Although Kathryn Bigelow's sweep at the Oscars makes my little feminist heart beat a little faster in recognition of a historical mile marker that's been a long time coming, the critic in me has been cringing all night. Last night, when The Hurt Locker took home the big win, it finally solidified the Oscars as a meaningless popularity contest (not that there's anything wrong with that). And while scores of women are rejoicing this epic win, I'm going to sit here an be the cranky one that may very well be stripped of her feminist credentials.
In high school, I was a high ranking member of one of the most prestigious orchestras in my state. During freshmen year, each new member was excited to be a part of something creatively engaging and important, a great place to showcase their talent and move up in the ranks, gaining solo responsibilities and a piece of fluff to add to a college application. It all seemed merit based, and as a result freeing and meaningful, a place to gain true validation for your work. But as the years progressed, politics started to play a huge role as reality set in. There were people who deserved to be first chair but didn't get it because they were younger, there were people who deserved to move back but didn't because they'd always sat there and it would look bad if they did. And there were people that were rewarded just because it was something different, even if they didn't deserve it. Suddenly, it all seemed rather pointless and practicing became even more arduous. When Mo'Nique thanked the Academy for cutting out the politics and concentrating on the performances, I thought back to those high school orchestra days and desperately hoped that she was right. Too bad she was wrong.
Here's the thing. The Hurt Locker is a very solid movie, very neatly and correctly put together. It deserves the awards it received in Editing and for Bigelow as Best Director. It is a tense, exciting experience. But it is also just another war movie that does little, outside of building a constant anxiety in the audience, to move beyond those confines. It is not a best picture, not even close.
A best picture should or can be a number of things, but over all, it should do something incredible. Maybe it's truly innovative in its use of the medium (Avatar), or maybe it captures something powerful that can only be felt, not described (A Serious Man). This is the highest award a film can receive, and it better be damn good, above and beyond just being well put together.
But tonight, the Academy got caught up in the politics, as they've done since the beginning all 82 years ago. Avatar was the expected win, and oh gosh, it is a sci-fi movie, just like District 9, we can't have that. It would also be just another notch on James Cameron's Oscar bed post and another reason for his smug smile to float around the talk circuit. Let's face it, The Blind Side isn't really an Oscar movie, we all know I think Up in the Air was the most overrated movie ever marketed, and Up already took home its golden statue in the animated category. Like Cameron, Oscar wins are old hat to the Coen Bros., and Inglourious Basterds is a film that everyone loves, but seems afraid to love too much. Really, seniority, dues, and genre issues all considered, that just leaves Hurt Locker, even if it's not the most deserving. And An Education? Apparently everyone forgot that that was also, like Bigelow, directed by a female, Lone Scherfig.
It's interesting to note the difference. Bigelow, as every news media source keeps trying to tell us, made a male movie, about war and violence, her gender in relation to the subject matter making her some sort of alien anomaly, and perhaps feeding the power leading up to this win and reports that she's the new "transvestite of directors." Scherfig's gender on the other hand, goes unnoticed by the masses, perhaps because An Education is a female movie. It's rather ironic that both films are the same in that they tell their story very effectively, but that neither does anything we haven't seen before, and no, those films aren't, nor should they be, categorized by gender.
It's all getting tiresome. While I don't think that The Hurt Locker won because of Bigelow's gender, it's hard not to see how the obsession with gender and how it put her film into the spotlight didn't influence the decision and didn't place it into the minds of the Academy because of the controversy. While it's nice to see somebody finally caring about the representation of women, this feels a little like me having to choose between Hillary and Barack. And although the New York Times may be correct in asserting that a gender neutral acting category is best, doing so would not only cut out a good thirty minutes of programming and limit the nominees, it's also not something our country is ready for if we're still mentioning that Bigelow is a lady and getting all worked up because she made a war movie. I just get the feeling that had Bigelow been a guy, Avatar would have won.
Because of their presumed weight and importance as a mark of excellence, I wish that the Oscars would cut the politics once in a while and concentrate on the art. I know that in our current system that that automatically cuts a good portion of the people I want to have a voice. So I also wish that they would actively foster the right environment where a woman or an African American win would be normal and based entirely on the product, and not an occasional pat on the back for the Academy, which often feels something akin to a large corporation requiring diversity training to make themselves look better. I wish we could go back to 2009 and give Mickey Rourke the Oscar for The Wrestler and give Colin Firth the award for this year. I wish we could go back and acknowledge all the other female directors, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Mira Nair, Agnes Varda, and the countless others, in addition to all the minority actors that have been ignored. I wish that film was open to anyone with the talent and drive, regardless of who they were and the money they have. I wish that in the future, the pinnacle of film awards would mean something again.
But I know what you're thinking; this is the Oscars, what did you expect?