The Academy Awards, Oscars
By JorgeEduardo | Adobe stock

The 95th Academy Awards: Is Hollywood Still Only Flirting with Change?

The 95th Academy Awards laid bare a political contradiction, and an attempt to fix a lack of previous recognition for Jamie Lee Curtis was controversial. But is Hollywood still just flirting with the change it needs to make?

I can’t recall the last time I sat through an Oscars ceremony. In 2022 I dropped in late, shortly before the slap heard around the world. The little I saw was enough – the immature, cringeworthy, and forced humour of the three hosts, Amy SchumerRegina Hall, and Wanda Sykes, was flatter than a can of pop that had lost its fizz. Worse was the failure to change the presenting style. Hollywood again failed to step away from its murky past and questionable future of its gender politics and instead provide a progressive presentation. 

Then there was Chris Rock bombing with a joke at the expense of Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, who were both nominated – if he wins, he better hope she does, inferring a happy wife is a happy life. Then he moved on to Jada Pinkett Smith and POW! That was last year.

Before an award had been presented at this year’s 95th Academy Awards, host Jimmy Kimmel reminded me what a grind the biggest night in Hollywood is. It proved Spike Milligan right to have put parties into Room 101 (1994-2007) when he guest appeared on the BBC show in 1994.

Whatever our opinion of who we think should win an Oscar, and we all have one, remember that many traditions are laborious. A lapsed Catholic, I should know, and the Oscars are no exception. If they had their ears open, they’d have listened to filmmaker Howard Hawks, a master of screwball comedy, who said that one should never try too hard with humour. The host and the writers are still testing that theory, and good old Howard is still winning the argument from the grave.  I’m sounding like a curmudgeon now, but ironically, each year, the industry comes together to celebrate the brilliance of cinema, but the humour and wit scrapes the barrel. 

One of the highlights of the Academy Awards 2023 was when Hugh Grant compared his face to a scrotum, which had actor Paul Mescal creasing and others laughing, but many in the audience appeared taken aback by the simple and effective genuine burst of wit. Let’s face it; this audience is not used to such humour. The lead-up was badly scripted, and whether the punchline was improvised, Grant delivered it naturally – a rare glimmer from the presenters at this year’s awards. Unfortunately, comedy actors like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who knows something about comedy, couldn’t sell the crummy script. But rest assured, folks, even as we British sabotage our reputation as a nation of sound government, we still have our reputation for self-derogatory humour. 

Cinema is political, so it was fitting there was a political flavour to the party early on when Daniel Roher’s Navalny, won Documentary Feature, knocking off a popular favourite, Shaunuk Sen’s All That Breathes. For the second year running, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy was snubbed. This year his request to attend and give a speech was rejected by the Academy, yet its voters acknowledged Navalny’s story of courage and modern-day heroism against Vladimir Putin.

Roher’s documentary chronicles the plight of the lawyer, activist, and Russian political opposition leader to expose the men behind his attempted assassination in August 2020. It entertains as a thrilling crime and detective story, but with terrifying real-life stakes – Navalny has been a prisoner since he returned to Russia in January 2021.

Through Navalny, we each put our minds to a form of protest, supporting the active protests by his team, who now work in exile, in the hopes of a free and democratic future for Russia. On Sunday night, the Hollywood elite put their minds to this protest. Internal divisions, however, contradicted the decision to celebrate a political film, and by snubbing Zelenskyy’s appearance and speech, the Academy distanced itself from a meaningful political gesture.

The key battlegrounds, for different reasons, were the headline categories of performances, pictures, and directors. In the build-up to the Oscars, Todd Field’s Tár and The Daniels (Daniel Kean and Daniel Scheinert), Everything Everywhere All At Once , were pitted against one another in the leading actress category. Would Cate Blanchett win her third Oscar for portraying an insidious conductor, or would Michelle Yeoh make history and become the first Asian woman to win an acting Oscar? 

The awards for supporting actor and actress were in stark contrast. Each of the actors were deserving, with two nominated for The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh) – Brendan Gleeson and Barry KeoghanEverything Everywhere All At Once‘s Ke Huy Quan was a favourite entering the evening, and the form book held true. Quan, who lived in a refugee camp, was one of the few to carry the evening with a rousing speech, declaring the achievement to be the American dream and for us all to keep our dreams alive. 

His co-star, Michelle Yeoh, won Best Actress, ending one of the hotly anticipated contests of the evening and beginning a lacklustre performance for Tár, which ended the evening with nothing to show for its six nominations. Amidst the high emotion of her historic and deserved victory, Yeoh dedicated it to all the boys and girls that look like her and said the statuette is a beacon of hope. She also celebrated mothers around the world and told women not to let anyone tell them they’re past their prime. 

Quan and Yeoh represent the best of the Academy Awards – their triumphs transcend cinema, stories with the power to inspire. When the Oscars are at their best, it’s not only the celebration of individual and cinematic accomplishments but the individual stories that are showcased. Quan and Yeoh were joined by Brendan Fraser, who also delivered such a moment, winning actor in a leading role for his performance in The Whale (Darren Aronofsky, 2022). It represented a redemptive moment for the actor, whose personal struggles forced him to take a break from acting. 

The award for supporting actress was a divisive point in proceedings. Jamie Lee Curtis, who made a late charge in the race, overtook the pre-Oscars favourite, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s (Ryan Coogler, 2022) Angela Bassett. It has been a long time since I watched a Marvel film, so I was looking to The Whale’s Hong Chau, The Banshees of Inisherin’s Kerry Condon, and Curtis’ Everything Everywhere All At Once co-star Stephanie Hsu, as possible contenders.

It’s difficult to criticise Curtis, whom I have affection for. Yes, it’s a fine performance, but does it measure up to Chau’s character, without whom the anguish underlying the drama remains partially hidden? Or, Condon, whose character brings a feminine perspective to the male conflict, opening up the story and moving it forward despite the friction of male silence? Curtis is overwhelmed in comparison to Hsu’s character, who compliments the sublime Yeoh. 

Out of those other three, it should have come down to Chau and Condon. My learned friend, The Boston Globe’s Chief Film Critic, Odie Henderson, wrote an interesting article, “The Infuriating Rise of the ‘We Owe You’ Oscar” (March 11-12, 2023). This unwise and revisionist act denied Chau and Condon their recognition. The Academy need to understand there’s a paradox of correcting the past mistake of not nominating Curtis before now. 

They could have and should have nominated her for True Lies (James Cameron, 1995), which earned her the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical. That year, she could have walked away with the statuette for her deft performance in the tongue-in-cheek action film. But then, it’s not hard to understand why she was overlooked – prejudice towards certain types of film. So, the Academy has fixed one wrong but created another that they might be unable to fix.

In synch with the supporting actor category, all the nominees for actor in a leading role were deserving. It was an odd experience with this year’s actor nominees because they neutralised those firm opinions we’re willing to double down on by believing our opinion is correct.

Mescal’s performance as a troubled father in Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun was unlikely to usher him up to the stage, but it was a deserved nomination. However, Wells and the film were unfairly snubbed. Mescal is becoming one of the leading actors of his generation, and he offers a beautifully nuanced and haunting performance. Bill Nighy’s sensitive character in Living (Oliver Hermanus), an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live, 1952), by author Kazuo Ishiguro, was unlikely to place the statuette in his hand either. 

The nominations were the Academy politely acknowledging their work. In hindsight, Brendan Fraser was always the inevitable victor, even if the BAFTA’s suggested Austin Butler’s incarnation of Elvis could win the night in Los Angeles. For The Banshees of Inisherin’s Colin Farrell, like Mescal and Nighy, the Academy knew it was necessary to acknowledge him, but perhaps acclaim for his performance peaked too soon last summer at the Venice Film Festival. Mescal, Nighy, and Fraser offer different points of view on masculine anguish, and it’s a pity they competed with one another when they offer a powerful collage of human nature.

One of the surprises of the evening was the lack of recognition for Tár. In fairness, the Academy recognised the film had shortcomings. This ran counter to the critical establishment, who overlooked its narrative issues and treated it as a masterpiece – protecting it at all costs. We see this year in and year out, where it seems that critics construct a convenient narrative around select films, forgiving their shortcomings. In Tár’s case, it’s a good film that tackles weighty themes and ideas but labours under narrative issues.

That said, Everything Everywhere All At Once, the runaway success, while an astounding and captivating vision for grand storytelling with an emotional heart, is imperfect. The Daniels manage to hold it together, but watching it is like listening to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3, where you can hear the pianist walking a tightrope – liable to be defeated by the concerto’s extreme demands, especially the ominous third movement. The most consistent film was Steven Spielberg’s, The Fabelmans, a tribute to his youth and the people that inspired him. 

The post-Oscar question is whether an imperfect, inconsistent film such as Everything Everywhere All At Once should be rewarded over Spielberg’s consistently solid film. When it comes to creative vision, The Daniels out-hit The Fabelmans with their multiverse and courage to push narrative and aesthetic boundaries. Spielberg, however, worked with the story he wanted to tell and brought it closer to perfection.

The Fabelmans and its director were overlooked at this year’s Academy Awards, like its cast member, Paul Dano, one of the finest actors working today who failed to earn a nomination. The English language Best Picture shares something in common with the winner of International Feature Film, Edward Berger’s lacklustre All Quiet on the Western Front

The German film fails to delve into the compelling behind-the-scenes negotiations for peace late in the First World War that history has been less attentive to. If we are to understand 20th-century history, these negotiations are important, and Berger abandons a vital part of the story. His refusal to tread new ground is a regrettable miscalculation, which leaves one feeling the film is incomplete compared to Colm Bairéad’s meticulous Irish drama, The Quiet Girl, a deserved winner for its humanity. 

Argentine director Santiago Mitre’s compelling courtroom drama Argentina, 1985,  based on the Trial of the Juntas, was another worthy winner. Then there’s Jerzy Skolimowski‘s EO, which is seen as a return to form for the celebrated Polish filmmaker. 

It’s difficult to justify All Quiet On The Western Front winning International Feature and whether it should have been included in the major categories. It’s a film that manipulates our reverence towards the past and desire to remember but does little to expand the conversation and educate. 

In Bairéad’s film, a character offers a pearl of wisdom – too many people waste the opportunity to say nothing. It’s ironic to recall this moment because the Academy decided to reward louder, more boisterous films, despite their imperfections. How Everything Everywhere All At Once and All Quiet On The Western Front came to be the two runaway successes matter little, but near-perfect films of the subtle and gentle variety made no real impact on the night. 

If Hollywood has often been accused of playing it safe, the success of Bong Joon-ho‘s 2020 film, Parasite, at the 92nd Academy Awards, winning Best Picture and International Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay, coupled with The Daniels’ bold vision, suggests something is afoot. When it comes to Hollywood, however, be wary of illusions, smoke and mirrors. Is Hollywood and the Academy really ready to change, or are we witnessing little more than flirtations with real Art?