There’s more than one reason why we continue to remember the final Oscar awarded on the evening of February 26, 2017 – or, more specifically, the act of its awarding – as a shocking turn of events for the Academy Awards, awards shows in general and those involved, not to mention the millions watching at home.
If dictionaries included video examples of its entries, we would see this under “fiasco”: Those few moments, witnessed then and recalled now as feeling like much longer, when golden statuette-clutching “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz announced that the actual Best Picture winners were in fact those behind “Moonlight.” And legitimately so; it remains an absurd occurrence, an oft-forgotten example of the mayhem that can unfold on live television.
When the golden Oscar dust had settled, however, when all the actors (pun partially intended) involved had said their piece on what happened and media outlets broke down the sequence of events like an episode of “CSI,” a more historically impactful (and decidedly less clickbaity) reason for that event’s enduring legacy began to emerge.
This wasn’t just a battle of Best Picture frontrunners that tilted from one side to the other faster than slides in an “In Memoriam” montage. It was also a definitive example of the Oscars’ evolving political landscape, one mirrored partly by an increasingly progressive attitude towards new perspectives and stories. An extremely small number of movies like “Moonlight” – a story of black male vulnerability told with an intimately grandiose energy with probably less dialogue than the entire opening musical number of “La La Land” – have succeeded at winning Best Picture. Even fewer films have done so when the main opposition is an homage to Los Angeles dreams, set in Los Angeles and at an awards show annually held in Los Angeles.
It was a reflection of changing times for the films Oscar voters recognize. “Moonlight” was comprised of fewer elements of would traditionally be categorized as Oscar bait than anything in that year’s lineup of Best Picture nominees, save, maybe, for “Arrival.” It came by way of a tiny (though remarkably consistent) distribution company in A24, boasted no A-list stars (Naomi Harris was the biggest name involved) and was the vision of an auteur virtually unknown to the general moviegoing populace in Barry Jenkins.
It was as tangential a Best Picture nominee could be as its eventual victory was monumental. It enticed a more enlightened era for the Academy Awards, one whose arrival was beckoned by the Best Picture winner a year later—the strange and fantastical “Shape of Water.”
While the Academy’s recognition of Guillermo del Toro was as much about honoring the career of an adored auteur whose works could never be mistaken for another’s, “The Shape of Water” also bore extremely little resemblance to typical Oscar winner fare. The inclusive story of a deaf woman who treats an equally mute outsider as precious while others view him as an uncivilized monster stood out, even as the groundbreaking “Get Out” represented a major contender in taking the top prize.
Especially when juxtaposed against fellow nominees “Darkest Hour” and “The Post” – movies almost mechanical in their approach to being awards season behemoths – “The Shape of Water” felt magnanimous by its very existence, even if it did provide a sociopolitical commentary of its time.
Something we should take stock of: A two-year trend shouldn’t be mistaken for representing an entire epoch in the 90-year history of the Academy Awards. It isn’t. And, yes, this is written at the risk of sounding like awards show outcomes are the sole factor of how we should examine the course of film history. It emphatically isn’t.
But it’s a pair of moments, films and victories that feel transcendent of their age and, sure, of the Oscars stage itself. It’s a reason to be excited about the future of the industry thirsting for originality, even as the Academy casts doubt that it understands its own highest honor with the teasing of a Best Popular Film category.
The way the 2019 Best Picture race is shaping up, though, threatens that momentum, and endangers an upward progression for Academy voters that have increasingly placed original and socially aware filmmaking above stagnantly traditional offerings. After opening up the cookie jar and letting us get a taste of that which seemed permanently locked away, they’re preparing to snap it shut again.
It’s been a marvel to watch the success of “A Star Is Born” unfold, a triumphant product considering its humble beginnings. Who didn’t do a double-take when they saw that Bradley Cooper was going to step into the role of director (!) to tell the fourth feature iteration (!!) of a Hollywood story, this one starring Lady Gaga (!!!)?
But “A Star Is Born” has been a bit of a revelation so far—a grounded but grandiose film with a first half much better than its second and which has struck a chord with moviegoers across the country. In the process, it’s all but reserved a seat with the eventual Best Picture nominees months before they are even announced, and many have pegged it to win.
The developments rival the star-making story of the film itself. Yet, for all the little things that Cooper does right as director, and for as riveting a performance that Gaga provides, it’s a film that – unlike the Best Picture winners of recent Oscars past – doesn’t seem to understand the age in which it was produced.
Aside from Gaga’s character, Ally, seemingly having extremely little agency over her increasingly magnetic career, “A Star Is Born” doesn’t concern itself with updating its story and sentiments for contemporary times. It certainly has both style and substance, and there are some magnetic moments in which they achieve synergy, but Cooper and Co. have had several iterations’ worth of homework to digest, to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Most seem to agree that the 2018 “A Star Is Born” is the best cover of a decades-old tune, and Gaga’s successful transition to the movie medium seems to the pioneering reason as to why. Individual performances, however, don’t solely vault movies into serious consideration for a given year’s best movie; at least, they shouldn’t. And, as enticing a narrative as Cooper’s impressive directorial debut merits, it’s merely one chapter in a year of breakthroughs for actors, directors and entire genres in 2019. His could hardly be considered the most astonishing.
All that is to say: It would be surprising – if slightly disheartening, at least to this moviegoer – if the film ended up winning Best Picture in a few months. I’m not advocating for rooting against it being in the conversation. Rather, I’m remaining hopeful that the Academy will continue a welcome trend of recognizing pictures that advance the medium for its grand prize—the foreign-language treasure that soars on sweeping emotional vistas; the action movie upending its genres archaeology; the slow-burn drama that rewards multiple viewings as much as enduring its violent wickedness.
There shouldn’t be love lost for studio movies that more or less defy the narratives working against it, and that seems like the source of most of the praise that has been showered upon “A Star is Born.” Rightfully so. But imagining a scenario where Spielberg, Scorsese or some other giant of Hollywood announces it as the final victor on February 24 would feel too much like a reactionary act of admiration by Academy Award voters, and not one where its place in cinema’s current evolution is being considered.