Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business.
BART: The Academy’s “reforms” to foster diversity are basically PR moves, which befits the fact that its President is a PR woman. Bring it all down to reality, and here’s what we can expect: In changing voting procedures, every move may trigger a contrary impact. From the PR standpoint, it sounds smart to remove older, inactive voters from the rolls. But here’s the catch: In many cases the older retired voters are the most conscientious about viewing the contenders (the younger ones are too busy making movies around the world). Further, the members who became Academy members in the ‘60s and ‘70s era tended to be liberals, even activists. The Academy may thus be cutting out the voters who’d be most favorably disposed to change and diversity.
FLEMING: This has so overwhelmed the proceedings that it has obscured something interesting. We are in the final run of the most exciting and wide open Best Picture race I can recall in all my years of covering Hollywood. After The Big Short won the PGA Award, you would have to say that at least five of the nominated films have a real shot at winning. When is that last time that happened? Are we discussing the journalistic procedural Spotlight, or the natural light and landscapes of The Revenant, the audacity of Mad Max: Fury Road, the courage of Room, the period gorgeousness of Brooklyn, the Cold War gamesmanship of Bridge Of Spies or Ridley Scott’s 3D mastery in The Martian? No. The narrative has become about painting the Academy and its voters as racists — unfairly, in my opinion.
Actors are being hounded for gotcha soundbites, and they then have to backpedal and issue clarifications if they stray into territory that violates the current PC mentality. So they’re better off not trying to explore a complicated set of issues that factor into nominations. This weekend I read straight-faced stories, breathlessly revealing that Chris Rock won’t bail on his Oscar hosting gig. That’s a scoop? When was it ever in doubt? Rock lobbied for the job; he signed a contract. Did anyone, for a moment, think he would exit because no black actors got nominated? How would that help anything? In a pretty insightful interview with Deadline, James Schamus acknowledged that homophobia among voters certainly impacted Brokeback Mountain’s Best Picture loss to Crash. But he noted that the Oscar is just a blue ribbon at a talent show and that this entire exercise exists to drive movie business revenues. Clearly, as currently comprised, the voting body is too old. Younger and more diverse voters are needed as well as widened categories that can be more inclusive of diversity. The Academy should have done this long ago, before this reached crisis mode. But it’s about business, and the click-bait media coverage is too simplistic.
My sources tell me that, by and large, the individual guilds have made only modest efforts to recruit from the minority community. There’s a lot of rhetoric but little action. On a corporate level, the big companies have stepped up recruitment programs, but they’ve run into the same problems that I encountered when I was a studio executive in an earlier era. To bright young minority candidates, the entertainment industry seems uninviting and non-inclusive. Other industries are out there effectively recruiting the best and brightest. They pay better and make better promises to newcomers about their future. I went out of my way to push diversity efforts, and with good results now and then, but it takes time and dedication.
FLEMING: Then why are all these high-net-worth individuals jumping into Hollywood? It seems to me like a pretty interesting world to be involved in. You know this diversity thing has gotten out of hand when Al Sharpton gets involved, and you wonder when will we see the introduction of the PC solidarity ribbon to be worn on the red carpet and what color it will be. And will this become like so many other issues that get white hot for a moment, smolder and get forgotten about, because people are afraid to actually explore the real reasons why all this stuff is happening? It’s easy to blame racism and claim you are on the right side of things and say, “Wow, those people are awful.”
BART: What do you think are the reasons?
FLEMING: Spike Lee hit one of them right on the head when he pinpointed there are no decision makers of color. There was such an outcry about women and pay disparity last fall; there are women in power positions all over Hollywood, and it’s still a problem. How can people of color get a fair shake when there are no executives who see the world through their eyes? I’ve discussed this issue with execs at Sundance who go out and struggle to raise money to make these movies. Most of that money comes from overseas, and I was told something I hadn’t considered. If you have the same package, and you send it to foreign distributors with an OK white actor, and then you send the identical package with most any black actor not named Will Smith and Denzel Washington in that lead role, here is what happens: I was told that those foreign territorial distributors collectively will give you as much as 60% more for the package with the white actor. No one will say this for the record for fear of being called racist, but can you imagine what a hardship that creates for a person of color trying to get the kinds of roles that lead to Oscar acceptance speeches? Is this racist? There is less tolerance overseas than in America, and you could say this is the reality of the movie business and the color of importance here is green.
Here’s the other thing about the snubbed nominees this year. Can you really attribute it only to skin color? I think that Will Smith’s terrific performance in Concussion was pre-emptively marginalized in an unfair and false front-page New York Times story claiming Sony kowtowed to the NFL and softened the film. That story broke months before the film’s release, before anybody had seen it, and I think it had a lingering impact. It was dismissed. Idris Elba’s performance in Beasts Of No Nation is the absolute class of the Best Supporting Actor category, in my opinion. Was his snub a referendum on race, or perhaps was the voting body not ready to consider Netflix streaming entries as serious Oscar candidates? Or was the movie too brutal for older voters? The one case I have no answer for is Samuel L. Jackson, who turns in one signature performance after another in Quentin Tarantino films only to be taken for granted and ignored. Is it racism, or do they marginalize him because he loves to work and makes so many movies, not all of them great? And since Robert De Niro still gets nominated even though he shows up in critically vilified films like Dirty Grandpa and Grudge Match, is that a racial double standard?
BART: I know you like railing about Concussion, Mike, but your suggestion that The Times had an “agenda” in running that story is paranoid. Did the story hold up? No. But that’s true of a lot of stories. Even on Deadline.
FLEMING: Oh, now you are a Times booster.
BART: And I admire Sam Jackson as much as you, but to cite Hateful Eight as a “snub” is shrill. Every line and every performance was insistently over-the-top in Tarantino’s picture, and the film suffered as a result, both at the box office and at nomination time. Speaking of De Niro, I’m always intrigued when a distributor decides to hide a film from critics, thereby publicly proclaiming its mediocrity. Dirty Grandpa opened quietly on 2,900 screens with no critic taking notice. Mind you, judging from word-of-mouth, that may be just as well. But the inanity (and nastiness) of Dirty Grandpa opens up a bigger question about its star: What is Robert De Niro doing with his career? I remember one great character actor in his declining years confessing to me, “I don’t read scripts, I just say ‘yes.’” Is this is what De Niro, age 72, has decided to do? Consider his current slate: Dirty Grandpa, The Heist, and The Bag Man. I felt he was completely wasted playing the simpering old retired guy in The Intern. His role in Joy was equally bland. Same for Last Vegas.
FLEMING: I say, leave Bobby D alone. Is he in too many movies that don’t rise to the level of his talent? A little bit, a little bit. But he comes back and reminds us in films like Silver Linings Playbook that he still has game. The next evidence of that will be in his portrayal as Roberto Duran’s trainer Ray Arcel in Hands Of Stone. The Raging Bull will be back.
BART: I like the fact that De Niro is getting lots of offers. But here’s my message to filmmakers: Find something interesting for him to do. He deserves better than to keep playing the kind but pathetic retiree. He’s De Niro! When he receives his inevitable career achievement award, he needs some good new material for his highlight reel.
FLEMING: Shortage of highlight-reel material? Mean Streets, Heat, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Godfather Part II, The King Of Comedy, Silver Linings Playbook, This Boy’s Life, Meet the Fockers, The Good Shepherd, Taxi Driver, A Bronx Tale, Cape Fear. If my life flashed before my eyes, I would fall asleep from boredom. You could sell tickets to the montage of his life flashing before his eyes. There’s enough for a highlight reel lasting hours. So America’s Greatest Actor slums in some stinkers. The previous Great American Actor, Marlon Brando, became bloated, eccentric and paranoid. Maybe De Niro is like that Hall of Fame player hanging on for a couple seasons and hoping his lifetime average doesn’t dip below .300 and marginalize his past greatness. With all due respect, Peter, I don’t think De Niro needs your career advice.
BART: Back to the Oscar diversity issue for a moment. Describing her meetings with the Academy board, Cheryl Boone Isaacs said her board has “kicked change into high gear” and “the conversation is raging.” All that is good PR talk but, like everything else in Hollywood, it all comes down to one thing: Making some good movies. And finding some good roles. That’s everyone’s responsibility.
FLEMING: I like the guest column written for Deadline today by Demian Bichir, who is part of the ensemble of your favorite film The Hateful Eight and, in 2011’s A Better Life, became the first actor of Mexican descent since Anthony Quinn to win a Best Actor nomination. While noting no Mexican has ever won an Oscar in that Best Actor category, Bichir sure made it sound like he would not want to be part of a legislated system where he might get recognized because of his skin color. To him, it’s about art and recognition from fellow artists. Hopefully, these Academy fixes will be the first step toward long term progress and we will be able to get onto the next major looming issue.
BART: What’s that?
FLEMING: After several years of scumbag copyright thieves putting Oscar screeners online and costing film companies serious revenue, we might see screeners scrapped in favor of secured link viewings that will supplement Academy theater showings. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu is a manic and emotional guy in his relaxed moments. Can you imagine, after all the hardship he put himself through this year, what his reaction would be if he observed a voter evaluating The Revenant on an iPhone? That ought to be good for some columns down the line.
Next topic. I am at Sundance, where the big business story is how the streaming services Netflix and Amazon have spent more money here on acquisitions than theatrical distributors. But I’ve had my own epiphany here. In past years, I mostly sat in hotel rooms in Toronto, Park City and Cannes, waiting to break deal stories. This year I forced myself to see movies. My revelation: Film festivals are way more fun when you watch movies at them. I’ve seen the James Schamus-directed Indignation, the frat-hazing Goat with its breakout performances by Nick Jonas and Ben Schnetzer, Tallulah. And then last night I felt so much better about the world after watching the premiere of Sing Street. It’s written and directed by John Carney, who debuted here a few years back with Once and followed with the Toronto sensation Can A Song Save Your Life (inexplicably retitled Begin Again). He has a singular storytelling voice that infuses a love of music and the challenge of creating it, with charming characters and great music. It feels so organic. Here, he tells the story of the formation of a rock band at a repressive Catholic school in 1980s Ireland. I love his films, and not just because he’s an Irishman.
BART: Finally, let’s not overlook one delicious irony in this whole pseudo-debate on Oscar diversity. For years the Golden Globes selections were ridiculed and the Oscar process venerated. Now the Globes have become respectable — even respected — while the Academy gets clobbered every year. And the turnaround is about the shows as well as the process. Audiences (especially in Hollywood) look forward to the Globes show, as exasperating as it can be, and anticipate the Oscars show with a certain foreboding. What does this mean? I think the Academy should engage a crisis management company to lead a process of introspection and self-analysis. No, I don’t really think that. We all know those firms get big fees for minimal ideas.