The End of Oscar Bait

“The Oscars don’t matter.”

That’s what we always hear. They don’t reflect popular tastes. They don’t reflect our tastes. And while it’s true that four decades of aggressive lobbying and positioning has bred a shadow industry of “important” films at the end of each year, the Oscars do still matter. They may not be the arbiter of cinematic posterity, but the Academy’s vote remains as ever a window into the industry and its values. (If you want to know how that happened, click here)

For this reason, columnust Rod Dreher freaked out over The Shape of Water’s Best Picture win in a recent post in The American Conservative:

The Shape of Water is the cinematic epitome of liquid modernity. A society that casts off all structure, all sense of meaning, is one in which emotion is the only guide — and one that ends up with movies celebrating screwing animals.

This lashing out is notable for two reasons: First, it’s so transparently silly and overreaching that it must rank alongside April Wolfe declaring La La Land to be white supremacist power-fantasy propaganda. But can we be surprised by that? After all, the process of gaming the system to win awards by making “important statements” has made Awards season into a political event. Even if such gaming subsided, people would still expect it, even continue to react that way purely out of habit.

And that’s what’s most astonishing about this latest round of awards. The token genre films, like The Shape of Water, are no longer tokens. Genre, which long ago penetrated serious criticism and academia, has finally made it back into Academy.

I don’t claim that The Shape of Water is an apolitical film: it unapologetically deals with the alienation from society that comes from being a woman, disabled, black, and gay in full view. But it’s also a dark, quirky throwback monster movie with fish-fucking. And as David Siiiiiiiims! points out in The Atlanticthe fact that such a movie not only won Best Picture but was consistently the favorite to win is astonishing.

As the fall movie season began, I began trying to figure out which films would be most recognized in the awards circuit, breaking down each new release based on a series of well-established attributes that had determined success in the past. Based on these criteria, the runaway favorite was The Post: a cast and crew full of past winners and nominees, historical setting, true story, relevant sociopolitical content, R rating, and critics liked it. And yet its inclusion among this year’s finalists was an afterthought. Only three of my ten predictions for BP (The Post, The Shape of Water, and Dunkirk) made it to the running, and five (Downsizing, Battle of the Sexes, Mother!, Only the Brave, and Wonderstruck) received no nominations in any category.

Something had happened. It couldn’t just be the downfall of Hollywood’s greatest monster Harvey Weinstein– his mode of political machinations was long ago picked up by the likes of Scott Rudin (producer on Lady Bird) and Tim Bevan (producer on Darkest Hour). Could it be that expanding the pool of voters, an act motivated by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, to make the Academy younger, less male, less white, and (perhaps most importantly for our purposes) less dominated by actors has resulted in a voting environment in which bearing the cross of America’s conscience is less of a consideration?

It hasn’t totally gone away. We still have our Three Billboards and Darkest Hours, and a cursory examination of the highest-grossing films of last year, even within the US, will dispell any notion that the Academy is close to reflecting the popular consciousness. But the messiah complex that has defined the awards for most of my lifetime, and existed long before, has begun to fade at an astonishing rate. And that’s gotta mean something.