Oscar’s Moral Licensing: Are We Back to the “Old Days” After a Historic Year?

moral licensing

Moonlight’s victory at last year’s Academy Awards was both shocking and historic. Not just because of any confusion involving Faye Dunaway opening the wrong envelope, but because history tells us that Moonlight isn’t the kind of movie that wins Best Picture. We’re talking about a poetic coming-of-age story about a gay man written and directed by a black man and starring an all-black cast. None of those words describe your typical Best Picture winner. As recently as five years ago, it would’ve been impossible to picture a movie like Moonlight becoming the big Oscar winner of the year. And yet, it happened. In that moment, it seemed like anything was possible. Were we witnessing the beginning of a new era for Hollywood? Maybe not. Looking at the movies likely to take home hardware at this year’s Oscar ceremony, I can’t help but think of a woman named Elizabeth Thompson.

Elizabeth Thompson is the subject of the very first episode of  Revisionist History, a podcast hosted by non-fiction author Malcolm Gladwell dedicated to “history’s overlooked and misunderstood moments.“ In this first episode, Gladwell talks about The Roll Call, a 1874 painting by Thompson which the first painting by a woman to ever be exhibited by the British Royal Academy of Arts. The Roll Call was a total sensation, attracting large crowds both at the Academy’s show in London and on its tour across the country. The painting’s success seemed to signal the beginning of a long and bright career for Elizabeth Thompson. Many assumed she would be the first woman to be admitted into the Royal Academy. That didn’t happen. She didn’t get enough votes to join the Academy. She kept submitting, but her work was never again selected for exhibition. After a while, she stopped painting. And that was that.

Gladwell explains what happened to Thompson using a social psychology term called “moral licensing.” The official explanation of the term goes like this: “past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical or otherwise problematic. Behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.” Now, there is nothing strictly immoral about giving an award to one actor over another, but I do think the term applies -in a softer interpretation of its definition- to the way this year’s awards season is shaping up.

Let me explain: because the Oscars did something historic last year when they awarded Moonlight, they feel like they have the moral license to not vote for certain movies this time around. So maybe Oscar voters won’t vote for Get Out, because a “black movie” already won last year. Maybe they won’t vote for Call Me By Your Name, because a “gay movie” won last year. It’s like not feeling bad for not giving the change in your pocket to a homeless person, because you gave a quarter to another panhandler earlier in the day. Or like when Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director award for The Hurt Locker, but wasn’t even nominated for Zero Dark Thirty a couple years later (this year, Greta Gerwig became the first woman to be nominated since Bigelow’s win – eight years later!). You do something good, then you don’t feel bad about doing something… less good.

The way this concept has most clearly manifested itself in this year’s awards is not in the movies that are losing, but the movies and performances that are winning. After the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, a group of front-runners has solidified itself in the acting races. Looking at these winners -not at the actors, but at the characters they’re playing- one is confronted with a foursome of of loud, un-PC, angry white people. Is this just a coincidence? Or is this Hollywood’s way of reacting to the controversial issues that have defined the industry for the last couple years. What are voters trying to say? “Enough of Oscar so White and #MeToo! We will award whoever we want to award!”

Allison Janney, front-runner in the Best Supporting Actress race, was spotted wearing a pussy hat at the Women’s March in Los Angeles, but you’d be more likely to find her I, Tonya character at a Trump rally. Janney’s an incredible actress, and I would normally be thrilled that she’s about to win an Oscar. But then I look at the role that’s winning her all these trophies and I wonder if I saw the same movie everyone else did. She plays Tonya Harding’s abusive mother in a cartoonish performance that’s fifty percent spitting out politically incorrect one-liners and fifty percent chain-smoking. The character is so one-note that even the one scene in which she shows a hint of vulnerability is undercut by her own selfishness.

Another similarly tough character is played by Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which she stars as a mother seeking revenge for her teenage daughter, who was brutally raped and murdered. It’s easy to read that log-line and imagine Three Billboards to be the perfect movie for the Time’s Up movement, but after watching the movie, I doubt writer-director Martin McDonagh is interested in female empowerment. A lot happens in Three Billboards, but little of it makes sense. The movie moves from one shocking revelation to the next, complicating its plot while abandoning any interest it has in its characters’ interiority. McDormand’s character’s “complex” moments include a lot of swearing, poorly motivated arson, and kicking a teenage girl in the crotch. 

It’s ironic McDormand is leading the Best Actress race, because the movie is most interested in the bigoted cop played by Sam Rockwell who, also ironically, is most likely to win the Supporting Actor award. Rockwell’s moronic Officer Dixon is introduced to us as a bad cop known in town for harassing and brutalizing black people. He’s the one who gets an arc, as he suddenly -thanks to script contrivances- gains a conscience and seeks redemption. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this redemption arc, until you surround it with a movie that shows no interest for the woman whose rape and murder incites the action, or the many black characters who only enter the narrative when they can serve as obstacles to the white characters’ goals.

Finally, the race for Best Actor is led by Gary Oldman, who stars in Darkest Hour playing Winston Churchill; and this combination might prove double problematic. Churchill is, of course, one of the biggest conservative icons in history. Darkest Hour covers Oldman under layers of latex to present Churchill as a cooky but effective leader, who gains the courage to stand up to the Nazis by talking with the common folk while riding the underground in a scene that I’m sure is 100% historically accurate. Darkest Hour obviates Churchill’s more controversial moments as a leader, but it has another potentially controversial figure in Gary Oldman himself. That is, if voters decide to pay attention to the actor’s history of physical abuse and controversial statements.

The common denominator among these characters seems to be a lack of regard for political correctness. A bad mom, an angry woman, a racist cop, and an unorthodox leader. All white. All loud. All obnoxious. Doesn’t it seem curious that voters are gravitating toward this set of performances? Is it just that they are taking them at face value without examining further? Or is it that they’re identifying with these (older) white people who don’t seem to fully know what to do with their surroundings? Are these Hollywood folks being threatened by a world that is changing around them? By a world that would give Best Picture to Moonlight?

We won’t know until the first week of March. And even if these four acting races go the expected route, there is still room for surprises in other categories. Most Oscar Experts (if such a term exists) agree that this year’s Best Picture race is the most wide open race we’ve had in a very long time. And it is worth remembering that the Academy has changed the demographic of its membership considerably in the last couple years, thanks to an initiative sparked by the Oscar So White campaign. Estimates say that these new members account for 25% of the membership. That is huge. The Academy is now younger and more diverse than ever. So maybe we will see a year of “moral licensing.” Or maybe Get Out will win Best Picture. Only time will tell.

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