I haven’t exactly been watching a lot of movies these days. There haven’t been a lot of opportunities to go to the movies, of course – in case you’re unaware, Constant Reader, there’s been this whole global pandemic for over a year now. But while most of us haven’t been able to go to theatres, there’s been plenty of movies, new and classic, available to view on streaming services – provided you have the free time to do so. Many of us have had more free time than we care to during these Quarantimes – but between my day job and my Tuesday night series (both of which demand more time than normal due to our remote circumstances), as long as the quest to write the proverbial Lear In Quarantine, I’ve had no such free time. At all. Consequently, having seen none of the nominated films, and having a Zoom conflict last night for good measure, I have no way to blog about this year’s Oscar ceremony. My condolences – I’m sure that was uppermost on your mind these days.
The Oscars weren’t the only awards ceremony of the weekend, of course. As is customary, the Independent Spirit awards were given out a few days before the Oscar ceremony. And of course, the Razzie “awards” – the annual shaming of Hollywood’s worst – were announced the day before the Oscars. 2020 was a terrible year, after all – why not take a moment to point and laugh at the worst of the worst?
The Razzies began in 1981. I was ten at the time, and a precocious pop-culture loving sort, and I distinctly remember the first few years of those “awards’” existence coinciding with me beginning to develop a sense of my own tastes. During the depths of the eighties, as the general movie-going public was force-fed a never-ending supply of jingoistic, ‘roided-out pablum, there were the folks at the Razzies to say that yes, indeed, this was all bullshit. Over the past twenty years, this bullshit has been a little more politicized – as was the case this year, frequently politicians and business folks are called out for their villainy by being named “worst actor” in documentaries or other projects featuring them. Clearly, they’ve been fighting the good fight all this time, right?
Except that’s not really the case. And to understand that, consider the case of one of this year’s multi-Razzie award “winners,” Sia’s Music. Deservedly and almost universally decried as one of the year’s worst, this film told a bizarre and pandering story about a non-verbal teenage autistic girl, played by neurotypical actress Maddie Ziegler. It’s Ms. Ziegler I want to focus on here, since she was given the role in large part because she had worked as a dancer for Sia for many years, since she was a young girl. By all accounts, she was uncomfortable with the role and the grotesque behavior – heavily bordering on mockery – that she was being asked to perform. She even asked her director not to do the part as directed, only to be pressured into doing so by a mentor to whom she owed her career. Most critics of the movie went out of their way to point out that the underlying choices behind the movie were at fault, rather than Ziegler; a few even pointed out that she’s the best thing in the movie (faint praise though that is). Surely, you can denounce the movie without blaming her.
Unless you’re the Razzie awards. They made a point of mocking her, proclaiming her Worst Supporting Actress of the year. For a performance she was reluctant to give, but had no power to refuse.
This is baked into the Razzies’ very DNA. In their very first year of existence, the Razzies made a point of mocking Shelley Duvall by nominating her as Worst Actress for The Shining. Yep, that iconic performance in that iconic horror movie, ridiculed as one-note. As the Razzies’ own website points out, the performance is entirely due to the horrific tactics and emotional abuse used by Stanley Kubrick on that set – and yet it’s the performer they continue to mock. Even as they acknowledge that Ms. Duvall was left with lasting mental health trauma from the experience of making that movie, they can’t help but sneer at the final product.
Like the Oscars, the Razzies are put together by industry insiders, and reflect their taste and groupthink. They only mock what they consider it safe to mock, and don’t disrupt the larger industry and cultural forces that create what they’re deeming “bad movies.” An actor with no say over the movie’s final cut, too fearful to publicly object to anything? Fair game. The Harvey Weinsteins and Scott Rudins of the world? The company men so resentful of upstart Netflix that they’d deny a posthumous Oscar to Chadwick Boseman’s Levee, the titanic heart of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? (Okay, I lied, I saw one of the nominated films.) Nary a peep to be heard from that particular organization.
To paraphrase Audre Lorde, the master’s tools will never tear down the master’s crappy movies. However much we may crave for somebody to point at the things we despise and cry “you’re right, it’s bullshit,” we can’t mistake water-cooler gossip for honest criticism. We all deserve better.