It’s fair to say that the Academy is going through an awkward year. Mere months after announcing and then shelving the questionable idea of a “Best Popular Film” category, and then losing host Kevin Hart to a sea of controversy, the Oscars voting body is under scrutiny again for choosing not to air four of their major craft winners come Oscar night.
While this announcement came after we talked over the phone with Turner Classic Movies hosts Dave Karger and Alicia Malone, it now appears par for the course in our discussion about how the Oscars have changed and evolved, sometimes painfully, with the times. The pair would know as friendly stewards to the stories of Hollywood’s past. While both are among the newer hosts to participate in what’s become TCM’s own institution, 31 Days of Oscar, they understand too well the historic and political shifts around the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“I think when you look back, a lot of the most popular films, the blockbusters as they were considered, were nominated or were even winning Oscars,” Malone says while alluding to that give-and-take between commercial popularity and artistic achievement—a struggle that the Academy appears to be floundering under one well-publicized controversy at a time. “Now I feel like there is such a divide between the blockbusters and the indie films, the ones that are considered Oscar worthy.” Even so, perceptions are clearly changing in a year that’s seeing the ascent of Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody, two box office juggernauts and one a bonafide cultural game-changer, into the Best Picture race.
“I think the thing that it reminds me of is in the ‘50s when there was the great fear of television taking away from the theatrical experience,” Malone says. “That’s when we saw those big spectacles, the swords and sandals epics, the musicals, big cinemascope, the wide screen classics, technicolor, trying to get as many people as possible back into the theater. And I think about that in terms of Black Panther versus something like Roma, with Roma being available on Netflix and many people worried about Netflix taking away from the theatrical experience. Of course Roma is a film that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible… but Black Panther is a film that gets people into the theaters and it does keep the lights on in the theaters.”
For his part, Karger agrees and actually thinks the success of Alfonso Cuarón’s lyrical Roma, a Spanish language film and memento of the director’s memories, indicates its own epochal shift among the Academy in a different direction. One that isn’t only inclusive but also international and more sophisticated than perhaps in previous years.
“It is crazy to look back at all the movies that were recognized by the Academy in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and compare them to Moonlight, for instance, and see how far we’ve come,” Karger points out. “And I think, because the Academy is so much more international these days, that’s why you have three of the five Best Director nominees [not being] American. So I think it’s just exciting to see the Academy itself become more international.” He goes on to suggest Roma could be the first film to win Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Foreign Language Film.
These are just some of the insights that come with discussing Hollywood’s biggest night with unabashed movie lovers. Karger has always refused to be cynical with the Oscars. He spoke of his nostalgia for growing up with them when we interviewed him last year, and in 2019 his excitement to be hosting a companion show on Oscar night on IMDb.com is genuine. Malone, meanwhile, also grew up fantasizing about attending the Oscars—perhaps presciently as press as opposed to an award winner—and feels she’s come a long way in watching them in the middle of the day while growing up in Australia to watching them in the industry now. Yet as her life has changed, the ritual hasn’t; it’s one colored by a passion for loving the craft of moviemaking—even when the telecast may not.
Below is our full interview with Malone and Karger, where we discuss their favorite films of 2019 and who they think will win, as well as TCM’s ongoing 31 Days of Oscars slate, which is about to premiere Martin Scorsese’s Hugo for the first time at the end of the month. We even chat a little about Karina Longworth’s new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, and how it helps recast the faded glow of many an Oscar night past.
When I spoke with Dave last year, I asked him this question. So I thought a good place to start is, Alicia: What do the Oscars mean for you? And do you tend to view them from a place of excitement or maybe some weariness?
Alicia Malone: Yeah, I still get really excited on Oscar night. I’m not cynical or jaded at all. It’s been a tradition to watch the Oscars every single year since I can remember, and it’s funny to think back to when I was a child, and I remember not pretending to win an Oscar like my sisters did, but pretending to interview the winners. [Laughs] So I was interviewing my sisters about their pretend Oscars. I still get that same sense of excitement. So this year, I’m really happy that I’m not working, so I can sit in my pajamas and just enjoy the show and be totally engrossed in it.
It’s interesting you say that. Would you say your first memory then, of the Oscars, is seeing people being interviewed or on the red carpet?
AM: Yeah, absolutely. I always loved watching the red carpet. And you know, I’m from Canberra, Australia, which felt so far away from the Oscars. So to me it was like a window into a very glamorous world. Getting to see the stars as they were on the carpet, I remember Joan Rivers doing wonderful interviews with them. So I would be all in, I would tune in, I would see all the films, and I feel like I haven’t changed at all. I’m still the same.
And over the years, one of the highlights of Oscar season has become 31 Days of Oscar. Is there an excitement at the offices and studios about specifically programming and shooting the series versus other series or shows you do throughout the year?
Dave Karger: I would say yes. In our time at TCM, I’m getting the sense that February and August seem to be the months that people get the most excited about. February being 31 Days of Oscar and then August being Summer Under the Stars where it’s 24 hours of one star each day. So I think those two series seem to be favorites of the fans and the employees of TCM. But what they do, as I’m sure you know, every year 31 Days of Oscar is formatted a little bit differently. Sometimes by category or by year. This time it’s all of these fun, friendly kind of competition movie match-ups in primetime every night. So people can watch two movies that were nominated for Best Picture in the same year, or they were able to watch two performances that tied for Best Actress, Funny Girl for Barbara Streisand and Lion in Winter for Katharine Hepburn, and decide which ones they like best.
Of those competitors, is there a year where you go, “Man, the Oscars got that wrong. It should have been this for Best Picture.”
AM: Yeah. [Laughs]
DK: The thing that comes to my mind immediately is only 20 years ago, but Saving Private Ryan not winning Best Picture or Brokeback Mountain not winning Best Picture. Like those two kind of make me a little bummed out.
AM: Yeah, there were so many great performances that you look back on and then you can’t believe they didn’t win, or it happened to be a year when there were so many wonderful performances. I think in 1939 there was Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind, Greer Garson was there, Greta Garbo. It was an unbelievable year, so it sometimes happens that way that the winner is not the winner that you prefer, but it’s just because they had some really tough competition.
DK: Oh, yeah. Thank you for saying that, because you just reminded me, in 1951 Gloria Swanson lost for Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis and Ann Baxter all lost for All About Eve, and all three of them lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.
AM: Oh, that’s right.
DK: And she’s delightful, don’t get me wrong. But it’s kind of like—really? So there’s always those kind of moments. But then you have people like Hilary Swank who won for Boys Don’t Cry, where you just feel like the Academy gets it right in such an exciting way. It can go both ways.
Are there any new additions or new films that you’re bringing out for this 31 Days of Oscar that TCM hasn’t previously screened? Maybe older films or maybe more recent ones?
So actually yes. One of the nights that I’m hosting in the beginning of March, the match-up is called “The Softer Side of Scorsese,” and we’re showing The Age of Innocence, which has been shown on TCM before, but we’re also showing Hugo. And granted it’s only seven-years-old, but it’s a classic. It’s a contemporary classic to be sure, but I’m really glad that’s a part of 31 Days this year. A lot of people love it and a lot of people have never seen it.
With Hugo I imagine it’s also great for TCM because it’s a celebration of film history.
AM: Yes, absolutely. It’s the kind of film that celebrates going to the movies. I just remember, so acutely from seeing that movie a long time ago, that the shots of Chloë Grace Moretz sitting in the theater looking so excited, looking at the screen, that’s exactly how I sit. [Laughs]
DK: It also dovetails really well, because the movie is about film preservation in a way. Martin Scorsese was the winner of the first ever Robert Osborne Award last year at the TCM Film Festival, which honors people who are integral to the world of film preservation.
He definitely deserves that. I did want to say, when you look back at the entire history of the Academy Awards, it’s easy to divide shifts in era and taste. Does it feel like we’re seeing a continued paradigm shift in what is considered an “Oscar Movie” over the last few years?
AM: Yeah, I think so. I think when you look back, a lot of the most popular films, the blockbusters as they were considered, were nominated or were even winning Oscars. Now I feel like there is such a divide between the blockbusters and the indie films, the ones that are considered Oscar worthy. Although this year it’s really exciting to see films like Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, these movies that did really well, be included in the Best Picture.
DK: But it is crazy to look back at all the movies that were recognized by the Academy in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and compare them to Moonlight, for instance, and see how far we’ve come. And I think, because the Academy is so much more international these days, that’s why you have three of the five Best Director nominees are not American. So I think it’s just exciting to see the Academy itself become more international.
I agree, I think Alfonso Cuarón will probably win Best Director. But when I look at Black Panther being nominated for Best Picture, which is a very deserved nomination and it is culturally significant film in many ways, it is still a genre blockbuster, and maybe to a lesser extent, this also applies to Bohemian Rhapsody. I wonder if this reminds you at all of a shift back closer to Hollywood during the ‘50s and ‘60s? I’m thinking of when musicals and biblical epics were winning or competing for Best Picture.
AM: Yeah, I think the thing that it reminds me of is in the ‘50s when there was the great fear of television taking away from the theatrical experience. That’s when we saw those big spectacles, the swords and sandals epics, the musicals, big cinemascope, the wide screen classics, technicolor, trying to get as many people as possible back into the theater. And I think about that in terms of Black Panther versus something like Roma, with Roma being available on Netflix and many people worried about Netflix taking away from the theatrical experience.
Of course Roma is a film that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible because it’s got so much, so many great things happening in every single frame. It has so much detail, it deserves to be on the screen, but Black Panther is a film that gets people into the theaters and it does keep the lights on in the theaters. So, that’s what it reminds me of.
It does seem like there’s been a very specific type of prestige picture in recent years. I think Ben [Mankiewicz] pinpointed it as beginning when Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan. I do wonder if you guys think maybe we’re leaving that era of what it is an “Oscar movie?”
DK: I think it’s definitely expanding as far as the way the movies look and feel, but because I’m kind of entrenched in this world, as far as the current Oscar season, a lot of it is still about the campaign. And there’s a handful of people who are super smart strategic campaigners, and it’s not a coincidence that they’re working on Roma and Black Panther. And these are people, these two women that I’m thinking of Lisa Taback and Cynthia Schwartz, they are able to look at these films and figure out how best to market them to the 10,000 or so Oscar voters and make sure that they get the best shot possible. It really helps to have a smart campaigner behind you.
That’s interesting. For both of you, what are some of your favorites among the Best Picture nominees?
AM: Roma is definitely my favorite, and I know that it’s Dave’s favorite as well. It’s a film that absolutely blew me away. An emotional story about a woman working for a family, and it’s the kind of character you never see given her own movie and treated in such an epic way. And that’s what makes me excited about places like Netflix, that they’re giving money to Alfonso Cuarón to make the this movie at a decent budget, I don’t know if any other studio would have done that. But I really loved The Favourite as well, which has a great trio of women involved; A Star is Born, I know we both really enjoyed that being classic film fans. That’s one that you can tie back to the last three versions of A Star is Born. And we’re playing two of those versions on TCM the night before the Oscars. So you can see the 1937 version, the 1954 version and then hopefully rewatch the 2018 version, and see how they all align.
DK: And also Roma and The Favourite are also my two favorite Best Picture nominees, but I’m feeling so bad for everybody involved in A Star is Born, because it just keeps losing everything that it’s nominated for. So I’m really kind of rooting for that movie just to win something beyond Best Song. I don’t know if it will though.
I was pretty surprised. I thought it would be a favorite going into the race, but it’s been shut out most major awards.
AM: Yeah, particularly Bradley Cooper, that was a big surprise that he wasn’t nominated for Best Director given the fact that he had been nominated so much up ’til that point.
Out of curiosity, how do you think the 2018 version compares to the other two? (I would argue it’s certainly better than the ‘70s version.)
AM: [Laughs] The ‘70s version is really fun with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, but my personal favorite is still the ’37 version. It was the one I saw first, and it also is a great time capsule of Hollywood in the late 1930s. I love seeing Janet Gaynor outside the Chinese Theatre at that time, and it speaks to a time that no longer exists in Hollywood. It seemed very glamorous at the time.
DK: And for me it’s a tie between the original version and the new version. I really love them both.
I I know it’s the million-dollar question, but what do you think wins Best Picture? Because it feels like it’s pretty open this year.
DK: I really do think it’s between Roma and Green Book, and the question is whether the voters feel like by giving Roma Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film, are they then done and they’ll want to spread the wealth and give Green Book Best Picture? Or can Roma actually win all three of those big awards? I’m going back and forth in my mind so many times, right now I’m saying Green Book.
AM: Yeah, I agree it’s between Roma and Green Book, and particularly the preferential voting system is always an interesting little spammer in the works, because the fact that it’s usually the well liked film that gets ahead and some people love Roma, some people not so much, so that could hurt it. But I’m just going to stick with Roma’s going to win, because that’s who I hope will win. And I would really love to see Roma get Best Picture and Best Foreign Film, because that’s never happened in Oscar history. There’s been nominees before, but there’s never been a film to win both categories, and it absolutely deserves to.
Yeah, I would say between those, I would like to see Roma win. My favorite is The Favourite, and I think Green Book is going to win, but I’m hoping it’s Roma between the two.
AM: Yeah, I agree.
Are there any other categories you guys feel strongly about who will win? Or someone you think should win and maybe isn’t getting their moment?
AM: Well, I think that one of the interesting categories is the Best Documentary, because, again, there were many films that didn’t get nominated that people thought might like Three Identical Strangers and Won’t You be My Neighbor?, which is a great Mr. Rogers documentary. So for that one, I’m really hopeful that RBG will win, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary. Such a great sad story, you get to see Ruth still at it at her age, lifting weights and serving in the Supreme Court. It’s an inspiring story, particularly for women, so that’s the one I’m really hopeful for, but they’re all such worthy nominees in that category.
DK: And I’m excited for Lady Gaga to win Best Song, and I would love to see Sam Elliot for Best Supporting Actor, but I think Mahershala Ali is just, you just can’t deny what a great performance he gave, and I think he’s going to win again.
I do agree that Mahershala is going to win, although I really liked Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
DK: Yes, he’s terrific.
AM: He’s wonderful. It’s such a great performance, and it’s his first Oscar nomination, which is really surprising to me because he’s someone with a history of great performances. S it’s great to see him recognized.
DK: And he’s having the most fun of any nominees.
AM: So many selfies. [Laughs]
I did want to bring up, because it’s staring at me from my shelf right now, but I just read Karina Longworth’s Seduction. Have either of you had a chance to pick that up?
AM: Not yet, but I really love Karina. I love her podcast, “You Must Remember This.” It’s of course right up our alley being classic film lovers. And I love the concept of her book, the way she’s looking at Howard Hughes, but not doing necessarily a biography on him, but all around the women that he slept with, had affairs with, helped, or blocked from their careers. That’s a very timely subject when we look at these men who we have lionized in Hollywood as being these great producers, but when you look into them, they had a whole lot of abuse towards women in terms of stopping them from their careers or saying that they had to do certain favors. So that’s a book I can’t wait to read. I like that she’s not putting the focus on Howard Hughes, but the women themselves. Giving them their moment and their voice back.
I agree it’s a very timely reevaluation. While I don’t necessarily agree with every assessment she has of Hughes, she does very persuasively challenge the kind of mythology we have built, and not just around Hughes, but all of Hollywood.
AM: Yeah, absolutely. That’s so interesting when we’re doing our research for TCM, and we get to dig into all the past, sometimes you come across really sad stories in Hollywood, particularly with women. And you think they were really held back from the greatness they could have been because of these powerful men who used their powers in the wrong way.