Q&A: Ann Hornaday, Washington Post film critic
The former Pulitzer Prize finalist discusses the Oscars, historical inaccuracy in cinema and last year’s Seth Rogen controversy.
Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday joined School of Communication professor Jane Hall onstage in the McKinley Innovation Lab on Feb. 24 for a discussion about the issues and controversies of this year’s Academy Awards. Hall’s Understanding Media class participated in the discussion and asked prepared questions. SOC is currently hosting a recorded live-stream of the event on its web site.
The Eagle’s Mark Lieberman sat down with Hornaday after the event to discuss more about the race between “Birdman” and “Boyhood,” the historical inaccuracies of “Selma” and “The Imitation Game” and more.
E: There's been some talk since "Birdman" won that people who liked "Boyhood" are going to get their due because oftentimes the movie that wins Best Picture ends up accruing a negative reputation. Do you think that people who like "Boyhood" are going to be vindicated eventually?
AH: I don't think that it's necessarily a zero-sum game. "Boyhood" and "Birdman" were neck-and-neck. It's not like I didn't like "Birdman." It was one and two for me on my 10 best list. I think that was true of a lot of critics. The people who are likely to enjoy "Boyhood" are also likely to enjoy "Birdman" because they're both really inventive and very strong emotional experiences.
I think "Boyhood," in terms of the craft and the vision, the idea that he had and the way he executed it, is more likely to endure as a watershed piece of American cinema than "Birdman," which is elaborating on a lot of interesting ideas, but it was more of a stunt. "Boyhood" was something deeper. I don't think history will judge "Birdman" harshly. It's not an embarrassment. It's a perfectly reasonable choice. But I do think "Boyhood" will endure.
E: What would you tell people who see the results of the Oscars and get worked up about wishing the movies that they liked had won? How much does that matter and how much should they care?
AH: I think they should just remember that we're talking about a relatively rarefied group of people with a very specific point of view, in terms of being professionals in an industry. It's clubby. They might be voting for things just because they know someone or they like that guy. I was reading an interview with one voter who hadn't seen any of the foreign language nominees, so he based his vote only on a poster. It's appalling.
I think that it's a snapshot of the industry in terms of its self-image and the kind of work that it would like to be doing. I think that's interesting, but I don't think it's at all validating. I don't think it should be taken as a validation of anybody's tastes or a denigration of anybody's tastes. You have the marketplace, and you have critics' groups, and then you have the Golden Globes and you have the Academy. These are really distinct cultures within themselves.
The reason I really like the Academy Awards even though I don't agree with all their choices is that it's bringing a lot of attention to the movies that deserve it. A lot of these movies are streaming right now. In my mind, whatever attention you can bring to these movies is good.
E: Do you think that the awards season as an industry unto itself has become so large that the Oscars are almost an afterthought? What can the Oscars do to regain an element of surprise?
AH: The good news about the long awards season is that it does bring awareness to these films, which I think is hugely important. The downside of that is that it does establish these frontrunners that get set in stone and they do have an air of inevitability around them that's unfortunate. I don't know if they can do anything purposefully to create suspense...unless they just don't even have nominees, I suppose. If they could shorten the actual program a little bit, without disrespecting any of the trades, but maybe combine the distribution of awards or somehow compress them. Even if the awards themselves aren't surprising, at least make the program surprising.
A scene from "The Imitation Game." Photo by Jack English, Courtesy of Black Bear Pictures.
E: "Selma" is not the only Best Picture nominee that played with facts. What do you think the effect of not talking about the inaccuracies of "The Imitation Game" is for discussions of historical inaccuracy in film?
AH: We're in Washington, so we're surrounded by people who are at these events or have been studying them their whole lives. It's a city that's incredibly sensitive. I just think it's part of the package now. In the case of "Zero Dark Thirty," that was a painful controversy for the films because they felt really misunderstood and misrepresented, but on the other hand, the movie did really well.
I think with "Selma," that's still having its rollout. I'm not sure if we're going to look at that and say, ‘Well, that really hurt the box office or not.’ At the end of the day, that is what counts in terms of whether Hollywood is going to keep making these movies. What you want is for people to see these movies and then have the debate. The debate is interesting. I like learning about these things. They do occupy a certain space in terms of our imagination that I just think needs to be understood better.
E: Was there a movie that wasn't really in the Oscar conversation that you would have liked to have seen be more central in the discussion?
AH: Poor little "Inherent Vice." I loved that movie. I thought it was so good. I enjoyed it, I enjoyed watching it. It might have been enigmatic but I don't think it was quite incoherent. It was actually pretty powerful in places. I was happy that it got nominated for Adapted Screenplay, but in the anonymous ballots people were hating it. I was like, ‘Why are you hating on this poor little movie?’"
Eddie Redmayne in a scene from "The Theory of Everything." Courtesy of Liam Daniel, Focus Features.
E: Some people have taken issue with Eddie Redmayne's performance [in "The Theory of Everything"] and the idea of non-disabled actors playing disabled characters. How do you feel about the issue with representing disability onscreen?
AH: I'm not conversant with that controversy, but I can understand that some people might take issue with it. It's the same thing that was lampooned in "Tropic Thunder," which itself was so misunderstood for pointing that out and then being accused of committing the sin it was drawing attention to.
We should always be alert to those issues of exploitation and self-serving exploitation. I don't feel like that was done in this case. I thought that was a really sensitive portrayal. [The movie] was as much [Jane Hawking’s] story as it was history, and I thought that was an interesting focus. My radar wasn't tweaked with that, but I'm open to that argument and I take it seriously.
AH: No, I haven't heard from him. I don't expect to. I have no hard feelings whatsoever to either of those guys. I have been a fan of their work in the past and I fully expect to be a fan of their work in the future. When I look back on "50/50," I thought that was one of the best movies of that year. There are things that Judd Apatow has done that I really love and respect him for and cheer him on. I fully expect to do that in the future. I think they're both capable of really great work. I look forward to celebrating that.
It happened and it's part of our world now that these Twitter things happen. I do understand their feelings. I felt like maybe they misunderstood my point, but I also understand that it's really not fun to see your name in something like that. I get it, and it happened, and we're all in one piece and it's fine.