The Current Debate: Oscars 2023, Retread or Revolution?

In an edition marred by campaign controversies, what does the Daniels’ astonishing triumph mean for the Academy and the industry at large?
Leonardo Goi
Back in February 2020, commenting on the tumultuous “Bongslide” that saw Parasite make history as the first ever non-English Best Picture winner, the New York Times’s Wesley Morris wondered what Bong’s success would mean “for the movies going forward,” and “for American movies, in particular.” Would executives now be willing “not only to produce more original scripts,” but also “to market those movies and really stand behind them?” Three years and a pandemic later, it’s tempting to interpret Everything Everywhere All at Once’s Oscars deluge as proof that Morris was right. Swelling from underdog into uncontested front-runner, the film triumphantly ended its Oscars race on March 12 with seven trophies—including Best Picture. 
Surprising? Hardly. This year’s awards season so front-loaded the narratives behind each statuette that when the winners picked them up, the accolades only seemed to corroborate preexisting publicity. In a ceremony that had long been pegged as a night of comebacks, the belated recognition afforded to veteran performers like Michelle Yeoh and Brendan Fraser (Best Actress and Actor in a Leading Role) as well as Jamie Lee Curtis and Ke Huy Quan (Best Actress and Actor in a Supporting Role) felt like the natural conclusion of a discourse that had, long before March, left no room for plot twists. But the film’s Oscars haul—which also included Best Original Screenplay, Director, and Editing—is no less extraordinary. No Best Picture had captured as many trophies since Slumdog Millionaire in 2009, and no title had ever won as many in the above-the-line categories. To boot, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s multiverse fantasy also tied A Streetcar Named Desire and Network as the only films to nab three acting statuettes. 
In honoring a story centered on a dysfunctional Chinese American family (as opposed to, say, a director’s personal memoir, a jingoistic blockbuster made in collaboration with the US military, or an ode to America’s greatest rock icon), the Academy chose to reward voices and experiences that have seldom been part of the mainstream. Whether Everything Everywhere will lead to some sort of cultural shift in the kinds of films that are taken seriously remains to be seen. But there’s no denying its significance in terms of representation, all the more so considering just how long Asian performers have been overlooked by the Academy (as shown in an illuminating New York Times report by K. K. Rebecca Lai, only 23 of the 1808 acting nominees in Oscars history could be identified as Asian, and only six have won). The film’s triumph, Lisa Wong Macabasco argues at the Guardian… 
…would be significant in any year, but it’s especially momentous in a year with a record number of Asian nominees overall, across songwriting, producing and writing in films spanning genres from animation to documentary. This year four actors of Asian descent were nominated for Oscars, the most in a single year—and Yeoh and Quan’s awards broke the record for the most Asian actors winning on Oscar night. (The record had been one.) Yeoh is just the second Asian best actress nominee (and the first to fully embrace her Asian heritage) and now the very first to win; she’s only the second woman of color to win in that category.  
As the Oscars “have come to serve as a primary yardstick of representational gains,” Inkoo Kang writes at the New Yorker, the scrutiny of nominees and winners for their diversity has turned into a “joyless new annual award-season tradition.” And historic as Everything Everywhere’s wins may be, it bears noting that it’s an outlier among a very white group of nominees. Indeed, Yeoh was the only person of color among the leading performance candidates, and many Black films were shut out from the race, most notably Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King and Chinonye Chukwu’s Till
In this light, what’s so staggering about Everything Everywhere’s trophies avalanche isn’t just the diversity of its cast, but how “specifically and deeply Asian American” the Daniels’ film is, Anne Anlin Cheng argues over at the Washington Post. “Asian American concerns operate as more than an ethnic detail”; they are “the engines for the wild energies in the film.” 
The Daniels draw from a long history of Asians in America and notable Asian American issues, from the Wang family’s laundromat (recalling the long, exclusionary history of Chinese immigrant labor) to the Western romance with kung fu mysticism to the “model minority” myth to the figure of the tiger mother. The film invokes, individualizes, multiplies, takes apart and then wackily reassembles these enduring tropes. […] As a result, instead of locking down its subjects, as stereotypes are wont to do, the film uses its multiversal divagations to imagine alternative lives and versions of them. 
The Daniels’ victorious march also suggests another, larger story: the crisis of Big Prestige Films, the kind of critically acclaimed dramas that used to dominate awards seasons, but have, post-pandemic, fallen flat at the box office. At the New York Times, Brooks Barnes paints a depressing picture: 
One after another, films for grown-ups have failed to find an audience big enough to justify their cost. “Armageddon Time” cost roughly $30 million to make and market and collected $1.9 million at the North American box office. “Tár” cost at least $35 million, including marketing; ticket sales total $5.3 million. Universal spent around $55 million to make and market “She Said,” which also took in $5.3 million. “Devotion” cost well over $100 million and has generated $14 million in ticket sales. Even a charmer from the box office king, Steven Spielberg, has gotten off to a humdrum start. “The Fabelmans,” based on Mr. Spielberg’s adolescence, has collected $5.7 million in four weeks of limited play. Its budget was $40 million, not including marketing. 
Fueling these films’ financial struggles is a more complex debate around their relevance to spectators and voters whose viewing habits have changed dramatically since the onset of the pandemic. I’m not suggesting that these dramas are in any way “out of touch” with our zeitgeist (what could be more topical and thought-provoking in 2023 than a film like She Said, or TÁR?). But the fact remains, as the Guardian’s Catherine Shoard prophesied ahead of the ceremony, that “times have changed,” and that “the likely wipeout for Steven Spielberg’s drama about his parents’ divorce would indicate the Oscars are no longer in thrall to big beasts of the industry—however brilliant their films.” As it happened, The Fabelmans did indeed leave empty-handed, and the Academy chose to embrace “a movie that, on paper,” Clayton Davis writes at Variety, “could not be farther removed from typical Oscar bait.” Sure, Bong Joon-ho’s seismic victory a few years back might have helped widen voters’ sensibilities, but “even by the Academy’s new standards of open-mindedness,” Miles Surrey notes at the Ringer, “Everything Everywhere All at Once is a genuinely unprecedented Best Picture winner: a genre-bending indie film featuring multiverses, a terrifying void in the form of a giant everything bagel, fight scenes featuring butt plugs and fanny packs, and a raccoon controlling the body of a renowned chef.”  
Still, I’m not entirely convinced by those praising the film’s exceptionalism or its alleged Oscar-unfriendliness. For all its restless cavorting across parallel universes, its intoxicating (and asphyxiating) graphics, the Daniels’ struck me as a film with one foot firmly planted in the past. The family tensions on which its cosmic roundelay hinges are as old as time, the emotions and messages it peddles—there is greatness in all of us—are bright and saccharine. Everything Everywhere may look like an artifact from a faraway future, but it’s really just a vintage Oscar movie dressed in new, meme-friendly clothes. Perhaps it’s that “sheer too-muchness—its pull-out-the-stops, feel-all-the-feels, everything-plus-the-laundry-sink energy” that audiences love most about it, Justin Chang ponders at the L.A. Times: “It’s what they feel has been missing from movies, and perhaps the Oscars, forever.” A truly radical winner might have swapped the bombastic din of the multiverse for subtler but no less fulfilling insights: 
The more I’ve thought about “Everything Everywhere,” for all its undeniable representational significance, the more traditional a best picture winner it seems. Beneath its veneer of impish, form-busting radicalism, it’s as epically self-important, broadly sentimental and thematically unambiguous a movie as any the academy has so honored. Could the academy’s generosity ever extend, in future, to a more intimate, truthful, modestly scaled drama of Asian American life? A movie that prioritizes the specific over the multiversal, with subtler insights and fewer hot-dog fingers? 
Still, perhaps the film’s proclivity for all those bright-colored, sudsy emotions is what explains its extraordinary appeal to Academy voters and ordinary viewers alike. What’s more, Nate Jones contends at Vulture, Everything Everywhere “was adept at transforming; it could be anything to any voter.” A new Academy member could see “a portrait of Asian American immigrants, a valuable spotlight on a community recently threatened by racist violence”; a more traditional voter “might look past the sex toys and see a heartwarming family drama where the universe is saved by a hug;” while a Hollywood veteran worried about the industry’s finances “could see a big theatrical hit based on an original idea.” Most importantly, to borrow again from Catherine Shoard at the Guardian, the film was “popular with real people.” 
Populist, even: a flashy fanboy entertainment much closer to Marvel than most of the competition. Will it be the first superhero movie to win best picture? Essentially, yes. It shares a sensibility with the wackier end of that genre—as well as, crucially, a fanbase. It premiered not at Cannes or Venice but South by Southwest. The marketing has leant relentlessly on memes. Young people like it, cool people like it, nerds like it: all key target demographics for the ailing Oscars. A precedent will be set. 
But A24’s social-media savvy marketing tactics can’t explain, by themselves, the kind of momentum the film picked up shortly after its premiere. Grassroots, word-of-mouth efforts among the Daniels’ snowballing fanbase proved just as vital. Compare that with the much-maligned strategies that saw Andrea Riseborough earn a Best Actress nomination for her turn in To Leslie, an independent film with a small distributor and an even smaller marketing funds. Riseborough—together with her manager Jason Weinberg and director Michael Morris—reportedly enlisted personal friends and connections to trumpet her work and recruit voters among the Actors Branch, a campaign that’s now widely believed to have flouted the Academy’s rules against lobbying and unfair forms of influencing. 
In a most comprehensive, eye-opening New York Times exposé on the cutthroat tactics employed by awards consultants and marketing teams, Irina Aleksander highlights two crucial takeaways. The first is that the Riseborough controversy “reminded everyone of the reality of the Oscars: that despite the big show of sealed envelopes being delivered via handcuffed briefcases, the votes—in Hollywood as in Washington, D.C.—are a result of a highly contingent, political process, handed down not from movie gods but from the very people who stand to benefit from it.” The second is that the scandal also raised larger questions around who the true underdogs in an Oscars race really are. “Is it the actress without a studio or millions of dollars behind her, or the one with studio support and fewer connections?” Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of The Woman King, a blockbuster released by Sony, suggested the latter over at The Hollywood Reporter. “My issue with what happened is how people in the industry use their social capital,” she said of Riseborough’s nomination. “People say, ‘Well, Viola [Davis] and Danielle [Deadwyler] had studios behind them.’ But we just very clearly saw that social capital is more valuable.” Perhaps, but as Aleksander goes on to observe, “surely starring in a $50 million critically acclaimed studio film is valuable too and is the entire reason that those working in obscurity make a play for an Oscar.” At the end of the day, “the campaign game is about finding the most compelling narrative, one that inspires people to root for you.” 
Crucially, the team behind Everything Everywhere, per the Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Keegan, also committed its own share of violations. Studios aren’t allowed to invite Academy members to parties or non-screening events that promote nominated films, and social media posts singling out the competition are strictly forbidden. A24 itself followed the rules, but Academy members (among them Jodie Foster and Jake Gyllenhaal) threw Jamie Lee Curtis a party in mid-February, as did the Mandarin Oriental in Beverly Hills for Michelle Yeoh—events attended by prominent Academy figures and voters. Yeoh also shared (and deleted) screenshots of a Vogue piece on her Instagram that noted that Cate Blanchett had “already won two Oscars.” “It’s the Wild Wild West out here now,” a studio strategist tells Keegan. “You can only expect folks to use all avenues that are available to them. If the Academy isn’t willing to set the tone in a way where there are repercussions when those rules aren’t followed, what do you expect?” 
The controversies cast new shadows on a still-moribund institution, and the Academy has already vowed to review its rules. But these issues cannot taint the relevance of Everything Everywhere’s watershed moment, and the promising future it may herald. Merits and shortcomings aside, the film stands as a corrective to decades of invisibility for people who’ve rarely had a chance to stand before and behind the camera. By thrusting Yeoh and Quan (along with Curtis, also long relegated to minor roles) into the spotlight, “the Daniels have done more than expand the palette of the current cinema,” Richard Brody contends at the New Yorker, “they’ve expanded the future.” 
These actors now take a long-deserved place in the industry; the Oscars they won last night prove the awards’ fundamental importance as markers of what the Academy members want Hollywood to be. Beyond the specific merits of “Everything Everywhere,” what its directors and the Academy have done is to set the stage for a range of future movies that would otherwise likely never have been green-lighted, not with these actors. Hollywood is the land of the effusive, but the participants in this movie who took to the microphone last night conveyed a sense of authentic mutual appreciation, and that, too, is the industry’s tune of the time.  
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.


The Current DebateOscarsColumnsDaniel KwanDaniel Scheinert
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