Reality versus escapism debated in the best picture Oscar race

With most of Hollywood denouncing President Trump and his divisive policies, will an escapist film beat its more weighty rivals for the best picture Oscar

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 February, 2017, 7:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 February, 2017, 7:00am

This year could turn out to be one of the most politically charged years in recent memory, with a polarising new president clashing with the increasingly vocal, overwhelmingly left-wing entertainment community.

At the same time, the film Hollywood has pushed to the front of the 2017 awards pack is the feel-good musical La La Land , which earned a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations last week, including for best picture. The film’s title represents an escape from the troubling world and is in contrast to the realities depicted in the weightier stories that comprise the film’s main awards competition: Moonlight, Fences, Hidden Figures and Manchester by the Sea.

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“It’s interesting that we have La La Land as the overwhelming front-runner against films with more serious topics that reflect the human condition ... without song and dance,” says Pete Hammond, awards columnist for the industry website Deadline.com. “There is that battle with people who think an Oscar winner, especially the top award, should be something weightier, that this year is not the time to go light. Others counter that this is exactly the time to honour something which provides an escape from the barrage of news that grows more intense every day.”

The heated political temperature in Los Angeles as Trump begins his term raises the question of whether La La Land can stay on top until the Oscars are handed out on February 26.

“Hollywood has become even more politically defiant and is speaking with one voice, it’s very clear,” says Tom O’Neil, editor of awards website GoldDerby.com. “This will affect how people are going to vote on their Oscar ballot. In a normal Oscar year, La La Land could skate to easy wins, but it could be affected by the political climate.”

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Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (with eight nominations) follows a gay African-American man overcoming struggles in a tough Miami neighbourhood from childhood to adulthood. Manchester by the Sea (six nominations) features best actor nominee Casey Affleck’s handyman Lee Chandler coping with his shattered life and devastating loss.

Fences is playwright August Wilson’s portrayal of a black couple (Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, both nominated in the acting categories) dealing with the endemic racism of mid-20th-century America.

Hidden Figures celebrates the overlooked work of African-American female mathematicians helping Nasa put a man in orbit at the height of the space race.

Hell or High Water highlights brothers who rebel against foreclosure by robbing banks and the Texas Ranger who pursues them.

Lion tells the true story of an adopted Indian child who grows up in Australia before seeking out his childhood home.

While La La Land has been lauded for its originality and execution, it’s lack of a social message is a sharp contrast to Hollywood’s collective voice.. A particularly seismic moment took place January 8 at the Golden Globes, when Meryl Streep dedicated her acceptance speech for her lifetime achievement award to decrying Trump.

Trump’s Twitter response calling the iconic actress “overrated” only amplified the discussion and provided a push for Streep to earn an Oscar nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins (“It certainly energised her voters and supporters,” Hammond says).

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Actors used their screen time at Sunday’s Screen Actors Guild Awards to protest Trump’s immigration ban, enacted by executive order two days before the awards. The political statements started on the red carpet (Florence Foster Jenkins star Simon Helberg carried a “Refugees Welcome” sign) and continued through winners’ defiant speeches onstage.

Lion’s Dev Patel reflected the growing political voice when he told USA Today the ban made him feel as if he had “walked into a nightmare, but it’s real. And it’s happening right here.” After Hidden Figures surprised by winning best ensemble cast (the SAG equivalent of best picture), Spencer said backstage how proud she was that the film “makes a difference” by representing “people who were largely unrepresented.”

Spencer pointed out another factor that makes Hidden Figures an emerging Oscar force: The film is a certified hit (nearing US$107 million at the box office) and taps into audiences looking for escape with its uplifting ending.

“We need to provide a little escapism from the realities we are currently existing in,” said Spencer. “The fact the film is resonating at the box office shows that people are hearing the message.”

Dave Karger, special correspondent for IMDb.com, says the political mood and a timely January 6 national release date has give Hidden Figures an awards boost. Moonlight has also risen in awards stature, he says, solidifying expectations that it will win adapted screenplay and best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali, who gave an impassioned speech against Trump’s immigration ban while accepting his SAG Award.

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Meanwhile, top dog La La Land has suffered a backlash with its dominating nominations, which critics contend is out of step with the current climate.

“That backlash is very real right now – not enough to lose, but enough that some people will question, especially now, why Hollywood is seen congratulating itself,” says Karger, who still sees the best picture race being between La la Land and Moonlight. “Moonlight is the underdog with the political statement, and it can have a great Oscar night. The question is whether it can topple the film tied with the most nominations ever for best film.”

History and logic are still on La La Land’s side, says O’Neil. The two films previously nominated for 14 nominations, All About Eve and Titanic, went on to win best picture. Further, La La Land’s nominations throughout the ballot demonstrate overwhelming support in all voting branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Looking further ahead, Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, foresees an influx of grittier independent films dealing with serious political topics. But he predicts escapist movies will continue to play a major role, especially for studios chasing blockbusters. “The studios will make sure people can check in and check out for two hours. The big screen is going to remain a haven from politics.”

As for future awards, Hammond says it’s difficult to gauge what sort of films will strike the right tone.

“It’s hard to say what mood we’re going to be in a year from now and what we’re going to see rising to the top in the awards race,” he says. “Only a fool predicts next year’s Oscar race in January.”

But Hammond points to the role of diversion in awards history, as in 2003, when the musical Chicago won best picture (beating out Holocaust drama The Pianist). In 1952, the Oscar race seemed to be a battle between dramatic heavyweights A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. But the musical An American in Paris surprised everyone to take the top prize.

“Fittingly, American in Paris was a key inspiration for Damien Chazelle in making La La Land,” says Hammond. “It’s a reminder that every year is different. We won’t necessarily see a steady diet of intense films – escapism will always have its place in entertainment and awards.”