We have gathered here today to discuss not the artistic merits of this year’s Academy Award nominees for best picture, but the controversies, firestorms and outright debacles that cling to them like dog hair to a dropped lollipop.
Conveniently (and infallibly) labelled for the conscientious consumer, this is your guide to Oscar beef – from extra spicy to mild.
The debate: The long-awaited (some say cursed) Queen biopic is a surprise international smash. Given all the good will toward the band, and Rami Malek, who plays Freddie Mercury, that might have been enough to make it a populist cause célèbre, despite middling reviews from critics. But trouble started before the movie even wrapped.
With two weeks of filming left to go, director Bryan Singer was fired for what the studio said were unexplained absences. Later, a man filed a lawsuit accusing Singer of sexually assaulting him at a yacht party in 2003. (Singer denied the allegations.)
And, in January, The Atlantic published the accounts of four others who said Singer had sex with them when they were underage. The director called the article a “homophobic smear piece,” but in response BAFTA removed Singer as a nominee, and GLAAD rescinded a nomination for the film.
Malek and the film’s producers have pointedly distanced themselves from Singer in speeches and interviews. But the director is still officially credited in Rhapsody (owing to union rules) and stands to earn as much as $40 million for his work on the film, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
How hot is this beef? Extra spicy. Even if you love Rhapsody, the Singer allegations give pause.
The debate: Few movies in contention this year have been as divisive as Green Book, the earnest civil rights-era, interracial buddy film directed by Peter Farrelly.
The film is based on the true story of a black pianist (Dr Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali) who hired a white driver and bodyguard (Tony Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen) to chauffeur him on a tour across the Deep South in 1962.
Some controversies surrounding the movie involved cast or crew missteps: Mortensen used a racial epithet in a Q&A, then issued an apology. Farrelly’s history of jokingly exposing himself on set resurfaced, and he also issued an apology. And a story about an anti-Muslim tweet from screenwriter Nick Vallelonga (son of the driver) led him to issue an apology.
But there are larger criticisms of the movie. Many have argued that its simplified, feel-good message distorts history. And that was before members of Shirley’s family publicly condemned the film, calling it “a symphony of lies”.
Nick Vallelonga has said he based his story on conversations with Shirley.
How hot is this beef? Extra spicy. A recent spike in hate crimes and the concerns of African-American audiences have justifiably raised the bar for films about racial reconciliation in America. Green Book may not have the gears to clear it.
The debate: With this madcap, stylistically varied portrait of Dick Cheney and the world he made, Adam McKay hoped to repeat the magic trick he pulled off with The Big Short: turning convoluted recent history into fun and informative popcorn fare. This time, though, some critics have tagged McKay’s version of events as both vacuous and paternalistic, suggesting that the director was out of his depth. A pair of fourth-wall-breaking post-credits sequences, in which the viewing audience is implicated directly, didn’t help.
How hot is this beef? Medium. Unless Amy Adams (nominated for her performance as Lynne Cheney) is snubbed, then call 911.
The debate: Spike Lee is finally getting a victory lap thanks to the box office and critical success of this film, about a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. BlacKkKlansman is nominated for six Oscars, including best director, the first time Lee has been honoured in that category. But some observers, including Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You, have noted that the film takes more than a few liberties with the historical record, and accused Lee of ginning up a false, feel-good story about a police department on the right side of history. Lee has defended himself by pointing to his long track record on civil rights and suggesting that he shouldn’t be expected to be critical of all police all of the time. “Black people are not a monolithic group,” he told The Times of London.
How hot is this beef? Medium. But what fun would a Spike Lee Joint be without anything to argue about?
The debate: Director Alfonso Cuarón’s love letter to the Mexico City neighbourhood where he grew up, and the women who raised him, has swept up 10 nominations. Its star, Yalitza Aparicio, is the first indigenous Mexican woman to be nominated for best actress. But some have criticised Aparicio’s character, Cleo, a working-class indigenous nanny based on Cuarón’s childhood caregiver, as thinly drawn and lacking in agency. Did Cuarón, who is white and grew up well-off, overreach in telling her story?
Roma is also the first Netflix original film to receive a best picture nomination. That has stirred the anxiety of movie-theatre loyalists, who in turn have annoyed everyone else by insisting that the film is best viewed on the big screen.
How hot is this beef? Mild. The question of Cleo’s agency seems reasonably open to interpretation. And Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez, the real-life inspiration for the character, is a compelling advocate on the film’s behalf.
The debate: Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s ode to authentic creative expression and the vocal benefits of gargling gravel once seemed like a crowd-pleasing no-brainer for an awards show famously obsessed with A-listers and the mythology of show business. But it lost steam early in the race. More than a few critics have pointed out its evidently shame-y views on the pleasures of both pop music and make-up; its portrayal of drag queens raised some eyebrows.
How hot is this beef? Mild. Are you happy in this modern world? Or do you need more? Compared with the other films on this list, Cooper’s is still about as close to universally beloved as it gets in 2019 (even if Oscar voters were cold to the director himself).
The debate: What was that we were saying about universal love? Clearly, last year’s highest-grossing movie domestically is more than within scratching distance of that claim, too. Ryan Coogler’s Pan-African Marvel epic didn’t need a “popular film” category to score plenty of recognition from Academy voters, including the first-ever best picture nomination for a superhero film. But some have wondered: Does the arrival of the Avengers and Co. to Hollywood’s most exclusive club signal the end of civilisation? What will become of the true cinema and all that gatekeepers and other Curators of Cinematic Kindred Spirits hold dear?
Critics of the politics of the film, which touches on messy questions about racial justice without ever really getting its hands dirty, have been more thoughtful.
How hot is this beef? Mild. Unless you hate children, who are the future.
The debate: This biting and bawdy period comedy from the acclaimed Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos tied with Roma for the most nominations this year at 10. Its story, based on the real-life palace intrigue involving Queen Anne and her female consorts, gleefully skewers the stuffy conventions of its genre, provoking some who have groused about its many anachronisms.
How hot is this beef? Mild. Don’t cry for the crown.