The team behind director Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” foolishly thought they’d crash awards season this year.
Netflix’s take on J.D. Vance’s 2016 best-selling memoir features Oscar-bait performances by Amy Adams and an unrecognizable Glenn Close as the family matriarch.
They didn’t realize a one-two punch awaited them, all but guaranteeing their film won’t make much, if any, noise when the nominations are revealed.
Their tragic mistake? They told a story sympathetic to the same Rural USA which helped elect Donald Trump four years ago. Even worse? They did so at a time when both critics and Academy voters have little patience for tales told outside the progressive bubble.
When Vance’s memoir first hit book stores, open-hearted progressives yearned to learn more about a part of the country which embraced Trump’s message. The book charted Vance’s journey from poverty-stricken Kentucky to the halls of academia.
That was then. Now, anything remotely tied to President Trump is like garlic to a vampire.
The trouble technically began weeks before “Hillbilly Elegy’s” November debut. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences released new rules regarding films eligible for the Best Picture award, the most coveted Oscar of all.
The Academy went woke, demanding “diversity” requirements in front of and behind the camera along with dictates about the content itself.
The standards are designed to encourage equitable representation on and off screen in order to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience.
It’s a complicated rule book, but one way to comply is to tell a story that addresses a woke theme. Think a gay couple navigating modern America, or a civil rights drama evoking mid-20th century racism.
Here’s the official statement from Team Oscar on that subject:
The main storyline(s), theme or narrative of the film is centered on an underrepresented group(s).
• Racial or ethnic group
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing
Suffice it to say, a white man’s journey from Appalachia to Yale University, like Vance’s life story, wouldn’t make the cut.
That’s just one facet of “Hillbilly Elegy’s” problem—even if the new Oscar rules unofficially start in 2022 but aren’t enforced until 2024. It’s unlikely voters will ignore the new rules just to sneak “Elegy” in, though.
The second problem is more entrenched and doesn’t require a fancy rulebook.
Modern film writers lean reliably to the Left, and they carry considerable clout during awards season. A film can live or die by its reviews, especially this time of year.
“Hillbilly Elegy” sits with an anemic 25 percent “rotten” rating at RottenTomatoes.com, a withering score for an Oscar-bait film. Last year’s “Bombshell” snuck into the Oscar race despite a mediocre 68 percent “fresh” rating at the site, which aggregates critical takes. The film’s blistering attack on Fox News made up for lukewarm reviews.
“Elegy’s” awful RT score hints at the issue critics have with the movie.
Critics and film reporters alike are savaging “Elegy” in ways that connect beyond its cinematic qualities. For starters, they can’t separate the movie from the book, even though in many ways they’re very different creations.
Here’s just one example from Vulture.com:
The book is poverty porn wrapped in a right-wing message about the cultural pathologies of the region. In Vance’s Appalachia, poverty and immorality intertwine. Success happens to hard-working people, and structural explanations for poverty receive glancing attention when he chooses to mention them at all.
That’s Vance’s opinion based on his life experiences, but to this reporter they’re beyond the pale. And, by extension, the movie is as well.
Boston Review slapped both the film and the book with the “white privilege” curse, even though Vance’s roots are the furthest cry of anything remotely resembling “privilege.”
The far-Left New Yorker critic slammed the movie as a “libertarian fantasy.”
The Hollywood Reporter said the quiet parts out loud in its “Elegy” assessment. The far-left site says the project “was greenlit when liberal creatives were trying to understand the other side, but a total avoidance of political substance is what ultimately undermines the film’s awards chances.”
The subtext needs to be said. A film all but requires a progressive message to help it win an Oscar. When voters crave “political substance,” it means narratives with which they agree.
Is it any wonder New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo just earned an Emmy award for his COVID-19 press conferences?
It’s also tragic that Oscar voters no longer crave great stories in the grand Hollywood tradition. The films in question must come pre-loaded with political themes from a subset of “available” topics.
Think systemic racism, pro-choice causes, and income inequality as just three possible examples.
The Hollywood Reporter story concludes on a chilling note:
Hollywood has yet to start greenlighting movies that attempt to speak to the Americans who voted for Trump a second time, but Hillbilly Elegy may serve as a cautionary tale. A movie that posed Vance’s conservative cultural critiques more directly likely would not have gotten made in the first place in Hollywood.
Hollywood does more than prevent openly conservative stars from staying employed (with a few exceptions including Jon Voight and Nick Searcy). They now recoil at the notion of making right-of-center stories, to take The Hollywood Reporter at its word.
Let that sink in. Today’s Hollywood avoids stories that appeal to one half of the country. That makes a mockery of the term show business, no?
Howard, who is openly liberal, intentionally avoided political red meat while shooting “Hillbilly Elegy,” according to a recent press conference tied to the film. That’s pragmatic on a number of levels, including Storytelling 101. Audiences can glean whatever socio-economic lessons they wish from the movie, a sure sign of a storyteller trusting the audience.
Howard has been telling stories since he was a lad on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and his instincts remain pure.
Then again, the Oscar-winning director was in a no-win situation with “Hillbilly Elegy.” If he openly celebrated “Small Town” values, he would have been pilloried by the press even worse than what he actually experienced.
If he went in reverse, and used “Hillbilly Elegy” to mock rural America, he would have betrayed the book and his own instincts.
He might have stood a better chance at winning his second Best Director Oscar with the latter path. As is, he has little reason to draft an Oscar acceptance speech.
He won’t be needing it.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.