You can spend a lifetime trying to anticipate the whims of awards voters. Some people make a career out of it. But while Oscars prognostication is undoubtedly more art than science, certain themes do seem to resonate with the AMPAS voting body. In what can be interpreted as a straight-faced validation of another stereotype—namely, the shameless narcissism of what was once referred to as the “film colony”—one of these old reliables is this: Hollywood loves awarding movies about Hollywood.
This season, we’ve got David Fincher’s Mank, a portrait of Old Hollywood whose armfuls of nominations from the Golden Globes (alongside recognition from the Critics’ Choice Awards, AFI, and various critics’ bodies) would seem to reinforce that old saw. And the past decade has seen a surge in Best Picture nominees with a nostalgic view of the movie life. From Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood in 2019, to La La Land three years earlier, to The Artist five years before that, the films about filmmaking that AMPAS has chosen as Best Picture contenders in the 2010s have come with a certain glow. But what about a film about the dark side of the industry?
These, too, have historically appeared on the Oscars stage: Back in 1951, Sunset Boulevard lost the Best Picture award to All About Eve—coincidentally enough, a film about Broadway. But there are fewer of them than you might think. Now, three years and change after The New York Times and The New Yorker ran in quick succession their respective exposés of Harvey Weinstein, the Academy has an opportunity not only to take off its rose-colored glasses but to decisively break away from its onetime king. Weinstein was expelled from the Academy in 2017, but his legacy—341 nominations for Weinstein films and 81 wins, including one for him personally as a producer of Shakespeare In Love—still stains the awards body. With this in mind, nominating The Assistant for Best Picture would be the next best thing to saging the Oscars stage.
Best Picture is, in many ways, a producing award. And the mere fact that The Assistant got made is a heroic achievement in this regard, for a number of reasons. First, director Kitty Green is primarily known as a documentarian: Her previous film, 2017’s Casting JonBenet, is an unconventional look at the death of 6-year-old child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, in which Green held auditions in Ramsey’s hometown of Boulder, Colorado, under the pretense of casting actors in re-enactments of Ramsey’s murder. Instead, those auditions form the bulk of the documentary, a controversial technique that prompted charges of exploitation—never mind that Green’s meta take on the case and the narrative surrounding it was more thoughtful and respectful than the cheap TV documentaries it was aping.
Second, the film adopts an unconventional day-in-the-life structure that’s more Jeanne Dielman than Hail, Caesar! The Assistant weaponizes the monotony of photocopying and HR platitudes to show how a person like Jane (Julia Garner), the downtrodden assistant to an unnamed, highly toxic film executive in New York City, might find herself buried in an avalanche of abusive workplace dynamics: in short, snowflake by snowflake. As Green put it in an interview with /Film last year, “The photocopying scenes had as much weight and were as long as when she’s doing something that might be seen as a little more sensationalist or lurid.” And lurid, as any producer will tell you, never hurts when you’re trying to sell a film.
Most importantly, The Assistant also refuses to name or show the abusive boss, whose voice is only heard over the phone. By removing the predator from the film almost entirely, Green refutes the “one bad apple” narrative that suggests that getting rid of an obvious villain—be it Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, John Lasseter, or Donald Trump—will solve a systemic issue. Even vocal proponents of #MeToo have indulged in this fallacy—not because they’re bad people, but because it’s easier to blame one person than to dismantle an entire culture of silence and complicity. Old, young, male, female, powerful, insignificant—all have their role to play in upholding abuse under the guise of “genius,” or just plain power. And to create a film that’s critical of an entire industry within that same industry takes both confidence in the film’s message and, one assumes, no small amount of persuasion.
Last January, Green told Vox that she interviewed about a hundred people before making the film, starting with former Weinstein Co. and Miramax employees before moving on to the grunts at other Hollywood offices—“I can’t really name the other ones because their boss is still their boss,” she said—and, later, assistants in industries besides film. She adds that, since The Assistant’s initial debut at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival, many people who have worked jobs similar to Jane’s in the film have come up to her and told her their stories of showing up before dawn and staying past midnight, of fetching coffee and scrubbing stains out of couches, of crying in bathrooms after being dressed down by superiors, of co-workers forgetting their names. “Centering on the person with the least power in the narrative was really important—someone you almost ignored,” Green says in that same interview.
Assistants are not asked to join AMPAS. There are some former assistants voting in this year’s Oscars, to be sure, but by the time you’re invited to a prestigious awards body like this one, the days of being overworked and underpaid are long behind you. Over time, you forget how grueling those days really were, and begin to credit your own ability to survive them to an inner toughness that can curdle into pitilessness toward your own entry-level employees: “I put up with this, why shouldn’t you?” Watching The Assistant, an unglamorous film about the thankless, tedious work behind the razzle-dazzle that doesn’t even take place in Los Angeles, a voter’s mind may turn to the PAs they’ve yelled at or the women they’ve mistaken for assistants who were actually the writer and director of the film. But it’s exactly those assumptions and microaggressions that Green is asking viewers to examine, and to change.
Green has been adamant that The Assistant is not a movie about Harvey Weinstein or The Weinstein Co. specifically, but about the industry in general. “If the problem is Harvey Weinstein, it would have been fixed. The issue is much larger than Harvey Weinstein,” she told IndieWire at Sundance in 2020. That’s undoubtedly uncomfortable to hear for many AMPAS voters, many of whom know of, work for, or even are toxic bosses. But as Green said in an interview with Deadline last month, “I think a little discomfort moving forward is a great thing.”