March 1, 2018 | Arts and Culture
The Shape of Hollywood
A post- conversation on the Oscars
Josh Wartel: We’re here to talk about the Oscars ahead of it happening on Sunday. James, I guess, starting off, do you have an Academy Awards category that’s particularly important for you?
James Feinberg: Well, I’ll tell you, what I’m going to end up being disappointed by is the Best Actor category because the way that the guilds have ended up—the Actors’ Guild and all the various awards leading up to the Oscars—Gary Oldman’s won them all for Darkest Hour. He’s the overwhelming favorite; and he’s winning basically because he has good makeup in the movie. And meanwhile, Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, who gave what I thought was one of the greatest performances of the year, has won practically nothing at all leading up to the Oscars. So, that’s a category I already know is going to frustrate me; I’ve resigned myself to it.
JW: I think we’ll get more to Phantom Thread a little bit later because I really liked Phantom Thread. It’s interesting just looking at the list of the nine films for Best Picture—yes, you have Darkest Hour, which is this kind of dinosaur historical film, but it was only six or seven years ago that a film like The King’s Speech won Best Picture—but this year, Darkest Hour’s almost an afterthought, and it’s alongside another film that’s set in almost the exact same period—Dunkirk. So how do you compare Darkest Hour to Dunkirk?
JF: The core of Darkest Hour is incredibly hard to find. It’s not personal because you don’t see much of Churchill’s personal life, but it’s not historical either because the evacuation from Dunkirk and Churchill’s elevation to prime minister happens in a second in Darkest Hour, whereas Dunkirk is an incredibly deep dive into one event, and it’s almost like an anti-event film because you barely know any characters’ names. You’re engulfed in the action; you’re experiencing it as someone on the beach would have experienced it, which is the uniqueness of the film. People have often said it’s like a feature-length beach scene from Saving Private Ryan, which is reductive, but it’s true in the sense that it’s powerful from start to finish. It’s definitely an apt comparison.
JW: Yeah, and I mean, something for which I again go back to Dunkirk is the just brilliant Tom Hardy scenes and mesmerizing flight. Nolan, we almost take him for granted because he’s done it all, with Interstellar, with Memento, The Dark Knight, which some people still believe is the best superhero film. But I think what he did as a director in Dunkirk is unmatched by what the other nominees did and unmatched by what he’s done in his own career.
JF: Compared to The Shape of Water, the way that Dunkirk treats water is so unique—water is almost another character in that movie—the underwater scenes were so engulfing in a way that the scenes in The Shape of Water weren’t.
JW: Yeah, and I think one difference between The Shape of Water and Dunkirk is that all this history, this film history which we know Del Toro just loves, comes forward as a sort of just pastiche. Like, why is that film set in the ’60s in Baltimore? While something like Dunkirk really doesn’t give much big ‘H’ history but is very viscerally about this historical moment and event.
JF: The Shape of Water has so many things that it forgets to utilize. That’s my feeling about the movie. It forgets to utilize the fact that the main character lives above a movie theater. You never see her watching a movie in the movie theater, there’s no connection to the movies, and yet that’s hyped up as being an important plot point. It forgets to use the fact that the character is mute as something that would other her in her community.
On politics and what role the Oscars might have in the “Age of Trump”
JF: I think there’s a bit of pop psychology that has factored into the Oscars discussion this year because of who the president is. Inevitably, every movie is trying to frame itself as being the ultimate response and rebuke to President Trump, which is obviously ridiculous—there is no movie this year that can really be said to have been made as a response to President Trump mostly because most of them were written before he came to power…And in a way it’s sort of like preaching to the choir because most of the people who are watching the Oscars are not going to be particularly swayed from their political viewpoint.
JW: For me, Lady Bird, which some people were talking about in the context of the #MeToo Movement and feminism, is just kind of about middle-class liberalism in a way that isn’t fundamentally different from what Diary of a Teenage Girl or 20th Century Women have done in the past few years. I think in some cases you get films like Lady Bird that are good films but are somehow put in this category of award-worthy for really no reason.
JF: I agree absolutely. The thing that I feel about Lady Bird is that Greta Gerwig absolutely deserves to be nominated for Best Director—the things that she did with light and texture in that movie were very impressive, and I greatly admire the way that she worked with actors. But all of the great moments in that film, I feel, were in the trailer, and I don’t think it should be nominated for Best Picture.
JW: The intention to talk about films as being politically relevant I think only brought into sharp relief how happy people were to see Phantom Thread be a sort of unexpected Best Picture nominee because you always get a sense that P.T. Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis are kind of just working in their own little world.
JF: I’m thrilled that Phantom Thread was nominated for Best Picture. It’s not going to win Best Picture. Still, it was snubbed for Best Production Design; that scene where Woodcock follows Alma to the New Year’s Party alone would deserve that award. It definitely deserved a nomination for Best Screenplay, in my view. There are about a thousand things that it should have been nominated for that it wasn’t nominated for. And the reason is exactly what you’re talking about. Every time Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis make a movie, they usually deserve to win Oscars for it, and people have taken that so much for granted.
JW: Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri has probably gotten the most backlash of any of the nominees. What did you think of the film?
JF: It was my favorite film last year. I thought its script was incredibly tart and tight, and Frances McDormand’s performance was probably the second greatest of her career after Fargo, and she’ll likely win the Oscar, too, which she would absolutely deserve. The important thing about discussing Three Billboards, I feel, is to recognize that not every movie necessarily has to be a morality play, that not every character who does bad things is going to be punished by fate. It’s a movie about people who do bad things and are forced into bad situations, and I thought it was interesting that it didn’t try to excuse them for that.
JW: I was of two minds with Three Billboards. I think Sam Rockwell, who’s going to win Best Supporting Actor, beautifully played this figure of hurt white masculinity that had a lot of resonance, and without him I don’t think the film would have worked in any sense. On the other hand, I find the critiques of it extremely strong. Even starting from the murder of the daughter, the events of the film are just very contrived, and there is not quite a point in which the film seems to either operate fully on a sort of allegorical level or a moment where it actually feels realistic again. How it portrays race relations and its minority characters are not lived-in. You either have to move in the symbolic direction fully, in which case you still have to be held accountable for your ideas, or you need to be much more realistic and naturalistic. I don’t think Three Billboards ever really quite pulls off that balance.
JF: The town felt lived-in to me, but it’s all a question of perspective. Ebbing, of course, doesn’t really exist, and it’s a movie produced by the British, written and directed by an Irishman [Martin McDonagh], about an imaginary version of America…I think it just opens up a lot of avenues for discussion, a lot more, I feel, than any other movie except Get Out…It was one of the only films I walked out of last year when I felt as if I had seen something that occupied a lot of space.
JW: I guess the big distinction I draw is that, for instance, Get Out really takes its setting very seriously, and even though it imagines the setting, it imagines place in a way that is very allegorical for black pain and trauma. The issue that I have with Three Billboards is it feels extremely closed off from the rest of the world in the sense that it’s not like people are spending lots of time online. It’s not like people are engaged with culture or outside politics, even though it shouldn’t be that far from somewhere like Ferguson. Ebbing is still a place where local TV is the dominant controlling form of media, and that feels so unrealistic.
JW (continued): It’s interesting to move from Three Billboards and the sort of imaginary setting to another film that has an imaginary, except much more romantic, setting, and that’s Call Me by Your Name…I think that’s another example where the performances were praised above everything else. Did you feel moved by the central relationship in that movie?
JF: I felt exactly the opposite. I thought the first half of that movie was extraordinarily comfortable, rich, beautiful, lived-in, as we’ve been talking about. I felt as if I was seeing something completely real…Then I felt as soon as Armie Hammer’s character got together with Timothee Chalamet’s character, the movie fell apart, in my view. I felt, like Luca Guadagnino’s last film A Bigger Splash, the movie could not handle its central transition.
JW: What I took away from Call Me By Your Name is, number one, the heat and the warmth of the Italian countryside there. And it’s a shame that this film has to be released in November or December, when to me the enduring strength of the film was from Timothee Chalamet, in the sense that summer romance is really a category of experience and of living, and if there was any power in the film for me, it wasn’t necessarily the relationship but just the duration—the sense that, as the season passes, the romance could never reach a sort of climax, because it’s destined to almost immediately fade away into fall. And I thought that was the beauty and relevance of the film, which made it feel to me more relevant as a teenage film than Lady Bird.
On the last Best Picture nominee, The Post, Steven Spielberg’s latest historical drama.
JF: I thought it was entirely enjoyable except for the very end, when it did something completely ridiculous. I wish the film had ended about a minute and a half earlier. My feeling about it is that it is a worthy inclusion in 21st-century Spielberg. Because 21st-century Spielberg is a category that includes films like Munich, The Terminal—films that some people like that I don’t tend to like. It’s not like Spielberg used to be. He doesn’t care about big thrills. He doesn’t care about, necessarily, intricacy of story. He cares about conveying history and its significance from his own viewpoint.
JW: My critique is, again, entirely based on how the film takes this as a very important historical moment. The release of these papers, going to the Supreme Court, the Washington Post being this bulwark of liberalism. But if it’s supposed to be a contemporary story that’s newly relevant in the age of Trump, it can never quite deal with this dissonance that, if this was such an important battle and we still ended up here with the press decaying, with Trump once again attacking liberalism, perhaps this event in history didn’t mean anything.
JF: What the film does suggest is that history, that progress, is not a straight line, that things go back and forth, that the progress made by the Washington Post in the ’70s does not necessarily directly translate to the power of the newspaper now.
A few final thoughts on who will—and who should—win on Sunday night
JF: Well, it’s a difficult question to answer, of course, because there wasn’t anything that totally knocked me out. In my view, it would be a three-way battle between Three Billboards, Dunkirk, and Get Out—possibly also Phantom Thread. Since my instinct is that Three Billboards probably is going to win, I’m gonna go with Three Billboards.
JW: I’d really like to see Phantom Thread just pick up something. It’s such a collective effort in all the categories, in how P.T. Anderson directs and Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville act. For that film to get just one win would boost it a lot, and it would get people to continue giving P.T. Anderson and these sort of directors money to do their idiosyncratic projects.
JF: The interesting thing this year is not what we have but what we don’t have. There’s no battle of the titans as with last year between Moonlight and La La Land. The race is wide-open, and that’s partially because, apart from a few isolated examples, it just wasn’t a terrific year for movies. Get Out is instantly iconic, but because it isn’t going to win, my perspective is the winner will be uncontentious and in fifteen years we’ll all have forgotten who it was.