By C.B. Radio
The 91st Academy Awards were held on Sunday. A night full of surprises, we saw unexpected wins in several major categories. Some surprises were pleasant and some … not so much. Here’s my thoughts on who took home the coveted gold statues.
1. Olivia Colman wins Best Actress
Glenn Close was a shoe-in. At least, that was the consensus before Sunday’s ceremony. There was a palpable sense that due to the relatively “weak” field of Best Actress contenders, Close would take home the gold as a sort of legacy win.
I know of one person other than me who’s actually seen “The Wife,” in which Close portrays a regretful old woman. It did not receive a wide release, and only Close garnered any sort of Oscar buzz from the film – by all accounts, the movie itself is mediocre. Seems like Academy voters felt the same way.
Thankfully, the night’s biggest shock came when the most deserving candidate – Olivia Colman – stole the award right out from Close’s grasp. Her role as Queen Anne in period piece “The Favourite” is a masterclass in comic timing, for one – but the dramatic heft she brings to the role is what makes the performance shine. She plays the queen as a tragic figure, haunted by the 17 children she wasn’t able to bring into the world. (Most died in childbirth, while others died of disease in infancy.) Not many actors have the comic and dramatic chops to pull off a role like this. Colman has it in spades.
2. Oscar-winning screenwriter Spike Lee
BlacKKKlansman is Spike Lee’s best film in some time, a complex depiction of racism, violence, and police brutality. Of the three Best Picture nominees that dealt with American racism – Green Book, BlacKKKlansman, and the wonderful If Beale Street Could Talk – Lee’s film is the most visceral. It’s show-don’t-tell filmmaking at its finest, bolstered by career-making turns from John David Washington and the always amazing Adam Driver.
Written by Lee, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Willmott, BlacKKKlansman forgoes the preachy, Driving Miss Daisy narrative that bogs down eventual Best Picture winner Green Book. Instead, Spike Lee and his actors show us what racism is really like: violent, shocking, profane, warts-and-all.
3. Roma’s big victories
Although Alfonso Cuaron didn’t take home the Best Picture award, he was the night’s big winner, taking home prizes for Best Foreign Film, Cinematography, and Directing for the beautifully subdued Roma.
It’s a movie only Cuaron could make, and only Cuaron could get the budget to make. Although Roma wasn’t nearly as expensive to film as Gravity or Children of Men, two of his most well-known blockbusters, Cuaron’s impressive filmography allowed him to make his most personal movie – a film about class and capitalism, but most importantly a Bildungsroman about growing up and losing innocence.
Filmed in gorgeous black and white, Roma recalls a bygone era in Mexico City. But what makes the movie great is its universality. Try to watch Roma and not think back to your life as a child and what emerging adulthood was like for you. Roma is the year’s best movie, and its eventual loss in the Best Picture race is hopefully an outlier and not a beacon of things to come.
1. Rami Malek wins Best Actor
Rami Malek is a good actor. He’s an inspired choice to play the singular Freddie Mercury, who’s going through a renaissance of sorts from beyond the grave. (Seriously – when’s the last time Queen was this popular?)
But his performance is not perfect, and I can think of two other actors who would be more deserving of this year’s Best Actor Oscar. A.V. Club critic A.A. Dowd calls Malek’s Mercury an “SNL Grade” impression, devoid of any real emotion beyond the on-stage theatrics and those huge fucking teeth.
I wouldn’t go that far. Malek does well with what he’s given – namely a subpar screenplay and a diva director who was often an onset no-show (but that’s the least of Bryan Singer’s faults.) I’d have been happy if Christian Bale or Bradley Cooper won this year. Bale just becomes Dick Cheney – a sentence most fans would have recoiled from circa 2008’s The Dark Knight, the height of Bale’s Batman popularity.
And although Cooper’s directorial debut A Star Is Born is the definition of a remake, his character Jackson Maine is entirely Cooper’s creation, baring little resemblance to the aging star in previous adaptations of the film. Cooper gives a tragic performance that never veers into comedy, walking a fine line while singing and playing guitar to boot.
Gun to my head: Cooper should have won this year’s tightly contested race. Can you think of a better “drunk” performance? Fellow nominee Richard E. Grant’s Withnail, perhaps?
2. Green Book wins best picture
If BlacKKKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk weren’t such honest and beautifully filmed depictions of what it’s like to be black in America, maybe Green Book’s Best Picture victory would make more sense. Green Book is a clever movie, but also a problematic one.
Green Book’s astonishing victory will most likely be remembered as the “Crash” of this decade – what happens when Oscar voters are blinded by good acting and manipulated by clever (but false) writing. Of course, the film’s greatest flaw is its point-of-view: Green Book is a story of white redemption, of what happens when a quasi-racist driver (at this point, an unforgivable cliche) meets a talented black man who changes his viewpoint. Mahershala Ali’s character, Don Shirley, is “one of the good ones.” To Viggo Mortensen’s character, Tony, Don doesn’t represent the whole population. He shows what the black community can actually accomplish. He’s a black man who plays “white” music. He doesn’t talk like a black man. He doesn’t eat like a black man (the film’s fried chicken trope – intended to be subversive – is perhaps its most egregious plot point). To Tony, Don might as well be white. And by making Viggo Mortensen the lead of the film, Green Book takes a story about a black man and tells it through a white man’s point of view. Hollywood has been making movies like this for nearly a century (read more about this issue in this Feb. 2017 Julie article). Maybe the Academy will finally learn its lesson this time around.
3. Bohemian Rhapsody winning anything
Director Bryan Singer, according to many former young actors, is a serial sexual assaulter. Stories about Singer pressuring underage boys into sex have been circulating around Hollywood for more than a decade. Although Singer still denies wrongdoing, it seems like he’s finally getting his comeuppance after more and more victims are coming out of the woodwork. Still, Singer was able to hold on just long enough to direct “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a boring, history-altering film that plays as hero-worship while ignoring the more tragic aspects of Freddie Mercury’s superstardom. What does the movie get wrong? Well, first off, it ignores the band’s notorious sexcapades that, before 2018, Queen was perhaps most famous for (Sasha Baron Cohen, who was originally cast as Freddie before Rami Malek got the part, has discussed some of these proposed scenes at length, including one that involves the band, little people, and a bunch of cocaine. That’s perhaps the most cinematic sentence I’ve ever written, but it still didn’t make the movie.) Bohemian Rhapsody also gives the impression that Queen had broken up prior to that famous Live Aid performance. That didn’t happen. Freddie Mercury’s sexuality and his painful descent into sickness, although touched upon, is a footnote in the movie, a burst of scenes to tack onto the end before that Big Live Aid show, solely to add unearned narrative heft. Mercury was a complicated bisexual man who died tragically young in a time before homosexuality and the AIDS crisis in general were well-understood. Freddie Mercury’s story is perfect for a movie. Why, then, do I feel so manipulated by Bohemian Rhapsody? Because it doesn’t earn the tears. This movie is hero worship – nothing more, nothing less. There’s no nuance to be found whatsoever. It’s fitting, then, that Bohemian Rhapsody is directed by a manipulative man who can’t seem to tell the truth about his past. Now let’s be clear – making a hagiographic movie that ignores history is of minuscule importance when you consider the weight of the many accusations against Singer. But the fact that Singer was allowed to make this movie at all is a testament to Hollywood corruption. Bohemian Rhapsody won four Oscars last week, more than any other film. Queen and Freddie Mercury deserve the critical reappraisal they’ve received over the past few years, but Bohemian Rhapsody the film is an unfortunate conduit for this reappraisal. Let’s remember the real Queen, not the watered-down version.