As this turbulent award season comes to an end, Hollywood appears to be closing ranks around two controversial movies (and their creators) that don’t really deserve to be defended.
Peter Farrelly and the cast of Green Book accept the award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy during the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards on January 06, 2019.
The Oscars have never really been a measure of the best movies of the year, as evidenced by any list of classics that weren’t ever even considered for an award, much less in contention for one. The best way to make sense of the Oscars has always been to view them as an annual check-in on how Hollywood sees, and would like to see, itself. They’re an intimate industry party performed for a global television audience, with a significant spotlight and potential future career opportunities at stake. The Oscars shift to reflect the times, and in these uncertain ones, the Academy has been abashedly scaling back its big night of self-celebration, banishing some awards to the commercial breaks, snipping and then restoring musical numbers, and going hostless after the debacle that was Kevin Hart and the Very Bad Tweets. The plans for the trimmed-down ceremony indicate that though the industry is coming off a record year financially, it still feels uncertain about what it is people actually want to watch.
The actual Oscar race, meanwhile, suggests that what Hollywood itself has been yearning for is a return to an era before #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo, when it didn’t have to worry about dealing with pressure from the public to take responsibility for itself. Though Netflix has, with the might of its enormous piles of money, pushed Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographical drama Roma into frontrunner status, it’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book that have become the defining titles of the season. The two films have persistently shoved their way to the forefront of the cycle, alternating awards wins and real-world controversies, culminating with the publication of the Atlantic’s lengthy feature delving into new accusations of sexual misconduct against Bohemian Rhapsody director Bryan Singer. The article is disturbing both in the details of statutory rape and teens being “passed around like a party favor” it contains, as well as in how little it seems to be affecting either the film or the filmmaker.
The story’s eventual arrival has been hanging over awards season ever since October. That’s when Singer, Streisand effect be damned, announced it himself on Instagram in a preemptive defense against what he described as a “negative article” slated to run in Esquire that would “rehash false accusations and bogus lawsuits” and show “a reckless disregard for the truth.” He didn’t mention the allegations of sexual misconduct that have been made against him in the past. What he did suggest was that the piece would be opportunistically positioned against the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic he received sole directing credit for despite having been fired midway through production. In other words, he implied that whatever the contents of the piece, it wasn’t about him at all — it was an attempt to hurt his movie.
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Singer was wrong about the timing, and about which outlet would ultimately publish the investigation. But it’s looking like he was right about one thing — his strategy of holding on tight to the massively successful movie ($800 million worldwide and counting) that still bears his name, and whose financial success and various accolades seem to be serving as a shield. Alex French and Maximillian Potter’s article contains accounts from four accusers, one of whom says that he was, at age 13, molested by the filmmaker on the set of 1998’s Apt Pupil. Earlier in the #MeToo moment, that kind of reporting might have stopped a film and a career in its tracks. But Bohemian Rhapsody, already a monster hit (with audiences, less so critics), a Golden Globe winner, and a Best Picture nominee, only has its Oscar momentum left to lose at this point. And thanks to a series of strategic contortions on the part of studio 20th Century Fox and star Rami Malek, as well as the apparent willing indulgence of the Academy, it might escape even that.
What’s maybe wilder and certainly more depressing is that Singer might skate through this unscathed as well. The producers of Bohemian Rhapsody brought Singer on despite previous allegations of misconduct, and he is reportedly set to make $40 million from the project, despite the attempts by everyone else involved to now pull an “I don’t know her.” Producer Avi Lerner, who in September hired the filmmaker to the tune of up to $10 million to direct a planned Red Sonja remake, stood by the decision in a statement citing Bohemian Rhapsody‘s box office returns, saying, “In America people are innocent until proven otherwise.” In a follow-up, Lerner said that while he’s gotten angry feedback from the public, he’s received none at all from within the industry itself. If there are no professional consequences for Singer himself or the film it becomes difficult to see this as something other than a major turning point, and maybe an endpoint, for #MeToo.
The multiple controversies around Green Book, though obviously very different, have also shown Hollywood’s willingness to overlook criticism that doesn’t serve its financial interests or flatter its self-image. They’re not, aside from director Peter Farrelly’s past habit of flashing his penis on set, in the realm of #MeToo — they instead speak to another ongoing conversation about and within the industry, that of whose stories are put on screen, how they’re told, and by who. The film remains a Best Picture frontrunner despite pushback with regard to its treatment of racism, its selectively one-sided retelling of true events, and its place in a tradition of dramedies about interracial friendship that, as Wesley Morris put it in the New York Times, “symbolize[s] a style of American storytelling in which the wheels of interracial friendship are greased by employment, in which prolonged exposure to the black half of the duo enhances the humanity of his white, frequently racist counterpart.” The movie’s awards campaign has been a parade of missteps and worse, up to and including the unearthing of a 2015 tweet in which writer Nick Vallelonga claimed to have seen footage of “Muslims in Jersey City cheering when towers went down” on 9/11. But pointing that out only appears to have made the movie’s fans lean in harder and react defensively. No less respected figure than filmmaker Whit Stillman suggested that detractors were merely “Cool Kids sniffing at a beautiful film for being pleasing.”
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book.
But is it, in fact, a beautiful film? The controversies and subsequent pushback that have cemented Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book as awards season villains have in some ways made it easier to overlook the fact that they’re also just not very good. The strangest thing about Hollywood’s seeming embrace of a separating-the-art-from-the-artist approach this Oscar cycle is that it’s been for the sake of such shitty art.
Bohemian Rhapsody is, beat by beat, so close to Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan’s 2007 comedy Walk Hard that it feels like someone copied the latter without realizing that it’s a spoof of the musical biopic genre. A few days ago, a clip showcasing a visually incoherent conversation scene from Bohemian Rhapsody went viral, with commenters speculating that the movie’s editor, John Ottman, had done the best he could after a production that went disastrously awry. But then what does it mean for his evidently messy work to be up for an editing Oscar (his first)? The same could be asked of the plaudits Malek’s been getting for his performing-around-prosthetics impression of Freddie Mercury, a man the film sanitizes and moralizes about. Malek has been praised for soldiering on despite Singer, as though Singer’s involvement were some accident of chance and not a central creative choice on the part of the people who put the movie together.
Green Book is more proficiently put together by director Peter Farrelly and his crew, but it’s also a clunky cliché of a thing, less interested in examining the racial themes it touts than delving into My Big Fat Greek Wedding–style broad ethnic shtick. Viggo Mortensen’s character, Tony, tosses out a pair of drinking glasses after they’re used by black workers at the start of the film, but by the time he meets up with the celebrated pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), that animus has been conveniently subsumed by odd-couple comedy, as if overcoming racism were as easy as getting used to traveling with someone who’s cleaner or messier than you are. Ali infuses his character with lonely dignity, and Mortensen folds a whole pizza in half and eats it; while both are extremely game, neither transcends the material or makes it more than it is — a creaky road trip movie that makes occasional attempts to engage with historical realities on which it has a painfully limited perspective.
Rami Malek, Golden Globe winner for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama, with Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen during the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards on January 6, 2019.
There’s an irony to the way that 2018’s award conversation started earlier in the year with hand-wringing over Black Panther, a blockbuster that became a cultural phenomenon and a Best Picture nominee, but that was far enough outside of the Academy’s concept of an Oscar movie that it briefly and ill-advisedly introduced a new category, Best Popular Film, that was presumably intended to set up Marvel’s smash hit for an easy win. Looking at the slate of Best Picture nominees now, it feels like so much energy was wasted on fretting about whether a superhero movie could be awardworthy, when the more pressing conversation to be had is why the Academy remains so beholden to outdated thinking about what is respectable and what is important. It seems, often, to circle back to telling the stories about the pain of marginalized people after they’re gone and unable to speak for themselves. And yet, when members of those communities actually speak up, whether it’s against an alleged abuser, or against anti-Muslim sentiments from someone whose movie stars a prominent Muslim actor, those comments are brushed off.
When the Atlantic’s Singer story was published last week, it arrived not in conjunction with the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, as Singer had predicted, but right after the film had received five Academy Award nominations. Yet Singer doubled down on his framing of the piece as an attempt to derail his movie. “It is no surprise that, with Bohemian Rhapsody being an award-winning hit, this homophobic smear piece has been conveniently timed to take advantage of its success,” he said. It’s a breathtaking statement that, among other things, presents a Kevin Spacey–esque conflation of sexuality and abuse. But it’s also possible that Singer is cynically picking up on something in the current moment — a growing desire on the part of certain swaths of the film industry to go back to business as usual, to dismiss what the public is saying as empty outrage, trolling, or, in the words of Avi Lerner, “agenda driven fake news.”
Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody are the kind of films that Hollywood has traditionally loved to hold up as important, regardless of what the people who see aspects of their experience reflected on screen might have to say. It’s been an unusually ugly awards season, but also an illuminating one, because it’s shown the limits of how much the industry is willing to care about change. ●