Academy still grappling with claims of racism and an outsized American focus
Hollywood went into the 92nd Academy Awards at something of a crossroads. Disney pulled in a record 7 billion dollars from their 2019 film lineup (not counting Spider-Man: Far From Home, the 23rd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was distributed by Sony), each of them a sequel or remake released to drum up hype and provide big ticket original content for their new streaming service, Disney+. Combined with the films produced by its newly acquired 20th Century Fox, the company commanded a 38 percent share of the 2019 domestic box office. Its closest competitor, Warner Bros., came in at 13.7 percent. The sole other billion dollar grosser was their Joker, an R-rated, $62.5 million, dramatically serious and inexplicably controversial take on the iconic batman villain that was profusely influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Going into the Feb. 9 ceremony, it led the pack with 11 nominations. Joining it in Best Picture were a slate of critically and commercially successful, old-school, director-and-star-driven studio programmers (Ford v Ferrari, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Little Women, 1917, Jojo Rabbit) all set in the past, alongside a pair of critically-lauded dramas that a lot of people saw thanks to their distribution by Netflix (Marriage Story, The Irishman).
Rounding out the category was Parasite, a widely entertaining and highly accessible comedy-thriller from director Bong Joon-ho that critiques the socioeconomic architecture of capitalism — and it just so happened to require subtitles for American audiences. Already the winner of the Palme D’or at Cannes and a box office smash in its native South Korea, it was the first Korean film to ever be nominated for an Oscar, 16 years after Oldboy and Bong’s own Memories of Murder introduced the Korean New Wave to global audiences. Parasite made history again on Feb. 9, taking home Best Original Screenplay, (the newly renamed) Best International Feature Film, and Best Director — and then, just as the event was wrapping up, it became the first film in a foreign language to ever win Best Picture. Its victory represented a welcome corrective to last year’s ceremony when Alfonso Cuaron’s similarly acclaimed Roma (a Mexican film and Netflix release) lost Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay to the lackluster Green Book. Meanwhile, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s brilliant Shoplifters found itself shut out of nominations in all but the single foreign language category as the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody took home four Oscars.
Parasite’s win suggests that the Oscars are once again looking outward to the richness of global cinema, reminiscent of the academy that nominated (and at times awarded) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Talk to Her; City of God; and Pan’s Labyrinth in major categories instead of limiting themselves to those filmmakers’ works in the English language; An academy that might start nominating the performers in those non-English films alongside their American and British contemporaries; An academy that might not limit its consideration of films made outside of the US and UK to the quota of one submission per country (forcing France to choose this year between Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables and Celine Sciamma’s ravishing and ravaging Portrait of a Lady on Fire).
For all of these international possibilities, the Academy has more than enough problems to address on the home front. Five years after #OscarsSoWhite, all but one of the 20 acting nominations went to white actors. A black director has never won Best Director despite two films by black directors (12 Years a Slave, Moonlight) taking the Best Picture trophy in the last decade. Todd Phillips’ unremarkable direction for Joker got nominated over far more inspired work from female directors including Celine Sciamma, Alma Har’el, Lulu Wang, Olivia Wilde, and Greta Gerwig. American luminaries of an older (James Gray, Noah Baumbauch) and newer (Joshua and Benjamin Safdie, Robert Eggers) generation were similarly snubbed. Still, the Oscars’s persistence as a cultural institution stems from their penchant to get it right with one hand and wrong with the other. From Birdman to Moonlight to Parasite, they seem to be bending, however gradually or grudgingly, toward the right direction.