Joker premiered at the Venice International Film Festival to overwhelmingly positive responses. Not only did the film receive an eight-minute standing ovation, it also won the festival’s prestigious top prize — the Golden Lion (previous winners include: Roma and The Shape of Water). At the time, it seemed inevitable that Joker would also be celebrated at the 2020 Oscars as well.
And then the film was screened in the US and the entire narrative flipped on its head. While there are loads of American critics who loved the film, there are also many others who found the film too dark and very irresponsible. Some even claimed that the film is a love letter to incels that’ll probably inspire mass shooters. From a wholly celebrated film, Joker became a highly polarising film that has inspired discourse unlike any other film in recent memory.
And it looks like many of the 2020 Oscars voters are kinda on the fence about the film as well. Recently, THR published an article covering Joker takes from more than 20 members of various branches of The Academy. These comments, I think, paint a good picture of the film’s chances at next year’s Academy Awards.
One voter described only as a male Academy member in the producers branch had this to say:
“I saw it in Venice. The trailer had just dropped and there was nothing written about the film yet. I found the craft to be stunning on every level — beautiful photography, design, costumes. All of Todd Phillips’ films are impeccably made. But I deeply despise the movie. It made me feel really uncomfortable. I love [Darren] Aronofsky, [Lars] von Trier, [Michael] Haneke and most movies that really push the boundaries of darkness. But there was a nihilism and narcissism to this movie that left a bunch of us feeling really disturbed, and we had to drink away our discomfort. Warner Bros. has done an exceptional job of marketing the movie, and I respect that they took the Trojan Horse of a superhero movie to make this kind of movie within the studio system — but I don’t know that there is substance at the core of what it is trying to say. It was the first movie in history that was too dark for me.”
A woman from the members-at-large branch, on the other hand, sang praises:
“I saw the film last night at the Landmark with another Academy member, and my stomach was still churning this morning. It made me uncomfortable from the very first frame to the last, but I thought the movie was extraordinary. I didn’t read anything about it beforehand, so I thought I was going to be getting, sort of, Batman. It’s the most outstanding performance I’ve seen in many years — the way he moved, everything, I mean, he’s really a consummate actor, and there’s not a frame he’s not on camera, too. What I don’t understand is what everyone’s all upset about? Just pick up the morning paper and see the asshole that’s running our country if you want to worry about violence. It’s still early, but I can certainly see myself nominating it for best picture. And he has to get nominated, or the actors branch doesn’t know what it’s doing.”
“It’s a really impressive film across the board. Joaquin’s performance is undeniably extraordinary. There is nothing new, in terms of the craftsmanship, like how Dunkirk was shot or the sound design of First Man — but still, if you see it in an Imax theater like I did, you can’t deny how well made it is. That all being said, I don’t see any reason why this movie should be out in the universe. There is nothing in it that starts a conversation — it just pours lighter fluid on a conversation that’s staring us in the face every week. But I’m torn, as an Oscar voter, about what to do. The business it’s doing is mind-blowing — ‘Taxi Driver 2’ just opened to almost $300 million worldwide! But I don’t know what’s responsible to do as a voter. If art is not used to start a conversation, and it’s just used to exacerbate something, I’m not sure how beneficial it is. It’s too fresh to know yet what I’ll do with it. I don’t know if it should be banned or it should be given every award!”
A male member of the public relations/marketing branch of The Academy had a very very negative take:
“I thought it was lacking a clear vision and overwrought. This doom-and-gloom style has become tedious. Only [Michelle] Pfeiffer and [Danny] DeVito in [1992’s] Batman Returns have truly balanced dark with light. This one didn’t have a point of view on politics or class, and its depiction of mental illness was irresponsible. Joaquin was so over the top it became irritating. Todd’s song choices were so on-the-nose they seemed offensive and not ironic. Does he not know ‘Send in the Clowns’ is a romantic ballad of regret and not actually about clowns?”
To be honest, none of it is really surprising. Over the past 20 years or so, films that are considered “too dark” or “depressing” or “weird,” are rarely celebrated by The Academy. Films like Zodiac and Se7en are considered some of the greatest crime thrillers of all time, but neither of them received Best Picture nominations. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button received an Oscar nomination, but not The Wrestler (also Golden Lion winner) which came out in the same year. Spotlight won the Oscar on the year where Sicario was also released — the Denis Villeneuve picture, by the way, didn’t even get a nod. How did The Theory of Everything get a nomination in 2015 but not Nightcrawler and Gone Girl?
While I hope that Joker receives a much deserved Oscar nomination next year, I’m not holding my breath.
Joker is currently screening in Malaysians cinemas.