Is the old-fashioned mass-appeal Oscar movie dying? Is it already dead? Or is the Academy Awards about something different now? We may find out Sunday night.
The Oscar for the best picture of the year has always been about more (and less) than which film in a given year is of the highest quality. “Best Picture” is a cultural and community marker, a group statement from 7,000 or so industry insiders about which particular vision out of as many as 10 makes them feel best about what those insiders do.
Which two-hour slice of alternate reality reflects the values, conscious or unstated, held by a majority of the producers, directors, actors, and craftspeople who make up the Academy’s voting membership? Which world feels most like theirs — the one they’d like to see or the one they’d most like to escape to? The answers change with the times and generations, and every so often there’s a year that feels like a fork in the road.
The 40th Academy Awards in 1968, for instance, in which some of the choices for best picture of 1967 pointed back toward the dying studio system — bloated musicals like “Doctor Dolittle” and over-earnest message movies like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” — while others bristled with the rebellious energy of the counterculture: “The Graduate” and “Bonnie & Clyde.” Mark Harris’s 2008 book “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood” dissects that year in a classic account of a country and an industry yanked violently in several directions at once.
Five decades later, we’re having another one of those years. The best picture field is larger now, and it has room for seemingly every kind of “Oscar movie.” There’s the ensemble epic of wartime struggle (“Dunkirk”) and the historical hero’s tale, with attendant Great Performance (“Darkest Hour”). The starry period piece with urgent contemporary relevance (“The Post”) and the gritty, allegorical Portrait of America (“Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri”). The artful romantic drama with Serious Acting (“Phantom Thread”) and the heartfelt, small-ish coming-of-age drama, made in shades of European elegance (“Call Me by Your Name”) and wry suburban irony (“Lady Bird”).
And then there are two movies that are as well-constructed and played as the others but that feel like they’re injecting something new into the Oscar bloodstream. “Get Out” and “The Shape of Water” play with genre — specifically, science-fiction, fantasy, and horror — in ways that raise the stature of movies the august Academy generally considers disreputable.
“Get Out” recombines the DNA of our guilty-pleasure entertainments to turn the mirror of racism right back in the audience’s face: You laugh, you shriek, and you do a lot of thinking on the long drive home. “The Shape of Water,” from the Mexican-born wunderkind Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), is generally acknowledged as a masterwork of cinematic craft, but the unlikely story, in which a mute cleaning lady rescues and falls in love with a captive gill-man, has frissons of sex and gore: It’s a fairy tale with the pulp put back in.
Both these movies might have been considered too close to their B-movie roots to have made the Oscar cut in earlier years; you might arguably say the same about the gay love story of “Call Me by Your Name” and even the intimate angst of “Lady Bird.” Best pictures used to be big, in budget, scope, and aim. What changed?
The culture did, and with it — at last — the voting membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After years of mounting (and accurate) accusations that AMPAS tilted heavily white (93 percent in 2014), male (76 percent), and old (average age, 63), the Academy under Springfield native Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African-American president in its history, embarked on an active recruitment drive to bring in a younger, more diverse membership. Cinematographer John Bailey succeeded Boone Isaacs as president last August.
The past two years have seen a much greater balance among inductees — nearly half the 683 inductees in 2016 were women and 41 percent were people of color — although the overall numbers still are heavily skewed to the old guard. A less-heralded but perhaps more crucial change is that members need to have been active in the industry within the past 10 years to be able to vote, a move meant to ensure that Academy members are conversant with current filmmaking technologies. (It also helps address the issue of aging AMPAS members who leave the voting to others, like a local woman of my acquaintance who in past years has helped fill out the Oscar ballot of a friend’s mother, an Academy member with Alzheimer’s.)
The newer Oscar voters aren’t just younger and more diverse — they experience film and popular culture differently than their older peers. They understand that movies are now just one part of a vast and ever-changing media landscape, that new technologies and platforms alter how and what we watch in fundamental ways. They know that the theatrical experience vies with at-home streaming and that the latter is increasingly a preferred choice; they understand that the broader array of choices and the more intimate setting of the home-viewing environment can favor a different kind of story, one more driven by character than computer graphics.
Were those and other changes in membership and rules, and the #OscarSoWhite controversy that led up to them, partially responsible for a tiny drama about the three ages of a gay black man winning last year’s Oscar for best picture? Honestly, yes, and the “Moonlight” triumph may yet prove to have been a cultural pivot point. “La La Land” — a musical consciously designed as an old-fashioned big-screen movie experience — was so heavily expected to win that when presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (onetime representatives of New Hollywood who now epitomized the Old) read from the wrong card and then had to be corrected, you could feel the entire auditorium lurch in a fresh direction. (Photos of the shocked audience response recirculated on the Internet this week on the anniversary of the “Moonlight” win; a funnier picture of mass whiplash you will never see.)
How might all this affect the 2018 ceremonies, airing at 8 p.m. on ABC? A (slightly) younger and more diverse voting membership will have their fingers more securely on cultural issues like the #MeToo movement; this might impact the chances of best actor nominee Gary Oldman, best adapted screenplay nominee James Franco, and best animated short nominee Kobe Bryant, all of whom have faced allegations of mistreatment of women in the past. Older AMPAS members may not understand that “Lady Bird” feels as foundational to some young audiences today as “The Graduate” did for them in 1967.
Then there’s “Get Out,” which looks like a harbinger of the new but actually represents a fine new wrinkle on old ways of moviegoing. For one thing, it’s a film to see with an amped-up theatrical crowd, which younger Academy voters will have probably done more than older, stodgier members, who wouldn’t be caught dead at a horror movie. (A fascinating Vulture article this week features anonymous interviews with recent Academy recruits who acknowledge that their older peers just don’t seem to get “Get Out.”)
As far as the film industry is concerned, all that matters is that “Get Out” is far and away the most profitable 2017 film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar, with a $176 million US gross on a $4.5 million budget for a 3,811 percent return on investment. (By contrast, “Dunkirk” made slightly more at the box office — $188 million — but cost $100 million to make.)
It’s also worth remembering that the movie that ultimately won best picture in 1968 was neither a studio throwback nor a film that drew a counterculture line in the sand. It was “In the Heat of the Night,” a tough-minded detective mystery — a genre movie — that starred the nation’s ascendant black movie icon, Sidney Poitier, and that lightly submerged its themes of racial resistance and resilience in a popcorn entertainment.
Maybe that sounds familiar? If “Get Out” does win best picture Sunday night, it may simply signal that the old-fashioned mass-appeal Oscar movie is dead — and a smarter, newer version has arrived to take its place.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.