Here we are, nearly two months into this Oscar season, and though the festivals continue to roll on and the films continue to debut, it feels as though the season is in stasis. Every season reaches the point at which the commotion settles and we understand the shape and scope of the race, but that’s different from the current state of this season. It doesn’t feel settled, we’re unsure of the scope, and the whole enterprise feels shapeless.
It’s not as though we are at a loss for contenders – though, as usual, we are anxiously awaiting some of those late-game entries that always threaten to upend the race. The issue right now is that we aren’t even sure what kind of race we’re looking at, let alone how it might be upended. At the moment, we’re in the midst of a season in search of a narrative.
Not for lack of relevant circumstantial evidence on which the case for one narrative or another could be built. Right out of the starting gate – which is where the seasonal narrative is typically postulated – Damien Chazelle’s La La Land became the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture. Its situation isn’t all that different from Spotlight last year, or Birdman a year prior, or 12 Years a Slave the year before that. And yet, on the backs of the earlier films’ premieres, we had a clearer bead on how the season’s narrative would play out with the frontrunning film at its center. That’s not to suggest that there was a higher degree of certainty by any means, since each frontrunner had an opposing film that threw punditry into upheaval up to the very end of each season – for 12 Years it was Gravity, for Birdman it was Boyhood, and for Spotlight it was at first Room and later The Big Short and The Revenant. This year, the La La Land-as-frontrunner narrative hasn’t moved primarily because no one has put forth the appropriate spin to counter it – since lest we forget, as Projection: Oscar is fond of pointing out, it’s the people that track the narrative the ultimately have a vested interest in shaping it.
So, why wouldn’t anyone be shaping a competing narrative? It can’t just be that La La Land is entirely undeniable, since not everyone has fallen for it entirely…though most certainly have. And it’s not as if we lack other options – Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is getting across-the-board raves (and for good reason), Jeff Nichols’ Loving has been widely embraced, Garth Davis’ Lion has emerged as a festival sensation, Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is gaining traction for much more than just Natalie Portman’s performance, and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea has actually been buzzing for longer than even La La Land. So there are plenty of options, even as we wait for the likes of Silence and Fences and Rules Don’t Apply.
And yet, the season remains in stasis.
I have a good idea, actually. Have you turned on the news lately? Have you scrolled through your social media feed? You don’t even have to be a U.S. resident to be bombarded with the latest ridiculous dribble from the mouth of the beast that is the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And in terms of the Oscar Watchers, it’s not just the beautifully passionate Sasha Stone who is spellbound by this ugly cycle; it has us all rapt, even if we’d prefer to not be.
You see, the Oscar season…it’s a horse race. And right now it is being soundly eclipsed by That Other Horse Race. Hard to stay focused on whether Moonlight is encroaching upon La La Land when you’re more worried about whether democracy is being encroached upon by an orange-tinted, truth-perpendicular, bile-spewing demagogue. Hard to mount your own Oscar forecast when you wind your clock checking in on Nate Silver’s election forecast. Such is the curse of American politics.
Alas, there are less than three weeks remaining before America’s long national nightmare comes to a merciful end. When that finally comes to pass, focus will most swiftly shift to our annual national obsession. All our hot takes will finally be funneled to that enterprise for which they are most useful: snarking about the distribution of candidates between the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories.
That, or by some strange and cruel twist of fate, the orange demagogue wins, in which case I will become momentarily catatonic, then slip into depression, and on the other side of that, I’ll determine my only choice is to pack up, head to Canada, and move in with Christoph Misch.
Until this uniquely American hysteria comes to a close, I’d say that La La Land has a Clinton-esque 7-point lead in the Best Picture polling average, but there are much worthier, more agreeably-tinted adversaries in the Oscar race. And appropriate light will be shed on those just as soon as we give that bloviating bastard the rejection for which he’s long overdue.
But, just in case, prepare the guest room for me and the wife, Chris.