LOS ANGELES – Can backlash tank a film's Oscars prospects?
It's a situation that manifests nearly every year, where some awards hopeful is deemed problematic, like “Saving Mr. Banks” for glossing over Walt Disney's unsavory views, or “Zero Dark Thirty” for its perceived endorsement of torture. This season the target is Martin McDonagh's “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” But unlike other campaigns derailed by controversy, “Three Billboards” has continued to pick up major awards.
It won best film at the British Academy Film Awards, best drama at the Golden Globes and best ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in addition to a slew of critics' awards and a near-sweep of the major trophies for leading actress Frances McDormand and supporting actor Sam Rockwell. At Sunday's Oscars, it's up for seven awards including best picture.
With its dark humor and complicated characters and themes – a mother out to avenge her daughter's rape and murder, a suggestion of police brutality against black residents – “Three Billboards” made an early splash with critics and audiences at the Venice Film Festival in September and then at the Toronto International Film Festival in October, where it won the audience award and was hailed by some as one of the year's best. When it hit theaters in November, a month after The New York Times and The New Yorker first wrote about Harvey Weinstein, it also became emblematic of the post-Weinstein rage rippling through society.
“It's a barn burner, a bracing shot of whiskey downed while spoiling for a fight, a cathartic wail against the zeitgeist of rape culture and state brutality,” wrote critic Katie Walsh.
But by mid-December a different narrative started taking hold – that the film problematically redeems Rockwell's racist character.
Ira Madison III writing for The Daily Beast said it was “tone-deaf” and “wholly offensive.”
“It attracts the type of crowd that likes to reward simplistic tales of racism like 'Crash,' where white people learn how to be good to one another at the expense of black people,” Madison wrote.
After it won the Golden Globe in January, Wesley Morris wrote in the New York Times that, “It's like a set of postcards from a Martian lured to America by a cable news ticker and by rumors of how easily flattered and provoked we are.” Morris wondered whether the film really did have anything to say about America.
Five days after the Times essay ran, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards. It also became a relative commercial success, with over $121.5 million in box office receipts worldwide.
McDonagh, for his part, disagreed with some of the fundamentals of the backlash.
“I think some of it comes from the idea that Sam's character is redeemed at the end...I don't think he is,” McDonagh said in a January podcast interview with Variety's Kristopher Tapley.
“Three Billboards” co-producer Graham Broadbent even suggested that there is “a degree of success” in the fact that the film has triggered passionate reactions, good and bad. Unlike “La La Land,” ''Three Billboards” was meant to agitate.
Actor Clarke Peters said he's not surprised it has inspired zealous responses.
“It's holding a mirror up to us and sometimes when you look in the mirror there are things you like to see and things you don't like to see,” Peters said.
And this whiplashing between accolades and outrage and “that's the point of it” defenses has been the roller-coaster narrative for “Three Billboards,” far from a straight path to Oscar.
As long as the awards race drones on for three months, there will always be an unpopular popular film – ostensible crowd-pleasers that annoy some to death, especially as the season begins to get long in the tooth (like, “Crash” and even “La La Land”). Where other films might disappear from the conversation the week after they are released, awards films are often picked apart until nothing good is left.
In the case of “Three Billboards,” it is most likely a variety of factors: The backlash started after many had already seen the film and formed their own opinions; And it's still just a guessing game as to whether hot takes impact what voters think in a statistically significant way.
“I don't see somebody who loved it suddenly hating it because of something they saw on the internet or vice versa,” said The Hollywood Reporter's awards columnist Scott Feinberg. “People don't want to be told what to think. If they were looking for validation for that belief then they were happy to find it, but I think it's overstated.”
Vulture spoke to 14 new film academy members who were mostly “unfazed” by the backlash. (One found it problematic.)