Will 2020 Finally Be the Year of the Populist Oscars?

Niko Tavernise

For the last decade, the Academy Awards have faced charges of elitism. While the average moviegoer has gravitated toward tentpole movies featuring Vin Diesel or Yoda, Hollywood’s annual celebration of film has gotten much smaller, doling out trophies to independent movies such as “Green Book,” “The Shape of Water,” “Moonlight,” “Spotlight” and “Birdman.”

A few of these films genuinely deserved to be crowned the best picture of the year. Yet as ratings for the Academy Awards continue to slip — to an all-time low of 26.5 million viewers in 2018 — there has been much debate, both within the industry and outside it, about whether the Oscars are out of touch. Following the 2019 ceremony, which at least had “A Star is Born” and “Black Panther” vying for the top award of the night (though both films lost), the 2020 Oscars could well include many films up for major prizes that are box-office hits, from “Joker” to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” The question is: Should the Oscars truly be more populist? And are they moving in that direction?

Variety‘s chief film critic Owen Gleiberman and New York bureau chief Ramin Setoodeh debate:

Ramin Setoodeh: After years of concerns that the Oscars had turned too niche and were starting to look like the Independent Spirit Awards, the 2020 ceremony looks like it could be tilting back in the other direction. This might finally be the year of the populist Academy Awards. At least it certainly looks that way when you eye the acting contenders. There are so many mega movie stars that are in the running for nominations, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), Christian Bale and Matt Damon (“Ford v Ferrari”), Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”), Eddie Murphy (“Dolemite is My Name”), Tom Hanks (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), Jamie Foxx (“Just Mercy”), Renee Zellweger (“Judy”), Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”), Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story” and “Jojo Rabbit”), Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”) and Jennifer Lopez (“Hustlers”).

I wanted to ask you Owen, when you reviewed “Billy Madison” for Entertainment Weekly 25 years ago and gave it a “D” grade, did you ever think the day would come that Adam Sandler could be a best actor Oscar nominee? By the way, I definitely hope he makes the cut for his tour-de-force turn in “Uncut Gems.”

Owen Gleiberman: I might have thought Adam Sandler could one day snag an Oscar nomination, but I don’t think I would have dreamed that he’d deliver a performance like the one he gives in “Uncut Gems.” Sandler doesn’t just do a riff on his persona. He becomes the character, investing him with an uncanny fusion of hope and cunning and stupidity and sleaze. Is he “sympathetic”? I sort of think so, but even when he’s not, you can’t take your eyes off him. That’s great acting.

What strikes me about all the people you mentioned, Ramin — and what lets me view the prospect of a more populist Oscars with enthusiasm rather than cynicism — is that, yes, they’re dyed-in-the-wool movie stars. Yet they’re also tremendous actors. Take Brad Pitt. I think he completely deserves the best supporting actor award this year, because what he brought to his character in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is, to me, comparable to the quality we associate with the Old Hollywood stars. Pitt is right there — sly, pinpoint — but also larger-than-life. And he’s just one example of a celebrity actor this year who so brought it. Take Jennifer Lopez, who’s been bringing it for years — she was born to be on the big screen. So it was gratifying to see her get a role, in “Hustlers,” that let her go in such a daring direction. I don’t mean playing a stripper — I mean playing a stripper who walks the line between empowerment and dark vengeance.

But I’m curious, Ramin: In a year that boasts such a powerful slate of acting contenders, do you think The Death Of The Movie Star in the franchise era has been greatly exaggerated?

Ramin: Movie stars aren’t dead, but they are an endangered species for not producing more offspring — figuratively. If you look at the ’90s vs. now, there aren’t many actors that can compete with the height of Leo-mania during “Titanic.” Yes, you could argue that today’s equivalent would be Timothée Chalamet and Kristen Stewart. But Leo kept making interesting studio movies–“Catch Me If You Can,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator”–in a way that doesn’t seem possible now for actors in their 20s. The mid-budget movie is gone. But this is an argument for another column, Owen!

I think one of the biggest questions from this year’s Oscar race is whether voters will go for “Joker.” If you’re ABC, the network that broadcasts the Academy Awards, you’re crossing your fingers and toes that they do, given that the film has become the first R-rated movie to gross $1 billion worldwide. And yet, there’s a lot of Academy baggage when it comes to comic-book movies. No “Batman” movie has ever been nominated for best picture, and after 2008’s “The Dark Knight” was snubbed, the Oscars revamped their rules to allow up to 10 movies in the best picture category. Even with that, the only comic-book movie to ever make the cut was last year’s “Black Panther.”

If “Joker” is left out of the best picture race, that will be the Academy’s way of counterbalancing all these famous faces at the ceremony. Yes, they want to nominate blockbusters, but they don’t want the Oscars to become the People’s Choice Awards. I think Joaquin gets in for best actor, but I’m not sure if the movie itself will make a showing in any of the other major categories.

Owen: No, the Oscars shouldn’t become the People’s Choice Awards. Yet the prejudice against nominating comic-book movies — or maybe we should just say big-spectacle popcorn movies, be it Marvel or “Mission: Impossible” — is something that Academy voters really need to get past. It’s a relic of the old middlebrow Hollywood snobbery. In hindsight, I would say it’s almost absurd that “The Dark Knight,” after all the acclaim it received, couldn’t get a nomination for best picture. Was it really a less artful movie than “The Reader” or “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” both of which were nominated that year? I would argue that it was twice as artful and 10 times as impactful.

But now, Ramin, the politics of all this are becoming more intense, since in a world of niche audiences and fragmented fan bases, the Oscars — like everything else — are struggling, as never before, to hold onto their audience. They’re fighting to retain their identity as an iconic mainstream event. So what will it mean this year if they don’t find the room, or the impulse, to nominate “Joker” for best picture? I think it could end up saying something ominous about what the Oscars have come to represent. For “Joker” isn’t just another comic-book movie. It’s a film of dark and disturbing grandeur that was acclaimed (at least by some of us) for elevating comic-book material into a madly topical ’70s-style psychodrama.

It’s true that many voices in media turned on the movie, worrying that it would incite violence, or that it was too sympathetic to white-male incel culture. Now, though, it’s four months later, and look what happened. There was no violence — but more than that, the film became a sensation, not just a seismic hit but a movie that ignited the public’s imagination. If the Academy Awards can’t find room to acknowledge that, then I think a lot of people are going to ask: What are these awards really about? Who are they for? And why do they seem almost allergic to some of the key entertainment that Hollywood now makes?

Ramin: You liked “Joker” a lot more than I did. The blockbuster I would choose to include in the best picture race — not that there can’t, or shouldn’t, be more than one — is “Avengers: Endgame.” And why not? It’s the highest-grossing movie of all time, buoyed by Robert Downey Jr.’s last teary-eyed performance as Iron Man, Chris Evans hanging up Captain America’s cape, Chris Hemsworth (brilliant as any Shakespearian comedic foil as “fat Thor”), Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow and so on. Martin Scorsese, in promoting “The Irishman,” has attacked the Marvel Cinematic Universe for not being cinema. But I don’t buy his argument. What the Russo brothers have accomplished in “Avengers: Endgame” is art. In fact, I’d say that last 45 minutes of “Avengers” has more of an emotional and soulful core than many of the “awards” films of the fall season. The Russos wrapped (for now) the biggest movie franchise of all time on their own epic and cinematic terms, while championing the need to see movies as a community. If “Avatar” was a best picture nominee, “Avengers” should be too.

Owen: We may disagree on “Joker,” but I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said about “Avengers: Endgame.” When it comes to nominating it for best picture, why not? Yet there’s a telling reason why not. The film industry as we know it is devoted, more than ever, to making escapist fantasy blockbusters. Yet with the rare exception of something like the socially conscious “Black Panther,” it increasingly treats the Oscars as this semi-elitist art holiday, where blockbusters are The Movies That Cannot Be Named. Film critics, on their 10 Best lists and year-end group awards, have mirrored this thinking, and in some ways led it. And what’s been created is a kind of dichotomized rebel-vs.-the-corporation paradigm, where popcorn films are automatically seen as big and artless and corrupt and “smaller films” represent the purity of cinema.

I do get that there’s a certain truth in seeing things that way. That’s why I vibed with what Scorsese said. Yet it’s not the whole truth. It’s a rarefied version of the truth — and one that Hollywood, in particular, only pretends to believe in. What we could now use at the Oscars isn’t so much a separate blockbuster category as an entire awards night that’s a little more honest about the films that Hollywood actually makes.