What a media hoo-hah we saw in Hollywood this week. Eager for something to break up the depressing monotony of Trump’s early reign, news outlets pounced on the closing kerfuffle at LA’s Dolby Theatre Sunday night. The wrong film had been announced as the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards. Movie fans shrugged; the same thing happens most years at the Oscars.
Warren Beatty delivered his best performance in years as a deer in the headlights, desperately looking for some support from his Bonnie and Clyde (1967) accomplice Faye Dunaway. Turning the Best Picture announcement envelope to Faye after an agonising few seconds of deliberating, Dunaway put us out of our misery with a ‘La La Land’ blurt. Thinking he’d dodged a bullet Warren clapped and handed over the statuette. But with the La La Land (2016) crew in full flow show producers scurried on stage to correct the mistake; Moonlight (2016) was the real winner. Chins in attendance dropped, film fans laughed, Black Lives Matter conspiracy theorists cursed what would have been mouth-watering material had only the Oscar producers kept their noses out of things.
In a world where simple mistakes just don’t happen anymore, a simple mistake had happened. The instigator was senior Price Waterhouse Coopers accountant Brian Cullinan, seemingly more interested in ‘tweeting’ a back stage photo of Best Actress winner Emma Stone than making sure the right envelope was handed to the soon to be embarrassed Beatty. It’s another uncomfortable outing for PWC.
My only tangle with PWC came via a company-wide restructure they were tasked to support at my place of work. Two years in to the four year process we couldn’t help but notice the PWC staff were suddenly absent. Looking to our senior management for answers we received mumbled non-sequiturs; PWC were more concerned with profit margins than quality of service it seemed. Last May PWC made headlines for sending a receptionist home without pay because she wasn’t wearing high heels in the office. In 2014 they designed tax avoidance schemes for a number of large companies looking to hold on to their dollars, and in the same year they landed retailer Tesco in hot water by massively inflating their profit margins. After this week’s Oscars debacle they must be wondering if there’s much left of their reputation left.
The commotion of the Best Picture award was not without its positives for the Academy. It livened up what was a run-of-the-mill show up to that point, and provided a convenient talking point that drew attention from the real problem of the Best Picture gong; neither Moonlight nor La La Land were the best film of 2016.
La La Land is not without its positives. Technically it’s an amazing production, Justin Hurwitz’s soundtrack is brilliant, and Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling produced two of the performances of the year dancing and singing their hearts out (and tickling the ivories in Gosling’s case). The same could not be said of the script. With the sort of boy-meets-girl plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a cheap rom-com, Stone and Gosling’s journey is predictable from start to finish. The low point arrives during a dinner table squabble that sees the pair swapping cliché, signpost ridden dialogue in order to force the story to where it needed to be, ‘Of course, I wanted you to have a steady job so that you could take care of yourself and your life and you could start your club.’
Similarly, Moonlight has much to praise, mostly the startling performances from Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner and Naomie Harris. The issue plot wise was there just wasn’t quite enough story to make the movie one of the all-time greats. The three act format left a lot of unanswered questions, and while a stripped back plot can work in some genres, a film that asks an audience to invest so heavily in one central character needs to honour that by revealing enough about them.
Not that film fans were surprised. Taking Empire magazine’s list of the 301 Greatest Films Of All Time as a marker, at the time of its publication in 2014 there had been 88 films awarded the Best Picture Academy Award. Of the 88 Best Picture winners only 13 of them feature in the top 88 in Empire’s list.
In the entire list of 301 films a mere 30 Best Picture winners appear in total. It could be argued that Empire’s list would inevitably sway towards more recent films, but taking the 35 Best Picture winners from 1980 to 2014 only 13 of these make the list. More telling still is that Empire’s top ten greatest films of all time from the list features only one Best Picture recipient, The Godfather (1972).
The question that’s been asked by movie fans for some time now is why do the films deemed Best Picture more often than not fail to become all-time great movies? The Academies preferences when it comes to cinema are no longer a secret. Such films have been labelled ‘Oscar bait’ in recent years, some unfairly, some justifiably so. When February rolls around if you’ve produced an historical epic, a biopic, a tasteful musical, or a socially aware drama, chances are you’ll have a shout at a statuette. Outside of this, your chances are slim. What the Academy looks for after genre preference remains a mystery, but the results are clear; technical brilliance will win out over entertainment brilliance.
The Artist (2011), The Hurt Locker (2009), The Last Emperor (1987), Out Of Africa (1985), Chariots of Fire (1981), Ordinary People (1980), Patton (1970), Tom Jones (1963), Gigi (1958); Best Picture winners that were all well made and wonderfully acted, but would you honestly choose to watch them or place them in status above the likes of The Dark Knight (2008), Fight Club (1999). Toy Story (1995), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Aliens (1986), Back to the Future (1985), Blade Runner (1982), Star Wars (1977), Jaws (1975), Apocalypse Now (1970), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Psycho (1960), or Seven Samurai (1954)?
The Academy were worried after Sunday evening about how foolish their grand prize looked. If those feelings are genuine they would do well to take a long hard look at the sort of movies they are nominating for the Best Picture prize; in the eyes of film history they started looking silly some time ago.