So what if the movie is called “La La Land” and is set in Los Angeles? Writer-director Damien Chazelle incubated his musical ideas in Boston. We claim the movie, and him, as ours.
And he’s not the only high-profile nominee in this year’s Oscar race with ties to New England. At least two dozen of the nominations announced Tuesday went to films made by and starring creative talents who are from here, were educated here, spent formative time here, or set their stories here.
Leading the pack with 14 nominations — tying the record with “All About Eve” and “Titanic” — “La La Land” has officially become the 2016 movie to beat, to celebrate, to complain about.
Chazelle’s from Providence, and was educated at Harvard University, where his thesis project was a lovely, threadbare musical called “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” shot in and around Boston. It was the surprise hit of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, and when I interviewed Chazelle, then 24, about his future in the film industry, he said he was looking forward to “burrowing my way into the Hollywood system as much as I can, trying to inject my personality into stuff that might seem impersonal. At the end of the day, you can always just go make a movie. It’s so easy.”
It’s so easy, huh? Well, after “Whiplash” (2014) and now “La La Land” — in heart and craft an obvious expansion upon “Guy and Madeline” — maybe the kid, now 32, has a point.
And maybe there’s a larger point here — New England is a hothouse for more than just crime movies set in Southie that feature heinous violence and worse accents.
Playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan is a Manhattanite, but his film “Manchester by the Sea” — nominated for six Oscars, including best actor (Casey Affleck), supporting actor (Lucas Hedges), supporting actress (Michelle Williams), director, and picture — captures something wintry and essential in the New England soul.
Affleck is considered a favorite to win, and while some moviegoers think there’s not enough going on in his performance (and others complain about controversial incidents in the actor’s past), his Lee Chandler, taciturn by nature and further traumatized by circumstance and guilt, is recognizably From Around Here.
(As for those complaining that the film’s title town doesn’t really have working-class citizens like Lee, there’s this recent e-mail I received from a reader: “There are lots of townies in Manchester-by-the-Sea. I ran the Planning Board for eight-nine years and met them every Monday night.”)
“Fences” actress Viola Davis? She grew up poor and ambitious in Rhode Island, learned to love acting at Central Falls High, attended the Young People’s School for the Performing Arts in West Warwick, then graduated from Rhode Island College as a theater major before moving on to conquer Juilliard and the world.
Her third Oscar nomination — a record for a black actress — is for supporting actress, even though anyone who has seen the movie knows full well that her’s is a lead performance, opposite best actor nominee Denzel Washington.
In any event, we’ll claim Davis as one of our own, too, thank you. And throw in a shout out to Harvard grad Natalie Portman, a best actress nominee for “Jackie.”
After last year’s best picture win for “Spotlight” and the decade or so of crime films and tough neighborhood dramas leading up to it — “Mystic River,” “The Departed,” “The Fighter,” “Black Mass” — Boston and New England are colonies of the American cultural imagination in a way they never used to be.
With this colonization comes cliché, and you could see 2016 movies like “Patriots Day” and “Bleed for This” (about Cranston, R.I., boxer Vinny Pazienza) struggle and variably succeed at finding vibrancy amidst the bromides. It will be interesting to see whether Hollywood has the creativity (and the tax incentives) to continue exploring deeper pockets of our experience, or whether they’re just pop-culture gentrifiers looking for “authentic” new territory before moving on.
New England is a hothouse for more than just crime movies set in Southie that feature heinous violence and worse accents.
It would do us well, too, I think, to honor the people who are from here and have passed through here on the way to getting There, and who have learned from those who stay here and are not often enough acknowledged, like Damien Chazelle’s Harvard mentor Robb Moss, chairman of the university’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. “La La Land” is poised for a potential sweep when the Academy Awards are held on Feb. 26 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. It’s worth remembering where the dance started, who the partners were, and all the steps along the way.
Further thoughts on the nominations:
1. Mel Gibson is back. His WWII drama “Hacksaw Ridge” picked up five nominations, including best actor (Andrew Garfield), best picture, and, most notably, best director. More than a decade after a drunken anti-Semitic tirade (among other misdeeds) turned him into a Hollywood pariah, Gibson is being publicly, if warily, embraced by his peers again.
2. Oscars aren’t quite so white this year, with nominees of color in a variety of categories including best director (Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight”), best actor (Denzel Washington for “Fences”), best actress (Ruth Negga for “Loving”), supporting actor (Mahershala Ali for “Moonlight” and Dev Patel for “Lion”), and supporting actress (Viola Davis, Naomie Harris for “Moonlight,” and Octavia Spencer for “Hidden Figures”).
Even more encouraging are the eight nominations going to “Moonlight” and the strong focus on issues of race in the feature documentary category, led by “O.J.: Made in America,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” and “13th.” Oscar guilt? How about overdue development?
3. Meryl Streep got her 146th Oscar nomination, for “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Just kidding, it’s her 20th, but you’re forgiven if you’ve stopped counting.
4. All the nominees are deserving and deserve to be congratulated. That said, let us have a moment of regret for those who got skunked, like Joel Edgerton in “Loving”; or Pharrell’s song from “Hidden Figures”; or Amy Adams, who was only in every frame of “Arrival” yet somehow is not among that film’s eight nods.
5. As for Annette Bening, a national treasure who has been nominated for an Oscar four times, never won, and was passed over again this year for her funny, fearlessly smart performance in “20th Century Women,” what does this woman have to do to win a little love from the Academy? Apparently get pulled over by the cops, rail against the Jews, then wait 11 years.