Nominated for Nothing: The Assistant is a wake-up call Hollywood needs, but not one it wants

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Tyler Aquilina
·5 min read
Nominated for Nothing: The Assistant is a wake-up call Hollywood needs, but not one it wants
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They're destined to score zero Academy Awards, but they won our attention throughout a year (and awards season) like no other. Ahead of the 93rd Oscars ceremony on April 25, EW is breaking down the year's best movies, performances, and directorial achievements that were nominated for nothing.

The film: The Assistant is a day in the life of Jane (Ozark's Julia Garner), who works for a demanding, high-profile film executive in New York City. She's in the office before sunrise and remains there well after sunset, with an excruciating day in between. Her tasks range from mind-numbingly menial to outright demeaning, from making photocopies and unpacking boxes to wiping down her boss's couch, fielding calls from his angry wife, and chaperoning another young woman to meet him at a hotel. Bit by bit, we come to realize what's going on just out of sight — as does Jane.

Not that she can do anything about it. In the film's most unnerving scene, Jane goes to an HR representative (Matthew Macfadyen, weaponizing the corporate-stooge energy of his Succession role to chilling effect), who patronizingly dissuades her from reporting anything. "I don't think you have anything to worry about," he adds as Jane leaves his office. "You're not his type."

The narrative-film debut of writer-director Kitty Green, whose previous work includes the inventive documentary Casting JonBenet, The Assistant is packed with such sharply observed moments, giving viewers an experiential window into life on the bottom rung of the Hollywood ladder. It's hardly a spoiler to say that by the end of the movie, nothing has changed.

Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street

Why it wasn't nominated: As the conventional wisdom goes, the Academy loves to award movies about Hollywood, but this is one that may have hit too close to home. For one thing, though Jane's boss is never seen or even named, key details invoke — and viewers are clearly meant to think of — Harvey Weinstein. His stature may be gone, but the disgraced mogul's shadow still looms large over the Oscars; Weinstein spent years remaking awards season in his image, wining and dining Academy members while rumors of his sexually abusive behavior ran rampant. A mere three and a half years after that scandal broke, would Oscar voters really want to recognize a movie emphasizing how frequently they looked the other way?

But The Assistant's concerns are bigger than one man. It shines a glaring light on the entertainment industry's appalling treatment of its support staff, an issue that Hollywood is still struggling to address. Just this month, The Hollywood Reporter published a story detailing alleged abusive behavior by Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin, much of it toward his assistants. Anecdotes included Rudin purportedly smashing a computer monitor on an assistant's hand; throwing a glass bowl, a stapler, and other items at staffers; and lying to disrupt former employees' careers. (On April 17, Rudin released a statement apologizing for "troubling interactions with colleagues" and saying he would step back from "active participation" on his Broadway productions. Three days later, he released another statement saying he would also step back from his film and streaming projects.) But these were hardly bombshells; Rudin's volcanic temper and questionable behavior have been well-reported for decades. Another THR story about the producer ran under the headline "The Most Feared Man in Town" in 2010.

Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street

While working on The Assistant, "I started [interviewing] people that worked at The Weinstein Company and Miramax," writer-director Green previously told EW. "And then I was speaking to people who worked for agencies and for studios, people that worked for men who are still in power. The shocking thing was, these stories were so similar no matter where they'd worked or who they'd worked for." She then set out to make a movie that would reflect that reality and challenge the status quo: "If we want women in power, the entire system needs to be completely stripped apart and rebuilt," the filmmaker notes. "Because it really is preventing women getting their foot in the door from the very bottom."

There were, admittedly, plenty of other factors working against The Assistant in the Academy's eyes, from its January release date to its sparse, restrained style. But one can't help but feel that, in asking Hollywood to examine itself, it was shutting itself out of the Oscars from the very beginning. (It did, however, snag three nominations from the Oscars' cooler cousin the Independent Spirit Awards, including one for Garner's performance.)

Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Clearly, The Assistant has bigger fish to fry than the Oscars. The film arrived at a pivotal, potentially transformative moment for the entertainment industry, as assistants and other low-ranking employees are starting to demand more humane treatment. In 2018, writers' assistants and script coordinators (a position just above assistants) joined forces to unionize, obtaining minimum scale pay and benefits. The next year, two former assistants launched the #PayUpHollywood movement, calling on studios, agencies, and other companies to pay their support staff a living wage. Five agencies have increased assistants' hourly wages so far.

There's still a long road ahead: a #PayUpHollywood survey released in February showed nearly 80 percent of assistants were so low-paid that they "may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care." Nearly as many said working conditions during the pandemic adversely affected their mental health. As the fight continues, The Assistant may have a role to play.

"Powerful people come out of [the movie] a little shell-shocked," Green told EW. "I've seen people come out going, 'Wow, okay. I'm gonna start treating everyone better. I'm gonna buy my assistant lunch tomorrow.' Just the idea that you start thinking about the system and how it works, and these people who for so long have been invisible, I think that matters a lot."

You can see for yourself; The Assistant is currently streaming on Hulu.

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