Culture

Oscars 2017: Will the Nominees be a Liberal Rebuke to Donald Trump's Election?

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01/20/17
In the Magazine
Ruth Negga and Denzel Washington are both pegged as likely Academy Award nominees. Earl Gibson III/Getty; George Pimentel/WireImage/Getty

It didn’t take long. Just days after Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States, as political pundits were weighing such matters as, “Will the emoluments clause be sufficient to curb the president-elect’s conflicts of interest?,” awards pundits as well were addressing an urgent question. Namely: Who will give the most fiery denunciation of Trump at this year’s Oscars?

Too early, you say? The Oscar season, like the presidential election, has become grossly elongated; it’s been underway since at least Labor Day. Stars such as Emma Stone, Amy Adams, Hugh Grant and Warren Beatty have been sweeping through publicity-friendly receptions, galas, parties and screenings for weeks, if not months. The Critics’ Choice Awards ceremony—generally an accurate barometer for the Academy Awards—has been moved forward to December 11 and will be followed a day later by the Golden Globe nominations. This party has started.

Trump is unlikely to attend the February 26 telecast, which traditionally presents an opportunity for Hollywood to flash its liberal bona fides. Last year turned into a marathon piñata session for Trump-bashers: Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu accepted the best director award for The Revenant with a call to “liberate ourselves from all prejudice and, you know, this tribal thinking;” The Big Short’s best adapted screenplay winner, Adam McKay, warned the public against “big banks, oil or weirdo billionaires;” and Andy Serkis, presenting an award for visual effects, compared Trump to a “planet-threatening megalomaniacal monster.” Well, Serkis’s monster will be in the Oval Office by the time of Oscar night.

Even before Trump, the 2017 Oscars were shaping up to be a pointed rebuke to the much-tweeted accusation—under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite—that last year’s awards lacked diversity. Stung, the academy unanimously approved a series of changes designed to broaden and rejuvenate its membership. As luck would have it, this has been a strong year for black actors. Mahershala Ali is a strong contender for the best supporting actor trophy for his turn as a benevolent drug dealer in Moonlight. Ruth Negga is likely to earn a nomination for her performance in Loving, the story of the Virginia couple whose interracial marriage reshaped American law. And Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are the favorites in the best actor and actress races for Fences, an adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play about the struggles of a middle-aged black couple in the 1950s.

“Some people build fences to keep people out,” Washington’s character says at one point in the movie, “and other people build fences to keep people in.” How that won’t be quoted on the night I have no idea.

Films are playing differently under Trump. Who knew, for instance, that Jackie, Pablo Larraín’s impressionistic post-assassination portrait of Jackie Kennedy—Natalie Portman in another awards-bound performance—would act as such a conductor for liberal election grief? Who would have thought that Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s alien-contact movie, with its solemn plea for international cooperation, would so resonate with audiences? “Outside, the world has been plunged into fear, panic, and crisis,” Jia Tolentino wrote in The New Yorker, describing Arrival ’s alien spacecraft. “Inside, there’s a sense of loneliness, ineffability, and strength.” Which just happens to be how many people in the United States are feeling right now: as though our interplanetary trajectory went astray and somehow we woke up on Mars.

Robert De Niro has said he feels as he did “after 9/11.” “Will [the Academy] do like they did [with Chicago ] in the wake of the Iraq War…and embrace a nostalgic musical?” asked Vanity Fair, referring to Damien Chazelle’s valentine to old Hollywood musicals, the best picture front-runner La La Land. “Will they continue their efforts toward diversity and turn toward Moonlight or Fences?” That Trump’s election is being compared to both the outbreak of war and the deadliest attack on U.S. soil gives you a pretty accurate index of how Hollywood views Trump: an orange-skinned upstart, a reality TV star and union buster with bad hair and makeup, who builds his own gilded sets. The horror, the horror.

Uncharacteristically mute on Twitter during last year’s Oscar ceremony, Trump went on Fox News the next day to complain that, what with Iñárritu’s win, it had been “a great night for Mexico.” Will he stay quiet this time? The Oscars come just a few weeks after the president-elect’s inauguration, following a transition period in which he has so far found the time to feud with Saturday Night Live (“totally one-sided…nothing funny at all”) and the cast of Hamilton (“They should apologize”). The exact scope of Trump’s gift to Hollywood liberals is only now becoming apparent: finally, a Republican president who cares what they think.

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