Mar 25 • 24M

Lost Horizons: How the Oscars Became Hollywood's Shangri-La

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The podcast version of Sasha Stone's Substack essays.
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This Sunday, the beleaguered Oscars will hold their 94th Academy Awards ceremony. I will be attending, as I have for the last several years. I get my one ticket that is usually on the highest tier. I put on a fancy dress. I drive myself to the ceremony, park in the garage, and take the escalator to the Dolby Theater, which is located in the same mall as the Mann’s Chinese, where I used to visit as a kid to look at the footprints and handprints of all of the stars.

I love going to the Oscars, even if the only people I have to talk to are the wait staff and bartenders. Each floor has two full bars outside each of the tiers of the theater. You are allowed to go in and out of the theater as long as you do it during the commercial breaks. One of the most thrilling things about attending the live show is listening to the waves of applause that ripple through the room when an award is announced, or a film clip is shown.

It looks very different on TV than it does live. I am usually way way up in the nosebleeds so I can’t see much of what is going on unless I look at the flat screens provided for us. I can go out and have a drink and watch the show on the TV monitor. Then you can see it better. But it is still fun to go. I feel really lucky to be invited every year as a member of the press.

How did I ever get here?

I have been blogging about the Oscars for 22 years. It never occurred to me in all of that time that the Oscars could go extinct. Now I think there is a good chance they probably will. Sooner rather than later.

The Oscars, like the Democratic Party, have created a fantasy world for themselves, an insulated, isolated utopia. It plays out in everything they do. They believe they solved the problem of racism that erupted in 2020 with Biden’s directive, and by forcing everyone who wasn’t a willing participant, across the country and in every institution to go along with their “antiracism” policies. They are now trying to make sure this ideology is taught in schools because it isn’t some obscure scripture studied in law school. It is the entire world view of the Left, and that includes the Oscars.

I used to be a true believer. Back when Critical Theory in race and gender was being taught at my daughter’s high school, I was spending my days on my website advocating for people of color and women to be nominated and to win. I was like every social justice scold you see on Twitter now. I believed I was doing the right thing. I believed that there was no purpose to the Oscars if they couldn’t change their history of awarding all white men all of the time.

My perspective would start to shift in the last few years as I watched the accusations of racism and the push for equity to be ultimately detrimental to the goal of what the Oscars are supposed to be about. It isn’t that I still don’t feel that the awards should be open to everyone, not just white men, it’s that I can’t go along with using the awards as a way to pat ourselves on the back and fake-pretend we’ve changed anything. Have we? Or is it all a show?

Film critics and Oscar voters seem to be okay pretending they are awarding on merit. But it doesn’t seem that way to anyone not inside their utopian bubble. They want to be rewarded for having made change - with their museum, with their casting choices, with the films they award, with how they staff their awards shows. They give the impression that things have changed. But they haven’t really. The Academy, and most institutions in this country, remain mostly white. The Academy is still 80% white, above the nation’s white majority, which is in the high 60s at the moment.

Watch any film or television ad produced by Hollywood and you would imagine that we live in a country that has an equal share of people of color and white people. But we don’t. Whites are still the majority. But on the Left, they feel bad about this and thus, they must prove their worth every time they take the stage, every time they put out a movie, every time they give out an award, every time they make a film.

The majority in this country, no matter their skin color, has about had enough. They’ve had enough of Hollywood lecturing them. They’ve had enough of their ideology and their strange new religion being foisted upon them and they are slowly pulling away from both the Democrats and the Oscars.

Although everything was already starting to be about race before 2016, it wasn’t until Trump won that things would start to radically change on the Left, on the Right - everywhere.

There are many reasons for the drop in ratings - the rise of superhero movies, the rise of great television and flat screens, but it also can’t be a coincidence that they really started to dip after November 2016.

Trump’s win upended almost everything on the Left, especially the film industry and the Oscars. They became overtly political, taking the side against not just Trump but half the country that voted for Trump.

Almost immediately, the mass hysteria began, starting with the frontrunner the year of the 2016 election, La La Land.

Because no one could do anything about Trump being the President, and because they could not hurt anyone on the Right with their moral outrage, their disgust, their constant dehumanizing and shaming, they began to eat their own. La La Land was accused of being racist, not just because it was a film that was about to win Best Picture, but because the film features a white man in it who loves Jazz.

I could feel the awkward silence every time the film’s name was mentioned. When they called it for La La Land at the end, I had already left the building because I too was caught up in the frenzy that a racist film was about to win Best Picture. I didn’t find out until a phone call from a friend that Moonlight, the film about a black gay man finding love and acceptance, had won instead. Everyone assumed Trump caused it because no one could take a movie like La La Land seriously when the whole world had so dramatically changed.

The following year, another controversy hit the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In it, Sam Rockwell (who won the Oscar) plays a cop who has a history of police brutality. The film didn’t properly address it, according to critics and journalists. They believed it redeemed Rockwell. Even though the movie kept winning awards the outrage kept simmering. This time I argued against the smear. That was the first time I was called out and swarmed on Twitter. Despite my having advocated for years and years for Black filmmakers on my site, now I was being called a racist, in so many words, for defending Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Though it won the Golden Globe, the SAG ensemble award, and the BAFTA, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri would lose Best Picture to The Shape of Water. It must have been such a surreal experience to the film’s director, Martin McDonagh, to be suddenly branded a racist and a police brutality apologist. This was, for me, a major turning point. I could see that a mass hysteria event was unfolding but I could do nothing to stop it.

By far the worse event, though, was the next year when the film Green Book was up for the Oscar. It was so well-liked by everyone who saw it that it immediately won the Audience Award in Toronto. It won the Golden Globe. Then, when it won the Producers Guild it looked like it might win Best Picture and that is when all hell broke loose. It’s a film about a working-class New Yorker who drives a Jazz musician across the country during Jim Crow. Mahershala Ali played the musician who was also gay.

Not only was the film viciously and repeatedly attacked, but the filmmakers involved had their pasts upended and exposed. Director Peter Farrelly was accused of being a sex offender for once flashing someone on the set as a joke. The Screenwriter Nick Vallelonga who wrote the story about his own father was apparently a Trump supporter and had tweeted something criticizing Muslim immigrants. He was banned from the ceremony and never showed his face again during the race.

I went on a massive counteroffensive to defend Green Book, even getting interviewed in the Wall Street Journal.

Green Book was such a warm-hearted crowd-pleaser that the attacks against it backfired and it did end up winning Best Picture. Green Book’s win, however, would push the Oscars past the point of no return.

The “Green Book effect” would ultimately lead the Academy to turn inward, to manufacture a reality they wanted to be true because that was their only option. They had to bow to the activists pressuring them to make change.

The following year, despite films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman and 1917 being nominated for Best Picture, they would opt to give their top prize to the first film from a different country, Parasite from South Korea, to win Best Picture and Best Director.

Sam Mendes’ 1917 had won the Golden Globe, the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, and the British Film and Television Academy’s prize but lost the oscar to Parasite. Had 1917 won instead, however, all of the top prizes would have gone to white people - all of the actors and the filmmakers. That was early in 2020. A few weeks after the Oscars that year, COVID would hit. By the Summer, the country would explode with the George Floyd protests.

That the Academy walked away from the 2020 Oscars with rapturous headlines at their having awarded the first “International Feature” Best Picture meant that they had finally won the approval of the loud chorus that demanded them to stop being #oscarssowhite.

After the Summer of 2020, however, there was no further resistance from the industry. Big changes were implemented. The British Film and Television Academy (BAFTA) brought in a jury to select the nominees for the acting and directing category. Voters were ordered to choose half women and half men in Best Director. They kept the policy in place year which meant that not a single BAFTA nominee for Best Actress was also an Oscar nominee.

The Academy already had an inclusion mandate in place to take hold in 2024, so there was nothing more they had to do officially, but they did decide to display their history at their museum to almost completely erase everything about the Oscars, the film industry and Hollywood. They had not only erased their Jewish mogul origin story, but they had almost completely eliminated the Oscars that everyone knows. But of course, no one could say anything. They were too afraid.

As I walked around it I saw one person frantically pacing the rooms of the beautifully designed luxury museum saying into his cell phone, “none of it is here, not a single studio, no Warner Brothers, no Paramount.” And he was right.

After Green Book won in 2018, there has not been a film by a white man to win Best Picture. And there won’t be this year. Voters seem to understand this. I came to the Oscars at a time when great directors made great movies. But now, from the Sundance Film Festival onward, the priority of inclusivity has completely overwhelmed the whole point of awarding films in the first place. Whatever is happening now in Hollywood isn’t about finding the best of anything or anyone. It is simply another arm of the Democratic Party’s new religion.

I imagine if Joseph McCarthy came back today and saw just how influential the political movement of the Left is having on everything from education, to science, to history, and yes, to the Oscars he’d think the Communists finally won.

This year, we’re down to two movies for the top prize. Both are directed by women - Jane Campion for Power of the Dog and Sian Heder for CODA. Both are competing to be the first film by a streaming platform, not a studio, to win Best Picture. Netflix (Power) vs. Apple (CODA). Neither film made money at the box office, with CODA bought for $25 million at the Sundance Film Festival, earning just $1 million at the box office.

CODA is a heartwarming story about a hearing child with deaf parents and is acted by a predominantly deaf cast. Normally, the idea of awarding Apple or even Netflix their top prize, to give up entirely on that hard line between theatrical and streaming, the Academy voters would go a different way. But Apple made them an offer they could not refuse. A chance to make history by awarding the first film with a deaf cast as Best Picture. The cast was recently seen at the White House, as the guest of Joe and Jill who love the movie so much. Even though you have to be an Apple subscriber to watch it and it only made $1 million at the box office, this win will tell you everything you need to know about the Academy in 2022.

CODA earned just three Oscar nominations, the lowest of all ten nominees. If it wins on Sunday it will be the first film since the 1930s to do so with just Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. In any other time in most of their history, this would be unheard of. But in 2022, no one can stop them from making history and looking like the good guys one more time.

Teenagers aren’t going to pay to see Oscar movies any time soon. They did go to see Spider-Man: No Way Home which is fast on its way to becoming the highest grossing film of all time. The Oscar voters aren’t going to vote for a movie like that. When you do the math, it’s hard to see any future for the Oscars.

Now that the Oscars, like the Democrats, have decided that skin color, gender, and equity matter more than merit there is no point in having a competition. Maybe it’s time to simply hand out certificates of achievement to those they believe deserve it most. Pretending like people are winning, though, is something the public can see through and something only the most privileged utopians find appealing.

None of the movies nominated this year are bad. Some of them are very good. It’s just that it’s an isolated world, a magic mirror, a Shangri-la that touches almost no one else outside of its atmosphere.

Sunday will be Oscar’s 94th year. They’ve had a good run. Most of us would be lucky to live that long.