The 2017 Academy Awards are February 27th and many of the races are considered to be tight. However, up until Sunday everyone who bothers to pay attention to these things had pretty much decided that the Oscar race for Best Picture was going to come down to La La Land and Moonlight. Then along comes the SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) Awards to, once again, upset the proverbial apple cart. The 2017 SAG Awards gave the equivalent of best picture to Hidden Figures!
Why is this a big deal? Because the last time the SAG Awards gave its best cast award to an unexpected winner was in 2006. That was the year the movie Crash beat out the heavily favored Brokeback Mountain for SAG’s best ensemble. It went on to take the Oscar for Best Picture. Few people saw that one coming. The Critics Choice Awards. Golden Globes, and the Producers Guild Awards had all gone for Brokeback Mountain.
It’s not that all the awards shows leading up to the Oscars just rubberstamp the eventual winner. Not exactly anyway. The Golden Globes give top honors twice for film: one for drama and one for a comedy or musical. When both are excellent you end up with a sense of a tossup – like the whole Moonlight vs. La La Land debate. In the recent past the split has been for things like American Hustle vs 12 Years A Slave. Still, it’s rare that one of the two top Golden Globe films don’t take the Academy Award for best picture. Could this year be one of them?
Why the SAG Awards go Rogue
Last season when the Academy Awards were facing the outcry of #OscarsSoWhite regarding their nominations, the Screen Actors Guild was patting itself on the back for the SAG awards’ diversity. It was last year’s ongoing debate that had the Academy changing its rules for membership so that it reflected more of the industry’s makeup. #OscarsSoWhite was about a lack of valuing stories focused on those outside of white America. That lack was in part because the Academy itself has a diversity problem.
SAG is likely the most diverse guild in the movie business (which doesn’t mean they’ve nailed it.) Part of that is the nature of acting. SAG actors run the gamut from megastar to background extras. There are just more actors needed than directors or producers. Once the business stopped putting white people in blackface the diversity of SAG naturally (but slowly…very slowly) increased. The result is that SAG as a body appreciates a wider range of stories than the other guilds..
It’s Also Because of What Actors Do
What is acting? It’s portraying a character’s emotions in a made-up scenario that they need to make the audience believe is actually happening. Because of this actors have a discerning eye to whether what’s happening onscreen feels real. In this way they are more like the rest of us in the general audience. They are judging the experience of how a movie made them feel. Who cares if a shot wasn’t perfect or the words were clumsy? If a performance manages to sock you in the gut anyway then that’s one heck of an actor. That’s what the SAG awards are about: It’s not, “did you see it?” but, “did you feel it.” A movie like 2003’s “Crash” or this year’s “Hidden Figures” leaves the audience with an emotional residue that is slow to fade. That is the best any performer and any movie can hope for.
The 2017 SAG Awards…and Then There’s The Politics
When people say Hollywood is mostly liberal I just smile. Liberals are to Hollywood what African-Americans are to the NBA – rarely in management or ownership. That being said, you do see a lot more of liberal celebrities. I don’t know, maybe it’s because the hallmark of a liberal is being perceptive, emotional and empathetic – all traits an actor needs to have to do a good job. In any case, when America is going through tough times the actors tend to be very dialed in to it. As we saw during the 2017 SAG Awards those who have success have no problem talking about how they feel about things.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) wasn’t the only one talking about Trump and his “anti-immigration” ban against seven muslim countries. Between the show’s intro with Ashton Kutcher, the acceptance speeches, and the pre/post -interviews, just about every winner and nominee spoke out against it
Could Hidden Figures Crash La La Land’s Oscar Party?
The suggestion that Hidden Figures could win out over the darling La La Land or Moonlight may seem sacrilegious, but in 2006 few thought Crash would beat Brokeback Mountain – except for the members of the SGA.
Well…do you remember 2005?
It was the first year of the second term for Republican President George W. Bush. America had gone to war with Iraq in 2003 – supposedly over “weapons of mass destruction.” Years later we’d learn otherwise. (The Bush administration ignored all the CIA reports and caveats that said there weren’t and embellished the reports to get Congress to vote for war.) Liberals never bought that they needed to be there to begin with, but after the mess was made, most agreed America needed to help clean it up. It was not a happy time.
Then, on August 29th, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Katrina pummeled huge parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, but the desperation was most concentrated in New Orleans. Before the storm, the city’s population was mostly black (about 67 percent); moreover, nearly 30 percent of its people lived in poverty. Katrina exacerbated these conditions, and left many of New Orleans’s poorest citizens even more vulnerable than they had been before the storm. (www.history.com)
Hurricane Katrina didn’t just break the levees surrounding the city, it broke the levees white people had about race and class.
The human suffering from Hurricane Katrina and the images of mostly black hurricane victims and looters have provoked new debates about tough public policy decisions, the nation’s troubled racial history and the racial and economic barriers that still separate Americans. (www.cbsnews.com)
Als0 happening in 2005 were some strong moves for and against LGBT rights and marriage equality – both in the U.S. and across the world. Here are just a few events: Spain, Canada and the state of Connecticut legalized same sex marriage, while Kansas banned it. That fall the state of California was in a battle to legalize same sex marriage with their legislature passing a bill for it and the state’s governor – Arnold Schwarzenegger – vetoing it.
Who Wins Awards? It’s All in the Timing
It’s the above mix of political events that the actors were swimming in when they voted for the best movie cast of 2005. Both Crash and Brokeback Mountain captured the emotional issues and questions that were swirling around that year. Crash felt like it was looking at us as a nation – and had a note of hope to it in the end. Brokeback Mountain made the case about the deadliness of homophobia. It was a beautiful but heartbreaking love story – emphasis on heartbreaking. (Brokeback Mountain still wrecks me when I think about it.)
The split in voting for these films says something about what people were wrestling with. It is rare that best director and best picture are not the same film. Yet, that is what happened.
Both movies won for their words: Brokeback Mountain won best adapted screenplay while Crash got best original. In the end people voted for the art of Brokeback Mountain. and the emotions brought up by Crash. Brokeback Mountain won Best Score and most importantly Ang Lee won Best Director. Crash won a technical award – best editing, but then took Best Picture.
Essentially, BrokeBack Mountain tackled an important subject and was arguably the best in the field artistically. Best Picture isn’t always just about the artistic achievement, though. It’s unconsciously about the emotions invoked and the statements the film makes.
In 1942 Citizen Kane, one of the best films made in the history of movies, lost best picture to How Green is My Valley. It’s a notorious loss, one usually blamed on the Orson Welles film having insulted media mogul William Randolph Hearst. However, if you look at what was happening in America in 1941, How Green is My Valley taps into the mourning of a nation. Pearl Harbor had just drawn America into a war they’d tried to pretend wasn’t happening and wanted no part of. The events in the film and its bittersweet nostalgia emotionally matched that of the voters.
The Timing of Hidden Figures Winning Best Cast
Like Crash and How Green is My Valley, Hidden Figures hits at a tumultuous point in American history. If you want to see just how much timing plays into the rise of Hidden Figures note that it was not nominated for a best drama Golden Globe. (It got a supporting actress nod for Octavia Spencer.)
Why is this important? The deadline for those Golden Globe nominations was October, 31 2016. At that point in time few in Hollywood were picturing a Donald Trump presidency. Without giving away the plot La La Land, with its Golden Age of Hollywood nostalgia and its overall story, it seems made for a Hillary Clinton presidency. As we know, that’s not what we have. The harsh realities of Trump in office make 2005 seem downright pleasant.
Many Clinton supporters were shocked that someone expressing such racist and sexist views could become the President of the United States. A story of brilliant African-American women who have been unrecognized because they were black and female now has a whole level of symbolism. The historical truth reflects the pain of what many are feeling now, while acknowledging these women is righting a wrong. It’s a powerful mix for an Oscar upset.
The Wrap Up
First of all, the cliche of, “it’s an honor just being nominated” is true. All the films we are talking about are outstanding – the best films of the year. Awards often say more about what’s happening at the time people are voting for them than the quality of the work. As such the 2017 SAG Awards once again have marked a shift in the playing field for the Oscars.
Prior to the 2017 SAG Awards La La Land was the favorite to win the 2017 best picture Oscar, with a possible upset by Moonlight. With the Hidden Figures surprise win for best cast it’s seems likely that a change has occurred, one brought on by the election of Donald Trump.
It would be foolish to rule out Moonlight – an emotionally raw and visually stunning film. In another break with the Golden Globes the best supporting actor went to Mahershala Ali. His acceptance speech spoke to the power of that film’s message and the gravity of Trump’s muslim ban – without mentioning the ban or referencing Trump.
The thing is, Moonlight was a genuine possibility before November 9th, 2016. Hidden Figures was not, which gives it serious momentum. You can feel that energy as people react to the acceptance speech by Taraji P. Henderson.
Hidden Figures was always an important and powerful film about U.S. history. What makes it even more so is what’s happening in America right now. Remember, at the Golden Globes people couldn’t even get the name of the movie right. That will not happen again. At the 2017 SAG Awards Henderson told the on-their-feet crowd that the women in the film will be “Hidden Figures” no longer. Don’t be surprised if the movie gets the biggest spotlight of them all: the Oscar for Best Picture.