Magazine March 25, 2019, Issue

Green Book’s Oscars Victory: Why a Lousy Film Won Best Picture

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book (DreamWorks)

The victory of Green Book over the rest of the Best Picture competition at the Academy Awards was unfortunate for many reasons, not least because it left me feeling like I have no choice but to actually write something about the film. When it came out three months ago it hardly seemed worth the trouble: Reviews were tepid, box-office sales were relatively weak, and pre-release chatter about Oscars gave way swiftly to think pieces explaining all of the ways that Green Book failed the tests of wokeness, all of the ways its old-fashioned liberal message-movie approach to storytelling about race simply didn’t cut it anymore.

Even after A Star Is Born lost traction across awards season, even after Green Book pulled off an upset at the Golden Globes, it was still hard to imagine a movie so little loved capturing Best Picture. By Oscar night, oddsmakers had managed to convince themselves that Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma — Netflix pedigree and all — was destined to take the prize instead. 

And if the Best Picture weren’t chosen by so-called preferential voting, in which a film that places high enough on many ballots can beat the film that gets the plurality of first-place votes, then perhaps Roma would have won. But the system rewards consensus, it rewards movies that lots of voters like — and it rewarded Green Book, in the end, adding its name to the list of dud Best Picture winners that nobody is likely to revisit save in trivia.

And it is a dud. The elevator pitch — What if we did Driving Miss Daisy but reversed the races of the passenger and the driver? — seems like it belongs in a television show mocking the Hollywood way of trying to win Oscars. Given that premise, the film itself could be worse: Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, respectively the racist Italian-American bouncer and the accomplished black (and gay) pianist he’s been hired to drive around the Jim Crow South, do everything they can to elevate a story founded on self-congratulatory cliché. But in the end the movie is still the kind of preachy, sentimental portrait of racism-overcome-through-unlikely-friendship that Hollywood has been making since the age of Poitier, and with better scripts than this one.

So why did it win? The simple answer is that this was one of the worst years for movies in my lifetime, bad years produce weak nominees, and weak nominees make it more likely that a lousy winner will slip through. Roma was technically the best film out of the nominated eight, but it wasn’t particularly lovable — and its Netflix-backed, released-on-TV mode of cinema understandably leaves a lot of Hollywood unsettled. A Star Is Born was the nominee that most resembled a classic Best Picture winner, but it was half a great movie, predictable and deadly after the 70-minute mark. There was no perfect work of cinema that the Green Book victory egregiously robbed.

Another answer, one that might mildly please conservatives, is that Green Book won because Hollywood isn’t yet fully on board with the fully woke critique of the old liberalism and its pieties. The fact that progressive Twitter didn’t like the way the movie has a black character and a white character learning from each other (instead of whiteness simply being put on trial) or the way it portrays racism as a moral failing that can be outgrown or educated away (rather than a structural evil that may be ineradicable) mattered less than people on, well, progressive Twitter expected. In this sense, the outcome was a small act of rebellion by Academy voters, in behalf of an older and more racially optimistic form of liberalism, against the more pessimistic narrative that dominates the rising Left.

But that act of rebellion still rewarded a bad movie for its liberal politics, which leads to the third reason for the Green Book victory — the apparent feeling among Academy voters that in the age of Trump the Oscar simply has to go to a movie that somehow offers a political alternative to the president, that raises the banner of liberalism from the Oscar stage. 

The mode in which the anti-Trump message has been delivered has varied each year, and so has the quality of the movie being rewarded: Moonlight was overrated but decent art-house fare, while The Shape of Water was at once more stylish and more ludicrous than the middlebrow Green Book. But each time the politicization of the Best Picture competition has sidelined the kind of skillfully crowd-pleasing, not terribly political movies that might have won in a different era — Dunkirk or Arrival or A Star Is Born

And that is, in the end, a very bad thing for the Oscars. The show ultimately exists, as my colleague Kyle Smith wrote immediately after this year’s effort, to sell the world on “stardust,” and yet, “the only time all evening that produced a shiver of movie magic” was the almost-too-sexy Bradley Cooper–Lady Gaga duet. Which tells you something about which movie would have won had the Academy understood the purpose of its show.

For all its many flaws, A Star Is Born was the only nominee trying to be the kind of movie that justifies all the pomp and absurdity of Oscar night. And its defeat, while hardly a tragedy, is probably a worse sign for the future of the film business than the fact that a pious, lousy movie won.

This article appears as “A Night to Forget” in the March 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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