Oscars 2018: A semiotic analysis
The Oscars are about more than just quality. Increasingly, they are about how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wants the world to see Hollywood that year. All other things being equal, the Oscars go to films and themes that are “important” at a certain point in US politics and culture.
So, last year, after Donald Trump barged into the White House, leaving left-liberal-packed Hollywood shell-shocked (much of Hollywood had rallied behind Hillary Clinton), Moonlight, an ultra-low-budget film came out of left field to win the Oscar for best picture. Moonlight is a beautiful and sensitive film, but, dealing with the issues of being gay and black at the petty-crime-infested bottom of the pyramid, it also ticked all the right boxes at the right time. Moonlight’s closest competitor La La Land was an opulent musical. A great film, but it didn’t serve the Academy’s greater purpose.
So here’s an attempt at a semiotic analysis of Oscars 2018.
The thought preying on the Academy’s mind this year seems to have been “inclusion”.
Introducing the award for production design, Lupita Nyong’o (of Kenyan stock) and Kumail Nanjiani (Pakistan) made a sharp appeal on behalf of “dreamers”, undocumented migrants who arrived in the US as children, and whom Trump would like sent back. Coco, which won the Oscar for best animated movie, is steeped in Mexican culture, and has only one non-Mexican voice in the whole film.
At the end of her best actress acceptance speech, Frances McDormand said: “I have two words for you: inclusion rider”, a reference to the belief that there should be requirements in contracts that provide for gender and racial diversity. In his best director and best picture acceptance speeches, Guillermo del Toro stressed that he is a migrant from Mexico, and that lines drawn in the sand should be deleted.
Best picture winner The Shape Of Water is about “otherness”—an adult fairy tale, set during the Cold War, about the love between a mute woman and a half man-half fish creature, who is being held in a secret scientific laboratory to be studied. Cracking its unique respiratory system could give the US an edge over the Soviets militarily and in the space race. The creature is kept shackled in a tank, treated with brutality and is being readied for vivisection. His only friend is a mute janitor, who hatches a daring plan to help him escape. Her allies are an out-of-work gay illustrator and an African-American colleague trapped in an exploitative marriage. In short, three losers against the might of the US military-industrial complex.
This is obvious Oscar material, and in del Toro’s hands, The Shape Of Water achieves a mythic quality that has the power to rouse the most cynical hearts. In recent months, the film has faced a very serious plagiarism charge: the late American playwright Paul Zindel’s Let Me Hear You Whisper had a woman janitor in a military research laboratory trying to rescue a captive dolphin, the subject of mysterious experiments. Del Toro has claimed that he has never read the play, but the resemblances are uncanny. However, all that was forgotten on Oscar night when Hollywood opened its glittering arms (the Oscar stage featured 45 million Swarovski crystals) to the “others”. A statement was made.
This was bolstered by the best original screenplay award going to Jordan Peele for Get Out, possibly the most subversive film ever made on white-black relations in America (if you can watch only one of the films that were nominated for best picture this year, watch Get Out).
The overall Oscar message was tempered by Sam Rockwell winning best supporting actor for his portrayal of the dim-witted racist cop Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (this is not to take away from Rockwell’s amazing performance). There has been criticism from politically liberal quarters that the character was not treated harshly enough in the story. But Three Billboards, in what I believe is true liberal spirit, says that Dixon is plain dumb and not beyond redemption. This adds more nuance to the film.
And of course, there is one trend that Trump should take note of: in the last five years, the best director Oscar has gone to Mexican directors four times.
Sandipan Deb is editorial director, Swarajya.