The producers of this year’s Oscar show, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, deserve credit for attempting to overcome the challenges of putting on a show that has to appeal to multiple generations, even if the results were decidedly mixed. By choosing Seth MacFarlane to host the show, the Academy took some risk that his type of snarky humor wouldn’t offend viewers from older generations too much. In the end, MacFarlane managed to skewer every politically correct Boomer shibboleth, potentially costing the Oscars viewers next year should he return. But, in exchange, his reputation and the presence of major millennial stars brought the production major gains among viewers in the key 18-49 year old demographic.
Seth MacFarlane’s sense of humor is grounded in his Generation X sensibilities. Left to fend for themselves while growing up in a time of failing institutions and economic stagnation, X’ers pride themselves on their ability to poke fun at the establishment’s pretenses in order to shock it into paying some attention to their own generation, the most criticized of all of America’s current generations. Whether it was singing about the women in the audience who have exposed their breasts in movies; or having his creation, Ted, insist that Jews control Hollywood; or ending the show with a tribute to Boomer’s worst nightmare, losers; MacFarlane showed off the wit that has made him rich and the attitude that ensures none of his own movies are likely to win an Oscar.
The Academy also had an opportunity to celebrate millennial stars Sunday night, from the precocious Quvenzhané Wallis, born at the end of the generational cohort in 2003, to Anne Hathaway, born at the beginning of the Millennial generation in 1983. The rising star in the millennial firmament today is Jennifer Lawrence who earned her Best Actress Oscar for her leading role in Silver Linings Playbook, a quintessential millennial movie about overcoming family and personal dysfunction with a (spoiler alert) happy ending for doing just OK in a dance contest. Lawrence’s now infamous face plant on the steps up to the stage to accept her award also captured the “not yet ready for full adulthood” nature of her generation. Dressed in a very grownup gown that even attracted the hands of a grandfatherly Dustin Hoffman on the red carpet to properly “flounce” its train, Lawrence couldn’t quite pull off the “look at me, I’m all grown up” act in her moment of triumph. But her unpretentious and self-effacing come back line upon reaching the podium spoke volumes about the refreshingly different attitudes and behavior this generation brings to the Oscar party.
If the Academy embraces millennials’ optimistic, team-oriented spirit, it may find a way to satisfy all the generations in its audience without offending anyone. The Oscars should be a celebration of the movie industry’s ability to entertain America in a way no other medium can. With more films like this year’s crop and a hip host, the Academy might rescue its reputation for unrelenting hostility to the future and win over the hearts and minds of the key demographic it yearns to attract.
Two Oscar favorites this year focus on the role of strong, young Millennial Generation daughters trying to heal the wounds of their Boomer parents’ marriages in two widely separated, very different cultures. Both films use the relationship of father and daughter — not mother and daughter — to bring a contemporary sensibility to the challenges of marriage.
A Separation shows the difficulties of family life in urban Iran, while the other, The Descendants, takes place in the idyllic setting of suburban Hawaii. Despite these differences in settings, by resting their dramatic tension on this often unexplored family relationship, both movies signal the coming of age of the Millennial Generation and the increasing centrality of its attitudes and beliefs in American life.
Boomers (born 1946-1964) brought the nation’s divorce rate to a historic high of one out of every two marriages. Most of their children have grown up living in single-parent home or at least are friends with someone who has. As a result, 50% of Millennials (born 1982-2003) say that “being a good parent” is their single highest priority in life. Couple that attitude with the relative dominance of females within the generation and you have the perfect recipe for the plot of The Descendants.
In the film, one of George Clooney’s two daughters, is played by Shailene Woodley, the star of ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” a program whose popularity among Millennials has resulted in an unprecedented five-year run on the channel. The Descendants begins in earnest when Woodley informs Clooney of his wife’s — her mother’s — infidelity, and then, using all of her generation’s philosophy on “how to handle stuff,” helps guide her father’s ultimate reconciliation with his life’s decisions and with those of the people around him.
While generational birth years and characteristics don’t readily translate across the boundaries of culture and religion, the importance of children in Iran, a country in which 70% of the population is under 30, comes across very clearly in A Separation, the odds-on favorite for best foreign film at this year’s Academy Awards. Eleven-year-old Termeh is the one thing that is holding her parent’s dysfunctional family together. Both of Termeh’s parents demonstrate the personal stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise that Americans recognize in our own Boomer Generation’s behavior and attitudes. Even when her parents give up all hope of saving their marriage, they still leave it up to Termeh, the only person in the film with any wisdom, to determine her own custodial rights.
Two other Oscar contenders, Martin Scorcese’s masterpiece, Hugo and Incredibly Close and Extremely Loud, featuring Tom Hanks, also have strong performances by Millennial-aged actors. But the very similar plot lines of these two movies do not have a Millennial Generation point of view about families and the role of women. Even though Hugo is set in a Depression-era Paris train station, andIncredibly Close in post 9/11 New York, in each film a son tries to figure out a mystery his dead father has left behind.
A son attempting to understand his father and live up to his father’s expectations, however, is a time-worn plot, more typical of an earlier era. Despite the technical brilliance of Hugo, neither film is expected to garner top honors from the Academy. Instead, just as “Modern Family” and its diverse ensemble cast has recently dominated the Emmys for TV sitcoms, the Oscars are much more likely to look with favor on this year’s two films that have Millennial daughters and Boomer dads at the core of their story lines and casts.
In so doing, Hollywood will take a major step toward recognizing an emerging generation whose size and unity of belief is likely to dominate American society and culture for decades to come. By 2020, more than one of three American adults will be a Millennial, a cohort in which two-thirds agree on the answers to almost every question in most surveys. Now if the industry could only figure out a way of attracting Millennials to movie theaters as well as including them in its scripts, Hollywood would have an even brighter story to tell about its own future.