that it has provided a mainstream opening for films that might otherwise have been relegated to the arthouse fringe. For such movies entertainment is not a priority. They might be earnest, engaged, teasing or slightly meandering, but those who get their kicks from superhero flicks will simply yell: “Boring!”
One suspects this will also be the case with many who go to see Nomadland on the strength of its strong showing at the Oscars. Zhao’s film, which blends fiction with real-life characters and scenarios, is almost wilfully dull. The whole point is to avoid the Hollywood clichés, the larger-than-life personalities, the need for action and resolution, love interest, and so on. It’s a story full of false starts, just like life itself. Watch Nomadland to the end and you’ll find it has slowly, almost imperceptibly, worked its way under your skin.
A film that managed to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round – which took out the Oscar for Best International Feature – was a big advance on most of the movies nominated for Best Picture. A story about teachers that try the experiment of going to work drunk, it had a black, comical edge, along with believable characters and genuine dramatic momentum.
It’s also a shame that Autumne de Wilde’s lively adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma didn’t feature more prominently. In the past, the Academy has been sympathetic to a slice of classic English literature but this year politics and social commentary left no room for Austen’s sparkling comedy of manners.
After Parasite’s success last year one might have imagined the door was open for a greater range of international movies, but that didn’t happen. Even this most PC of Academy Awards gave the impresssion that nothing made by the French, the Italians, the Spanish, the Germans, the Japanese, the Indians, the Aussies (!) – was worthy of consideration.
One wonders if this strange, politicised year of cinema has set a pattern for future Academy Awards or if business-as-usual will be resumed post-COVID-19. Record low viewing numbers for this year’s ceremonies might be the key, as we are still talking about an industry in which the profit motive can never be ignored, regardless of filmmakers’ heartfelt political beliefs. If Hollywood wants to recapture those big numbers it will have to make films that entertain, not simply raise the viewer’s consciousness.
Once upon a time Hollywood provided Americans with a glamorous escape from the problems of everyday life. Today, as the Dream Factory grows more obsessed with race and social justice, American politics has become a new form of high entertainment with room for every kind of extremism and conspiracy theory. As the Pied Piper of Washington D.C., Donald Trump drew millions of people into his imaginary world and it appears they have no intention of ever returning to reality. It’s ironic that we’re now turning to the movies as the hard-nosed answer to political escapism.
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 1 May, 2021