You ever think about how the Oscars would have gone had they not moved up their schedule a month to shorten the precursor season? Remember: COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on the 11th of March and the ceremony took place on the 9th of February. If they had gone with their original airdate, it is almost certain that the ceremony would have been cancelled and the awards would have been announced in some virtual pre-recorded format.
Kinda wild, huh? Barely a month separated Parasite’s insane underdog victory and the entire world being consumed by a once-in-a-century pandemic and all of the comforting myths we believed about the systems of government meant to protect us came crumbling down. Right before everything went to hell, we were still riding the wave of the strong economy Barack Obama oversaw and Donald Trump was taking credit for, the messy Iowa caucus had just wrapped up in embarrassing fashion, and the President was just acquitted of Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Congress impeachment charges in the United States Senate. By all accounts, it appeared as though this venal, criminal, blatantly fascist incumbent was on course for re-election.
And yet… the superstitious side of me saw in Bong Joon Ho’s unprecedented success with the Academy a portent of bad news for his electoral future. Parasite, believe it or not, follows a strange pattern of Best Picture winners predicting the future of the incumbent party in the following American presidential election.
How it works is this: if the most recent winner of the Best Picture Academy Award is optimistic, hopeful, old-fashioned in its execution, or is otherwise a typical “Oscar-bait” winner, that is a good omen for whichever political party occupies the White House. Remember The Artist? Maybe you dismissed it as too trifling for such recognition, but if you were a supporter of the 44th President, a movie so light and feel-good and nostalgic winning Best Picture over the likes of The Tree of Life or the un-nominated A Separation meant he was on track to beating whichever slick white guy the Republicans were grooming to run against him that year. On the flip side, those people hoping George W. Bush’s popular vote loss in 2000 would come back to haunt him four years later probably should have been worried about the massive sweep The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King enjoyed just a few months prior; that was the one, after all, where all the kingdoms united to defeat Sauron’s evil army and Frodo finally succeeds in destroying the One Ring.
“But wait! What about Braveheart? The hero dies in the end!” Actually no, the movie does not end with William Wallace’s brutal torture and death (because of course there was a scene of protracted brutality in a Mel Gibson movie), it ends with Robert the Bruce invoking Wallace’s martyrdom before triumphantly riding into battle for FREEEEEDDOOOOM… and Bill Clinton becoming the first Democrat since FDR to be re-elected President later that year. Same principle applies to Terms of Endearment, which did have a tear-jerker death of a major character near the end, but still gave us the upbeat coda of Garrett and Aurora living happily ever after with Emma’s children… and a landslide victory for incumbent Ronald Reagan a few months later.
But what happens when a Best Picture winner isn’t standard “Oscar-bait” or have an upbeat ending? What if it’s more like Parasite, not only the first non-English language film to win the top prize, but also a violent dark comedy about unjust class stratification? Here we are now, looking at an elected incumbent losing control of the White House to his Democratic challenger for the first time in twenty-eight years. And he had unexpectedly seized control of the White House from the Democrats in 2016, the year that, oh right, Oscar rewarded a stark investigative procedural into the largest institutional sexual abuse cover-up in modern history. A downer movie to presage a downer year. The big decisive victory for Barack Obama over George W. Bush’s heir apparent came just after No Country for Old Men became one of the most bleak, depressing, and nihilistic Best Picture winners of all time. George W. Bush reclaimed the White House for the Republicans right after the Academy awarded Best Picture to that movie where a sex criminal played a depressed middle-aged suburbanite desperately trying to nail his teenage daughter’s best friend and ends up getting murdered by his closeted gay neighbor. Yeah, people thought that movie was a masterpiece back then. What can I say? It was the 90’s. Jimmy Carter won back the White House from Gerald Ford and the Republicans soon after Jack Nicholson rebelled against The System and got lobotomized in the end for it in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Even when the incumbent party appears on track for victory, the Academy will often pick a winner that spells doom for them a few months later. When The Silence of the Lambs became the first horror movie ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture, George H.W. Bush had a Gallup approval rating of 89%. Then shortly after Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, and Ron Bozman thanked the Academy for recognizing their dark thriller about an erudite cannibal who assists a traumatized FBI Agent in catching a serial killer who skins women, the economy tanked and he was voted out of office (wow, kinda weird how the last three Republicans we elected President drove the economy into recession, huh?).
The pattern isn’t 100% perfect; it doesn’t really take shape until after the collapse of the New Deal Coalition in the late sixties. Also Ronald Reagan’s Vice President defied this trend in 1988; The Last Emperor was a harrowing tale about one man caught in the middle of a sweeping revolution that upends his entire life, and Republicans still held on to the White House in the next election.
The simple explanation for this imperfect but still striking trend is likely more a reflection of cultural attitudes than any Hollywood clairvoyance. It’s no secret that Best Picture isn’t so much the actual “best film” so much as “the film that the film industry at that moment in time embraced as the most ideal reflection of itself.” And when people overall feel pretty good or patriotic or even generally complacent about the direction of the country, our entertainment will inevitably reflect that, and vice versa. As with most things, it’s connected to broader cultural and societal shifts.
My point is, we all better hope the 96th Academy Award winner for Best Picture is lightest, fluffiest, most pandering thing imaginable.