I suppose the good news about this year’s Oscars is that the Academy has finally accepted, two years in a row, that perhaps this particular show doesn’t require a host. The bad news, conversely, is that the nominations still suggest a film industry much more white, male, and boring than it actually is.
This year’s Oscars nominations were announced this morning, and to nearly no one’s collective surprise, they’re dominated by white people. There’s only one black woman nominated in any acting category, Cynthia Erivo for Harriet, who’s also the only nonwhite person (although some have mischaracterized Antonio Banderas, nominated for his performance in Pain and Glory as Latinx — even though he’s Spanish). There are no women nominated for directing. Jennifer Lopez didn’t get shit for Hustlers. They didn’t even throw Beyoncé a bone for her Lion King soundtrack. Beyoncé!!! And Joker, one of the worst movies I saw last year, a list that includes the live-action Aladdin and the acid trip known as Cats, leads the pack with 11 nominations.
Joker has already largely been criticized as a boring, uninteresting movie at best, and a dangerous incel fantasy at worst. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “To be worth arguing about, a movie must first of all be interesting: it must have, if not a coherent point of view, at least a worked-out, thought-provoking set of themes, some kind of imaginative contact with the world as we know it. ‘Joker’ ... has none of that.” Tasha Robinson at the Verge wrote that “Joker is a deliberate and fine-tuned provocation and promise: you aren’t alone, the people you hate really are awful, and it would be okay to act against them in any way you want.”
At this point, it’s pretty fruitless to argue over whether Joker is any good, or if it’s actually dangerous. Any man angry at his lot in life can use any justification in the world to act out against other people — often women — and the rationale doesn’t need to be a movie that so clearly courts the disaffected and lonely. Plus, the movie is a verifiable success: It’s made $1 billion worldwide and is now getting showered with awards and accolades from the Hollywood establishment.
But there’s something sour about Joker’s story and how it converges with its real-world impact. (I’m going to spoil this movie now, so please don’t email me angry that I ruined the plot of an origin story that’s already been told a handful of times, based on a comic book character who debuted before WWII.)
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a sad-sack wannabe clown who harbors grudges against virtually every woman in his life. When he learns that his mother, who has a mental illness, has lied about who his father was, he kills her. He imagines an extensive, fantastical relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mother who lives down the hall, and eventually breaks into her house and scares the absolute shit out of her. His social worker tells him that a budget cut means the program can no longer help him, which he seems to take as a personal affront instead of a structural failure.
Two out of three of the women that Arthur feels wronged by are black women, which seems like an awfully strange coincidence. There are others he murders too — a late-night host (Robert De Niro) who mocks him on television, the Wall Street bros who beat him up in the subway. But the women in his life end up being the biggest reasons why Arthur snaps: Women are liars (his mother), they don’t pay attention to him when he just wants to love them (Sophie), and they’re unfeeling and uncaring about someone in crisis (the social worker).
By the movie’s end, Arthur becomes a hero to disaffected people everywhere — a leader of an entire movement. He wins.
In real life, meanwhile, director Todd Phillips also spent most of the film’s publicity cycle winning — and yet still whining. On Oct. 1, a few days before Joker’s release, Phillips — who also directed Old School and The Hangover — complained in Vanity Fair about how hard it is to make a comedy in 2019. “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture. … There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore — I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you,’” he said. He complained at length about “left-wing” critiques of Joker. Joaquin Phoenix stormed out of an interview when the journalist asked him if the movie might inspire a copycat, as if the question is so absurd that he had the right to be offended.
The creators behind Joker have acted as if they’re the underdogs, just like its protagonist does. And yet, here we are, watching Joker beat out a number of far more interesting and artful movies in terms of Oscar nominations. Martin Scorsese might not be a fan of Joker, but ultimately, that doesn’t matter at all. Phillips and his main character both acted like they were being denied the success and admiration they deserved. In the end, they both got exactly what they wanted, at the expense of other people — and in spite of the chorus of voices asking for something different than white dudes coming out on top, yet again.
The creators behind Joker have acted as if they’re the underdogs, just like its protagonist does.
Normally, diversity isn’t a zero-sum game. Producing or watching a movie featuring women of color, or made by people of color, doesn’t mean that white people get fewer shots. But in awards season, it does, indeed, mean that: There are only so many Oscars to give out every year and thus, only so many pieces of the pie. So Phillips and his movie getting nominated means, in practical terms, fewer slots for directors like Greta Gerwig (Little Women) or Lulu Wang (The Farewell) or Alma Har’el (Honey Boy) or any of the countless other women who maybe should’ve had a shot at winning.
There are other movies and actors taking up this space, but it’s more infuriating for Joker to do so, since it’s a movie that posits that women — black women particularly — are holding white men back. Look, The Irishman bored the shit out of me, but it’s not a movie that suggests that maybe if women weren’t so fucking rude when some dude just wants them to love him, he wouldn’t have to go on a killing spree, oooo-kay???
Joker’s commercial success — and now, its critical success — makes the filmmakers’ self-victimization even more absurd. What have Phillips and Phoenix been complaining about this whole time? Their movie has made hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re both nominated for Oscars after being nominated for Golden Globes. Like Arthur, they’re both operating in a version of the world that doesn’t exist: one where they don’t get what they think they deserve, when, in fact, they’re doing just fine. The makers of Joker aren’t responsible for the lack of nominations for women and people of color. They’re not the reason why the movie business is so reluctant to include anyone other than white men. But their response to any criticism at all — defensive, childish, prickly, even when things are going their way — is telling. Even when they win, they’re worried it won’t last.
The people behind Joker wanted to create a believable superhero origin story, one where the bad guy isn’t an outlandish monster but just a sad sack who feels like he’s been disenfranchised. They did, indeed, accomplish that — and managed to do it in the movie and in the real world. It just happens to be the same story we’ve heard a thousand times before. ●
A parenthetical about Antonio Banderas has been reworded to emphasize the fact that he should not be considered Latinx.