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Awards

To win an Oscar, it helps to have a meaningful story

Oscars Gold Standard
Michael Keaton and the cast and producers of “Spotlight” celebrate after winning best picture at the 88th Academy Awards on Feb. 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“Spotlight” and other Oscar winning films this year had something to say beyond a riveting tale.

Just last month at a Santa Barbara International Film Festival tribute, Roger Durling, the event’s director, broke from asking “Spotlight” actors questions about the movie and their careers to express gratitude.

“I’ll speak for all of us survivors when I say, ‘Thank you for making ‘Spotlight,’” Durling told Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams.

A couple of days earlier, Durling had written an op-ed piece about his own past as a victim of clerical abuse. He said that “Spotlight,” which followed the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, offered a voice to people like him “who used to feel anchorless and alone.”

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That’s the story of this year’s Oscars — representation. Or the lack thereof. Seeing yourself, seeing your story told on screen is affirming and empowering. For some people, like Durling, it can feel like a matter of survival.

And when movies consistently fail to offer to tell your story or, if they do represent you, it’s in ways that are often degrading or meaningless, you can’t help but feel that you don’t matter. That sense of invisibility leads to feelings of disrespect and anger. That sense of invisibility leads to #OscarsSoWhite.

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When the voting members of the film academy’s actors branch failed, for the second straight year, to nominate any people of color for the 20 slots in the lead and supporting acting categories, the disapproval was swift and powerful. Many academy members immediately went on the defensive, waiving away charges of racism, saying that they can only vote for what they’re given and, this year, Hollywood didn’t provide an array of choices.

OSCARS 2016: Show highlightsBackstage | Winners room

The homogeneity of the acting nominations — and academy members’ antagonistic response to any suggestions of change — threatens to make the Oscars irrelevant.

But for all the ugliness and ignorance, not to mention the self-important nature of the whole awards season, the Oscars do retain a power to make a difference in the world.

Two examples: A Vatican commission on clerical sex abuse watched best picture winner “Spotlight” in a private screening shortly after it was nominated for best picture. The issue — and the Catholic Church’s failure to swiftly act on it — has been long building. Many credit “Spotlight” for helping to maintain the momentum. On Sunday, a few hours before the Oscars, high-ranking Vatican official Cardinal George Pell, testified via satellite from Rome before an Australian panel about charges of clerical sex abuse in Melbourne and Ballarat.

Meanwhile, the Oscar-winning documentary short “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” which focuses on the practice of honor killings, prompted a special government screening in Pakistan and a promise from that country’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to close the legal loophole that allows men to get away with murdering women in their families on the grounds that they brought shame to their families.

“There’s often cynicism about awards and what awards can do,” says “Girl in the River” director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. “But if this law passes, it could really save lives. And it wouldn’t have happened without the Oscar nomination. When you get that nomination, the world is watching. It’s like a flash flood of focused attention.”

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At a gathering following the Santa Barbara Film Festival event, “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy marveled how he still receives emails every day from victims of clerical abuse. As he was sharing some of the stories, Durling approached him, relating how a young man at the reception had just thanked him for sharing his story because he too had been molested by a priest.

“The movie gives people the power to come forward,” McCarthy says.

There’s some hope that this year’s #OscarsSoWhite outcry will prompt studios and financiers to make more movies that tell stories about people and subjects that we hear too little about. There’s some hope too that the controversy will prod film academy members into broadening their willingness to explore, watch and nominate stories that fall outside their own experiences and perspectives.

“It’s our responsibility to pursue a wide range of stories and not have an ideological rigidity about what is going to work and what is not going to work,” says producer Jeremy Kleiner, co-president of Plan B Entertainment, the production company behind “12 Years a Slave” and “The Big Short.” Kleiner says Plan B, which also produced “Selma,” has a number of movies in development that he believes will “widen the types of stories that are going to be told.”

“The controversy about the Oscars this year has been a good thing,” Kleiner adds. “The academy remains the standard for the industry. I know a lot of people doing some serious soul-searching because of what happened this year.”

That self-examination will be the legacy of the 2016 Academy Awards.

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