When I was 16 I saw Marion Cotillard win a BAFTA award for her performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose. I hadn’t yet seen the film itself, but she captivated me and I knew I had to watch the film as soon as I could. When the DVD arrived not long after, I watched it late at night, at a time I really should’ve been in bed by, but I couldn’t wait. I was obsessed, without comparison. I didn’t (and still don’t) speak French to any notable standard, but I had learned excerpts of her dialogue by heart and by ear. I would walk around the house crooked and bowed, with shaking hands, emulating Cotillard as she channelled Piaf.
That performance tapped into something deep in my passions. I knew I loved films, and performance, and specifically actresses, but this moment opened up the avenue for a truly obsessive allure to take hold. So then, watching the Academy Awards live and in full for the first time that year, and seeing Cotillard float on stage to accept her Oscar in the scalloped Jean Paul Gaultier gown, radiant and luminous, full of love and disbelief, I turned a corner, falling deep into the rabbit hole – a genuine and bottomless obsession was fixed.
The moment my obsession began.
When I graduated from my fine art degree in 2014 it was customary to produce business cards to accompany one’s degree show output. Mine said Daniel Massie (BA) Hons Sculpture. Professional Meryl Streep fan. This was intentionally humorous, but also very determined. I take this fandom seriously. I am sincerely passionate about the actresses and films that I respond to, and as such, awards season is a cornucopia of glory for me. There is a New York based writer called Nathaniel Rogers, and through his fantastic work and career I came across the term ‘actressexual’. This is the word for me; it captures perfectly the allure, response, desire, and sheer pleasure gained from watching the women I adore in the films I so respond to. Being a feminist and a cinephile, this word encapsulates the intersections of my obsessions. Whether it is Meryl Streep and Tilda Swinton, or Marion Cotillard and Laura Linney (amongst many, many more) I love these actresses, and I adore so many of the films they populate that occupy our screens.
Since this initial fascination, I have relished watching new films and specifically the pictures that are released, marketed, and campaigned because of their ‘awards potential’. Every year, as soon as the nights start drawing in and autumn arrives, the doors to award season begin to open, wider and wider, until we arrive at the Dolby Theatre in late February for the Academy Awards. The Oscars are my personal favourite. The precursor shows such as the BAFTAs and Golden Globes are important in their own ways, but ultimately are just precursors to that which turns me from human to unhinged come Oscar night.
I should say of course that the nature of awards season is not lost on me. Granted, the Academy vote en masse and the winners are decidedly deserving, however, their positioning is far from objective. The films that make their way through awards season are benefit from either critical acclaim, great word of mouth, audience support or (and almost always) a great deal of financial support from distributors and professionals whose purpose is to guide these pictures through the tricky, arduous, and intense process of awards season campaigning, which indisputably makes its final – and most prestigious – stop at the Academy Awards.
As a film studies student and academic, it’s not lost on me that this environment is not a meritocracy. Fantastic films are realised all year round, some truly exceptional that never take hold (intentional or otherwise) in the awards season race. But, as soon as you recognise this, and understand this bizarre, illustrious, and intoxicating world for what it is, it becomes easy, if not inevitable, to be consumed.
There is something in the glamour and allure, the aspiration and admiration of Awards season that I can’t resist. Seeing the women I admire, the films they occupy, and the medium, industry and art form being recognised and gloried is intoxicating. The speeches give me life, and the entire show of the Academy Awards has me hooked. This yearly process gives context to my obsession. Going through Oscar’s YouTube channel and devouring the speeches of past winners gets my actressexual and cinephilic blood pumping. Like many other movie lovers, and pop cultural aficionados, the Oscars give me so much.
This year, like last, the Oscars have found themselves entangled in a necessary discourse on diversity and inclusion. This is important. There were so many films this year that showcased the work of exceptional actors, writers, directors, producers and craftspeople of colour that proves that the suggestion that deserving nominees of colour are in dearth is incorrect. Brilliant films ranging from ‘Straight Outta Compton’ to ‘Tangerine’ and ‘Beasts of no Nation’ to ‘Chi-Raq’ – have all been ignored by the Academy. ‘Straight Outta Compton’ did receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay but merely for its white writers and not for its performances, or the picture itself, unfortunately.
Tangerine’s Mya Taylor won 2016’s Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Nevertheless, this issue goes beyond awards. Its root burrows itself in the boardrooms of studios where financing and hiring is decided. Without commercial and industrial backing these films have a harder road to travel, and, as such, their availability and regularity are impacted. Awards season must invest in people of colour, but this has to coincide with the industry hiring people of colour in front of and behind the camera. Thus, validating their talent, and not perceiving their successes as the exception to the rule, but rather re-creating the rules and bringing this culture into the diverse world we live in.
Alas – from the nominees that were presented to us this year, I was entranced. I rooted for the grandiosity of Mad Max: Fury Road and the impeccable ethic of Spotlight, the calm ferocity of Charlotte Rampling and the heart-breaking poise of Saoirse Ronan, the touching lessons of Inside Out and the elegance of Carol. Witnessing the culmination of the filmic calendar fulfils me, and seeing the people who worked so prodigiously hard to bring these stories to life being recognised and applauded thrills and satisfies me.
Of course, as with every year, there were foibles and controversies. Sam Smith’s misjudged speech was disappointing, and Lady Gaga’s compelling performance of Till It Happens To You (from The Hunting Ground) deserved to be matched with a win for its important message on sexual assault. Seeing Brie Larson hug the survivors from Gaga’s performance was heart-warming, and, it’s in moments like this, that I’m reminded what I love about the tension between the spectacle and the real world of Hollywood.
Similarly Chris Rock’s opening monologue delivered, in many ways, as a lambasting affront to Hollywood’s systemic racism, and we can only hope that it serves a greater purpose beyond calling the issue out. His observation of ‘sorority racism’ was perfectly cutting and confronted the intersections of privilege, class and race that collude to maintain the Awards Season’s ostensible white supremacy. What’s more the Academy’s president Cheryl Boone Isaacs sent out a great testament for the Academy’s future and evolution, proving again that she has deep grace under fire, and that there are indeed members of esteem in the Academy who are genuinely working to achieve change, diversity, and inclusion within the Academy.
Spotlight’s Best Picture speech calling out the Vatican’s power structures, which facilitated the abuse of children and its cover-up, Leonardo DiCaprios’s environmental passion and Gaga’s survivor’s strength – all delivered the obligatory, necessary, political stances of the night. And, of course, seeing Mad Max: Fury Road awarded the most Oscars of the night was a glorious sight for me. Missing out on Best Director and Best Picture was to be expected, but the strength of the film’s core, as evidenced by its recognition in craft categories validates its artistic credit. Indeed, as costume designer Jenny Beaven says, “What a lovely day!”
It might be too much, to say that the Oscars offer me a sense of home. Granted I watch them militantly at home in silence (I’m not missing a single utterance from Cate Blanchett’s mouth), however, they’re not tangible; they’re not my life. Yet, in spite of this, they enrich me so much, they make me part of a community and the shared fandom and personal enrichment they offer is like the warming embrace of home.
Queen Sally Fields.
As Sally Field said in her now famous acceptance speech for Places In The Heart, “I cant deny it… you like me, right now, you like me”, and this feeling of admiration and appraisal is reciprocal. I really like the Academy Awards, and, as delusional as it may sound, I think they too, like me. The glamour, aspiration, fandom, and sheer pleasure I derive from witnessing this spectacle is unmovable. So, alongside the legions of fans, cinephiles, actressexuals and the millions of viewers around the globe, until next year.
Daniel Massie is a graduate film student. He loves film, TV, actresses, and talking. Right now he wishes he was at a dinner party with Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Tilda Swinton.
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