Clip: Live from the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood and Highland, it’s the 92nd Academy Awards.
Peter Rainer: Hello, this is The Backlot podcast for the New York Film Academy. This is Peter Rainer, author of Rainer on Film 30 Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era, and critic for The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. Today, I’m going to talk about the Academy Awards that recently wrapped up. The purpose of the Academy Awards, of course, is, is to promote the film industry. That’s why it was created in 1927. Bunch of studio heads got together and decided that this would be a good way to monetize the Hollywood film industry and it worked. The ratings have gone down significantly over the years. Last year, the ratings were up a bit because they had no host. This year it was also a hostless show and the ratings were down something like 20 percent. This is due, I’m sure, primarily because of social media. A lot of people now just look at excerpts and clips and highlights, as opposed to actually sitting through the entire show, which tends to grind on anyway. But unless there’s some gaffe like there was a number of years ago when La La Land was mistakenly voted to Best Picture over Moonlight.
Clip: La La Land.
I’m sorry. No, there’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture.
Peter Rainer: It’s usually those kinds of moments that you remember and not all the other stuff. The range of movies this year is criticized for not being diverse enough. There was the whole Oscars So White campaign that started a number of years ago when none of the actors in any of the categories were anything but white. And also this year there was a lot of controversy because there were no women who directed among the five nominees. And there was only one actor of color, Cynthia Erivo for Harriet, who was nominated in the acting categories, you know a total of 20 slots. My attitude towards all of these controversies is that I would like to see Hollywood be far more diverse than it is in terms of who’s represented, who’s stories are represented, who gets to direct. But I’m a critic and not a sociologist and so I, and presumably the academy of voters who were voting for excellence, quote unquote. You know, I can only endorse and vote for those films and performances that I think are truly deserving and first rate. The fact that there aren’t more of those kinds of films by women directors and actors and filmmakers of color is due to the fact that the industry has not been nearly as welcoming to those filmmakers, those artists and those stories as they should be. That’s a separate issue from saying that you’re going to vote for a more diverse roster of winners. I think you have to vote for what’s out there. And the fact that there aren’t more films of that type that are represented at the Oscars connects up to the problem of why these filmmakers and actors don’t have greater opportunities. As opposed to these are the films that are out there and you have to vote for what’s out there.
Peter Rainer: In terms of what was out there this year, there were certainly a number of performances and pieces of direction that I thought were overlooked in this realm that could have been cited. I’m not the biggest fan of little women, but I do think that the best aspect of it was the directing and the performances.
Clip: You’re a great deal too good for me, and I’m so grateful to you and I’m so proud of you. And I just I don’t see why I can’t love you as you want me to. I don’t know why.
No. I can’t, I can’t change how I feel. And it would be a lie to say I do when I don’t. I’m so sorry Teddy.
Peter Rainer: And Octavia Spencer was marvelous this year. You know, a lot of actors were neglected. So the larger question here is just how relevant, how accurate are the Oscars as any kind of indices of excellence? I think we can probably all agree that the Oscars are a lot of fun. They’re a lot of fun to watch. But as any kind of true indicator of what was the best in a given year, it falls pretty short. I think the last time I thought the best picture of the year was actually the best picture of the year was maybe like The Godfather, Part 2. So there are a lot of good movies that don’t get recognized. You have to look at the Oscars as inextricably linked with the members of the Academy who vote the Oscars, who are until fairly recently overwhelmingly white and domestic and older, all of which leads to certain kinds of films and certain kind of nominations. This year, there was a concerted attempt to broaden the membership internationally, which may explain the success of the South Korean movie Parasite, which won, you know, Picture, Director, and Screenplay, among others. But there still remains a certain amount of controversy as to whether the Foreign Language movie, which is now called I think Best International Film, you know, whether films that are not in English should be cited by the academy as the best film of the year, for example. Now, Parasite won arguably the two major awards of the night, Best Picture and then also Best Director.
Clip: And the Oscar goes to Parasite.
Peter Rainer: The question is, you know, did Bong Joon Ho who directed Parasite, you know, he’s he’s had a tour of duty in Hollywood. He did Snowpiercer.
Clip: What are you saying?
We take the engine and we control the world.
When is the time?
Peter Rainer: And Okja was Netflix and had a lot of English speaking actors in it.
Clip: 10 years in planning. On the cusp of a product that will feed millions, and what happens? That farmer girl is gonna destroy us.
Peter Rainer: So he already was kind of in the club, in that sense. He wasn’t a total outsider. But nevertheless it was a very homegrown film, very South Korean. But it did strike a large nerve with the larger voting body because it’s a film that is a kind of deranged upstairs, downstairs. It’s a film about income inequality in a sense. And I think that’s one of the things that really helped put it over.
This is the first time that a Foreign Language film has ever won the Best Picture Oscar in 90-some years, but to argue that of all the foreign films that have been made, that this was the best and the only one that deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar, that’s certainly not true. The fact that the Best Picture Oscar has never gone to any movie by Kurosawa, to Antonioni, to Fellini, to Jean Renoir, to Ingmar Bergman, to Francois Truffaut, to Jean Luc Godard. You know, I could go on and on and on. Some of those directors have won the Foreign Language film, but not the Best Picture.
Now, there’s no law in the Academy that says that if you are a documentary, you can’t also be nominated for Best Picture. In the case of Animated, I believe Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture. So again, I mean, there’s no law that says that a film by, say, Miyazaki, the great Japanese animator who won Animated Oscars, could not also have qualified and won for Best Picture. The idea that a Best Picture is only English language is kind of silly, but if you’re going to create categories, then the question is, well, why are you doing that? If it’s just a wide open for Best Picture and any movie can qualify, then why do you have these separate categories? Because what happens is, like for instance Roma last year was nominated for both Foreign Language Film and Best Picture. And the prevailing wisdom was that it would not win Best Picture despite rapturous reception because it had already won best foreign film and, you know you split your vote and et cetera. And that’s probably what happened. In this case with Parasite, I think it just sort of overrode all those considerations.
Does this set a precedent for this happening again in the future? I doubt it. I think it’s somewhat of an anomaly, given, I think, the lack of any really strong competition. But I think that it’s important to recognize films for the cultures in which they are made and not to assume that everything that gets the nod in Hollywood is going to lead to bigger and better and more expensive and more, quote, commercial product. So the Oscars have a lot to answer for. But I think that the outpouring of affection for Parasite this year was deserved because I thought it was a good movie. If it hadn’t been a good movie, you know, forget it. You know, I didn’t think Crazy Rich Asians was a very good movie and I said at the time, I think this isn’t really going to lead to very much in Hollywood in the way of relevant strong movies by and about Asian actors, directors, writers, stories. It’s just going to lead to Crazy Rich Asians, Part Two. I wasn’t crazy this year about the movie The Farewell, but, you know, you could argue that that was also shafted by the academy. It was a much lower profile film with an Asian cast than Parasite was.
Peter Rainer: The acting categories, I thought they were pretty much a lock. The Supporting Actor, Actress and so forth were pretty predictable as to who would win. In most cases, I thought that they chose well among the five that were nominated.
Clip: Here are the nominees for performance by an actress in a leading role. Cynthia Erivo, Harriet. Scarlett Johannson, Marriage Story. Saoirse Ronan, Little Women. Charlize Theron, Bombshell. Renee Zellweger, Judy. And the Oscar goes to Renee Zellweger.
Peter Rainer: Renee Zellweger winning for Judy, the fact that she was playing Judy Garland, you know, when actors play famous actors in movies and biopics, that often tilts the Academy, narcissists that they are, into voting for them. I thought she was terrific in a not very good movie.
Clip: I’m working harder than you would ever believe.
And right now, my husband is making a deal for me that means I can start over.
You’re not listening.
I have someone I can rely on, someone who’s helping me make money instead of losing it at the track.
Can we not?
I’m going to get a place and they’re going to live with me.
Peter Rainer: And Scarlett Johansson, I thought, was the lesser of the two leads in Marriage Story. I thought her performance wasn’t quite up to what Adam Driver was doing and her role wasn’t quite as well written.
Clip: I can’t believe I have to know you forever.
Oh you’re f**kin’ insane. And you’re f**king winning.
Are you kidding me? I wanted to be married. I already lost. You didn’t love me as much as I loved you.
Peter Rainer: So it made the film a little top heavy in terms of what the story was about. Saoirse Ronan is just an incredible actress in Little Women. She’s only 25 and, you know, already been nominated several times. She’s really, you know, incredibly versatile. Movies like Brooklyn. She’s done Chekhov on film. She’s, she’s done, you know, just about everything there is that she can do and there’s obviously a great deal more to come. Cynthia Erivo for Harriet, I thought it was a very strong performance again in a movie that I thought was pretty staid and, given the subject matter, a rather uninspiring piece of filmmaking.
Clip: Here are the nominees for performance by an actor in a leading role. Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory. Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Adam Driver, Marriage Story. Joaquin Phoenix, Joker. Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes. And the Oscar goes to Joaquin Phoenix, Joker.
Peter Rainer: In the Best Actor category, Joaquin Phoenix was the clear favorite and he did win. It’s a movie that I found to be sort of powerful, but in a way powerfully pointless. But his performance is one of a series of really strong performances that he’s given in his career.
Clip: I don’t need you to tell me lies. I know it seems strange. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I don’t know why everyone is so rude. I don’t know why you are. I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little bit of warmth, maybe a hug, dad. How ’bout just a little bit of f**king decency. What is it with you people? You say that stuff of my mother.
Peter Rainer:Antonio Banderas in Pain and Glory was marvelous. And it was a very uncharacteristic performance, so I’m glad it was recognized. Banderas is an actor who’s typically very emotionally out there. His energy is all outward-directed. And in this film where he’s playing a sort of stand in for the director, Pedro Almodóvar. His energy is all sort of inward-directed and every bit as powerful and strong as, as what he’s done in the past. So I think it was a real change for him as a performing style and it was eminently successful. And Adam Driver in Marriage Story I thought was extraordinary. And Jonathan Price in the year’s most unlikely buddy movie, the bromance The Two Popes was strong playing opposite Anthony Hopkins.
Clip: I cannot do this without knowing that there is a decent possibility that you might be chosen.
No. It could never be me.
All right. We’re at an impasse. You cannot retire from the church unless I agree to your going. And I cannot resign until you agree to stay.
Clip: Here are the nominees for achievement in directing. Sam Mendez, 1917.
Peter Rainer: As far as the directing categories go, well, I thought 1917 was sort of a stunt. The idea that it was all shot in one take, it wasn’t of course, but it was made to look that way, was justifiable. But, but I think that if the movie had been shot in the normal way, you know, broken up into, to scenes and camera shots and so forth, that it would be seen for being the conventional war movie that in many ways, it is.
Clip: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman.
Peter Rainer: The Irishman was a movie I was not totally on board for. It’s a well-crafted, well-acted piece of work. The problem I had with The Irishman is that I think that the De Niro character, the hitman is they go a little soft on him. That, as is true of a lot of gangster movies, even much greater ones like The Godfather, that there’s a tendency to soft play the psychopathology of these characters. After all, in The Irishman, DeNiro’s hitman is really unrepentant and uncaring about any of the people that he’s offed, except for Jimmy Hoffa. And I wish the film had explored that a bit more instead of, you know, somewhat sentimentalizing him.
Clip: Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Peter Rainer: Quentin Tarantino and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you know, he writes killer dialogue. He makes you want to watch anything that he shoots. And the period recreation of that time in Hollywood was quite extraordinary and I found parts of it very moving. And Brad Pitt, I thought, was was terrific and deserved to win the Best Supporting Actor award.
Clip: My hands are registered as a lethal weapons. That means we get into a fight. I accident kill you. I go to jail.
Anybody accidentally kills anybody in a fight, they go to jail. It’s called manslaughter. And I think all that lethal weapon horses**t is just an excuse so you dancers never have to get in a real fight.
Peter Rainer: But I did have a problem with the way the film wraps up, which is similar to what he did in Inglorious Basterds, where he takes a horrific event and sort of redoes it so it turns out to be the way we all wanted it to turn out. And I think that using these horrific real life events as jumping off points for kind of, you know, pulp fantasias, I find sort of problematic.
Clip: Here are the nominees for performance by an actress in a supporting role. Kathy Bates, Richard Jewel. Laura Dern, Marriage Story. Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit. Florence Pugh, Little Women. Margot Robbie, Bombshell. And the Oscar goes to Laura Dern, Marriage Story.
Peter Rainer: Laura Dern is beloved in Hollywood and also is quite terrific, aside from Marriage Story, where she won, in Little Women.
Clip: I’m angry nearly every day of my life.
I’m not patient by nature. But with nearly 40 years of effort, I’m learning to not let it get the better of me.
Peter Rainer: Florence Pugh was also terrific in Little Women.
Clip: And if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is.
Peter Rainer: I don’t understand the Jojo Rabbit push, Scarlett Johansson, or much of anything about that movie. It’s not that I objected to the fact that this is a film about a little boy whose fantasy friend is Hitler in war time and that. It just, I didn’t find it funny. You know, I think that you can do that sort of thing, that kind of black satire if you’re a lot sharper. It didn’t really think out what it was trying to do. Both as satire and as serious film. But then again, I didn’t like Life is Beautiful either for similar reasons.
Clip: Here are the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. American Factory, Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, and Jeff Reichert. The Cave, Feras Fayyad, Kirstine Barfad, and Sigrid Dyekjær. The Edge of Democracy, Petra Costa, Joanna Natasegara, Shane Boris, and Tiago Pavan. For Sama, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts. Honeyland, Ljubo Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska, and Atanas Georgiev. And the Oscar goes to American Factory.
Peter Rainer: It was a marvelous year for documentaries and I know that a lot of you students are interested in making documentaries and that’s really important. Documentaries are a marvelous way to explore a culture, explore a subject, really get into it. And also, you really have to tell a story when you’re doing a documentary and you have to choose the right subject. You can’t just film, you know, a movie about the checkout line at the supermarket. I mean, it has to be something that really uncovers something or in some way really plugs into the human condition. And I know you all have a lot of stories out there, personal stories, stories of your origins and where you come from and where you’re going, that, that would make, you know, marvelous documentaries. So you should take a lot of comfort from the opening up of such avenues as Netflix to show these films. In the Documentary Feature category, you know, there was American Factory, which won. I particularly liked Honeyland and For Sama and The Cave. The Cave and For Sama were both very hard films to watch. They’re about, you know, death and destruction in Syria. But they were very good movies, too. It wasn’t just that they were showing you a lot of horrific stuff and, you know, gee, I’m glad the cameraman got out OK. But they were powerful testaments to the survival instincts and the human tragedy and the human spirit that comes from, you know, surviving and persevering in these terrible conditions. And Honeyland was about a Macedonian beekeeper who takes care of her aged mother and has some issues with her neighbors and what comes of all of that. And like a lot of movies that start small, it expands to take in quite a bit more than its ostensible subject. And it really is about the human condition and about surviving and the ancient beekeeping traditions that this woman has lived by or torn asunder by commercial interests. I think the film far transcends the basic description of it as a kind of, you know, movie about how capitalism destroys ecology. But thankfully the filmmakers don’t underline it. You discovered for yourself, and that’s always the best way to experience movies anyway, I think, is when you are brought into the movie as opposed to being hit over the head.
Clip: Here are the nominees for Best Original Screenplay.
Okay I’m going to open this for you.
No, not yet…
Peter Rainer: The Best Original Screenplay, again, was a Bong Joon Ho for Parasite.
Clip: Bong Joon Ho.
Peter Rainer: And I think in many ways it was the most inventive and interesting screenplay. Knives Out was a funny whodunnit. Marriage Story, I think, had its moments, certainly. 1917, less so. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, uneven but strong. But I think it was justifiably given to Parasite because that was a movie that, again, sort of was about something that on the surface was a small scale domestic drama, and yet expanded into a much larger indictment, really, of income inequality and the grasping on both sides of that inequality to survive.
Clip: Here are this year’s nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Irishman, screenplay by Stephen Zaillian. Little Women, written for the screen by Greta Gerwig. Joker, written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. Jojo Rabbit, screenplay by Taika Waititi. The Two Popes, written by Anthony McCarten and the Oscar goes to Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit.
Peter Rainer: In the adapted screenplay category, Jojo Rabbit won. Little Women, you know as I mentioned, I thought had, had issues with the screenplay. I had more issues with the screenplay than I did with with any other aspect of the film, because Greta Gerwig, who also directed, of course, shuffles the time scheme so that you’re going, you know, flash forwards, flashback and so forth. And I found myself looking at the length of the hair of the characters in the various scenes to determine, you know, which time zone I was in. And I don’t know why that had to be.
Clip: Here are the nominees for performance by an actor in a supporting role. Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Peter Rainer: In the Best Supporting Actor category, I mentioned Brad Pitt I think was was highly deserving. It’s a testament, again, to the fact that you can be a big movie star and also be a really good actor. They don’t always go together. You know, you can be a big star and not necessarily have the chops to be a really good actor or vise versa. There are a lot of wonderful actors who don’t have that charisma or the or didn’t get the right role and so they’re not stars. But the fact that Pitt is both is extraordinary and rather rare.
Clip: Al Pacino, The Irishman.
Peter Rainer: There are others like that. Al Pacino, for instance, who was also nominated in The Irishman. I thought he was quite good in that movie. Some people said he’s doing Shouty Al again, but I thought it was justified that he shouts a lot in that movie. He’s playing Jimmy Hoffa.
Clip: You know the operative word I’m talking about here. Solidarity. And it works. It works for all of us and it works for our friend here Frank Fitzsimmons. Frank Fitzsimmons here. My executive vise president. If there’s anyone that can do this job, it’s this man here and with him at my back, where are we going to go but up?
Clip: Joe Pesci, The Irishman.
Peter Rainer: Joe Pesci came out of a kind of retirement for The Irishman and again, as I mentioned with Antonio Banderas, an actor who’s known for very explosive, outward directed energy, directed all his energy in this performance inward and I thought it was equally powerful.
Clip: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
Peter Rainer: Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood playing Fred Rogers. It could have been just some adept impersonation, a sort of soft sneakers and cardigan performance, but it was much more than that. I think he really inhabited the soul of Fred Rogers and was, even though it was a supporting performance, it was the kind of emotional center of that film.
Clip: Bill was right. You love people like me.
What are people like you? I’ve never met anyone like you in my entire life.
I don’t think you are broken.
Clip: And the Oscar goes to Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Peter Rainer: So the bottom line with the Academy Awards is that we have to recognize that they are not a true mark of excellence in most cases. It’s kind of a circus. It’s kind of a political show, but it does on occasion promote certain films and filmmakers, countries that deserve to be recognized. And my feeling about the win this year for Parasite for Best Picture is, I’m basically all for it because I think it was a very good movie and it also had the added benefit of being a kind of political statement in the best way. Hollywood movies have been mostly rather conventional and not terribly good for the most part. The interesting work is coming out of the indie realm, much more so than the studios, which tend to recycle franchises. And anytime you move out of that box, I think is a good thing, whether it’s in awards or anywhere else. So I’ll just leave it at that. I think that hopefully next year will build on this year rather than this turning out to be some sort of one-off anomaly. So thanks everybody for listening and go out and make the best movies, best performances, best editing, best cinematography, best sound mixing, best everything, OK? Because you’re in a good place to really learn all of that, and one day maybe you’ll be in the Student Academy Awards category or the regular Academy Award category. The important thing is don’t make movies to win awards. Make movies because you really care about them. Bong Joon Ho said in his acceptance speech that one is most creative when one is most personal and I think that’s also true for you all, that you have to make movies that really mean something to you and not necessarily just, you know, resumes for studio work. You should experiment and do things that you really care about. And a lot of student filmmakers who have gone on to big things in Hollywood, I’ve seen their student movies and they were not traditional cookie cutter films. The student films of Spike Lee, Terry Malick, Scorsese, De Palma, David Lynch, many others were all very different from what you normally see. So go thou and do likewise.
Perter Rainer: This is Peter Rainer, I’m a teacher at the New York Film Academy. This is The Backlot podcast talking about the Oscars. The show is edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. The creative director is David Andrew Nelson. Executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Great talking to you.