Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Blackfish — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. Before the ceremony, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.
The film: Ira Sachs’s Love Is Strange tells the story of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), a couple who finally get married after being together for years—only to see themselves forced to live apart. Because of his marriage, George loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school. Without George’s job, the two are put in dire financial straits—Ben is an artist—and they have to sell their apartment. As they hunt for an new place to live, George goes to Brooklyn to live with his nephew’s family, while Ben goes to live at a younger neighbor’s apartment. Drama ensues.
Why it wasn’t nominated: Though Love Is Strange received rave reviews when it screened at Sundance, Tribeca, and other film festivals, it simply wasn’t a movie that received that much attention when it was in theaters. At its widest release, it played in only 138 theaters. While Sony Pictures Classics engaged in successful awards pushes for movies like Foxcatcher, Still Alice, and Whiplash, Love Is Strange didn’t really enter the conversation—even as it ended up on best movies of the year lists at places like Vanity Fair and the New York Times.
Perhaps Love is Strange was overlooked in part because of how it handles its subject matter. While Love Is Strange certainly deals with a capital-I Important topic—gay marriage—it’s only about that subject in the way that, say, Obvious Child is about abortion. There’d be no movie without the topic of gay marriage, but the movie isn’t focused on fighting for gay rights or against discrimination. Instead, it’s about the challenges of living in New York, what people are like when they live together, and, yes, love—and how love can sustain us, even in extenuating circumstances. Love Is Strange may make you weep, but its emotion and its story are unostentatious. In other words, it’s the type of movie that doesn’t typically strike a chord with the Academy. While Ben and George’s story has elements of tragedy, that tragedy is of a more quotidian sort than what you’ll usually see taking home Oscars.
Why history will remember it better than the Academy: It will be easy to look back at Love Is Strange as a portrait of a specific place at a specific time. Going forward, there will likely be fewer couples exactly like Ben and George—couples who waited a long time before they were granted the right to marry, and still faced discrimination after they did so. Yet Ben and George exemplify a love that’s incredibly moving, even if it’s far from flawless. (Toward the end of the movie, they discuss Ben’s infidelity in a way that’s understanding rather than accusatory.) In one scene, George shows up to see Ben in the rain. The two chat, separated by the bunkbeds of Ben’s grand-nephew, when Ben encourages George to come down and sleep beside him. “All I know is that after 39 years it’s hard to fall asleep without you,” Ben says, as the two grasp each other. “This situation we’ve got ourselves in is really fucking with my sleeping patterns.”
That scene is a gorgeous display of how Ben and George are essential to one another. Much of the movie, though, finds Ben and George isolated and, in turn, lost. The bedroom scene is followed by another beautiful sequence that shows how George struggles on his own. As a student getting a private lesson plays Chopin, we see his eyes well up. His mind goes elsewhere, and we see images of the school where George used to work. We also hear a letter he composed for its parents, in which George describes what he hopes they say to their children after he leaves his post: “The last thing I want them to take from this is that they should hide who they are or what they think if they believe it will get them into trouble.”
Lithgow and Molina don’t give flashy performances—but they give incredibly honest ones, each tinged with a relatable despondency. They’re matched in their excellence by Marisa Tomei, who captures the particular annoyance of someone whose guest overstays his or her welcome. Tomei plays Ben’s nephew’s wife, Kate, who loves Ben even as she grows increasingly frustrated with his presence in her home.
Performances aside, though, this is one of the sweetest love stories, between people of any age, I’ve ever encountered. If nothing else, Love Is Strange will be remembered for that reason.