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Will ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Be the “Oscar Bait” that Hooks the Academy?

Currently sitting at No. 2 on Netflix’s “Top Ten in the U.S. Today,” the film “Hillbilly Elegy” has been a hot topic of discussion since its Netflix release on Nov. 24. Adapted from a memoir written by J.D. Vance, the film has since been dubbed controversial, paralleling the controversy that followed upon the book’s release. 

“Hillbilly Elegy” follows a Yale student by the name of J.D. Vance over the course of a day or so. In the midst of interviews for prospective law firms, he gets a call from his sister Lindsay, concerning  the hospitalization of his mother. Intercut with flashbacks from his adolescence, J.D. goes back to Ohio to help his mother — reflecting on his family, their past and his upbringing in the process. 

Vance released “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” in 2016, the beginning of the Trump era. The memoir quickly made its way onto The New York Times bestseller list, and four years later, coincidentally at the apparent end of said era, Netflix released its film adaptation directed by Ron Howard.  

The memoir was an instant bipartisan hit, becoming popular amongst conservative circles. However, the same cannot be said for the 2020 film version, which has continued to garner negative reviews all around.

The film notably tried to be apolitical when compared to its source material. Attempting to ditch its explicit socio-economic criticism of the predominantly white working class, it favors a more approachable, subtler version. Replacing the memoir’s aggressive critique is a “pulled up by the bootstraps” inspirational tale about the long-debated “American Dream,” removing blame and responsibility  from larger systematic issues and placing it onto the individual and their choices.

Stars of the film have recently come out with their responses to the criticism. Both Amy Adams, who plays Bev, and Glenn Close, who plays Mamaw, gave statements to NME

“I think the universality of the themes of the movie far transcend politics,” Adams said.

Close added that the film “wasn’t made with politics in mind.”

Despite this apparent lack of politics, however, the sentiment of the original text  remains. Even going so far as to manifest itself into the real-life character of J.D.

Played by Gabriel Basso (adult) and Owen Asztalos (young), J.D. is a difficult protagonist to sympathize with. His behavior as a teenager, attributed in the film to his unconventional upbringing, is often frustrating and inexcusable. Even as an adult, J.D. unconsciously uses his past to justify his cold and uncaring attitude towards his family; his superiority complex is almost palpable. Spending most of the movie being dismissive and lacking any empathy, J.D. and his “bootstraps” attitude make for an easily dislikable lead. 

The failed attempt to shift the focus from a politically driven piece to a digestible family and hard-work theme only feeds into the already prominent talk of this film as “Oscar bait.” 

The “Oscar bait” conversation is one especially worth mentioning when taking into account the history Adams and Close have with the Academy, or more accurately, the potential win that continues to elude them. With seven total nominations for best-supporting actress and best actress combined, Close currently holds the most nominations for an actress in these categories without a single win. Working in the film industry for almost four decades after launching her career in the ‘80s, many believe that her recognition from the Academy is well overdue. 

Adams follows close behind, being one of three actresses that includes  Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter, who holds six nominations in these categories but lacks the defining win in either. Getting her first Supporting Actress nomination in 2006 for “Junebug” and only spending about 20 years in film, Adams is undoubtedly one of her generation’s defining actresses. 

Coincidentally at the 91st Academy Awards in 2019, both actresses lost their respective nominations despite Close’s predicted win for Best Actress. 

As it tends to happen with actresses and actors who aren’t granted their due at the Academy, many suspect that their eventual wins will derive from a subpar film with a performance that, although noteworthy, is not their career best. “Hillbilly Elegy” appears to be that film. 

Both Adams and Close deliver fantastic performances, scraping up what little was given to their characters and bringing them to life. Especially seen in Close’s character, she breathes life into the crass, strong willed Mamaw without ever crossing the line into caricature. And despite the movie’s attempt to completely vilify Bev, Adams places that innate humanness in her that would be missing if not for her vivid acting skills.

With only one month of releases left in 2020, “Hillbilly Elegy” currently sits as one of the lowest rated of the year. On paper, this seems infeasible; with a steady director like Howard and the sheer star power and dependability of Adams and Close, a movie like this seemed to be set-up for greatness — or at least safe from scathing criticism.  However, with the uncertainty of this next year’s Academy Awards due to its expected unpredictability and the current pandemic, there is still time left to see if Oscar voters decide to employ “Hillbilly Elegy” as the undeserving vessel in which they finally grant Adams or Close the arbitrary recognition so many believe they deserve. 

Hilary Gil is an Entertainment Intern for the fall 2020 quarter. She can be reached at hsgil@uci.edu.