Even amid the din of bloggers and armchair social-media cinephiles, Richard Roeper’s opinions on film still resonate. He is an elder statesman of a sort, having published his criticism and columns via The Chicago Sun-Times and numerous other outlets over a three-decade span. Yet, he’s also a contemporary voice, broadcasting his takes on Hollywood and beyond via an informal YouTube channel and beaming into Midwestern homes as co-anchor of Fox affiliate’s Good Day Chicago.
Beginning later this month, the former Ebert & Roeper co-host will once again become an omnipresent face nationwide as he hosts HDNet Movies’ 29-day movie-lovers’ feast And the Oscar Goes To. Every evening between January 29 and February 26, the network will air at least one of Roeper’s favorite Academy Award-winning flicks and feature insight and analysis from the man himself. The event will culminate with a round-the-clock marathon of Oscar goodness over its final weekend.
In the meantime, Roeper—like the rest of us—has been poring over the recently announced Oscar nominations for 2017. Given the intense scrutiny of the selection process after previous outcries for more diversity, there has been plenty of reaction across the culture to this year’s picks. We hit up Roeper for his thoughts on the quality and range of what’s being represented, controversial names causing a stir, and whether awards are more an absolute gauge or a way to motivate people on their own viewing journeys.
Paste: People used to wait for Oscar noms to see if the films they loved were represented. Now they’re eager to see how they were represented in those films. Has that made your job more nuanced?
Richard Roeper: Absolutely. When I first started writing about movies, once in a while there’d be a political or social controversy about a film, but it’s obviously gone to a different level now. I saw La La Land and thought I saw a modern musical that was paying tribute to the musicals of the ’50s and ’60s, and all of a sudden I was told that it was all about how a white guy saved jazz. I think people come into everything with their set of values and figure out, “How can I push my agenda through these various prisms?”
Paste: Can those two ways of engaging with film co-exist?
Roeper: I think so. In some cases, it’s a very healthy thing that film critics look beyond just whether or not it’s a good film or film that’s going to win awards. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign did not make Hollywood say, “Let’s make a bunch of different films that reflect more what America’s like,” but it certainly got the conversation going and the Academy thinking about inviting a younger and more diverse group into the Academy, so it can be a good thing.”
Paste: So on the whole, did you feel like this year’s nominations were a deserving group?
Roeper: Pretty much. Another way things have changed is that, even 10 or 15 years ago, there weren’t so many awards shows and there weren’t so many websites devoted to handicapping the Oscars, and, quite frankly, doing a really good job. Even an amateur movie fan, if you just aggregate a lot of the websites, you can probably predict 80 percent of [the nominees]. There’s always a few surprises. I thought Amy Adams was going to get nominated, and she didn’t. I love Michael Shannon, but I don’t think a lot of people saw that coming. Other than Donald Trump, we all know that Meryl Streep isn’t overrated, but Florence Forster Jenkins? Really? On the opposite end, I think Tom Hanks gets overlooked. It’s been 20 years since his back-to-back Oscar wins, and I think he gets taken for granted. For some reason, the Academy’s like, “Eh, we’ve nominated him enough.”
Paste: Do you think there really is that much handwringing among the Academy?
Roeper: Yeah, I think so. Once we get to the nominations, it’s not quite as easy to predict the winners. The Academy has a way of throwing some strange upsets at us. Best Actress—I can make a case for almost any nominee. Same thing with Best Picture. I know everybody’s already ordaining it to La La Land, but when you’ve got the weird process making the electoral college seem like a local school board, pictures can come out of nowhere, not be the majority winner and not win Best Picture.
Paste: Brass tacks: Which of the Best Picture nominees do you think was the best?
Roeper: I think Manchester by the Sea was the best movie of the lot. As a whole, as an original piece of writing and filmmaking and acting and editing, it reminds me of the great films of the ’70s. I think it will hold up for years and years.
Paste: I think that’s all accurate, but I personally had such a visceral reaction to it and don’t know I could watch it again.
Roeper: I’ve heard from a lot of people, they sometimes come after me like, “Well you told me I should see it.” I’m like, I didn’t make it. Many of the greatest films of all time do not have the repeatability factor. You can watch Goodfellas or The Godfather over and over again. Even though they’re heavy drama, they’re very quotable, they’re very entertaining. I saw Schindler’s List for the second time last year, and I didn’t need to see it again. I think Manchester’s in that same category. You don’t need to see it multiple times, but when people tell me it’s depressing, I’m like, a lot of great art is very impactful and mournful. To me, I don’t walk out of a movie like Manchester by the Sea depressed. An Adam Sandler comedy where he’s done the same thing for the 10th straight movie—that I find depressing.
Paste: Does the conversation surrounding allegations of Casey Affleck of sexual harassment seem liable to gather more steam leading up to Oscar night?
Roeper: I believe the conversation has been had, and if it comes up again, it’s going to be the same conversation. One of the things that troubles me sometimes, as someone who considers themselves a moderate liberal, is that when accusations are hurled, people automatically convict people on social media. The cases apparently were settled without all the facts coming to light. It doesn’t sound like a good period for anyone involved. When we start getting into whether or not someone should win an acting award for things that happened years ago—that has always been a slippery slope for Hollywood.
Paste: A response to that might be the argument that Nate Parker being seemingly ostracized after revelations of rape and sexual-assault charges against him from 1999 emerged represents a double standard.
Roeper: When people start saying things like double standard, I say, which individuals are you accusing of having a double standard? Are you accusing the media, votership? How can you peer into the mind and soul of the people who are deciding whether or not to see a movie, campaign for a movie, vote for a movie? I think it’s a tricky thing to say, “I’ve decided there’s a double standard because that movie didn’t do well and this movie is doing well.” Maybe it’s a better movie.
Paste: Do you think it’s your job to stay somewhat removed from all that context?
Roeper: I think it’s my job, first and foremost, to critique the movie. It’s much more important than movies that these things aren’t swept under the rug. That’s part of your résumé as a human being, and it should be publicized. But as a movie critic, if I start saying I’m not going to review Woody Allen’s movies because I’m troubled by a lot of the allegations [or] I’m not gonna write about Roman Polanski [or] this film where the editor did something I don’t approve of, all of a sudden, you’re not reviewing half the movies out there.
Paste: Can you appreciate where someone like myself might decide I personally take umbrage with Mel Gibson being put in a position of praise and choose not to watch the Oscars ceremony?
Roeper: Absolutely. Anybody who wants to boycott a film, throw out all their old Mel Gibson movies, they have every right to do that, and I can certainly understand why. As a person, if someone said, “Would you like to attend a private dinner with Mel Gibson?” maybe I’d decide not to do so for my own reasons. But if my editors say, “Hacksaw Ridge is coming out, and it’s a major motion picture about an American hero,” and I say, “Well I refuse to review it because I don’t think Mel Gibson should ever be forgiven,” then I’m not being a professional in my opinion.
Paste:: Denzel Washington, unlike Gibson and Hacksaw Ridge, did not get nominated for Best Director despite Fences’ Best Picture nod. Does that again underscore how arbitrary these things can be?
Roeper: And sometime we have a film where it wins for Best Picture but doesn’t win for Best Director and you’re like, “So it directed itself to an Academy Award?” It’s like a book winning a National Book Award, but the writer doesn’t win Writer of the Year. It’s nice that they opened up the Best Picture nominations to have more than five—and let’s face it: Part of the reason is so more movies could market themselves—but pick a number and have the number reflect the same number of directors.
Paste: Are there any less glamorous categories featuring overlooked films people should pay attention to this year?
Roeper: If nothing else, watch the five nominated documentaries [and] foreign films, just to dip your toes into those waters. They’re all really good.
And The Oscar Goes To, like the Oscars themselves, presents a broad cross-section of films. Should people approach both as more of a starting point for their own exploration of movies than a defining list?
Roeper: Absolutely. And sometimes recognize that, even though maybe a film didn’t win for Best Picture but won for Best Cinematography, it shines a lot on all those craftspeople as well, which I think is pretty cool.