It is ironic that a film about the illusion that is the glory days of old Hollywood is the lead contender for Best Picture. It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, though, considering it also has a new(ish) visionary director, tight editing, excellent cinematography, and is a revival of the old-school Hollywood musical. If you had to write a recipe for an Oscar winning film, it would look something like La La Land. Which is also ironic, because I’m fairly sure it is going to lose.
The Oscars are a fickle thing to predict. There’s a lot of variables, and their weight depends largely on who you ask. You can follow the guild awards to get a good idea of what the Oscars will pick since the same people vote for both: Spotlight, Birdman, and Argo won almost all the awards that matter. But this isn’t always reliable: 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, and Boyhood all split them up pretty evenly. It often comes down to knowing who the Academy is, and what they like to pick. And much like The Artist in 2011, La La Land is exactly that kind of film.
Except now it is six years later, and the Academy had to contend with a PR nightmare they weren’t so fond of: #OscarsSoWhite. It exposed the problems the Academy Awards have with representing a diverse range of creative, both in front and behind the camera. Far more importantly to the Academy, it lost them money. And that’s the thing to keep in mind above all else when it comes to predicting the Oscar winners in any category: it is a business, and they want to viewers to watch their expensive ad time.
The Academy had to acknowledge their changing audience, and they knew it. Rather, #OscarsSoWhite forced them to know it. The Academy responded, adding their largest class of women and non-white actors in history to their ranks. This year they’ve nominated a historic number of African-American actors and creative. And yet despite these changes, it still seemed almost guaranteed that most of the awards were going to La La Land. Until recently.
See, Denzel’s Screen Actors Guild (SAG) win changed everything. Up to then, Casey Affleck was the shoe-in win for Best Actor. He had every award that mattered and was engaging in an extended and well-supported campaign run. But he was also bringing bad press related to a sexual assault charge from years prior. The Academy was faced with the contentious issue of nominating and perhaps awarding someone who did not deserve a platform. Despite that, right up to the SAGs, it still seemed like it was going his way.
As a quick note, I am not saying Denzel didn’t deserve to win the SAG: he definitely did. But the important part is what this signals for the Oscars. While it is not a guarantee that Denzel will win, every single SAG winner of the last ten years went on to win Best Actor. So it’s incredibly likely at the very least, which is an upset from the near certainty of Casey’s win. Above all, this shows that they are listening. And perhaps I’m giving them too much credit, but it’s possible the Academy is learning.
Best Picture 2016 has always been a two-horse race, where La La Land seemed like the sure winner, despite Moonlight being the better film. But now things are different. Denzel won the SAG. Meryl Streep called out the President of the United States in a now famous speech. The status quo has completely changed in just 30 days.
So now when the Academy has a choice: they can award a movie in which two young white folks try to make it in Hollywood and (arguably) save jazz, or a deeply intimate character driven film about a young, gay black man growing up in Miami. I’ll always bet on the Academy to do what it thinks will get it the most views. So this year, look for Moonlight’s surprise but completely deserved win. Like the glory of Hollywood it depicts, La La Land‘s dominance is an illusion.