The ‘La La Land’ backlash – a comment on the absurdity of being the frontrunner

Make no mistake about it. Winning the Academy Award for Best Picture is ultimately a game of skill. Yes, the picture still has to be “good”, but that’s only half the battle. At some point, you have to become the frontrunner. The likely winner. The unstoppable force. The one piece of cinema Academy voters want to vote for. The winning team everyone is desperate to back. It’s when to become the frontrunner that’s the tricky part.

Naturally being the frontrunner for the biggest Oscar prize is something highly sought after by every film studio in Hollywood, and the myriad of people employed to run the film’s Oscar campaign. Millions are spent every year just to potentially sway voters your way. But strangely enough, it’s also a highly feared label. A double-edged sword that can either be a film’s golden ticket to success or its kiss of death to failure.

Become the frontrunner too early, and you’ll likely be torn down at some point (see LincolnThe Social Network, Boyhood). Sneakily fly under the radar, and you can steal the whole race at the last minute (see ArgoThe King’s SpeechMillion Dollar Baby). But try and become the frontrunner too late and you run the risk of missing your chance entirely (see Inglourious BasterdsThe Wolf of Wall Street, Silence). It’s a delicate game, often completely out of the hands of even the most expert of Oscar strategists.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Many eventual Best Picture winners were the frontrunners from the very start, never to be challenged by backlash or mud-slinging (see The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men). These rare examples ran the gauntlet and somehow arrived at the other side unscathed and unchallenged for the title of Best Picture.

For a while there, it was looking like La La Land would join this rare group of backlash-free frontrunners. The signs were certainly there; universally beloved from its first screening at the Venice Film Festival, rave reviews across the board, box-office results ($350M worldwide) no one saw coming. A “must-see” cinematic triumph, destined to become the first musical in 15 years to win Best Picture. That is, of course, until it dared equal the record for the most Academy Award nominations (14, in total) in history. Then the backlash began…

Now let me be up front before I really get into this – it’s no secret I love La La Land. I’ve been yapping about it since the moment I left the screening. It was my #1 film of 2016. It’s a piece of cinema that truly captivated me. As a fan of musicals, it was always going to be my kind of film. And therein lies the problem; musicals, in their truest cinematic form, are not everyone’s cup of tea. So when the critical raving became louder and louder, and the hype grew to ridiculous levels, it was a foregone conclusion people would want to bring it down, especially, if after seeing it, their reaction was “this is what everyone is raving about?”.

In saying that, I’m no fool. I can separate my love of an Oscar contender from its actual chances or “worthiness” of winning. Simply stating I think it should (and will) win Best Picture is no suggestion it’s some sort of masterpiece to end all masterpieces. Like all films, it has its flaws. But headlines like “Mediocre ‘musical’ La La Land does not deserve to win“, “‘La La Land:’ The Most Over-Hyped Oscar Favorite Ever?” and “La La Land is a terrible film, but it will win Best Picture at the Oscars anyway” seem more like pathetic click-bait attention-seeking articles than actual intelligent and deserving criticism, particularly when most of that criticism is entirely absurd.

So just what kind of backlash is this year’s unfortunate frontrunner facing? Well, if you listen to these articles, La La Land is racist (only one black character), homophobic (no gay characters), sexist (she follows him), boring, plagiarist, amateur, and unimportant. As a white male, it’s not my place to comment on the validity of racism or sexism cries, but I will say this – as far as I was concerned, the film’s most visionary character was played by John Legend (he also happens to perform one of the film’s best songs too). And while Emma Stone’s Mia may be led by Ryan Gosling’s Seb initially, this is clearly only temporary, given where her character ends up in the film’s conclusion. As a gay white male, it is completely my place to comment on the validity of homophobic cries. Sure, the film is set in L.A., a city filled with gay people, and doesn’t happen to have a gay character in its plot. But calling that a sign of homophobia? Pah-lease. When did it become a rule that every film nominated for Best Picture had to feature a homosexual character? Of the eight other nominees, only one (Moonlight, obviously) features any gay characters. And five of those nominees also suffer from a lack of major black characters too. Why aren’t they being labelled homophobic and racist? And that’s the key here, folks. Those films don’t have the frontrunner target on their back.

Just imagine a different set of circumstances, and tell me this backlash would still be occurring. If it wasn’t winning everything leading up to Oscar night. If it only received five or six nominations. If it only won a few Golden Globes, instead of everything it was up for. If it wasn’t the frontrunner for the entire Oscar race. Remove that target, and it’s genuinely difficult to imagine this film would be subjected to cries of racism, homophobia, and sexism.

We see this every single year. The film deservedly finding itself the frontrunner is subjected to all sorts of mud-slinging, usually led by those with a vested interest in something else winning. The Oscar game is full of dirty tricks, and more often than not, people are guided to sling that mud by a crafty smear campaign, created by a PR manager, desperate to swing things their film’s way. The chorus to destroy a film’s chancing at winning Best Picture has to start somewhere, and more often than not, it’s another studio leading the way.

It’s this aspect of Oscar season I despise the most. It’s the point where people start turning on a piece of cinema they would normally love, if it weren’t besting their chosen horse in the race. I’m guilty of this myself. After seeing Birdman a few years ago, I decreed it a masterpiece, worthy of Oscar glory. But when it suddenly started to take the lead over the frontrunner I deemed “more worthy”, Boyhood, the feelings of hatred for something I once adored were palpable. This is the idiocy of awards season. One cannot seem to love more than one contender. We all have to pick our sides. But in doing so, it does not mean mud has to be slung. Back your side. Champion it, with all your might. Just don’t get so dirty about it.

This is why the backlash to La La Land is so dumbfounding. You don’t have to love it. No one is saying you do. But it’s been nominated for 14 Academy Awards. That has to make you stop to acknowledge the incredible achievement this film represents, particularly across a multitude of cinematic artforms and skills. Simply because it is acknowledged so greatly does not decree it to be the most important or socially relevant film of the year. I may love the film, but I can accept it’s neither of these things.

And that’s the one piece of backlash I cannot understand; the notion the film is simply not “important” enough by comparison to, say, Moonlight or Hidden Figures, to win. But who said it was? When did being important or socially relevant become the criteria for winning Best Picture? Yes, we have enjoyed some incredibly powerful and topical films winning the top prize over the years. But above all things, those films actually won for simply being brilliant pieces of cinema, which La La Land also happens to be.

ArgoThe ArtistThe King’s SpeechBirdman. Would you call any of these socially relevant or important? And yet, they still won. Why is that not okay for La La Land then? Why is it so criminal a dazzling, optimistic musical about love and art might win Best Picture this year? In these dark times, why can’t a film which encourages striving for your passions and never giving up on your dreams be given the title of Best Picture? Is that really so bad?

No matter what happens at the end of Oscar night, Moonlight is still masterful, Hidden Figures is still inspiring, Lion is still incredible, and Fences is still powerful. Losing to La La Land will not change that.