Every year, between five and 10 movies compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy. It’s the most prestigious award that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gives out every year, announced right at the end of the ceremony. And there aren’t any set rules about what constitutes a “best” picture. It’s the movie — for better or worse, depending on the year — that Hollywood designates as its standard bearer for the current moment.
And so, the film that wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its accomplishments in the present and its aspirations for the future.
Each year’s nominee slate roughly approximates the movies the industry thinks showcase its greatest achievements from the past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the nine Best Picture nominees from 2019 is that, in tone and theme, they’re all over the place.
The most-nominated film overall is also one of the year’s most successful commercially, and one of its most controversial. A beloved social thriller from Korea has reached the milestone of becoming that country’s first Best Picture and Best International Feature nominee. There are three historical dramas: one set during World War I, one that centers on a 1966 car race, and one that co-stars an imaginary Hitler. There’s a quietly funny drama about love and divorce and a revisionist history of Hollywood in the summer of 1969. The world’s arguably most influential living auteur made a gangster epic with eternity on its mind. And a critically acclaimed adaptation of a celebrated novel rounds out the group.
In the run-up to the Oscars on February 9, the Vox staff is looking at each of the nine Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?
Below, Vox associate culture editor Allegra Frank, culture reporter Constance Grady, and film critic Alissa Wilkinson talk about Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s tale of marriage, divorce, and the ties that bind us to one another.
Alissa: I knew about three seconds into Marriage Story that it would be one of my favorite films of the year, if not the favorite. (It wound up tying with Parasite, which is very good company.) I love a writerly film that rewards a rewatch, letting you see new layers and experience the story slightly differently.
Which is exactly what this movie did for me. The first time I saw it, I felt it was slightly more sympathetic to Charlie, played by Adam Driver, which struck me as expected — a film always has a point of view, and this one was unavoidably somewhat autobiographical, given its parallels to Baumbach’s own experience with divorce (from Jennifer Jason Leigh).
But then I saw it again, and saw what I’d missed: that Charlie’s selfishness and narcissism is all there, but he rationalizes it away, and the movie invites us to experience just a little of his own realization by giving Nicole, played by Scarlett Johansson, a full range of emotion as a woman who is finally just trying to find her own way in the world.
Plus, it’s a very, very funny movie.
What did you think?
Constance: Full disclosure: I have only seen Marriage Story once, and I have very little desire to see it a second time, mostly because it’s the kind of movie that I can admire but can’t necessarily love.
I have seen and read so many stories about sad self-loathing men getting divorced that at this point, I approach them all with skepticism. I need to be convinced that it’s worth my time to immerse myself inside this sad self-loathing man’s headspace for the length of a divorce, that I will get something interesting and new and artistically compelling out of it that I haven’t already gotten from the five thousand other divorce stories I’ve already consumed, and Marriage Story never entirely convinced me.
In part, I think that’s because we spend so little time allowing Nicole to be a subject in the same way that Charlie is, and we don’t see her woundedness in real time the same way we see his: Nicole was wounded during the course of the marriage, which we learn about only in retrospect, but Charlie is wounded over the course of the divorce, which we see onscreen in exquisite detail.
That has the result of making Nicole’s pain feel less immediate and less meaningful than Charlie’s, even after her monologue about feeling trapped. So at the end of the movie, I had this overwhelming sense that it wanted me to feel that Nicole was clearly correct, but that I should care more about Charlie’s pain — and I am just so, so, so profoundly uninterested in Charlie’s pain. I ended up resenting Marriage Story for wanting me to live in his head.
I don’t want to seem like I’m slinging around “Marriage Story is bad, actually” hot takes! It’s obviously a well-crafted movie, and the performances are gorgeous: I could watch Laura Dern doff her blazer with a skeptical raised eyebrow on a loop for days. But it is the kind of movie that it is not made for me, which probably says more about my limitations as a viewer than anything else.
Allegra: That pains me to hear, Constance, because Marriage Story was also my favorite movie of last year. But I find your read fascinating, in that I didn’t find the movie to be a mostly one-sided story from the point of view of a sad self-loathing divorcé. Instead, I saw in this film much of what Alissa describes from her second viewing. Charlie is wildly selfish, occasionally unlikeably so. And Nicole’s pain is at times compartmentalized for the sake of the many burdens she is forced to bear in this divorce, but still strikingly there when she made it available to us. I saw in this film the unraveling of two people who don’t quite know where their fraying threads are.
So much of the humor in Marriage Story — which I find to be hugely important to preventing it from becoming an endlessly saccharine family drama — comes from Charlie’s storyline. I’ve talked to a lot of parents, especially divorced ones, about the movie, and the majority of them have been #TeamCharlie. Adam Driver plays Charlie as a father who’s both endearingly hapless and earnestly determined to do right by his son. And I think that balance is a big part of why these viewers I’ve spoken to, including my own parents, have come away finding him more sympathetic.
There’s levity granted to Charlie that we don’t get as much from Nicole’s side, even as he is also clearly a fuck-up in his own ways. And Nicole’s lawyer Nora, played by Laura Dern, is so magnetic and all-consuming a presence that it was literally hard for Nicole to get much of a word in edgewise during the heated courtroom scenes. But Nicole is not without her own funny moments, like when she moves back home and reverts into surly teen mode with her mom. She’s just often performing steely level-headedness in ways that Charlie does not, as he’s the at-times caustic director to her lead actress.
What did you think of the humor in particular, Alissa? Since you found the film very funny, how did that influence your perspective on Charlie and Nicole?
Alissa: Honestly, the fact that Charlie is played by Adam Driver has a lot to do with the way people feel about Charlie, as you say, Allegra. I mean, this is the guy who made Adam on Girls — for at least a couple of seasons, an objectively bad person — seem sympathetic and even sort of lovable, maybe. He can do a lot with the material, and because he worked with Baumbach on developing the story and has worked with him in the past, he definitely brought everything to the role I could possibly have hoped for.
And yes, he gets the best jokes. The scene with the knife? I start laughing every time I think about it.
But also, Charlie is the kind of guy who gets away with a lot because he is charming and funny, which is why I think Driver is perfectly cast. We, the audience, fall for his charm the way Nicole’s mother has, and then hopefully start to see how that’s played into his and Nicole’s relationship. Nicole seems like she’s likely been forced into being the “serious” parent, which is another frustrating thing for her, and something she and Charlie will have to navigate in their post-divorce lives.
That also makes me want to talk about the secondary characters — Laura Dern, of course, as well as Ray Liotta and Alan Alda, all of whom play divorce lawyers. How do their performances shape your perception of what the divorce-industrial complex (so to speak) is, for this film?
Constance: Oh man, there’s a lot there. One of the most complex and interesting ideas within this movie is how much it shows us capitalism weaponizing empathy and then overcoming empathy within this weird, parasitic divorce industry.
Both Charlie and Nicole start off saying they want to keep things friendly, which is why they’re working with a mediator — but because they’re still locked into the emotional dynamics of their marriage, the way things play out is that Charlie treats his own plans for the future as what will obviously happen, until Nicole feels so stonewalled and ignored that she stops engaging entirely.
And then Nicole brings in Laura Dern’s Nora, the first person in the world of the movie who actually listens to Nicole’s side of the story with compassion and empathy, and Nora takes all the rage and betrayal that Nicole’s been trying to suppress and just blasts it out at Charlie in this unstoppably glamorous barrage.
What’s so striking is that by giving Nora permission to handle her rage, Nicole frees herself up to be a lot nicer to Charlie than she was at the beginning of the movie. Now that no one’s forcing her to write lists of all the reasons she loves him, now that someone is holding him accountable for all the promises he broke and the ways he took her for granted, she is able to find space to be cordial to him in the way they originally planned to be.
But Charlie is caught totally off-guard by this displaced outpouring of rage, and he doesn’t know how to handle it. He tries to preserve his idea of himself as a nice guy by hiring Alan Alda’s sweet, non-confrontational Bert, but he can’t commit to it: He ends up firing Bert and bringing in Ray Liotta’s Jay Marotta (lol), at an absurdly high cost, because “I needed my own asshole.”
And then the precursor to the big vicious climactic fight between Charlie and Nicole (you know, the one from the meme) becomes this proxy fight, with Nora and Jay sitting in a courtroom, cordially saying out loud all of the worst things that Charlie and Nicole ever thought about each other, while reminding everyone involved that this is absolutely nothing personal. And the whole time, everyone involved is constantly quantifying their involvement in literal dollars.
Allegra, what did you think about the way Marriage Story thinks about the sheer financial cost of the divorce? What about the pointed way those legal fees eat up Charlie’s MacArthur genius grant?
Allegra: The focus on the financial impacts of divorce was a fascinating angle to me, one that played a huge role in the more emotional aspects of the story too. Because divorce costs a buttload of money, it would feel wrongheaded to me to ignore how much of a toll those expenses can take on the people involved. But it’s one thing to consider the dollar amounts of the legal fees and, in Charlie’s case, the travel required of him; it’s another thing to consider how the bitterness of a custody battle can put a price on parenting, and that’s what I most affecting about Marriage Story.
Charlie needs his “own asshole” because he wants to keep his son in his life; he will pay top dollar for that, even if it means playing dirty. The same is true for Nicole, who sprang for a top-notch lawyer who wanted to hear her instead of project onto her, but also who will give her the best chance of winning custody of Henry. When there’s child involved in a divorce situation, maintaining a relationship with them is, for most parents, much more important than the dent that fighting for custody could make to their finances.
Both Charlie and Nicole put their art above almost all else; Nicole moves to LA in part to pursue a career in TV and movies, which she finds major success in. Which, conversely, makes Charlie’s sacrifice of much of his MacArthur money seem like a blow or setback. But this is a selfish New Yorker we’re talking about here: He spent his genius grant money in pursuit of being the father he never had in his own life. A father who is around for his son, even if he’s way too tired to do trick-or-treating twice in one night, with a son who’d rather be out with his mom and his cousins.
The plays Charlie could have staged and funded with that money! Would they matter at all if he didn’t have his child in his life anymore? It’s especially wrenching to see Charlie forced to choose so pointedly between his professional and personal lives as Nicole’s star is on the rise, and we watch her own means grow quickly throughout their divorce journey. Yet I don’t think the contrast is meant to nudge us toward aligning ourselves with Charlie instead of Nicole: Both are making choices that are right for their son, whether it’s pursuing creative projects that are financially but not professionally fulfilling or giving up on the New York life to stay close to him.
I think all of this points to what I loved the most about Marriage Story, which is that it is very much about the depths of the love that parents hold for their children. What did you think of the role that Henry played into the story of the end of their marriage?
Alissa: One quick point I want to make is that, for personal reasons, I get extremely mad about the way the funeral industry sucks families dry of their resources right when they’re at their lowest point, and I kept thinking about the divorce industry during Marriage Story. It’s a thing you sometimes have to do, and you’re railroaded into things you don’t particularly want to do — like when Nicole wins 51 percent custody near the end — because it benefits someone else. I just get so steamed about it.
But what you’ve observed very much shows the flip side of all those financial costs, Allegra: Marriage Story is a movie about two parents who love their son very much and want to learn to love one another differently, but still love one another, for his sake. And maybe for their own too. I think what I might love best about their situation is that Henry is not some kind of sprite or wise angel. He’s kind of a brat.
He’s an 8-year-old kid, and 8-year-old kids can be like that even without divorce in the picture. Plus, his life is getting turned upside-down! So his demeanor felt both deserved and real — while stripping out some of the possible twee-ness of this family figuring out their new dynamic. There’s no point at which Henry suddenly becomes the angelic voice of reason, or wisdom, or something equally eye-rollingly improbable. Kids are hard! But once you’ve got them, they’re as much a part of your marriage as you are.
What did you think, Constance?
Constance: Okay real talk: Henry the son extremely bothered me, for the very specific reason that even though he is supposed to be 8 years old, he is still riding in a child car seat, and in fact his car seat becomes a plot point. That’s absurd, right? I even did research and looked up California state laws to confirm that as long as the kid is tall enough, 8-year-olds do not have to use car seats. They don’t even need to be in the backseat. And yet there he is, confined to a car seat! Car seats getting discussed in courtrooms during the custody battle! Car seats all over the place!
I know the car seat thing seems nitpicky, but it’s actually symptomatic of a part of the movie that really bugged me: Marriage Story is consistently slippery about Henry’s age, treating him at times like a glorified toddler and at times like a preteen, depending on what’s most convenient to the plot.
It’s also, I would argue, pretty slippery about who Henry is as a person: The only thing it’s consistent on is that he has trouble reading and he’s kind of whiny (which I agree makes sense in context). Other than that, I never got a sense of Henry as a real character, and in fact — sorry, Alissa — I mostly found him pretty twee. To me, he reads as a device that motivates Charlie and Nicole to ever-more desperate acts. And as a result, he seems to be whatever age and take on whatever personality the movie requires to make him appear more vulnerable and more in need of parental protection at any given moment.
Allegra: In fairness … kids can really suck. I don’t have kids myself (and have no plans to any time soon, at all), but I have to imagine that parents’ love for them is sometimes derived from “I created you so you’re my responsibility and maybe my fault depending on how things shake out, so I need to make sure you don’t die.” Because otherwise, like, why are you buying them presents for pooping?
But even if I have no patience for kids — and I really don’t! Sorry, fam — I love parents. I love stories about loving parents. I had something of an overprotective mother growing up and it’s only now that I can see her overprotectiveness as a one very anxious manifestation of her love, and that makes me love her. Love is irrational in ways good and bad, expected and unexpected, forever and for a little while. I love to see it. And I thought Marriage Story really conveyed it well.
Constance: See, for me, it’s not that Henry has no personality. That would be fine, because as you astutely point out, kids are very boring. It’s that he has a variable personality/age that changes from scene to scene. To me, that’s sloppy.
Alissa: One of the biggest things that drives this movie (heh) is its stars, who both earned Best Lead Actor/Actress Oscar nominations for their roles. (And it’s ScarJo’s second Oscar nomination this year! She’s also up for Best Supporting Actress, for her role in another Best Picture nominee, Jojo Rabbit.) Interestingly, the two of them have both been at the center of serious debates about their career choices and public personas.
In Johansson’s case, that debate has a lot to do with her propensity for taking roles she’s not really suitable for and then famously saying she will play any race, gender, or “tree” she wants. She’s also recently defended Woody Allen, which is not the best move from a publicity standpoint. Similarly, Adam Driver has been the subject of both praise and criticism, as people have argued endlessly about a range of topics pertaining to him, like whether or not he is hot (a thing the internet seems intent on deciding) or whether he was justified in certain headline-grabbing behavior, like walking out of an interview with Terry Gross.
I think it’s a testament to the strength of their performances that I thought of them as Charlie and Nicole throughout, rather than Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, famous movie stars — especially when a lot of A-listers become A-listers for seeming to play to the same strengths over and over again.
How did their celebrity — especially in a movie about an actress and a theater director who have mutually benefited from one another’s fame — affect Marriage Story for you? Did it add or take anything away from the story?
Allegra: Despite ScarJo and Adam Driver being everywhere in 2019 — everywhere! — I agree that I never found their ScarJo and Adam Driver-ness distracting. It helps that both actors have played completely different roles in each of their many, many movies over the last 12 months; Nicole is no Black Widow. Kylo Ren and Charlie don’t even exist in the same galaxy.
But Marriage Story also feels so lived-in right from the beginning, when Nicole and Charlie describe each other. They point out details that only people who are intimately familiar with each other can name and recognize and confidently know about another person. Nicole will always ditch her shoes wherever when she comes home. Charlie will always move them. Nicole loves when Henry comes to sleep in their bed, but Charlie would rather sleep on the floor next to Henry’s bed if Henry had a nightmare.
Noah Baumbach is one of my favorite screenwriters, so I attribute that deeply considered characterization to him. But ScarJo and Adam D. sink so believably into these roles even without the guidance of Baumbach’s lovely script. Just like Nicole and Charlie know each other, Scarlett and Adam know their characters.
Constance: General question for the room: Can you say more about what you like about Scarlett Johansson’s performance? Because I don’t think she’s very good in this. I generally like her as an actress, but her strength for me has always been in the steeliness of her charisma, and I don’t think the vulnerability this role requires was a good match for her. I never believed what she was telling me. Obviously, the Academy and many other people disagree! So what am I missing?
(I also think that Marriage Story’s opening sequence is generic and rom-com-y in a way that jars with the presentation, which seems to be asking me to take it as specific, character-driven, and subversive. This movie is not for me, and that’s okay.)
Alissa: I’ve never found Scarlett Johansson all that compelling as an actress, even in Lost in Translation, which I know is kind of her flagship role. And I have a hard time articulating what “works” about a performance.
But I think here it’s all in two places. One is the long monologue in Nora’s office. Yes, monologues are kind of Oscar-grabbing stunts for some actors — but this one is a journey, one that seems to sneak up on Nicole. And it snuck up on me, too. That feeling of protesting that you’re fine, everything’s fine, and then having the true roots of the problem and the emotions it’s provoking just sort of creep up and pounce on you — I rarely see that depicted on screen as vibrantly as in this film.
The other is maybe a little more silly; I just really liked how slightly pissed she was with Nora after Nora got her that 51 percent custody, and then decided to just sigh and move on.
Mostly, though, I think this performance (with its many close shots) helped me see Johansson as a performer who can embody emotion without telegraphing it, the way the Marvel films seem to often ask her to do. It was a welcome relief.
Allegra: I am completely with you Alissa, in that I have never been a huge Scarlett fan (I vote for Ghost World as her best role, purely out of personal bias toward Ghost World), but I do think that she really captures the woman forced to put on a brave face while her man-child partner is exasperated and emotional all over the place. Her twinges of pain always felt just the right amount of earnest but restrained to me.
Consider, for instance, my favorite sequence of the film, which I’d love to just gush over real quick: When Nicole, her sister, and her mother sing a cheery song from Company, immediately followed by Charlie belting the musical’s big heartbreaker, “Being Alive.” These songs say so much about where the characters have landed by the film’s ending, a brilliant and implicit way to communicate the vulnerability and emotion that neither adult has the best vocabulary for.
Were you guys also won over by this moment?
Constance: I was not at all, no. I love Company and I have a lot of opinions about “Being Alive,” and I don’t think Marriage Story particularly earned its use of the song — it felt like the movie was drafting off someone else’s work to create a character epiphany it hadn’t justified on its own. It also bothers me that Charlie’s musical number is interior and exploratory, while Nicole’s is a silly character riff: It seems to double down on the movie’s interest in Charlie’s pain at the expense of exploring Nicole’s. Plus I spent the entire number thinking about how awkward it would be to watch.
Alissa: Personally, I chortled when both Company songs popped up — it was part of what felt like the Year of Sondheim (with other movies, including Joker, using Sondheim songs to better or worse effect, and the fabulous “Co-op” episode of Documentary Now!). I am not complaining, believe you me.
One notable thing about Marriage Story is that it’s a mid-budget movie, the kind that tends to get squeezed out these days by spectacles (whether they’re Marvel films or the zillion-dollar The Irishman). Given that Netflix seems to be into experimenting, and that it’s done some movies of this mid-budget size in the past (notably Nicole Holofcener’s truly wonderful Private Life in 2018), are there other directors or filmmakers you’d like to see be given this kind of chance? Especially, cough, women directors or filmmakers? My pick would be Marielle Heller, who made the weird and wonderful A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. How about you?
Constance: I loved the smart, glitzy spectacle Lorene Scafaria created with Hustlers — which, it’s worth noting, was an uncontested box office success, even if it got locked out from most awards consideration. I’m excited for what she does next wherever she goes, and I certainly wouldn’t be averse to seeing her go to Netflix.
Read the Vox staff’s thoughts on all nine of the 2020 Best Picture nominees: