By the time this appears in print, the envelope will be open. The statue awarded. The orchestra will be playing the new Best Picture Oscar winner off the stage.
And then, approximately 30 seconds later, all the pundits will be arguing about what it means.
Mind you, for many of us, the Oscars mean about four hours that we’ll never get back, spent among memories, film clips, a few (barely) decent jokes, and at least one dress that makes everyone shout “WHY??” Sometimes pleasant, sometimes painful, often memorable for the strangest reasons – sort of a class reunion with higher budgets.
But we do go deeper. We can’t help it. We are a story-telling species and film is a storytelling medium. And it’s impossible to tell a story that doesn’t have some kind of meaning, whether it’s as simple as a fairy tale or as bizarre as “A Clockwork Orange.”
And so it’s only natural to ask: What sort of stories are we telling? Whose messages are we celebrating?
This year especially evoked a lot of chatter. If “La La Land” won, was it a honoring of Hollywood’s heritage or a dismissal of more challenging topics? Would a victory for “Hidden Figures” or “Moonlight” be a recognition of more diverse stories or simply a reaction to last year’s ceremony? Should the producers of “Arrival” leave early and avoid the rush?
A lot of tea leaves get stirred before the ceremony; a lot of ink gets spilled afterward. And while I’ve done my share of prognostication, I think most of the experts are looking for meaning in all the wrong places.
Trying to derive a message from Oscar winners, frankly, is an exercise in futility. Because when it comes to its biggest award, Hollywood almost always plays it safe.
It’s an open secret. It’s why the Oscar odds are usually pretty easy to set, such as favoring actors who play real people (especially with accents or disabilities), animated movies that did well at the box office, or supporting characters with something quirky about them.
And the Best Picture? Often a drama, sometimes a comedy, rarely a musical, once and only once a fantasy film. (Thank you, Peter Jackson.) Socially significant can win, but it’s usually a safe social significance – think “Gandhi” and “Driving Miss Daisy” rather than “Brokeback Mountain” or “Network.” And of course, underdog stories are always beloved, from “Rocky” to “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Always true? As a journalist, I learned to never say “always.” But it’s often enough. Yes, the awards often recognize excellent movies, but they’re usually excellent movies that appeal to either a mainstream audience, mainstream Hollywood, or both. It’s not a field for living on the edge and the message sent is usually as simple as “We know what we like – and it hasn’t changed that much.”
Which isn’t to say that pulling something deeper and richer from the Oscars is hopeless – but you have to look beyond the winners. For a truer picture of the times, you need to look at all the nominees.
When “All the President’s Men” and “Network” are among the nominees, you can draw certain conclusions about a society’s trust in its institutions and the power of media.
When the year of “Driving Miss Daisy” also includes “Dead Poets Society,” “My Left Foot,” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” it’s a time for stories of the overlooked and those left on the margins or learning to raise their voice.
And yes, in a year that incudes films about black female mathematicians (“Hidden Figures”), a religious pacifist in wartime (“Hacksaw Ridge”), a gay black man trying to find his identity (“Moonlight”), and even finding ways to reach out to another species through the power of language (“Arrival”) – well, it may just be that the scope of our stories, and of our storytellers, has gotten broader than ever before, regardless of who brought home the knickknack.
And the winner is … all of us. Without a doubt.
See you at the movies.