Recently, Liza Schwarzbaum identified a new, or at least trending, sub-genre about men trying to do one last thing. She made some great points.
Oscar-watchers, however, are a bit more concerned about another recently trending type of film that has yet to be identified as such in the media. Here are its salient properties:
- It is set in the nostalgically rendered historical past of the 20th century.
- It offers forgiveness for its embattled lead male.
- In the final 30 minutes, its lead(s) “put on a show” of some kind, impressing or fooling an onscreen audience, which leads to redemption and success and some kind of renewed reward for heterosexual coupling.
This describes four of the last five Best Picture winners (SPOILERS): Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Argo. It does not describe the other six Best Picture winners of the last ten years, namely Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country For Old Men, and The Hurt Locker. If our Best Picture winners say something about ourselves, then something about ourselves has changed. Sure, we’ve had “stand up and cheer” winners in every era – say, The Broadway Melody (1929), Mrs. Miniver (1942), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and Rocky (1976). But there does seem to have been a shift, or at least a rather specific, overwhelming trend, and it’s got people nervous.
I’d like to dub this the “Show People” mini-genre, partly because it involves performance-within-performance; not just “performing” as, say, Dr. Stone must do to press the right buttons toward the end of Gravity, but really “performing” as in making a spectacle. I also like the other meaning – the lead is showing people that they were wrong, that he (usually he) really is worthy despite his previous underdog status.
Is the Show People sub-genre really, as the kids say, a thing? Or have I stretched the similarities of recent Oscar winners to make a specious point? Well, let’s take a closer look. Slumdog Millionaire is about a young man who comes up through the slums of Bombay (which becomes Mumbai, the film being historical) and lands a chance to win a million dollars on an Indian game show. In the film’s final act, he wins the million and the girl of his dreams. The King’s Speech is about an English royal who must learn to overcome a speech impediment in order to become the king he should be. In the film’s final act, he gives a knockout speech on the radio which assures his place as king, deserving of both Hitler-fighting and primogeniture. The Artist is about a silent-film star who finds no place in the new world of “talkies.” In the film’s final act, he puts on a big dance show, earning a Hollywood contract, the woman of his dreams, and even music itself. Argo (a liminal case, though the film is very Hollywood-on-Hollywood) is about a CIA agent who must extract American hostages from Iran during the 1979-80 crisis. In the film’s final act, the agent and the hostages play pretend successfully, fooling the Iranians at the airport, and make it back to the U.S.A., our lead agent returned to his wife and son.
What’s rankling Oscar-watchers is the sense that Show People films are over-performing amongst Oscar voters. We might trace this sense back to 2006, the year of The Departed. Like Million Dollar Baby and Crash before it, The Departed wasn’t historical or particularly redemptive; our lead hero(es) hardly danced into the sunset with their mates as we cheered. Yet a Show People film did show up late, after losing most of the precursors: Little Miss Sunshine, which had all the momentum going into Oscar night, enough to make Scorsese-lovers nervous that their man would be passed over one more ignominious time.
In 2007, there was no real Show People film in the running, and thus No Country For Old Men was able to beat There Will Be Blood in what 20th century observers might have called a “normal” Oscar race. In 2008, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button took the lion’s share of precursor awards. But its ending (Spoilers) was something of a downer, as Ben Button was “born” into Hurricane Katrina. Instead the “show people” film, Slumdog Millionaire, came on like gangbusters and took the whole thing. 2009 was a clash of exes as the Biggest Film Goliath of All Time, Avatar, took on the Lowest-Grossing Best Picture David of All Time, The Hurt Locker. None of the (now ten!) Best Picture nominees were true Show People films, but if you had to name one that checked most of the boxes, you’d name Inglourious Basterds – its ending wasn’t exactly a performance, but it was (Spoilers) a Nazi-killing snooker-job that took place in a movie theater. As with Little Miss Sunshine, the momentum seemed like it was over-swinging to Inglourious in the home stretch.
Ever since, it’s been nothing but basterds…well, that’s not fair. It’s not just that The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Argo are so Show People-y, but that they each star a 40ish-year-old white male hero. It’s not that any of them are bad movies, exactly, it’s that they vanquished better (and more lauded) movies like The Social Network and Lincoln. Like films that flunk the Bechdel Test (which they also do), The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Argo look worse as a group than they did as individuals. And (SPOILERS, SPOILERS) with its Best Ensemble win at the SAG Awards the other night, there’s another Show People film starring another 40-ish white guy threatening the very non Show-y 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, namely American Hustle. Caveats: Like Argo, American Hustle’s climactic performance is less of a “show” and more a bamboozle – in AH’s case, for an audience of one. Also: American Hustle is a lot more like a great film than the director’s previous effort, Silver Linings Playbook. (Though it’s not historical, by dint of SLP’s nominations in all the major categories, it counts as another Show People over-performer.) Should American hustle its way to victory, it’s already the best Best Picture of the decade. Still, can you blame Oscar pundits for tiring of the type? There’s an old saying that twice is a coincidence and three times is a conspiracy. I’m not saying that, but I’m not not saying it either.
Pre-Obama, pre-recession, Oscar voters still gravitated toward slightly more sober, less cheery narratives. Anyone doing a four-movie marathon of the winners from 2004 to 2007 isn’t going to be hugging himself with warm fuzzies. Did the rise of Obama coupled with the trauma of the recession – starting in late 2008, the year Slumdog won – encourage an up-by-the-bootstraps, one-in-a-million kind of narrative? Even Obama himself danced on Ellen before he won the election, enacting (and validating?) the full Show People narrative; in 2000, you never saw George Bush dancing anywhere.
What exactly do the Show People films say about the Oscar voters, and about us? The rise of excess performativity is hardly confined to a few Best Pictures. Some doubted that Americans could really pay consistent attention to four re-treads of American Idol, three different dance shows, two cooking contests, and a partridge in a pear tree. Provided that the partridge gets a big backstory buildup and then, at the end, has to execute moves in some sort of big show. As it turns out, Americans’ appetite for Showing People seems nearly insatiable. As a parent of small children, I can’t help notice one glaring difference between Sesame Street then and now: these days every single opening skit – always – must finish with some sort of song. Saturday Night Live has trended much the same way since the 1970s. Why are we making our leads finish by performing so egregiously for us? Are we turning into Bollywood? Are we seeing a method of redemption that seems achievable, relative to a more John McClane-like triumph-through-fireball-explosions? In a world where young men prefer video games, do Show People films transcend realism-vs.-fantasy debates – that is, no matter how unrealistic the narrative, on some level, that performer did just do that song/dance/bamboozle, and that was at least something? I’m just asking. I want to hear someone else start answering.
If the pundits are right about the top three Best Picture contenders, personally, I can’t lose on Oscar night. If 12 Years a Slave wins, my favorite film of the year gets covered in glory. If Gravity wins, I’ll cheer for Mexican directors and the coming-of-age of science fiction (even though Gravity isn’t really science fiction). And if American Hustle wins, well, this article will trend all over the place. That would be its own sort of hustle, amiright?