Saturday, December 24, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Tangerine" (2015)

Scene from Tangerine
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Tangerine (2015)
Directed By: Sean Baker
Written By: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama
Running Time: 88 minutes
Summary: A working girl tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart.

The Movie

Every year there is one independent film that seems to come out of nowhere to endless praise. In 2015, that was director Sean Baker's Tangerine. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to uproarious acclaim. Not only was it a funny little comedy set in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, but it was a film with a novelty. It was the first feature length film to ever be shot entirely on an iPhone. The results were impressive as it was able to tell a competent story while also proving that literally anyone could do. All it took was a device that fit right inside your pocket. The film's slow roll out, culminating in a summer release, ended up making it not only one of the more successful films of the year but also one to watch out for during awards season.

While its technique would've made it an easy target for independent awards, it also had another success within its story. The film was focused around two black transgender women named Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. They played escorts who hung out at a donut shop and went on a series of madcap adventures. In a year that was already dominated by conversation about Oscars needing diversity, this seemed like a godsend. It was a film that successfully told a story about someone who wasn't a white male. It may have not been the highest grossing film of the year, but it was the most indicative of what the future of cinema could be.

Tangerine's success largely stems from its dedication to independent technique. It also reflected the potential of actors who weren't often seen in mainstream cinema. It was this kind of logic that inevitably started its Oscar campaign as something more than being a novelty film worthy of recognition for its craft. With the help of the film's producers, the film managed to create history by becoming the first ever film to have an Oscar campaign for transgender actors. Like the film itself, it would be a tough sell, but one that had succeeded so far and was worth going as far as possible. Would producers Mark and Jay Duplass make any difference, or would it just be another sad story?

The Campaign

It all started with an observation. Mark Duplass noticed what was going on with other awards branches. He believed that the TV Academy was putting The Oscars to shame. Speaking as he was a new member with his brother, he felt that it was about time that The Academy recognized transgender actors like the Emmys and Golden Globes recognized the series Transparent and Orange is the New Black. The fact of the matter is that Tangerine wouldn't feature the first "transgender" performance in the sense of playing a character. In 2014, Jared Leto won Best Supporting Actor for Dallas Buyers Club. However, that role earned controversy for its depiction of a transgender woman as being a sympathetic victim. Duplass also noted that Leto was cisgender, and that it was unfair that that's what it took to recognize LGBT performances.

With this in mind, the shoestring budget campaign took off with the typical screenings in which Rodriguez and Taylor would answer questions. Baker and the Duplass Brothers were also on hand to answer questions at various events. However, the big breakthrough wasn't just in the subject matter of the campaign. It featured involvement from the transgender community, specifically that of Caitlyn Jenner and Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox. Both were present and often vocal about the film's quality, believing that it was an important message for movie goers to hear.

Jenner would go on to say: “This was a real movie about real issues in our community. We need to expose those.” Considering that her transition became one of the biggest stories of the year, her influence would help to get the film to an audience not likely to see a film made for $100,000. Considering that the film made back almost eight times its budget, it was a sleeper hit that would only continue to expand once it hit Netflix late in 2015. Still, it was a film that showed a transgender story that went against the conventional normative. Considering that the more controversial The Danish Girl came out to more success, it was only more evidence that Tangerine was a film that needed to have its message out there so that cisgender actors wouldn't keep playing roles clearly meant for them.

The Payoff

The Duplass Brothers always knew that Tangerine's success was going to be a long shot. As much as it was an advantageous film progressively, its financial success fell well below the average Oscar nominee's budget. With that said, the film racked up the expected independent film awards with a regularity. This included the Gotham's Audience Award. While the film would fail to get into the Oscar race, it did manage to raise awareness for transgender actors in film, raising questions on what the future could potentially be. Considering that 2016's big awards players don't seem to share Tangerine's message, it is difficult to see if the legacy will be more than a fluke. With that said, Kelly Mantle is currently being promoted as the first gender fluid campaign with consideration in Best Actor and Best Actress fields for Confessions of a Womanizer.

This is a matter made more conflicting by The Danish Girl receiving several nominations, including Best Actor for cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne. The story follows the first transgender operation and received certain criticisms from the LGBT community. For starters, Redmayne's character didn't have her own agency and did many small behaviors wrong; including referencing herself in third person. Also, co-star and Best Supporting Actress winner Alicia Vikander was seen as an enabler whose behavior was a bit conflicting - let alone that the title as used in the film references Vikander and not Redmayne. There are many misleading politics on display hidden as sentimentality. 

While Moonlight is one of 2016's most acclaimed films and features a unique story of a black gay man, the story for transgender actors still remains up for debate if it will ever happen. Tangerine has gotten the ball rolling, but there needs to be many more to make it seem like more than a novelty. With that said, films like Moonlight look to at least keep LGBT subject matter at the forefront of Oscar consideration alongside diversity in other fields. Time will tell. For now, there's some places that still need work and people like The Duplass Brothers are making it a little easier to be achieved.

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