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Oscar voters give their honest opinions about Joker

Joker is dividing the heck out of audiences far and wide, including one very significant crowd: Oscar voters.

The Hollywood Reporter recently spoke with a number of (anonymous) members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the folks who will determine the flick's fate at the 92nd Academy Awards in February 2020. Like critics and audiences, they were largely split on the film — with many hailing it as a masterpiece, many more calling it dangerous and irresponsible, and yet more falling down somewhere in between.

THR solicited the opinions of a wide cross-section of Academy members across all of its branches, of which there are thirteen: Designers, Directors, Documentary, Executives, Film Editors, Makeup Artists and Hairstylists, Music, Producers, Public Relations, Short Films and Feature Animation, Sound, Visual Effects, and Writers. (There's also an additional branch for "Members at Large" who don't fall into any of the above categories.) 

These are folks who make their living in the motion picture industry, and who — as Academy members — are regularly asked to assess the merits of a staggering variety of films from around the world. As such, it's a little startling just how varied their reactions were when it came to Joker, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as perhaps the most disturbed (and disturbing) version of the Clown Prince of Crime ever put to film.

Some Oscar voters loved Joker...

First, let's hear from the "masterpiece" crowd. One male member of the Members at Large Branch who took in the film at the official Academy screening noted that the flick was quite well-received by the 500 or so in attendance. "I think it's brilliant. Phoenix has never been better," he said. "The way he and the filmmakers handle the transformation from Arthur into Joker is nuanced and masterful… I thought that the [director of photography], production designer and others created the look and feel of the period really well, and the fact that it has very contemporary themes of economic/class inequities felt just right. Overall, a home run."

A female member of the same branch agreed, although she admitted that her "stomach was still churning" the day after viewing the film. "It made me uncomfortable from the very first frame to the last, but I thought the movie was extraordinary," she said. "It's the most outstanding performance I've seen in many years — the way he moved, everything, I mean, he's really a consummate actor, and there's not a frame he's not on camera, too… It's still early, but I can certainly see myself nominating it for best picture. And [Phoenix] has to get nominated, or the actors branch doesn't know what it's doing."

A male member of the writers' branch compared the film favorably to the last picture to score an Oscar win for an actor portraying the Joker. "I loved the movie. I thought the filmmaking was exceptional — certainly the most innovative superhero movie since The Dark Knight,he said. "It's gritty and real and beautiful, and I think an attempt to understand what's going on in our society right now. I haven't seen any of this season's 'Academy' movies yet, but, artistically, I think this film is stronger than many of last year's Oscar-nominated films. But forget the Academy — how many other movies in the last 10 years have successfully delivered that level of filmmaking to a mass audience?"

Then, there was one male member of the producers' branch boldly predicted that Joker will deliver come February. "I loved it and it will win Best Picture," he said. "I am really bored with all the superhero movies, but here I really liked it because it's a great movie before it's a genre movie."

While other absolutely hated it

To say that many of the Oscar voters who spoke with THR were not quite so impressed would be a massive understatement. Those who disliked the film disliked it intensely, and they didn't hold back when discussing what they perceived to be Joker's faults.

One female member of the executive branch, while praising Phoenix's work, simply couldn't puzzle out the point of the movie. "Whoaaa. Strange, depressing film," she said. "I was vaguely mesmerized, but… to what end? I found it severely lacking any specific thematic point. Great performance and impressive filmmaking, but a rather unpleasant experience overall."

One male member of the directors' branch called the flick a "cynical mess," one that was not so much influenced by the works of Martin Scorsese as it was derivative of said works. "I also found it to be more than a bit irresponsible, in terms of its depiction of both mental illness and violence," he said. "When violence is meant only to shock, I find it loathsome. It isn't grounded in any real characterization. It also seems the film was made only to provoke. But I find it isn't interesting enough to do that. Subtlety is not the director or lead actor's strong suit here… But in this town, the most acting equals the best acting, so I suspect I'm in the minority. Finally, I found the film to be a big disappointment… and one filled with self-importance."

A female member of the public relations/marketing branch found the flick to be so distasteful that an antidote was in order. "I saw it and I am not a fan," she said. "I found the character to be creepy and not in a 'oh, that's a great performance, it's so creepy' way… Just an unlikable character and 'world' to spend two hours in. I want to see Downton Abbey (with all its lightness and pretty people, scenery and themes) three times to get Joker out of my system."

A male member of the documentary branch opined that while the film was admittedly well-made, he found it to be downright irresponsible of the filmmakers to unleash it upon a world in which unhinged, male loners seemingly perpetrate violence every other day. "The nihilism of the plot, the intended intensifying of the specter of social upheaval in today's U.S., is dangerously subversive… Who knows what effect it will have on some deranged sociopath in today's climate of gun violence? Then again, like violent video games, there's a chance the possibly imagined dream-like unreality of the filmmaking might provide an outlet of fantasy fulfillment to lessen the dangerous impact. Hard to say. Bottom line: technically an interestingly experimental genre film that presents a socially dicey spectacle that I found personally repugnant."

Some Oscar voters didn't know how to feel about Joker

Although most Oscar voters' opinions came down firmly on one side of the fence or the other, there was a distinct minority that fell into the "undecided" camp.

One male member of the producers' branch was befuddled as to how he should vote, even though he personally loved the film. "It's a really impressive film across the board. Joaquin's performance is undeniably extraordinary," he said. "You can't deny how well made it is. That all being said, I don't see any reason why this movie should be out in the universe. There is nothing in it that starts a conversation — it just pours lighter fluid on a conversation that's staring us in the face every week. But I'm torn, as an Oscar voter, about what to do… It's too fresh to know yet what I'll do with it. I don't know if it should be banned or it should be given every award!"

Another male member of the same branch was blown away by the film's technical merits, but nevertheless found it to be literally too difficult to watch due to its subject matter. " I found the craft to be stunning on every level — beautiful photography, design, costumes," he said. "But I deeply despise the movie. It made me feel really uncomfortable… There was a nihilism and narcissism to this movie that left a bunch of us feeling really disturbed, and we had to drink away our discomfort. Warner Bros. has done an exceptional job of marketing the movie, and I respect that they took the Trojan Horse of a superhero movie to make this kind of movie within the studio system — but I don't know that there is substance at the core of what it is trying to say. It was the first movie in history that was too dark for me."

Finally, there were some who admitted that they hadn't seen the film yet — but that didn't stop some of them from forming opinions. Said a female member of the actors' branch, "I haven't seen Joker. I've had two opportunities and passed. I know that at some point I have to see Phoenix's performance, but what little I've read about the film makes me think this is a movie I'm not going to like — and I've seen a couple of reviews that said that people are focusing on the violence when in fact, the film is not that great. I'm going to wait for the DVD, as I feel the small screen will have less of an impact on me."

Will Joker win an Oscar?

Based on all of these comments, it seems like Joker has roughly a 50/50 chance of scoring an Oscar win, and its strongest chance seems to be in the Best Actor category. Virtually without exception, everyone who has seen Joker agrees that Phoenix's performance is nothing short of astonishing — even if they didn't particularly care for the film. Heck, even if they absolutely hated the film. 

With a good number of Oscar voters on its side, though, it's just possible that the flick could score nominations for its direction and cinematography, for which its has received pretty consistent praise. It could even buck the odds to score a Best Picture nomination, and if it does, it's not outside the realm of possibility that it could win; at the moment, one online odds maker has the flick dead even with Scorsese's The Irishman as the favorites to take home the big prize. (via Bleeding Cool)

Perhaps Joker really will get the last laugh at the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony, which takes place on February 9, 2020. Of course, we'll be here with a complete list of the nominees as soon as they're announced.