"La La Land" has been the Oscar frontrunner for so long that the backlash was inevitable.
An army of naysayers has gathered to denounce the Best Picture favorite as overrated and unworthy of its record 14 nominations. And there's even some signs, from recent awards ceremonies, that the hit musical does not have a sweep locked up.
The big question is: Are Academy voters listening to the negative buzz? And will it sway them when they cast their votes on Feb. 13?
So far, the movie remains the favorite to win most of the trophies it's nominated for. It cemented its hold on Best Director and Best Picture on Feb. 4 when Damien Chazelle won the Directors Guild prize, usually one of the strongest predictors of victory in the top Oscar categories.
On the other hand, the American Society of Cinematographers gave its top prize last week to "Lion" over "La La Land," a modest upset. The ASC Award is seldom an accurate predictor of Oscar success, so "La La Land" still has a good chance for a cinematography Oscar. But the win for "Lion" win shows that support for "La La Land" among Hollywood craftspeople isn't as strong as analysts thought.
And there is even talk that Emma Stone isn't the lock for Best Actress that she has seemed to be so far, but that Isabelle Huppert could surprise with a win for "Elle." The theory goes: Stone was good in "La La Land" but not Oscar good, while Huppert, the veteran French actress who'd never been nominated before, gave the performance of her career.
Both actresses won at the Golden Globes (where musicals and dramas are separate categories), but East Coast Oscar voters supposedly prefer the prestigious foreign thespian over the Hollywood starlet playing a Hollywood starlet. Of course, the Hollywood-based voters who might find Stone's role more resonant far outnumber the East Coast voters, but if they split their vote between Stone and Natalie Portman (for "Jackie"), Huppert could slip in.
Yeah, that's a long shot, especially considering how much the Oscars actually do love to reward ingenues. Just look at what happened to the late Emmanuelle Riva -- the French actress who received her first and only Oscar nomination at 85 for "Amour," only to lose to 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook." Still, that this theory is even floating around out there means that Stone's victory isn't quite a sure thing.
Why the sudden gathering of clouds over "La La Land's" parade? Maybe the movie peaked too soon.
It was the Oscar favorite starting back in September, when it was wowing critics on the festival circuit. It could suffer the same fate as "Boyhood" a couple years ago. That summer release seemed the favorite for months in 2014, but that also gave voters long enough to scrutinize it more carefully, find flaws, and allow late-fall release "Birdman" to look better by comparison. By the time the Oscar ceremony finally rolled around, support for "Boyhood" had dwindled -- and "Birdman" came out on top.
It's true, "La La Land" has some clear flaws. Stone and Ryan Gosling are game troupers, but as singers and dancers, they're not exactly Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. Some critics have found fault with the movie's plotting (warning: spoiler alert!), which seems to torpedo the couple's romance over seemingly easily resolvable scheduling issues.
More troubling is all the fault-finding over the movie's politics. "What politics?" you may ask. Well, there's the movie's treatment of jazz. It seems weird that the character who wants to save the struggling music by returning it to its roots is a white pianist played by Gosling, while the character who supposedly wants to sell jazz out by watering it down with pop hooks and stage dancers is black bandleader John Legend. Real jazz musicians will tell you that this is a whitewash, a distortion of jazz history, and a gross oversimplification of complex trends in the music that jazz players have been arguing about for 50 years.
But the jazz issue is just a symptom of the movie's bigger political problem: its nearly all-white cast.
It's an awfully monochrome depiction, not only of what the film's Hollywood setting actually looks like, but of what America looks like. In the year where diversity among the Best Picture and acting nominees finally allowed the Academy's detractors to retire the #OscarsSoWhite protest hashtag, what message would it send to reward "La La Land" over "Moonlight," "Lion," "Fences," or "Hidden Figures"?
That's how the argument goes, anyway. It's led to such bitterness as the recent series of tweets by Kanye West collaborator Elon Rutberg, calling "La La Land" a "fascist" movie and "an act of destructive naïveté in a historical moment requiring depth, clarity, and refined thought."
Thankfully, in the real world, "La La Land," "Moonlight," and "Hidden Figures" and their stars are all worthy nominees whose victories could be justified on merit alone. And their creators are refusing to buy into the political feud others are trying to build around them. "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins (above, right) told the "Awards Show Show" podcast that he and Chazelle have become friends during the awards race, despite the desire of the press to pit them against each other in "a battle royale." He told the podcast, "I wasn't on set thinking, 'I'm going to make a film that can take down the 'white, fascist musical,' just like I'm sure Damien wasn't on set thinking, 'I'm going to make a movie that can take down the gay, black, hood love story told in an art-house way.' It just doesn't work that way."
The fact that "Moonlight" and "La La Land" are rivals at all is an accident of timing, generated by filmmaking processes that take years to put into motion, Jenkins suggested. Of this year's several nominated films with predominantly black casts, he said, "Just like all these movies are being framed as a response to #OscarsSoWhite -- I think they all arose in a vacuum, and they just arrived at this moment. It's great for people out there who need a narrative, but we're just trying to make art."
Jenkins, Chazelle (above), and most of the other nominees had a chance to prove that they could be friendly, without politics getting in the way, at the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon on Feb. 6 in Beverly Hills. Sure, attending is part of campaigning for a prize, but it's an event where everyone shows what well-behaved, amiable, good sports they are; by doing so, they prove they're fit to take the podium and speak before a worldwide audience without embarrassing the Academy.
True, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs did try to inject politics into the afternoon with her speech. "What a difference a year makes," she said, referring to the broadening of Academy membership under her watch last year that seems to have led to this year's more diverse slate of nominees.
She also noted that some nominees -- notably, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi -- didn't come because of President Trump's travel ban. "There are some empty chairs in this room, which have made Academy artists activists," she said. "Art has no borders and doesn't belong to a single faith," She added. "Just as our work does not stop at borders, borders can't be allowed to stop any of us. Strong societies don't censor art; they celebrate it."
But maybe strong societies also don't build border walls between artists. Certainly, at the Nominees Luncheon, they don't. Sitting side by side, dining together on Chilean sea bass and couscous, are legendary stars and little-known sound effects engineers, powerful executives and struggling documentary filmmakers, and "La La Land" fans and "Moonlight" partisans.
At the end of the luncheon, "Fences" star Denzel Washington (who will likely beat Gosling and Casey Affleck for Best Actor) chatted with Brianna Perez, the 14-year-old New York City schoolgirl who is one of the subjects of the Documentary Short nominee "Joe's Violin" (which you can watch in its entirety for free here). She came to the luncheon as the guest of "Joe" director Kahane Cooperman.
The short film is about a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor, Joseph Feingold, whose donation to the New York public schools of the violin he'd acquired when he was a refugee (a donation inspired in part by another Oscar-nominated movie) made a huge impact on Perez's life. She brought the instrument to the luncheon and played it for Washington, and then the A-list Hollywood star and the music student talked about what they had in common. It wasn't just that they had both grown up in the Bronx and gone to public schools there. As is apparent from the video of Washington listening intently to Perez's impromptu rendition of Pachelbel's Canon, it was a shared appreciation of the performing arts that transcended politics, race, class, language, religion, country of origin, and other petty differences.
Maybe there's a lesson there for Academy voters.