Two weeks ago, I watched the Oscars. And, while it was obviously not without any miscues, I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. I love movies generally, and the spread of movies this year was exceptional, varying from a reimagined tribute to Hollywood dreaming through “La La Land” to the daring direction and production of “Moonlight.” Many of the speeches were tear-jerking, and the emotion was palpable as individuals’ dreams came true upon receiving an Oscar from the Academy.
But the lead up to the event featured a common refrain. Broadcasters, critics and friends all remarked that none of the movies were happy or that the Academy only nominates cheerless movies. For instance, as the nomination for best supporting actress came and each actress was featured on screen, almost every scene featured was a sad or somber one.
To some degree, this critique is true. “La La Land” didn’t have the classic storybook ending, and “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” ended without finality. These movies, rather than ending with trumpets blazing, gently faded back to reality, easing us back to the real world as the credits rolled.
It does seem as if the formulaic happy ending is more and more getting stripped away, especially on TV. The honorable, dignified endings of “The West Wing” have bowed down to the Machiavellian instincts of “House of Cards,” and the happy endings of “Family Matters” have turned into the family drama of “Breaking Bad.” It seems far easier today to picture a dark, gritty series winning an Emmy than a stock sitcom where things turn out happily ever after.
However, while TV shows may have drifted away from these formulaic happy endings, I categorically disagree with the assumption that these movies lack hope or are excessively glum. Instead, these movies still have happy endings, albeit through a more realistic, human lens.
Movies like “La La Land,” “Hidden Figures,” “Lion” and even “Moonlight” aim to inspire. They embrace the long shot, overcoming all obstacles to achieve one’s goal. Although these movies may have stripped themselves of the stock happy ending, these films, particularly the blockbuster ones, still represent the American Dream, the idea that the underdog, the long shot can still win.
In an environment where Stanford economist Raj Chetty and sociologist David Grusky recently published a study showing the fading American Dream, where absolute economic mobility has fallen, inequality is increasing and times seem tougher for the median household, these movies are alluring and inspiring, yet at the same time, depressing. It is incredible and inspiring that the character played by Emma Stone in “La La Land” can make it and become an A-list actress, and that the women in “Hidden Figures” overcome all barriers of racial injustice to serve their countries. But the problem arises not in the possibility of these triumphs, but in the reality that so few can actually achieve this in our country.
Likewise, Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea,” manages to partially overcome his depression to eventually take care of his nephew. And some may disagree with me, but even Lee Chandler, who looks like he has hit rock bottom, doesn’t ever really, truly hit the bottom of the abyss. Instead, he is buoyed by his nephew and his deceased brother. And thus, even though Lee is a sad, troubled man, his very persistence to keep living is inspiring.
So, when I watch movies today, I come out of it more than ever with a feel-good sentiment, even if the ending was not obviously happy. Just like “Casablanca” of the 1940s, I look towards “Hidden Figures,” “La La Land,” “Moonlight,” “Lion” and “Manchester by the Sea” as inspiring guides towards living the good life, even if they do not depict the everyman. Ultimately, we are always looking for heroes. In these sad, yet inspiring dramas, Hollywood’s main characters offer an inspiration and the roadmap for living a good life and achieving a long shot amidst huge odds. The movies this year leave us wondering: Can we achieve these goals as well? Can we be these ordinary heroes?
Contact Kyle D’Souza at kvdsouza ‘at’ stanford.edu.