We're now officially in awards season, and Oscars 2020 buzz is everywhere -- including, at the moment, for Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker. Fans can debate all we want about which films or stars deserve Oscars, but what about the actual people who get to vote?
You're probably familiar with The Hollywood Reporter's "honest" Oscar ballots -- usually with some unnamed producer or star bashing a popular movie because they get to do it anonymously. THR probably returned to the same pool for positive and negative comments on Joker, just to gauge what's out there. Short answer: A lot of scalding hot takes, a few lukewarm ones, and some ice cold refusals to see the movie.
THR printed brief Joker takes from more than 20 members of various branches of the Academy -- with more comments from members who hadn't seen the movie yet.
Let's start with the thoughts of a voter described as male Academy member in the producers branch. He saw Joker when it premiered in Venice to rave reviews, ultimately earning the Golden Lion award. This voter started with compliments, and then dropped a "despise" bomb:
I saw it in Venice. The trailer had just dropped and there was nothing written about the film yet. I found the craft to be stunning on every level — beautiful photography, design, costumes. All of Todd Phillips' films are impeccably made. But I deeply despise the movie. It made me feel really uncomfortable. I love [Darren] Aronofsky, [Lars] von Trier, [Michael] Haneke and most movies that really push the boundaries of darkness. But there was a nihilism and narcissism to this movie that left a bunch of us feeling really disturbed, and we had to drink away our discomfort. Warner Bros. has done an exceptional job of marketing the movie, and I respect that they took the Trojan Horse of a superhero movie to make this kind of movie within the studio system — but I don't know that there is substance at the core of what it is trying to say. It was the first movie in history that was too dark for me.
The first movie in history that's too dark for someone is saying a lot. It certainly suggests Joker left a mark. Here are some raves from a woman in the members-at-large branch. She thinks Joaquin Phoenix is a lock for an Oscar nomination, and she also said she could see herself nominating Joker for Best Picture:
I saw the film last night at the Landmark with another Academy member, and my stomach was still churning this morning. It made me uncomfortable from the very first frame to the last, but I thought the movie was extraordinary. I didn't read anything about it beforehand, so I thought I was going to be getting, sort of, Batman. It's the most outstanding performance I've seen in many years — the way he moved, everything, I mean, he's really a consummate actor, and there's not a frame he's not on camera, too. What I don't understand is what everyone's all upset about? Just pick up the morning paper and see the asshole that's running our country if you want to worry about violence. It's still early, but I can certainly see myself nominating it for best picture. And he has to get nominated, or the actors branch doesn't know what it's doing.
Here's a take from a conflicted man in the producers branch:
It's a really impressive film across the board. Joaquin's performance is undeniably extraordinary. There is nothing new, in terms of the craftsmanship, like how Dunkirk was shot or the sound design of First Man — but still, if you see it in an Imax theater like I did, you can't deny how well made it is. That all being said, I don't see any reason why this movie should be out in the universe. There is nothing in it that starts a conversation — it just pours lighter fluid on a conversation that's staring us in the face every week. But I'm torn, as an Oscar voter, about what to do. The business it's doing is mind-blowing — 'Taxi Driver 2' just opened to almost $300 million worldwide! But I don't know what's responsible to do as a voter. If art is not used to start a conversation, and it's just used to exacerbate something, I'm not sure how beneficial it is. It's too fresh to know yet what I'll do with it. I don't know if it should be banned or it should be given every award!
This male member of public relations/marketing branch had a much more negative take:
I thought it was lacking a clear vision and overwrought. This doom-and-gloom style has become tedious. Only [Michelle] Pfeiffer and [Danny] DeVito in [1992's] Batman Returns have truly balanced dark with light. This one didn't have a point of view on politics or class, and its depiction of mental illness was irresponsible. Joaquin was so over the top it became irritating. Todd's song choices were so on-the-nose they seemed offensive and not ironic. Does he not know 'Send in the Clowns' is a romantic ballad of regret and not actually about clowns?
I was also fascinated by the number of Academy members who were reluctant to see Joker. Here's a female member of actors branch talking about when she'll eventually watch Joaquin Phoenix's performance:
I haven’t seen Joker. I’ve had two opportunities and passed. I know that at some point I have to see Phoenix's performance, but what little I've read about the film makes me think this is a movie I'm not going to like — and I've seen a couple of reviews that said that people are focusing on the violence when in fact, the film is not that great. I'm going to wait for the DVD as I feel the small screen will have less of an impact on me. You know what they say — 'the unconscious can't tell the difference between a movie and real life' — so I limit what I subject myself to.
Here's a succinct comment from a male member of the actors branch:
I haven't seen Joker, nor do I plan to. I know it's out of fashion to say, but comic book movies hold zero interest for me.
Joker isn't a traditional comic book movie, but since "Joker" is the title -- and it does have connections to the Batman origin story -- it's certainly using its DC Comics status as a selling point. But if that person doesn't like comic book movies, it's possible Joker is exactly their kind of movie.