The Oscars Thwarted Its Bid for Relevance by Crowning Green Book

The film’s Best Picture win was an unsurprising, but nonetheless disappointing, end to many months of Academy Awards turmoil.

The producer Charles B. Wessler speaks onstage alongside the cast and crew of Green Book after the film won the Best Picture Oscar. (Mike Blake / Reuters)

Since the 91st Academy Awards aired without a host or any planned stunts, the show will be defined by its victors. One was a genuine shocker: Olivia Colman won Best Actress for The Favourite, triumphing over seven-time Oscar loser Glenn Close, who’d been expected to take home a lifetime-achievement award of sorts for The Wife. Spike Lee’s Best Adapted Screenplay win for BlacKkKlansman was a long-overdue trophy. Black Panther’s awards for production design and costume design, both of which went to black women, made history. Regina King, Colman, and Lady Gaga all gave energetic and charming acceptance speeches that are bound to be well remembered. (Jump to the end for a complete list of winners.)

Then came the last two awards: Best Director and Best Picture. The categories ended up reflecting the extreme dichotomy of Sunday’s show, where trophies often went to either acclaimed films with an arty streak (such as If Beale Street Could Talk, The Favourite, and Roma) or more populist material that had been more critically derided (namely Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody). The directing award, presented by Guillermo del Toro, went to Alfonso Cuarón, his third trophy of the night for Roma and his fifth overall. Best Picture, presented by Julia Roberts, went to Green Book.

The latter, directed by Peter Farrelly, is an old-fashioned paean to brotherhood and racial harmony based on the so-called true friendship between the musician Don Shirley and the bouncer Tony Vallelonga. Green Book had been tipped for awards-season success since it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. But the movie weathered numerous scandals after its release, including complaints from Shirley’s family about its accuracy, resurfaced stories of Farrelly’s earlier predilection for flashing people, and an anti-Muslim tweet from one of the film’s writers. If anything, the rocky campaign might have bolstered Green Book’s status for some passionate Oscar voters: One informed The New York Times that he was tired of being told which movies to like and not to like.

Despite complaints from many cultural critics about its retrograde approach to race relations and its ignorance of actual history, Green Book appealed to voters with its breezy style; its broad, joke-heavy screenplay; and its reliance on two great lead performances, from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. The Academy uses a complex, preferential-voting ballot for the Best Picture category (and only that category) that often favors the “least disliked” film. Recent winners—including Spotlight, Moonlight, The Shape of Water, 12 Years a Slave, and Birdman—weren’t major commercial successes, each grossing between $27 million and $63 million at the domestic box office. But they were all small or mid-budgeted films reliant on excellent performances that proved less polarizing to voters than hits such as Gravity, La La Land, and The Revenant.

This year, the smash hits included Black Panther, which took three technical awards overall; A Star Is Born, an early favorite that ended up winning only for its original song “Shallow”; and Bohemian Rhapsody, a genuine sensation that was dogged by the controversy surrounding its director, Bryan Singer. Bohemian was one of the worst-reviewed Best Picture nominees in the history of the Oscars, but it was an unabashed crowd-pleaser that picked up four trophies (including Lead Actor and Film Editing) and might have won Best Picture were it not for Singer.

The director was fired during production for allegedly not reporting to the set; Singer said his absence had been for health reasons. In a subsequent January article published by The Atlantic, several men accused Singer of prior sexual misconduct and coercion, often involving underage subjects. The investigation documented a pattern of alleged behavior by the director that went back more than 20 years. Singer has vehemently denied the allegations, and his lawyer has noted that Singer has never been charged with a crime. The director’s BAFTA nomination for Bohemian Rhapsody was suspended because of the allegations, while GLAAD disqualified the film from awards contention entirely. Compared with that publicity storm, the stories about Green Book might have seemed less scandalous to the Academy’s voters.

Whatever the reason, Green Book prevailed. It will likely be remembered alongside other controversial, critically disliked Best Picture winners of recent decades, such as Driving Miss Daisy and Crash. Ironically, the Academy spent the past several months agonizing over its own relevance. It looked to add a Popular Film category, cut technical awards from the telecast, and jazz up the show with A-list stars. In the end, the rapid pacing and terrific speeches made for a night that grew more memorable as it wore on. (ABC could well see a ratings boost.) But the easiest way to demonstrate relevance would have been to hand major trophies to two of the year’s most-loved films: Black Panther and A Star Is Born. When it came time for the two biggest awards of the evening, those movies were nowhere to be found.

The 2019 Academy Awards Winners

Best Picture
Green Book (Universal)

Best Director
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma

Best Actor
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

Best Actress
Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book

Best Supporting Actress
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Best Original Screenplay
Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Green Book

Best Adapted Screenplay
Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott, BlacKkKlansman

Best Animated Film
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Foreign-Language Film
Roma, Mexico

Best Documentary Film
Free Solo

Best Original Score
Black Panther, Ludwig Göransson

Best Original Song
“Shallow,” A Star Is Born

Best Cinematography
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón

Best Film Editing
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman

Best Production Design
Black Panther

Best Costume Design
Black Panther, Ruth Carter

Best Sound Editing
Bohemian Rhapsody

Best Sound Mixing
Bohemian Rhapsody

Best Visual Effects
First Man

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Best Animated Short

Best Live-Action Short

Best Documentary Short
Period. End of Sentence.