We’re just a few days away from the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony and the speculation is rampant.
Will La La Land dominate? Will #oscarssowhite become a thing of the past with big wins for movies like Moonlight or Hidden Figures? It will all come to a head Sunday night when Jimmy Kimmel hosts the broadcast, which will be accompanied by the annual commentary about how it’s overlong, how someone important was left out of the “In Memoriam” segment and how some of the acceptance speeches were either overtly political in nature or not nearly political enough.
Focusing on the nine movies nominated for Best Picture, a few themes come into focus as to how each of them was sold to the theatrical audience. Let’s look at those categories
There’s nothing that resonates with audiences of all types more than family. It’s one of the few nearly universal truths that bind us. So stories about family are usually the hooks upon which other themes and messages are hung upon.
That’s true of Fences, which was sold in a way that centered around the dynamic between Denzel Washington’s Troy and both his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). The trailers in particular focused on two speeches of Troy’s, one to Cory about how he doesn’t owe him a damn thing beyond the roof over his head and food in his stomach and one to Rose about how he’s been stuck in the same place for almost 20 years. The latter is notably countered by Rose forcefully pointing out that she’s been there too, standing loyally beside him the whole time as her own hopes and dreams pass on by.
In the Hell or High Water campaign it was a bit different. That one was more about asking the audience to condone the steps taken by brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine, respectively) to protect their family’s assets and legacy. Those actions, it’s made clear, include robbing the banks that are presented as villainous for their predatory practices toward hardworking individuals. So it was very much presented as “you do for family” being the ultimate moral good, regardless of the legality of your actions.
Finally there’s Manchester By the Sea, in which Casey Affleck finds himself as the unwilling guardian of his nephew after the teenage boy’s parents are killed. To describe Affleck’s Lee Chandler as “reluctant” is putting it mildly, as the trailer alone showed at least two or three times where he tries to abdicate his responsibility before finally realizing that he’s all his nephew has left and he needs to grow up and deal with his life in a way he hasn’t to date.
Embracing who you are
Moonlight has won critical acclaim that’s almost universal, especially for the performance of Ashton Sanders as Chiron in writer/director Barry Jenkins’ emotional story. Chiron has been rejecting who he is for most of his life, seeking solace away from a childhood home that offered nothing in the way of comfort and a school environment that was filled with bullying and torment. As a grown man he reconnects with a Kevin, a childhood friend who shares a secret with Chiron. The campaign only hints at that connection but it’s clear this is a journey of self-discovery.
In Hacksaw Ridge it’s not so much a story of coming to terms with who you are but remaining true to your ideals and morals. Andrew Garfield plays Desmond T. Doss, an Army medic who’s drafted into World War II. A devout Christian and pacifist, Doss won’t refuse the call to serve but at the same time will refuse to take up arms against anyone, even the enemy. Despite being a conscientious objector he goes on to serve even though, as the campaign made abundantly clear, he was neck-deep in the horrific violence of the war’s intense fighting in the Pacific theater.
Dev Patel plays Saroo in Lion, the real-life story of a man who, as a young boy, became separated from his family at a crowded railroad station in India. Now grown and having been adopted by an Australian couple he’s beginning to question his identity and wants to learn more about who his birth family was and if they’re still alive. So he engages in a search for them in an effort to reconnect with his past. The marketing was filled with the kind of emotions you would expect from this kind of personal story, creating a strong appeal for audiences to latch on to.
Achieving your dreams
The singular theme of the marketing for La La Land – aside from the idea that romantic musicals have been missing from Hollywood for far too long – is that you need to chase your dreams, no matter what the obstacles standing in your way. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling both turned on the charm for the movie as struggling artists in LA, and while there’s been some pushback about the movie’s approach as the months have passed the core idea is still there in the campaign that all you need to do is keep dreaming.
Far from achieving just some level of professional success in a vainglorious way, Hidden Figures was about a group of women who simply wanted the right to do what they were capable of doing. In this case it’s about female scientists – female black scientists at that – in the 1960s who are brought into NASA’s efforts to put a man on the moon. They encounter a mix of racism and sexism just in doing what was seen at the time as the job of a white man, pushing against the boundaries of an era when Jim Crow laws were only starting to melt away. All of that was clear in the campaign, which positioned the movie as an inspirational story that was so important to the US space program but isn’t a big part of high school history classes.
Arrival doesn’t fit easily into this category. The story follows Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a world-renowned linguist who’s drafted into action when a series of alien ships appear over various locations across the globe. She’s needed to establish a common language and method of communication with the visitors but her efforts don’t progress quickly enough for some people and the pressure mounts. While the story as laid out in the marketing wasn’t exactly as aspirational or inspirational as others, it did make clear that Banks can’t pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something no one else has ever done or likely would ever do again.