How “La La Land” Won By Losing

I don’t intend for this site to become a home for #takes — and this one is only half-serious. But it’s still dying to be written.

(Necessary interjection here that MOONLIGHT is a lovely film. Its character work is some of the best I’ve ever seen; I deeply admire its ability to tell you everything you need to know about its subjects with the least possible amount of information. It’s a genuine feat of writing and directing. I’ll leave the politics to others, but this is obviously a Best Picture win that is bigger than the film.)

But I want to say something about LA LA LAND, because it is the other half of last night’s fiasco/miracle and it was my personal favorite film of the year.

I think the Best Picture Debacle was a win for LA LA LAND. I mean that. And we need only revisit recent Oscar history to understand why.

Jordan Horowitz announces that, in fact, MOONLIGHT won Best Picture. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Films that win an Oscar (and this goes for performances as well) bear a burden in the public eye. We, as viewers, start to demand more of them. We start to question whether they deserved such a distinction.

CRASH would never have become a punchline if it hadn’t won Best Picture. It would have been remembered, if it were remembered at all, as a well-intentioned if ultimately ham-fisted exploration of race, one that feels very dated 10 years later. It would have been mostly forgotten. But instead, it bears the burden of being the most reviled winner of all time. The film itself does nothing to deserve this.

THE DEPARTED is a fun, immaculately made thriller that will always bear the burden of Scorsese’s earlier snubs and the inevitable perception that its awards were make-ups for better films. Many people still love it for what it is, but in the historiography of film, it will always be tainted by this. Again, the film itself does nothing to deserve this.

I could go on, of course. In fact, this applies to more Best Picture winners than it doesn’t (ARGO also comes to mind). Perfectly fine films that actually lose stature because they are believed to be undeserving winners. Denzel Washington in TRAINING DAY. It’s practically a defining feature of an Oscar win. It might sound silly to describe the burden of an Academy Award—and we should pause to point out that none of this really matters—but I think it’s a real issue. Artists make films so they’ll be remembered, and this stain irreversibly affects how your movie will be perceived, for all time.

Likewise, LA LA LAND didn’t ask to be a presumptive Oscar frontrunner. It’s a very strange one, really. An ultimately bittersweet musical, completely original material (or, rather, no source material to give it immediate awards gravitas), a director whose only other major film made $12 million at the box office, two well-liked stars who are hardly awards magnates. This was not a film seeking out 14 Oscar nominations and the burden of being a Best Picture frontrunner.

But that’s what it became and the backlash ensued, even before the awards were dispersed. Imagine how worse it would have been if it had won.

But, after last night’s amazing sequence, LA LA LAND has shed that burden. I’ve noticed a theme today: People writing about The Debacle, particularly those who wanted MOONLIGHT to win, have taken a moment to pay some kind words to the loser. That wasn’t happening before last night.

Jordan Horowitz’s graciousness in an impossible moment will be remembered. That can’t hurt. And more importantly, the film will not be forced to be remembered as a Best Picture winner. It will be evaluated more on its actual merits — the same merits that led to such adulation in the first place, before the politics and narratives of Awards Season took their toll.

In 10 years, its more tepid viewers won’t feel the need to denigrate the film for an undeserved trophy. Its adoring fans won’t feel the need to defend it. LA LA LAND has been freed to stand on its own, a film without baggage. In the long run, that may be more valuable than an Oscar.

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