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Barbershop: The Oscars


And now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And since the 90th Academy Awards are tomorrow night, we called people who have Oscars on their minds. They are Kara Brown - she's a former senior writer at Jezebel. She's currently writing for the "Black-ish" spin-off "Grown-ish," which you can see on Freeform. Also with us is Nicole Sperling. She covers the movie industry for Vanity Fair. And Ira Madison is a culture critic for The Daily Beast.

They are all with us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, Calif., so naturally our guests had to be close to the action. So everybody, tuxes pressed, dresses all steamed out. Thanks, everybody, for joining us.

KARA BROWN: Thanks for having us.


IRA MADISON: Hello, hello, hello.

MARTIN: So let me start with the movies and the performances that have been selected for recognition. I think everybody remembers the #OscarsSoWhite movement from a couple of years ago. It was a hashtag. The academy has been trying to diversify its membership, and some people are saying that with some of this year's nominees we are seeing the fruits of that. So let me ask you. Do you think this crop of nominees tells us anything? Nicole, I'll start with you because you cover the industry. Does this year of nominations - does this year's nominations tell us anything?

SPERLING: Well, it's just like it is every year where they've chosen - at least in the last five or six years where they're choosing more independent movies than the big studio films. We are seeing some diverse movies out there with "Get Out" being the highlight of the bunch. But you're also - you're not getting movies like "Wonder Woman" getting in there. You're getting smaller films such as "Lady Bird" that are making the cut. So I think we'll see some - I'm thinking we're going to see some diversity bear fruit on the night itself with the best picture winner, if my fingers are crossed correctly. But we'll see how that goes. I think the best picture winner is going to be the biggest indicator of how diverse the academy has become.

MARTIN: Ira, what do you think?

MADISON: I mean, it's crazy. I mean, every movie has a black person in it this year. I'm kidding.


MADISON: It's - it seems almost the same as every other year, you know? There's definitely the noticing that smaller, independent films are getting in, which is definitely a shift. But in terms of the content of these movies, you still have so many voters who are still talking about what's, quote, unquote, "Oscar-worthy." And in their minds, it's still movies like "The Post" and "The Darkest Hour" (ph). You know, it's - we're still clinging to that idea that to win a best picture Oscar you have to have a biopic, or you have to have, you know, a period film, or it has to have the former Oscar winners, you know, swanning about in caftans and doing something really serious.

MARTIN: OK, step light on "The Post." It's a fan favorite around here, OK?


MARTIN: OK? So let's just step light on that.

SPERLING: Don't you think "Darkest Hour" and "The Post" are kind of like the last vestiges of...

BROWN: Yeah.

SPERLING: ...Oscars past? Like, it's what people are - the ones holding on really tight.

BROWN: Yeah.

SPERLING: Because it doesn't seem like where the future's going as far as Oscars are.

MADISON: True. But I feel like I also never really know because those films like "The Darkest Hour" and "The Post" are - because of the way Oscar season is set up, you never even see those movies coming. They sort of pop up at the end of the year and it's like, oh, here's this Oscar film that - you can see it. You see the trailer. You see the poster. You're like, oh, OK. This was engineered to win Oscars. You know, it's still an - more than "Get Out" being, like, a horror film and being black. It's an anomaly that it's nominated because it's - came out in - in January.

SPERLING: That's amazing.

MARTIN: Let's let Kara in there. Kara, what do you think? Does this list say anything to you, list of nominations say anything to you?

BROWN: I've been pretty unenthused generally by the Oscars. I'm sort of fine honestly with it being the - it being the organization that it is. And, you know, they added a lot of new members who are, quote, unquote, "diverse" and women and people like that. But there's still thousands of members who are very old white people who have very specific ideas about what an Oscar movie is.

And for me, I'm more interested in filmmakers and actors and, you know, filmmakers of color and writers of color and women sort of saying, like, this doesn't have to be the thing that defines whether or not my movie is successful, whether or not I'm an important filmmaker, whether or not, you know, I've really carved out a place in Hollywood.

And - because I don't even - listening to what I've heard some of even the newer Oscar voters say, they're still going in with that same mentality of what an Oscar film, quote, unquote, "is." And it seems like once you're in the organization, that thinking kind of overtakes your brain. And I don't - you know, a lot of people are going to have to be cycled through before the organization approaches things differently as a whole.

MARTIN: Let me hold that thought for the end because I do want to hear at the end from all of you about whether you think the Oscars are still relevant because that's a conversation that people are having about the Grammys very loudly. I mean, a lot of people are saying that about the Grammys. Let me hold that thought for a minute and ask if there's - is there a movie that everybody's fighting about this year? For example, last year it seemed like it was "La La Land" for all kinds of reasons which we all remember. This year...

MADISON: Never heard of it.

MARTIN: ...It seems to be "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." For people who don't know it's a so-called dark comedy about a woman who rents three billboards to call attention to her daughter's unsolved murder. It's up for seven Academy Awards. And some viewers like you, Ira, did not appreciate the way...

MADISON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Race was handled in this film, which you saw as very heavy-handed and tone-deaf and inauthentic. So are there other - is there - is this the thing that everybody's - people are fighting about this year, or are there others? Ira, why don't you start with that?

MADISON: What's interesting about "Three Billboards" is it had this big surge leading up to the Globes. But the conversation around "Three Billboards" has sort of tapered off as we're leading into the Oscars, and most people aren't even picking it for winning best picture anymore. The heated race really seems to be in the, you know, best actor category.

There seems to be, you know, divisions between who's voting for Timothee Chalamet or who's voting for Gary Oldman because as we know there are - there were allegations made against Gary Oldman of abuse from his ex-wife. And, you know, charges were never brought against him. And he did end up with custody of his children after those divorce proceedings.

But, you know, there's still that conversation, especially during, you know, the #MeToo era and Time's Up right now. Should we be rewarding Gary Oldman with an Oscar, particularly since James Franco was completely shut out? So, you know, it's - a lot of people are sort of hotly defending Oldman's inclusion. And a lot of people are coming out right now for "The Darkest Hour," surprisingly.

MARTIN: So, Nicole, let me go to you on this. Well, what about this whole - and then, Kara, I want to bring you in, too - what about this whole question about the ceremony? This is the first Oscars in the wake of the explosion of allegations around certain people starting with Harvey Weinstein and which - not just affecting the movie industry as we all know. But what about the ceremony this year? I mean, is this something that feels - is it fraught for certain people? Is there - are there steps that are being - you know, what are people doing about addressing those issues? What do you think?

SPERLING: Well, it's going to be fraught the moment people walk onto the red carpet because Ryan Seacrest is going to be there. And there's going to be the question of whether they should stop and talk to him or not talk to him because he has been accused by one woman.

There was an investigation by E! into his behavior. They found him innocent. Then she came out with more detailed allegations of his - of behavior - of his behavior, and he still fired back that he is completely innocent. It's very interesting. He's doubling down, tripling down - I know where you call it at this point - and going to be on the red carpet. And then you get into the show.

What I find interesting is that you look at the list of presenters that they've announced. And so of the 32, I guess, that have been announced, there are seven white men that are going to be on the stage, which I think is profound because that never happens. And of those white men we've got Spider-Man, Luke Skywalker and the Lone Ranger. Like...


SPERLING: ...We are sticking to the safest men we can find and putting them out there. So I think things are definitely - have - are fraught. And I think it will be very interesting how things are handled Sunday night. The Time's Up people are not - they were very clear that the women leaders are not going to have another big stunt like they did at the Golden Globes because they feel like that was their coming-out party. And it's going to be encouraged that the winners talk about it. There's going to be a lot of pins on the red carpet. But - and Jimmy Kimmel's supposed to address it. There's also going to be a moment during the show. But there's not some stunt where everyone's wearing a color or doing something symbolic.

MARTIN: So, Kara, I'm going to give you the last word here 'cause I want to bring up the issue that you raised earlier, which is, are the Oscars still relevant? I mean, as a person - you know, you've had an interesting career. You were kind of writing about the industry, and now you're in it.

BROWN: Yeah (laughter).

MARTIN: So what do you think? Do you care? I mean, do you - is it important to you?

BROWN: About the Oscar?

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

BROWN: You know, I don't really. Like, I - you know, it's interesting because I think being - the measures of success in all of this, especially, like, working in television where there's so much television - so the idea that the only television worth watching is what you see at the Emmys just doesn't hold up anymore because we have so much. And so what looks - you know, to me, what I consider shows that I love, it's not necessarily what I see at the Emmys. And you also know that things aren't being recognized, you know, fairly.

MARTIN: OK, I've got to play you off now.

BROWN: Yeah. Oh, no. (Laughter)...

MARTIN: I don't have music, but I'm playing you off. OK, so we'll see you soon. Kara Brown...


MARTIN: ..Nicole Sperling, Ira Madison, thank you all so much for joining us.

SPERLING: Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you.

MADISON: Cheers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.