Penn cinema profs to talk 89th Academy Awards

What the Oscar winners say may be of more interest than what they wear at this year’s much-anticipated Academy Awards ceremony, says Peter Decherney, a professor of cinema and media studies in the Department of English and the Cinema Studies Program.

Political comments by actress Meryl Streep at the Golden Globe Awards, and those by several others at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, have created the expectation that Hollywood will have a lot to say.

The 89th Academy Awards will be broadcast from Los Angeles at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26.

The School of Arts & Sciences will present a panel discussion “Oscars 2017: The Glitter and Politics” from noon to 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, in the Amado Recital Hall of Irvine Auditorium. The panel will feature Decherney and his Penn colleagues, Karen Redrobe, chair of the Department of the History of Art and the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Endowed Professor in Film Studies, and Cinema Studies senior lecturers Meta Mazaj and Kathy DeMarco van Cleve.

“The political stakes are higher than ever,” says Decherney. “And Hollywood and the Oscars are directly in the crossfire.”

For example, there are nominees directly affected by the Trump administration’s travel ban, and films about politically potent issues, like the five documentaries on refugees in the Documentary (Feature) and the Documentary (Short Subject) categories.

“One reason to take the Oscars seriously is because they offer a glimpse of how Hollywood wants to present itself to the world,” says Decherney. “Hollywood likes to be seen as taking on serious issues.”

Hollywood also likes films about itself, which is one reason why the musical “La La Land” is such a clear favorite, he says. Tying the Academy Award record with 14 nominations, the film was produced by Penn alums Marc Platt and John Berger, and stars Penn alumnus John Legend. Decherney predicts the film will take home the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Damien Chazelle) and Best Actress (Emma Stone).

“People love musicals,” Decherney says. “For decades, critics have predicted the end of live action musicals, but musicals keep coming back. They offer a kind of utopian world that we want to believe in and live in for a little while.”

But the field is filled with critically acclaimed films, Decherney says, so there may be a few surprises.

This year, unlike the past two years that spawned the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the nominees and the films they star in reflect more racial diversity.

Films are more diverse, at least in terms of showcasing African-Americans, such as Best Picture nominees “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Moonlight.” Decherney says the Academy has increased the diversity of its membership, which contributed to this trend.

He foresees Viola Davis winning the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in “Fences,” and Mahershala Ali winning Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance in “Moonlight.” However, he does not expect Denzel Washington to win Best Actor for his role in “Fences,” predicting that Casey Affleck will win for his role in “Manchester by the Sea.”

Like most of the millions of people who will be watching around the globe, Decherney will be watching with his family.

“Unfortunately for them, my two kids end up getting film history lectures throughout the night,” he says.