Year after year, the Oscars ceremony is the biggest night in entertainment. Its ubiquity from November to February dictates moviegoers’ conversations about independent films and limits discourse, primarily to acting and cinematography, two categories that most people feel qualified to discuss. But our fascination with the glitz and glamour of the Oscars is dangerous. The power we grant this awards ceremony to determine our opinions of important, groundbreaking films has the potential to keep us from discussing what the content of these films means to us as a community.
This year’s favorite for Best Picture and nominee in many other categories, Birdman, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The movie follows former Hollywood star Riggan Thompson, played by Michael Keaton, as he attempts to take back control of his acting career by directing and acting in his Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Throughout the character’s journey, Thompson suffers from hallucinations in which he hears the voice of his former character, Birdman. These hallucinations damage his relationships with everyone he is in contact with: other actors, his ex-wife, his daughter and his best friend and producer. Moreover, they take a serious toll on Thompson himself. In the end, he attempts suicide onstage, receiving a standing ovation from the audience. When he wakes up in the hospital and learns that he failed to kill himself, he jumps out of the hospital window and finishes the job.
The conversations Thompson has with his family and friends throughout the movie should raise serious red flags for us as an audience. The people closest to him and even the health professionals supervising his hospital care fail to acknowledge or discuss his obvious mental health struggle, even after he destroys his dressing room in a wild tantrum and shoots the nose off his face in his attempted suicide. The absence of substantive conversations about mental health in the movie should not go unnoticed by viewers. These absences present an opportunity for us to think about what role mental illness plays in our society and for us to make every effort we can to combat the stigma that kept Thompson’s family, friends and coworkers from speaking up.
The greatest irony for me in viewing Birdman was the post-movie discussion I heard as I exited the theater. After Thompson attempts suicide onstage, he gets a standing ovation for what the audience perceived as an extraordinary performance by a gifted actor. Unfortunately, the movie’s real audience reacts the same way to Keaton’s performance in Birdman. The irony is lost on the movie-going crowd as they leave the theater focused on Keaton’s brilliant acting and the film’s one-take cinematography, failing to realize that they are the exact audience that Birdman seems to be mocking in that scene. When I watched Birdman, a powerful, critical message presented itself: Stigma is a tragedy and suicide is not a spectacle. But when we combine Birdman with our Oscar-worshipping culture, we do not get the message. Instead, we both fail to recognize the mental health stigma that the movie wants to combat and reproduce that stigma by otherizing mental illness.
In fact, the Academy Award for Best Actor itself has serious otherizing potential. It suggests that the actor has accomplished some great feat by making the character relevant and relatable to the masses. When we look at the winners for Best Supporting Actor in the last five years, we find Christian Bale for his portrayal of a drug addict, Christopher Plummer for his portrayal of an elderly man coming out as gay and Jared Leto for his portrayal of a trans woman. For Best Supporting Actress, Octavia Spencer won in 2011 for her role as a black maid in the American South of the 1960s. Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor last year for his role as an HIV-positive man. Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman have won Best Actress for their portrayals of women with mental illnesses.
These awards, in themselves, may not be so offensive. They may even have potential to bring awareness of several important issues to our celebrity-worshipping culture. It is significant that films with characters who represent marginalized groups in society are being made and recognized; we could easily look at this as a huge step forward. And the actors and actresses who win can promote the causes of their characters, if they choose to do so. But our focus on the celebrities and their acting, not to mention their dates and outfits at the awards ceremony, does serious harm to any potential for these films to make a powerful, critical statement about our society. Instead, this misguided focus reproduces our all-too-eager tendency to otherize cultures unlike ours and people unlike us.
Once our favorite actor wins Best Actor and our favorite film wins Best Picture, we forget about it. As long as we focus on artistry rather than content, as long as we fail to consider these films in relation to ourselves and our society and as long as we prioritize celebrity over criticism, we are not moving forward. We at the College need to examine our roles, albeit invisible ones, in these films. We should recognize and work to change the cultural issues that we see in movies. We should watch every movie, and every Academy Awards ceremony, with a critical eye.
Sarah Austin ’16 is a history major from Cincinnati, Ohio. She lives in Sage.