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The Message of the Oscar Nominations: You’d Better Have a Social Message

Each year at the Left Coast crack of dawn, when the Oscar nominations are announced, there’s generally at least one major nomination many pundits were predicting that fails to materialize. When that happens, entertainment media tends to rise up as one and say the s-word: snub. In truth, it’s not usually a snub; it’s just somebody getting passed over for other nominees who were loved a little more than the conventional wisdom realized. That’s why the chatter about it tends to get worn out by the end of the day.

But when the nominations were announced this morning, and it was revealed that Bradley Cooper had failed to get a best director nod for “A Star Is Born,” my feeling was: This may or may not have been a “snub,” but it was emblematic. It signified something arguably major in terms of what the Oscars are becoming.

I leave it to the movie gods, and the gossip columnists, to debate how much Bradley Cooper is personally liked or disliked in Hollywood. But his omission from the best director roster didn’t happen in a vacuum. It crystallized the slow but steady fade of “A Star Is Born,” over the last month or two, from Oscar slam-dunk to solid-but-hardly-sure-fire Oscar front-runner to middle-of-the-road Oscar contender to hanging-on-by-its-fingernails Oscar movie that’s still sort of in the game to the place it now holds: Oscar toast. And that, in a way, is a much bigger story than the issue of whether Bradley Cooper came off as too serious and self-involved over the course of awards season, especially in a certain much-talked-about newspaper-of-record magazine profile.

The gradual decline of “A Star Is Born” during awards season has been, for those of us who love the film, a somewhat depressing spectacle to watch. But now that the decline is more or less complete, I think its meaning has at last become clear. “A Star Is Born” was, and is, a rapturous knockout of a romantic melodrama (it’s not as if I’m alone in seeing it that way), but it’s a movie that’s completely and utterly bereft of a social message. In 2018, that makes it seem (dare I say it?) more trivial than the other contenders. It’s just a love story. And though it’s a very grand love story, and was an extraordinarily huge hit, these days that isn’t enough.

Just look at this year’s eight best picture contenders: “Black Panther” (a one-film revolution, and long overdue: the first epically scaled African-American superhero movie), “BlacKkKlansman” (a racial police drama of searing relevance), “The Favourite” (a costume drama of intense post-#MeToo consciousness about issues of female oppression and power), “Roma” (a drama of class consciousness and luminous empathy for a Mexican housekeeper, in an era when immigrants are being demonized), and “Vice” (a pointed political-satirical attack on the sins of a clandestine conservative demagogue).

Plus, a pair of movies that wear their social agenda in such a retrograde way that a lot of woke media types consider them to be beneath contempt, yet the agendas are still very much there: “Green Book” (a classic Hollywood liberal message movie about racial understanding) and “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which presents its Live Aid concert climax as the drama of Freddie Mercury finally coming to full terms with his sexual identity). I would argue, in fact, that though some of us have a major problem with the way that “Bohemian Rhapsody” plays down Freddie’s gayness, for the vast mainstream audience that embraced the movie, its old-fangled liberal message of “self-acceptance” was a crucial element of the film’s appeal. And “A Star Is Born”? Sorry, but in this company of ardent social earnestness it now looks like the crowd-pleaser that didn’t get the memo.

There’s a hallowed Oscar tradition for all this, of course. The Academy Awards have frequently honored big-ticket message movies, even ones that clunked (like “Gentleman’s Agreement”), and that dynamic just got ramped up in the ’80s, during the era of films like “Gandhi” and “Chariots of Fire.” The celebration — by critics, and now by the Academy — of movies that bend with extreme prejudice toward a progressive agenda is a retro-fitted-for-the-Trump-era extension of that tradition. It reflects the evolving membership of the Academy, and it also reflects the trend we’ve seen in recent years, which is the Oscars veering closer and closer to becoming their own version of the Independent Spirit Awards.

Am I arguing for something else? Frankly, yes. I like films with social messages, too; that’s an intrinsic element of what cinema is. Yet our humanity isn’t only measured by our virtue. It’s my belief that the movie industry, which has never in its history been more focused on creating mainstream product than it is now, should not spend Oscar night pretending that particular priority is somehow way, way down on its list. I was stoked to see “Black Panther” become the first superhero movie to get a best picture nomination, but why no nomination for its director, Ryan Coogler? The bottom-line reason is that popcorn movies are still not taken seriously on Oscar night. Adam McKay’s best director nod for “Vice” feels like a bit of a ringer to me — it’s a movie far less celebrated, in the culture, than “A Star Is Born” or “Black Panther.” It’s not exactly burning up the box office, either. But it’s got its activist firebrand messaging in the right place. And that’s now the Oscar standard. Without it, you’re just a belle at the wrong ball.

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