Oscar Season: Joan’s Picks

If Joan Harrison were alive today, which films would be her favorites to take home Oscar? Harrison was a voting member of the Academy, after making history in 1940 by walking away with not one but two screenwriting Oscar nominations: for Best Adapted script (Rebecca) and Best Original (Foreign Correspondent).

She was furthermore very active within the Academy, serving on the programming committee in the mid-1940s, working to facilitate screenings of all film forms (documentaries, global cinema) and not only studio fare.

So how would she vote in 2020?

From what I know of Joan, here are some thoughts:

Bombshell

Ambitious women standing up against a male-dominated media empire, backed by strong female performances. Harrison would have rooted for Bombshell to do well. Would she have voted for the film to win Best Picture? I think not. For Joan, character came first. She looked for depth in character and, in Bombshell, she would have been disappointed in the lack of moral complexity.

Judy

Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland. Harrison appreciated masterful work when she saw it. If not an Oscar win, Judy would garner at least a nomination nod from the producer. Harrison would have been naturally sympathetic to the character, given that she had personally like Garland. She shared later in life that she resented the way MGM producers put Judy through the ringer, which she saw firsthand.

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s screenplay reaches deep under the surface lives of its characters in a way that Harrison would have lauded. When it came to confronting the troubling institutional demands of marriage — and such realities as divorce, adultery, and failed romance — she was ahead of her time. She saw film as an optimal medium for exploring the complexity of family relationships. Given her finely-tuned casting radar, Harrison would have been an early advocate of Laura Dern, Adam Driver, and Scarlett Johansson in their roles. (Manny & Lo anyone?)

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

An Oscar choice from Joan Harrison, "Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)"

Though Harrison grew up in a sheltered environment and had a hard time shedding her Oxford-bred, Harrods-designed veneer, she absolutely would have appreciated this short documentary about young Afghan girls learning to read, write and, yes, skateboard. Backed by an all-female crew, producer Elena Andreicheva and director Carol Dysinger were determined to show that, without skating in their lives, these girls would still be confined to their homes, helping their mothers in the kitchen or taking care of their siblings.

Dysinger explains, “One of the things I put in the movie because I thought it was so wonderful, the teacher said, ‘I teach them if you only know a little bit of the answer, go ahead, raise your hand. You learn the rest at the board.’” Decades apart and worlds away, this is a motto that Joan would have appreciated. Put yourself into the mix and then “learn the rest at the board.”

Little Women

Harrison was not a big fan of supposed “women’s material,” such as melodrama or the female Bildungsroman. She may not have given her vote to this Little Women remake (or even gone to see it), but I have little doubt Joan would have put the full weight of her support behind Greta Gerwig as a writer-director. And had they been contemporaries, would they have partied together? Yes, ma’am.

Toy Story 4

A Disney movie in which Bo Peep kicks a**. I hear Harrison asking herself, ‘Now, why didn’t I think of that?’

Knives Out

A shrewd twist on the Agatha Christie murder mystery. A sly whodunnit with sparkling performances, including Janet Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis. (Yes, please!) Not first, but a close second for Best Picture on Joan’s ballot.

Parasite

I bet that Harrison would go all in for this upstairs-downstairs, sly shocker. Parasite is just the kind of narrative twister, genre-bending, richly layered character study that Harrison strove to make in her time. She would have saluted director Bong Joon-ho’s intelligence and audacity, as well as his trust in audiences’ openness to go along for the timely, rocky ride. Her pick of the year.