Oscar voters think Joker is well made but some question its message

The Hollywood Reporter published an interesting piece on reactions to the film Joker from people within the industry. THR didn’t identify any of the people by name so they could speak freely, but reactions range from glowing predictions that the film could win Best Picture to people worried the film sends a dangerous message. Here’s a sample:

  • Male: “I think it’s brilliant. Phoenix has never been better. The way he and the filmmakers handle the transformation from Arthur into Joker is nuanced and masterful.”
  • Female: “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…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.”
  • Male: “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.”
  • Male: “We have problems in our society. I don’t think this film is going to exacerbate those problems. Nor will the elimination of guns solve our problems. We have to work on our society, in general. My mantra these days is that it’s not about diversity, it’s about celebrating the commonalities of our humanity, those qualities all human beings share. That’s right out of Martin Luther King’s book.”
  • Female: “Great performance and impressive filmmaking, but a rather unpleasant experience overall.”
  • Male: “As a former exhibitor, I would have serious doubts about playing the film because of the message it sends. I don’t think the Academy should honor a film with such controversial elements.”

There’s actually more variety among the group than I would have suspected. Everyone seems to agree it’s beautifully photographed and well made and nearly everyone seems to think Joaquin Phoenix is a shoo-in to be nominated for Best Actor. But a surprising number of people THR contacted said they hadn’t seen the film, some because of the controversy:

  • Male: “I haven’t seen it yet. I intend to, for sure. I am aware that some Academy members may not see the film or, if they do, won’t be that receptive to it, despite its critical acclaim and popularity. So what else is new? By the way, in my view the controversy appears to be mainly in the press and on social media. I doubt that many Academy members are as invested in this controversy as journos and Oscar pundits are.”
  • Female: “You know what they say — ‘the unconscious can’t tell the difference between a movie and real life’ — so I limit what I subject myself to.”
  • Male: “I am incredibly anxious to see the film, but I wasn’t anxious to see it in its first weekend, mainly because of all the coverage of whether there might be some threat against theaters. Obviously, it had no impact, thankfully.”
  • Female: “Honestly, I’m a bit nervous to go into a theater to see it, but I do plan on seeing it sometime in the near future.”

I think the first reaction about the controversy mostly being a creation of the press is correct. On that note, I’ve lost count of the number of negative opinion pieces CNN has run at this point. Here’s a bit of the one they ran Sunday:

While many reviewers have focused on Fleck as an “incel” hero — his status as a sexless loner who turns to violence — the true nature of the movie’s appeal is actually broader: It’s an insidious validation of the white-male resentment that helped bring President Donald Trump to power…

It draws from the same well of resentment that Trump strums with his racist rhetoric at his rallies — the fear of no longer being at the center of the political, social and cultural universe, with everyone who isn’t you positioned at its perceived edges.

CNN ran a “box-office analysis” piece yesterday which was similarly negative:

Despite hand-wringing about the movie — and doubtless in part, because of it — “Joker” opened to an estimated $96 million in North America — a record box-office haul for the month of October — and $235 million worldwide. Those results prompted inevitable headlines about “Joker” overcoming the naysaying and laughing all the way to the bank.

Still, the fact that the opening weekend was thankfully uneventful doesn’t eliminate concerns about what the movie represents. And using the cloak of “This is art” in response reflects a kind of arrogance, as well as myopia about the wider context that fueled the controversy.

The title of that piece is “‘Joker’ is the latest case of commerce masquerading as art” but the author, who is a media and entertainment writer for CNN, seems to be at odds with quite a few Oscar voters who found the film to be extremely well made even if it made them uncomfortable.