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Hollywood’s Vain Obsession With Celebrating Itself

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And the Oscar goes to…Parasite.”

With those six words, and a very pregnant pause, Jane Fonda ushered in a new era for the Academy Awards. In its 92-year history, the Oscars had never awarded Best Picture to a film not in the English language; heck, they’d never even nominated a film from South Korea for Best International Feature, shunning Oldboy, Mother, Burning, and more. And its shock victory was not only a win for Asian culture, South Korea, the international community, and on-screen diversity, but also originality. Bong Joon-ho’s contemporary class-warfare satire bested costume dramas, a historical sports saga, a war epic, and not one, but two movies examining the oh-so-difficult lives of actors: Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

It’s this last category of Oscar bait that’s reached its nauseating nadir.

At the 2020 Oscars, three of the nine Best Picture nominees were about actors or performers. The two frontrunners in Best Actress both played actresses: Marriage Story’s Scarlett Johansson, and Judy’s Renee Zellweger, who took home the hardware for her twitchy take on the late screen icon Judy Garland. Most glaring was Best Actor, which saw four of the five nominees portraying Hollywood-industry types, including Marriage Story’s Adam Driver (a Broadway director), Pain and Glory’s Antonio Banderas (a renowned film director), Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s Leonardo DiCaprio (a washed-up character actor), and the eventual winner, Joker’s Joaquin Phoenix (a failed stand-up comic). Hollywood giving itself awards for stories about itself is without question the world’s glitziest circle jerk.

While there exists a long tradition of stellar films about Tinseltown, from Sunset Boulevard and The Bad and the Beautiful to The Player and Mulholland Drive, and I enjoy a good Hollywood yarn as much as the next (Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast re-examining the Golden Age of Hollywood is a must-listen), in recent years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the 8,000-plus strong voting body comprised of actors and filmmakers that determines the Oscar nominees and winners, has taken extraordinary steps to honor its own—and over worthier fare, no less.  

Who can forget when, in 2011, the monstrous Harvey Weinstein bullied his black-and-white drama about the dawn of talkies, The Artist, to a Best Picture win over Malick’s magnificent The Tree of Life; or the following year, as Ben Affleck’s Argo, a mediocre film that saw Hollywood and the CIA join forces to help solve the Iran hostage crisis, somehow rode an underdog narrative all the way to Best Picture, defeating superior fare like Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty. Two years after that head-scratcher, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), chronicling a faded Hollywood star’s attempt at a Broadway comeback, took home the Oscars’ biggest prize over Richard Linklater’s 12-year masterpiece Boyhood, Wes Anderson’s exquisite The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Ava DuVernay’s rousing MLK biopic Selma. That’s three Best Picture winners in the last nine years (and one almost-winner in La La Land). In the eyes of the Academy, few tales measure up to its own.

In the eyes of the Academy, few tales measure up to its own.

If that weren’t enough, three of the most anticipated movies of 2020, which will surely be on the lips of many an awards voter come autumn, concern the plight of Hollywood performers. There’s Mank, David Fincher’s long-awaited follow-up to Gone Girl, recounting the making of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane through the eyes of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Oscar winner Gary Oldman. Netflix spent an estimated $70 million this awards season en route to 24 Academy Award nominations—the most of any studio—and is set to give the film a big awards-season push in the fall. Another awards-courting Netflix release is Blonde, a drama from director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and superproducer Brad Pitt, featuring Knives Out star Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe, Adrien Brody as Arthur Miller, and Bobby Cannavale as Joe DiMaggio. And last but certainly not least is my most anticipated movie of the year: Annette, the latest from visionary filmmaker Leos Carax (Holy Motors), focused on a stand-up comic (Adam Driver) and a celebrated soprano (Marion Cotillard) raising a daughter with mysterious gifts.

Unfortunately when it comes to Hollywood, the time for honoring itself will not be at an end anytime soon.

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