More than 200,000 people are dead. People are suffering in all the ways that life can provide: medically, economically, systemically, racially — and all of us are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic in the best ways we know. So when Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg penned an op-ed headlined It’s time to face reality, and to cancel the 2021 Oscars the eye-rolls were in full force.
By her measure, because films like “Bios,” “Black Widow,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Candyman,” “Cruella,” “Deep Water,” “Dune,” “Eternals,” “F9,” “The French Dispatch,” ‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Halloween Kills,” “In the Heights,” “Jungle Cruise,” “King Richard,” “The Last Duel,” “The Many Saints of Newark,” “Minions: Rise of Gru,” “Morbius,” “The Nightingale,” “No Time to Die,” “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Spiral: The Book of Saw,” “Tom & Jerry,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” “West Side Story” and “The Woman in the Window” have exited the eligibility period, there should be no cause for celebration. The lack of these 29 films should cancel a ceremony that celebrates an entire calendar year of cinema? As film critic and AAFCA member Robert Daniels eloquently stated on Twitter, “Could you imagine telling an actor like Delroy Lindo, who’s spent years on the outside looking in, it’s best to cancel the Oscars?”
The coronavirus is ravaging our country at the same time as a contentious election, civil protests and tension-driven battle for the Supreme Court. Oscar contenders capture those feelings, and the selection shows where “we” are at as a country, and what is being grotesquely omitted or overlooked.
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After the Pearl Harbor bombing on Dec. 7, 1941, almost three months later on Feb. 26, 1942, the Academy gave the top prize to “How Green Was My Valley” from John Ford. More famous for being the movie that edged out “Citizen Kane” for the best picture, the film depicts a family wanting their youngest son to find a better life, likely feeding into the country’s yearning for hope for the future as World War II threatened the world. The nominations were announced on Feb. 6, nearly two months to the day that over 2,400 soldiers and civilians were killed, with 11 nominations for Howard Hawks’ “Sergeant York,” which at the time tied as the second most nominated film in Academy history. Gary Cooper won the best actor award for his portrayal of Alvin C. York, one of the most decorated soldiers in World War I. The country was feeling patriotic and appreciative or our servicemen and women.
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, while the Vietnam War was raging and civil unrest flooded the streets of America. Tony Richardson’s “Tom Jones” was the big winner but Sidney Poitier became the first Black actor to win best actor for his performance as Homer Smith in “Lilies in the Field.” He’s also still the youngest black actor to ever win the prize at 37. Can you imagine if the Academy decided to “hold off” on the ceremony?
During the years of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War beginning in March 1965 until April 30, 1975, the controversy and anxiety of a nation grappling with the deaths of over 50,000 soldiers was channeled through cinema. Musicals like “The Sound of Music” and “Oliver!” reigned in their respective years while pictures like “Patton” became demonstrations of the kind of leadership that the American people yearned for. “Midnight Cowboy,” the first X-rated film to win best picture, is a film that challenges small-town kids who yearn for life in the big city — and tries relentlessly to dissuade them from chasing it.
The year after Vietnam ended, Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential election. The soul of America was on the line, looking at the burning question, “Where do we go from here?” Three weeks after Carter’s victory, one of the great underdog stories of all time, “Rocky” was released, putting the country on its feet and ready to take on the next challenge. The gruesome years of Vietnam were not forgotten. They were catalysts to cinema’s perennial devotion to illuminating the human condition.
And then there are the unforgettable September 11 attacks. The Emmys famously delayed the ceremony twice during that time. Initially scheduled for September 16, three days after the Creative Arts Emmys were held, the ceremony was moved to October 7 before the start of the war in Afghanistan began. At the eventual Nov. 4, 2001 ceremony, the country mourned and the arts allowed us to grieve and focus on something together. When the Oscars came around in March 2002, we were far from “over it” and yet, the Academy came through with lots to honor. With Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind” taking home the best picture prize, we saw Denzel Washington (“Training Day”) and Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball”) accept the lead prizes, the first time two Black actors took home the awards on the same night. Berry, to date, is still the only Black woman to win that award. Coincidentally, Sidney Poitier was awarded an honorary Oscar the same evening.
So when you’re saying something like “there are no movies this year” or “cancel everything,” you are spitting in the artistic face of all the important films that were released this year (or early next year). Last year, 344 films were submitted for the Oscars. This year, we’re likely to see right around 300. In the early days of the Academy, barely 100 films would be eligible. We struggle to get members to see as many films as possible. Perhaps with less, they will be able to discover more than usual.
It’s a year with 30 women in contention for a best director nomination. A year that includes veterans like Delroy Lindo, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bill Murray and Glenn Close in the running. A year that provides an opportunity for a documentary to enter the best picture conversation because they’ve been seen more widely than in other years. These are the things that you would be canceling. The movie theaters are important, and we want them back. But art is not gone.