Going into any Academy Awards, the film with the most nominations becomes a stalking horse, a target for various think pieces and arguments about the state of the race. That is particularly true this year, as that film is Joker. This appears to have caught a lot of people by surprise. In hindsight, it really shouldn’t have.
Part of the reaction is down to the fact that there were other presumptive contenders, including Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. However, these films proved a little vulnerable during the awards cycle, with DeNiro locked out of various actor races and The Irishman losing at the Golden Globes.
However, a lot of that is down to how damn polarizing Joker is on the internet, even in places like this. This contentiousness is compounded by some very real problems with the Oscar nominees, such as the complete lack of nominated female directors and a sole acting nomination for a person of color. There are discussions to be had on those points, to be sure.
Still, Joker makes sense as most nominated film at this year’s ceremony, even if it remains unlikely to take home too many major awards outside of a Best Actor statue for Joaquin Phoenix. There are a number of factors that make it a pragmatic choice for the Academy Awards, regardless of the many subjective arguments to be had about its relative merits.
Most obviously, Joker is a film that seems designed to play well to awards bodies, particularly older American institutions. Martin Scorsese reportedly considered directing the film, which functions largely as a loving ode to the bygone era of movie production. In its own way, Joker is as much a nostalgia piece as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
Joker is informed by films like Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, The French Connection, The Exorcist, Network, and News from Home. Films that hark back to ’70s and ’80s cinema-style production just don’t happen anymore. Indeed, a not insignificant amount of the press tour for Joker framed it as a cinematic throwback.
The Academy Awards have always flattered movies that evoke older Hollywood — films like The Artist, Argo, and even The Shape of Water. As such, Joker is a good fit in the way that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is. More than that, it evokes one of the most celebrated chapters in Hollywood history when the Academy finds itself wary of disruptors like Netflix.
There is more to it than that. Although the Academy Awards have skewed more artisanal in their taste since the turn of the millennium, shying away from sweeps by blockbuster behemoths like Titanic or The Lord of the Rings, box office success still has an influence.
Yet box office success will not gain a movie admission to the Best Picture race alone. After all, Avengers: Endgame did not earn a nomination, despite speculation. The Academy Awards tend to find themselves drawn towards topical films, films that deal with what they perceive to be big and weighty issues. This explains past nominations for films like The Post or Hidden Figures.
Again, it is debatable to what extent Joker is actually topical, let alone how well it handles its topical themes. After all, Green Book won the Best Picture Oscar for its handling of the important issue of race relations in America, despite arguably mangling the issue beyond all recognition. What matters is that Joker has the appearance of topicality.
Joker is part of a broader range of major movies released over the past year tackling themes of rising inequality and economic unease, with its scenes of protest and poverty in a city on the verge of collapse. It belongs in that category with fellow nominee Parasite, as well as other films outside Best Picture contention like Hustlers and Knives Out.
Again, this is not a qualification in itself, but is instead cumulative. It seems highly likely that the vibrant (to put it diplomatically) discourse over Joker contributed to its awards season success. There was something approaching a moral panic in the run up to the film’s release, from the belief that it would inspire mass shootings to the argument it was an incel manifesto.
These arguments all proved to be unfounded. The extent to which Joker does or doesn’t tackle those themes, and the extent to which that is or isn’t part of its appeal, is an inherently subjective debate that is worth having. However, they made the film seem edgy, risky, and buzzy. It became “provocative.” This made it alluring in combination with the box office gross.
This is where the facts get complicated. A lot of the criticisms of Joker operated from a starting point of an assumed audience — the aforementioned paranoia around mass shootings and incel propaganda suggested that the assumption was not flattering. The truth is far more complicated than the narrative that formed around Joker and that contributed to its nomination success.
Joker is an R-rated movie that made over a billion dollars. It did not do that by appealing to a single demographic, especially one assumed to be young men. Joker always had cross-demographic support. It is the rare billion-dollar film that is (at least technically) aimed at adults and has won a major European film festival award — the Golden Lion at Venice.
More than that, it is interesting to look at where its support took root during awards season. Left-wing documentarian Michael Moore described it as a “masterpiece,” diffusing criticisms of it as reactionary. Little Women director Greta Gerwig singled it out as one of her favorite films of the season. Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller Bridge endorsed it.
Recent years have seen the Academy attempting to broaden and diversify its membership. This is both long overdue and commendable. However, looking at the demographics that responded to Joker — only 42% of its opening audience was white — it seems likely that many of those new members were more likely to vote for Joker than most other Best Picture candidates.
It is somewhat ironic, given that many of the same voices so eager for the Academy to diversify its membership are the same people upset to see Joker succeeding in the way that it has. However, this is the paradox of inclusion. These members are not part of monolithic groups. They have their own tastes and appetites, and it seems likely those tastes ran towards Joker.
Of course, taste is inherently subjective. And it wouldn’t be awards season if everybody were happy with the Academy Awards nominations. Personally, my own favorite films of the year look significantly different than those in contention. However, the success of Joker is not unusual or outlandish. Joker is not an agent of chaos. Its success is quite predictable.
Indeed, given that the Oscars tend to see a ratings boost when they nominate popular films, and that the Academy is entirely dependent on advertising revenue from the Oscar night to pay for the rest of its activities during the year, it might even make sense that the Academy is down to clown.