2023 Oscars take two steps forward and one step back

Image courtesy of Timothy A. Gonsalves via Wikimedia Commons.

The 2023 Academy Awards, telecasted on March 12, were a success for inclusion in the films themselves, yet showed signs that Hollywood remains resistant to change. This year was a dramatic improvement from the morbid and spectacular failure of the 2022 Academy Awards, a truncated show marred by the second-lowest ratings in Oscars’ history according to the Hollywood Reporter, with some categories even awarded off-screen. (And of course, the infamous Slap occurred). 2023’s Jimmy Kimmel-hosted show triumphed as a buoyant celebration of one of the most delightfully strange and unexpected Best Picture winners ever, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which swept the awards with a staggering eleven nominations and seven wins. Michelle Yeoh’s Best Actress win made her the first Asian actress to take the award; in her acceptance speech, Yeoh emphasized the importance of Asian visibility in film and dedicated the award to mothers everywhere in a show of female empowerment. 

Elsewhere in the show, the stone rolled forward. Ruth E. Carter became the first Black woman to win two Oscars, garnering Best Costume Design in “Wakanda Forever” to add to her prior win for “Black Panther.” “RRR”’s “Naatu Naatu” nabbing Best Song and “The Elephant Whisperers” win in Best Documentary Short were significant moments of representation for India, a country historically underrepresented at the Oscars. And as Sarah Polley acknowledged as she accepted the Best Adapted Screenplay award, the Academy honoring a film named “Women Talking” is an achievement for an institution that has systematically silenced its female stars. 

The night seemed like a breath of fresh air for the institution. Kimmel’s hosting was breezy and (mostly) inoffensive, evoking Oscar feel-good charm similar to the direction of Billy Crystal or maybe even Bob Hope; after several years of Oscar ceremonies with multiple hosts and dramatic disruptions, a by-the-books ceremony was a comfort. Some jokes were duds (like asking Nobel Peace Prize-winning women’s rights activist Malala about the Harry Styles/Chris Pine beef). Still, Kimmel’s risk-averse material dogging on industry black sheep “Babylon” and James Cameron’s absenteeism steered clear of a below-the-belt cringefest. 

The nominations and awards themselves were the real star of this show, which spotlighted redemptive, incredible personal narratives on and off the screen. Brendan Fraser’s Best Actor win for “The Whale” was notably cathartic; he was Hollywood’s favored hunky male lead through the late ’90s and early 2000s before being sexually assaulted by Hollywood Foreign Press Association president Philip Berk, leading to Fraser’s blacklisting from the film industry after trying to speak out. His institutional re-acceptance, codified in critical wins and teary-eyed speeches, does not exonerate Hollywood, but demonstrates an attempt at amends. Similarly, Ke Huy Quan’s Best Supporting Actor win was preceded by a career struggling to find respectful, non-typecast roles due to his Asian-American identity, leading to a moment of mass cultural acceptance. Jamie Lee Curtis’ legendary career legitimizing genre film as art earned her the Best Supporting Actress win (and warmed my heart as a genre movie fan), even if performances by fellow nominees Stephanie Hsu and Kerry Condon were a bit stronger. By embracing the journeys of industry titans and those marginalized by power structures, this year felt like an Oscars show for everyone. 

While welcome signs of inclusions were justly celebrated, frustrating areas of Old Hollywood remained in sight. Egregiously, the Academy failed to nominate any women for the Best Director category, suggesting a continuation of the Academy’s retrograde, elitist, paternalist history. Of all categories the Academy honors, this seems the most resistant to gender parity; it’s especially galling given last year’s wealth of excellent movies helmed by women, such as Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun,” Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love,” Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till,” Maria Schrader’s “She Said,” Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” and Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking.” While some of these movies received Oscar nominations in other categories (Paul Mescal for Best Actor in “Aftersun” and Polley as screenwriter for “Women Talking”), it’s astounding that none were recognized for their amazing women directors. This failure comes on the heels of incremental progress. Jane Campion’s Best Director win last year for “Power of the Dog” and Chloe Zhao’s 2021 victory for directing “Nomadland,” also that ceremony’s Best Picture, suggested this category was opening to new perspectives and demographics. Once again, we have seen the pendulum swing back towards a status quo that ignores outstanding women directors. Directing is a premier position in Hollywood, arguably the heart of film production. Directors manage actors and crew, influence every aspect of craft and dictate the film’s artistic vision, possessing enormous creative power on set. The prevention of women from accessing positions of power and Hollywood’s patriarchal history has left little precedent of past female directors, resulting in the institutional disregard of modern female representation in the director role.

We have to raise the question: If the Oscars, a show meant to recognize achievement in film meritocratically, have so often shunted this meritocracy to preserve the hegemony of white male identity, is it possible to achieve success in film without the Academy’s institutional backing? Although social media and the proliferation of smartphone cameras have made student and amateur filmmaking unprecedentedly accessible, the film medium is still inherently difficult to work in due to its intricate nature, an elaborate combination of cinematography, writing and sound design requiring resources and labor not always available to the historically marginalized. Being platformed is also challenging, with showings in movie theaters and visibility on streaming platforms taking money, industry connections or both. Perhaps the most critical part of the Academy’s stranglehold on gender diversity in film is that the Academy does not create financial or critical success, but rather confers prestige onto movies that ensures their immortalization in the popular film canon. If the Academy utilized its status as gatekeeper to consistently recognize the wealth of talent regardless of gender, it would legitimize women in the film industry’s historically-patriarchal positions of power. 

Nonetheless, 2022 was the year where movies bounced back financially and creatively from the COVID-19 pandemic, making for an Oscars night with stacked categories, promising nominees and tons of incredible films. I highly recommend checking out anything represented at the Oscars and beyond. My personal favorites from last year were “Tár,” “The Banshees of Inisherin,” “Nope,” “Decision to Leave” and, of course, “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Enjoy!

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