Day 6

Et tu, Oscar? Predicting the Academy Awards' biggest villains

From La La Land to Green Book, every Academy Awards ceremony has a villain, and Vulture writer Nate Jones has a formula for predicting them.

Whether it's Driving Miss Daisy, Forrest Gump or Green Book, every Oscars ceremony has an unpopular winner

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker. The film, which sparked concern that it could invoke violence, is favoured to win big at the 2020 Academy Awards. (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment)
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When Peter Farrelly's Green Book won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year, it claimed the crown of 2019 Oscar villain.

"The academy saw this very warm, liberal buddy comedy about how we should embrace people who are different from us," said Vulture's movies writer Nate Jones.

Outside the academy, Green Book was viewed as a "shallow" take on racism, he added.

An Oscars villain is a film that wins many — or all — of its nominations, stealing prizes from underdog films seen as more deserving.

Jones spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about what film is on tap for villainy this year.

Here is part of that conversation.

Who will be the night's biggest villain?

I think it depends. The Oscar villain is a very shifting category. You need to be appropriately villainous — there needs to be a lot to dislike about you. But you also need to win a lot. 

So if you see a movie like Joker come in and not really win too much, that is going to put a big dent on its Oscar villain hopes. 

Whereas a movie like 1917 has many fewer outwardly villainous qualities than a movie like Joker … if 1917 comes in and wins nine of the 10 categories it's up for, yeah, that's going to end the night the big villain.

Because it's seen then to deprive other films which might be more worthy of winning, is that why?

Yes. The Oscar villain is basically the opposite of an underdog, right? It's a thing that everybody is kind of cheering against. 

When you have a movie that you really want to win, like say a Parasite or a Little Women, every time it doesn't win and you hear this other movie's name called over and over again, that kind of creates the sense of resentment — the mean tweets and the retweets and the faves, and the reaction gifs and eye rolls.

Director Peter Farrelly accepts the Best Picture award for Green Book onstage during the 91st Annual Academy Awards. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

But let's look at last year, because Green Book last year, that was a villain, right?

Green Book had everything you would want in a modern Oscar villain. It was this sort of thing where the academy saw one thing, and people who were not on the academy — people who were just sort of following this whole conversation online — saw something completely different. 

So the academy saw this very warm, liberal buddy comedy about how we should embrace people who are different from us. They saw it as this, sort of, taking a stand for liberal humanism. 

Outside the academy, Green Book was taken as a movie that was, sort of, a white man making a movie about friendship and that kind of looked at the Jim Crow South in a very kind of shallow way.

But those are the qualities of the film. So, do you also look at it as this is a film that deprived another more worthy film of the award that it should have won?

Yes. So that was already sort of baked in the Green Book pie. And then once Green Book started winning so much, and started winning over Roma, which is a movie set in Mexico by Mexican filmmakers — it's all about, sort of, examining the lives of people who are traditionally overlooked.

Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley, right, and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga, left, in the Best Picture winng film Green Book. (Patti Perret/Universal Pictures/AP)

Hating on the Oscars is definitely in vogue, and there's lots of reasons to be critical of the Academy. But have the Oscars always generated villains, or is this a phenomenon of the social media age?

They always have generated villains. It has shifted over the past few decades. In the past, they were ... just purely the movies that were sort of so laughably Oscar-baity that you kind of rolled your eyes when they won.

This is maybe not a good example, but I remember as a young nerd, I had never seen Annie Hall. But the one thing I knew about Annie Hall was that it had beat Star Wars for Best Picture at the 1978 Oscars. 

When you are 11 years old, you say, "How could they think that movie is better than Star Wars?"

And then you get further into the '90s, so you have, say, a Dances with Wolves that beats a Goodfellas ... or a Forest Gump that beats Pulp Fiction … [and] Driving Miss Daisy, which beats Do The Right Thing.

OK, but look, there are a lot of things that might be wrong with Driving Miss Daisy, but the fact that it beat Do The Right Thing is not the fault of the filmmakers. 

Is it fair to tag them as a villain because of what the academy did?

I mean, is it fair? No, but this is kind of the way that we talk about movies, right? It's that movies sort of take on these outsized cultural roles. 

And you talk to the academy, and the academy is not really happy that they have been put in the position of being the referees for all of our culture wars. 

But in these polarized times, the alternative is irrelevance, essentially. Because you are important, you are treated as a bellwether for these kinds of cultural wars. And if you want to sort of be at the centre of the culture, that's kind of an obligation that is just thrust on your back. 

Bong Joon-ho, director of Parasite, poses in the press room with award for Best Foreign Language film during the 77th Annual Golden Globe Awards. Parasite has been an underdog favourite for movie goers this awards season. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

If Parasite wins big, will this be a villainless year? 

Oh, my goodness. If Parasite wins big? Yes, I think so. 

If Parasite wins big, we will know pretty early in the night. It will start pulling in the best editing, best original screenplay, best production design. 

So, yeah, if it sort of goes the distance and becomes the first foreign language film to win best picture, yeah, I think we'll have a villainless night. I think people will just be screaming and shouting and dancing around their living rooms.


This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, download our podcast or click Listen above.

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