Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Jan. 22)

Jan 22, 2018

When the credits come up at the movies, the pages in a book run out, or the last commercial rolls over the end of a television episode, the story might be over. But the discussion is just getting started. Here at Act Four, we’ll get together every week to talk about the best (and worst) in pop culture. We’ll also try to sort out why the stories we love mean so much to us, and what they mean for the rest of the world.

Hi, everyone! I hope your Mondays are off to a good start. The Oscar nominations are out tomorrow, and I'm curious to hear if any of you are watching "The Chi," or looking forward to "The Alienist," in addition to anything else that may be on your minds. Let's get to it.

There's a lot of salt online about Rockwell taking home more awards for his performance as bigoted cop Dixon in McDonagh's Three Billboards. Is it fair or correct to think less of an actor's performance because the character he plays is problematic or poorly-written? Is that even what's happening here?

So, let me just start by saying that I think Sam Rockwell, Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson are all extremely good in "Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri." It's hard for me to imagine that there could be better versions of the characters as written than the ones they've embodied for the screen. So I completely understand why a lot of acting awards are going to the movie, even though, as I've written on a couple of occasions, I find "Three Billboards" to be really frustrating and hollow.

In a weird way, I think there's something to be said for recognizing a performance where an actor takes a character who is written in a way that just isn't as thoughtful or intelligent as the writer thinks it is, and elevates that character for the screen. I think it's probably reasonable to say that Rockwell does that (McDormand and Harrelson definitely do that). It's a very difficult situation for awards shows, though, in part because an award labeled "Best Actor" doesn't exactly invite a lot of nuance. I can completely understand why someone would vote for Rockwell even while feeling some moral or intellectual disapproval of "Three Billboards." I can also totally understand why someone would choose not to vote for him, feeling that this is a case where his acting talent is somehow misapplied, or used in service of a bad idea.

I think in general, we'd probably have healthier conversations about movies and awards for them if we could separate out what we mean a bit by them. You can think someone gives the best performance of a given year in a movie that is not the best movie of the year. You can recognize someone for directing work in an extremely technically difficult movie that doesn't necessarily feel like the best of a given year. You can feel like the best movie of the year is one that somehow comes together into somethng that is more than the sum of its parts. But because we expect so much of the major movie awards, especially the Academy Awards, it's really difficult to have those conversations or to disaggregate what the voting process means to individual voters. 

Maybe this is not a satisfying answer! But it's basically what I think.

Back in the days of dial-up modems, your browser had an option to not display pictures. Flash forward to today. I'm paying (I think) $9.99 a month for my digital Post subscription (because I believe in a free press, and you guys are great), but I would gladly DOUBLE THAT for a subscription where I didn't see pictures unless I clicked on them. It's not about data plans, it's about seeing politicians that turn my stomach. And seeing them ALL. THE. TIME.

This isn't a request that I've heard before, but I will pass it along to our team, because I think it raises an interesting issue. But for some context, one of the many reasons stories have photos in them is that it affects the way they're displayed on social media. People are more likely to click through on stories that have art associated with them, rather than that are just blocks of text. So it's a matter of trying to get people to read the stories and making them stand out in people's social feeds. That said, we could probably try to be more creative about the art we choose for the stories we run. I'll let my colleagues know that this is something that has been getting to you, and maybe it can spur our thinking.

Something that horrifies me about that Babe article is that I haven't seen anyone who believes that what he did wasn't assault or even particularly egregious but the larger conversation it sparks is worth it, express any concern about the humiliation of having graphic details of a private sexual encounter exposed to the whole world. His accuser gets to stay anonymous while he is mocked for being a bad lover or a pervy creep. If I were him I would be mortified. I don't see how fruitful a cultural conversation on changing norms can be if premised on people outing their one-time sex partners in humiliating ways. The article could have been written to either keep both people anonymous or been less explicit. But that's not good click bait in this era.

I was talking to my colleague Erik Wemple about this, and I don't think he would mind me sharing with you that he had the same suggestion about anonymity. I totally agree that this would have been a more productive conversation if neither "Grace" nor Ansari had been named, and so the subsequent discussion was about the nature of their encounter, rather than whether there's some specific hypocrisy charge to lay at Ansari's feet. That said, I think you're probably right that the piece would not have been published under those circumstances: the ability to attach a celebrity's name to it was the buzzy part of the story, if not the relevant one.

I would note one other thing: I think it was highly journalistically irresponsible for babe to let "Grace's" declaration that what happened to her was sexual assault stand without context. That's another clear reason the story was published, but it would be worth making clear what the relevant state law says on the subject, and to make clear how understandings of what constitutes sexual assault and sexual misconduct have changed in recent years. By publishing the story the way they did, I think babe did a disservice to their readers by presenting a settled moral judgement, rather than educating them about the difference between "Grace's" feelings about what happened and the law, and by not pointing out that there's a conversation to be had about sex that's immoral or unethical but not illegal.

I'm not sure that the babe editors thought they were maximizing clicks. In a lot of other ways, they did things that were fairly journalistically responsible: they checked to see that the texts were from Ansari's number, they looked for confirmation that the date had taken place, and they talked to "Grace's" friends, who told reporters that she'd talked to them about it at the time, something that has become a staple in reporting on sexual assault and sexual abuse. But there were clear gaps in their understanding of what was responsible or helpful, and the result has been a huge mess, both emotionally and intellectually.


So this is a two part question that touches upon Natalie Portman's award show presentation - is it (more) the fault of the FHPA or production companies that the directors nominated were all male? This lead to me realizing that I have no idea how, as an outsider, how directing is judged - I don't know how where the director's job shows through vs. the screenwriter, cinematographer, actors, scale of production, etc. I guess, how do I know a film is well directed instead of a good film directed by a replacement level director working with talent that elevates the film regardless of the director?

This is a great question, and I'm going to use this week's newsletter to respond to you a little bit on the subject of how I, at least, decide if a movie is well-directed. 

On the first question, though, I think the question of responsibility for these sorts of finalists pools needs to be shared. A vast part of the problem is simply the fact that not very many women get to direct movies, so in that sense, blame lies with production companies and the industry as a whole. But it's absolutely fair to ask whether HFPA members are watching the movies that are directed by women, and if so, whether they consistently undervalue them in some way.

That said, I would never blame individual nominees simply for being nominated. It's not men's fault that women weren't nominated, just as its not individual white actors' fault when actors of color are snubbed. Still, I thought it was great that Guillermo del Toro, who won Best Director at the Golden Globes, was outspoken in his support for Portman's remarks and for the female directors who made great movies in 2017. That's classy and helpful, rather than defensive, and we could use more of that in Hollywood.

Did you forget to press the "Post" button when you finished writing your first reply?

I don't think so! It's displaying for me. If it's not for you, let me know what browser you're using, and what version, and we'll look into it.

I watched the preview last night. It was reasonably watchable and the production values were high but I think their lead, Daniel Bruehl (sp?) is a charisma hole. I didn't find his looks or performance very compelling. (I had the same reaction to his AVENGERS performance) The actor portraying Roosevelt was forgettable also. I liked Evans and Fanning.

Yeah, he's never done a ton for me. I loved the books, though.

I haven't seen all of the Oscar bait, but from what I have seen, I would pick in this order Dunkirk, Lady Bird, The Post, Wind River. I wasn't as impressed with Darkest Hour as I thought I would be - I thought the acting was excellent, but I'm not convinced by Churchill as a man consumed by doubt.

This was a year where there were a lot of movies I'd be delighted to see get nominations and awards. I don't know if you've seen "I, Tonya" or "Call Me By Your Name," but those are some possible additions to your list. I'm also overdue to watch "Mudbound" and "First They Killed My Father," both of which people I respect loved very much. I tend to find it healthier to treat Oscar season as a chance to celebrate just how many great potential contenders were released in a given year, rather than getting too wrapped up in who actually gets nominated and ultimately wins.

I do understand about images catching the eye and increasing clicks. But I bet there are other people like me who are more text than image. It would be an interesting thing to study! (And I've heard about that app that replaces pictures of the president with pictures of cats, but I'm on my work computer right now. Shh.)

Like I said, I've literally never heard this objection before, which is why I want to pass it along. But maybe we should get the Post developers to work on an extension that would let you be a bit more incognito than the cats one!

I'm wondering if Three Billboards is benefiting from its message more than its quality as a movie deserves, that is is the in movie "to like" for the voters and thus its overachieving. I'm thinking it may be one of those movies people a few years from now have a hard time believing it was deserving of so many accolades.

Hmmm, maybe! As I've mentioned a couple of times, "Three Billboards" didn't strike me as a very effective movie about either racism or sexual violence when I first saw it, so it's taking a bit of mental imagination for me to see how people could be swept up in it. If Americans are really hungry for a movie about the redemption of a virulent, ignorant racist, maybe that says a lot about where we are as a country. I can definitely see this becoming a sort of "Crash," should it clean up at the Oscars.

Even worse are when articles contain videos that can't be stopped.

I totally agree! Fortunately, the Post videos are easy to turn off and clearly located on the page, so you can find them to stop them if you need to.

After reading the newsletter I found myself wondering how we evaluate artists who stay too long at the fair. I thought about Francis Ford Coppola, who like Allen made some of the greatest movies in American cinema, but who also hasn't made a really good one in at least twenty years. (I actually think Allen's post-1990 output is better than Coppola's, though both pale in comparison to pre-1990.) I think there's a general tendency to evaluate artists on the basis of their full careers, and to emphasize their masterworks. I suspect Allen will be remembered not for his last ten movies, but for the brilliant run between "Sleeper" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors." I suspect your more dour interpretation is shaped by the fact that he's still making bad movies. Also, his favorite themes -- and all great artists return to a few major themes over and over again -- intersect with the concerns of our #TimesUp moment.

I think this is a good way of framing the question, although I think you're overstating my pessimism about Allen's work, a lot of which I still quite admire. I also think part of what's happening with Allen and #TimesUp and #MeToo is that our current conversations about sex and ethics don't just intersect with Allen's interests; they reveal the narrowness of Allen's preoccupations, and the extent to which he's stuck on a few self-serving ideas instead of gaining new insight into those themes. 

It depends (how's that for waffling?!?). At one extreme, Alfred Hitchcock had every scene planned down to the last tiny detail before he ever began shooting a film. At the other, Robert Altman sought to create an environment where his actors could improvise to the hilt.

It's not waffling if it's absolutely true!

I really liked The Post. Made me want to re-read Ms. Graham's autobiography. Made me excited about the constitution again. I want Ms. Streep and Mr. Hanks to do All the President's Men.

"Personal History" is SO fantastic, and I highly recommend it to everyone. Among other things, it makes abundantly clear just how difficult Philip Graham's behavior was before his suicide. My one major regret about "The Post" was the extent to which those details were left out of the movie. Had they been included, it would have been clearer just how much Mrs. Graham had to overcome when she became publisher of the paper, and just how awful it was that men around her kept talking about how things were better when her husband was alive and in charge. 

Without photos, you'd miss the unintended hilarity of seeing Trump "working" at his desk to solve the shutdown.

A counterpoint on the subject!

Well, I don't think it was assault. "Grace" had every opportunity to leave, he was not in a position of power (start-struck woman aside) and she didn't TELL him no. Women have agency. We can stand up. My daughter (34) - who is more sympathetic to Grace - thinks my reaction is a factor of my age (65). Could be. I think it's odd that Grace felt comfortable to get naked and have oral sex with Ansari but DIDN'T feel comfortable to say NO penetration. Neither of them come off well in this telling. He's entitled and she's whiny.

I'm not entirely sure whether the original poster's language conveyed what he or she intended, so I don't want to take it up there. From where I stand, I don't think "Grace's" description of what happened to her meets the legal standard for sexual assault, and I don't think it's helpful to our conversations about sex and morality that the only language available to us seems to be the language of criminal law and a binary idea of consent. I don't really need to judge "Grace" as a person or her decision-making: those larger points are just much more important.

I want to re-read Ms. Graham's autobiography, but I read it so many years ago that I fear it won't be as great an experience for me as the first time was. It was such a revelation to me at the time, but maybe I'd get more nuance a second time?

If it's been that many years, give it a go! I bet you'll have forgotten some things, so it'll feel fresh again.

How does one sign up for your newsletter? I've recently found your work and these chats, and love it!

Go here! It's called Act Four, like this chat and my column. I'm so happy to hear that you found your way here through the chats. This is one of my favorite parts of my job.

Okay, folks, I have to hop to do some more work. I'll see you back here on the 29th, when we'll have a whole slew of Oscar nominations to talk about. Until then, have a great week!

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Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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