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The 2020 Oscar Nominees for Best Picture Reveal White Men in a State of Rebellion

Movies like "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" and "The Irishman" celebrate men of the past, and Academy voters love them for it.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Sony Pictures

We’ve all read the commentaries on the Academy’s shortcomings when it comes to diversity. But what’s revealing is the movies the 8,500 voters actually nominated for Best Picture. Even long-running, well-reviewed hits like “The Farewell” and “Hustlers” didn’t resonate with enough Academy voters, accessible as they were. It reminds us of who these industry insiders are: Mostly white males over 60, many of whom — like writing branch member Stephen King — vote with their own taste rather than consider what they might be missing.

“For me, the diversity issue — as it applies to individual actors and directors, anyway — did not come up,” King tweeted. “That said, I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” King drew a hailstorm of criticism.

The Academy has raised the percentage of people of color to 16, international members to 20, and women to 32. However, the white men who dominate the voting body are clearly responding in kind. Last year, they defiantly resisted criticisms of “Green Book” and voted for it anyway.

Look at the Academy’s choices for Best Picture. With the notable exception of two contemporary films — “Parasite” and “Marriage Story” — seven movies look back into the past. And while both of those sprawling ensembles, along with “Little Women” and “Jojo Rabbit,” focus on male and female characters, the five other titles are strictly about the guys.

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Quentin Tarantino’s nostalgic “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” set in 1969, celebrates a halcyon Hollywood era long past, of cowboys, manly men, crazy hippies, and movie stars. Tarantino staples Leonardo DiCaprio (“Django Unchained”) and Brad Pitt (“Inglourious Basterds”) are funny, poignant, and brilliant as past-his-prime western star Rick Dalton and his loyal driver and stuntman Cliff Booth, respectively, as is Margot Robbie as sweet rising actress Sharon Tate, who is married to A-list director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), hot off “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Pitt looks good to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for delivering a laconic performance the New York Times described as “vintage Hollywood dudeness.” Men and women alike have responded to his imperturbable masculinity.

But Robbie’s Oscar hopes are pinned on her supporting performance in “Bombshell,” not “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” She and Tarantino were forced to defend the actress’s almost voiceless role. The movie spends what Tarantino called “a day in the life” with Tate, who lives next door to Dalton; she drives to Westwood, buys her husband a copy of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” (a movie he will eventually make), and watches herself as Freya Carlson in “The Wrecking Crew.”

At the Cannes press conference, Robbie said, “The moments that I got on screen gave an opportunity to honor Sharon and the lightness. The tragedy, ultimately, was the loss of innocence, and to really show those wonderful sides of her, could be adequately done without speaking.”

Tarantino went on to restore two scenes with Tate that he trimmed from the movie before Cannes. These amplified her screen time, but Tate still didn’t have much to say. Tarantino later told me: “It’s not her story, it’s Rick’s story. It’s not even Cliff’s. And she is an angelic presence throughout the movie, she’s an angelic ghost on earth, to some degree, she’s not in the movie, she’s in our hearts.” In the press room after winning Golden Globes for screenplay and drama, Tarantino tried to suggest that he rescued Tate from the dustbin of history as something more than a Manson murder victim.

In his research, Tarantino was horrified by some of what he found, from #MeToo figures to blatant racism in commercials. “I was listening to KHJ radio programs from that year and there was a constant,” he said. “The references to Bill Cosby, John Phillips, almost everybody. All these people who were genuine icons who have run afoul of time.”

Joker

Tarantino isn’t alone in favoring male characters. Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Sam Mendes’ “1917,” and James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” devote the majority of their screen time to men, with women as window dressing in supportive, wife-mother-daughter-girlfriend roles. During production on “Joker,” Phillips struggled to expand the minimal neighbor role of Zazie Beetz, turning her into a fantasy for disturbed clown Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix).

And Mangold provided his 1960s sports movie with a family subplot for race driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), complete with a tough-talking wife (Caitriona Balfe) and adoring son (Noah Jupe). But the movie can’t help but revel in the male universe of Ford executives with narrow ties, car designers, mechanics with tool belts, and screeching brakes and tires.

To be fair, the worlds of race cars and World War I trenches do not supply many female characters. Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns counterbalanced the mayhem of war with a powerful underground interlude between a young soldier (George MacKay), a young Frenchwoman (Claire Duburcq), and an abandoned baby. That one scene provided MacKay’s character a depth and poignance he otherwise would have lacked. And DreamWorks and Universal flew that actress into Los Angeles to supply Q&A panels with one more woman.

Also coming under fire for his female depictions was Martin Scorsese. Even with a three-and-a-half hour running time and a sizable cast of colorful characters, “The Irishman” director was criticized for Anna Paquin’s virtually silent performance as Peggy, the daughter of mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). She’s the most substantial woman in the complex time-jumping narrative that spans decades, but again, has little dialogue, from the time she is a child through adulthood. Scorsese told Sight & Sound magazine that he asked screenwriter Steve Zaillian not to give Peggy any dialogue in the film, so that from the time Peggy witnesses her father beat up a grocer she would silently judge him as a criminal.

Anna Paquin in The Irishman

Anna Paquin in “The Irishman”

Netflix/screenshot

“I insisted on going back and layering in Peggy more to be an observer,” Scorsese said. “Not an observer, but she’s part of the group, part of the story. She knows Frank. She doesn’t have to say a word. When she’s looking at him and he’s sitting eating his cereal, listening to the report [about the death of Joey Gallo] — ‘A lone gunman walked in.’ The look on his face — it’s him, obviously.”

Scorsese added, “Anna Paquin, who’s terrific in the film, she only has one line of dialogue. But that one daughter knows, she knows everything, just with looks — and that’s the one [Frank] wants to be with, that’s the one he wants to love him, but she refuses to speak to him after learning of his crimes.”

That is a reasonable aesthetic choice. And it’s possible to admire and even adore these cinematic achievements, despite their obvious flaws. But would it be so hard for these writers and directors to imagine more, to surround the men with women with more depth and thoughts and complexity and conflict, to give them some actual ideas to express? That seems to not interest them.

Nor do the steak eaters seem to care about what is missing from these movies. Like “Green Book,” they’re doubling down on what they like. This year, it seems that Oscar voters — like these filmmakers — looked back fondly on a simpler time when they knew the rules of the road, a pre- #MeToo, #TimesUp, #OscarsSoWhite male-dominated world that is swiftly vanishing in the rear view.

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