Arts·My Favourite Season

With May December, it's time for Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon to get their Oscar flowers

The new film, now on Netflix, is the 10th collaboration between one of cinema's great duos — and they deserve to finally be nominated for Best Picture.

The new film is the 10th collaboration between one of cinema's great duos, and they deserve a Best Picture nom

May December stars Julianne Moore (left) and Natalie Portman in a scene from the film.
May December stars Julianne Moore (left) and Natalie Portman picking out flowers for their film's director and producer, Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon. (Netflix)

My Favourite Season is a monthly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that runs through the six-month "season" that is both his favourite and Moira Rose's. It explores all things awards in the lead-up to the big one: the Oscars, which are currently scheduled to take place on March 10, 2024.

With less than two months left in the year and five months until the Oscars, there is a clear frontrunner for my personal favourite film of 2023 — but I'm already prepared for the disappointment I'll feel if the Academy doesn't give it the love it deserves come March.

The film of which I speak is, of course, May December, which marks the 10th collaboration between director Todd Haynes and producer Christine Vachon. It's hitting cinemas this weekend, at least if you are lucky enough to live somewhere Netflix is giving it a limited two-week release in glorious 35mm before it hits the streaming service on December 1st. If you are so lucky, please, please do not waste the opportunity. Because you will walk out of that theatre so provoked and amused that it'll be a long time before you stop thinking about what you've just been served.

Essentially, May December is a dark comedic soap opera that has a lot more to say than it initially appears. It follows Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a Hollywood star who travels to Georgia to meet and study Gracie (Julianne Moore), a controversial woman that she is set to play in a film. That film-within-a-film is about how Gracie fell for her husband Joe (Charles Melton) some 20 years ago, when Joe was a 13-year-old working with 30-something Gracie at a pet store. They were caught, and Gracie served time in prison as a sex offender. But their relationship continued anyway, and when Elizabeth meets them, they more or less seem like a happily married couple with two teenage kids.

What unravels from this Mary Kay Letourneau-inspired premise is an intricate and surprisingly hilarious masterwork of tonal manipulation that could really only have been pulled off by Haynes, undeniably one of our greatest living filmmakers. From Safe (1993) to Far From Heaven (2002) to Carol (2015), Haynes has consistently offered us some of the most subversive, precise films of the last 30 years. And every single one of those films has been produced by someone Vanity Fair recently deemed "Hollywood's greatest anomaly": Vachon and her production company Killer Films.

As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the most impressive professional relationships in the last several decades of filmmaking (and proof when queer men and women come together, they are the most unstoppable force). And yet, it has gone wildly unrecognized when it comes to awards.

Haynes and Vachon met in the mid-1980s while both studying at Brown University and made their feature film debut together in 1991 with Poison. Written and directed by Haynes and produced by Vachon, the film weaves together a trio of exceptionally transgressive narratives inspired by the work of gay writer Jean Genet. A pioneering film of the New Queer Cinema movement, Poison would win Haynes and Vachon the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and launch both of their careers.  

In the 30+ years since, Haynes and Vachon have gone on to make an unparalleled group of films together, essentially all of which have been revered by critics. But they have resulted in only one Oscar nomination for either of them: in 2002, Haynes was nominated for best original screenplay for Far From Heaven. (I'd complain about who he lost to, but it was his fellow queer cinema king Pedro Almodóvar!)

Their collaborations have never resulted in an Oscar win in any category, and Haynes has never been nominated for best director despite being a legend of his generation at this point. Their work has also somehow never received a best picture nomination, even when they have made undeniably the best film of a given year (and anyone who honestly believes that Carol was less worthy of a best picture nomination than The Martian and The Big Short should have their Oscar voting rights revoked).

Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon smile and pose together against a black backdrop.
Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon attend the "May December" & Golden Eye Award: Todd Haynes during the 19th Zurich Film Festival at Kongresshaus on October 02, 2023 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Ferda Demir/Getty Images for ZFF)

Vachon's complete lack of nominations is even more staggering when you consider all of the films she's made outside of her relationship with Haynes: Kimberly Pierce's Boys Don't Cry, John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Todd Solondz's Happiness, Paul Schrader's First Reformed and Janicza Bravo's Zola, to name but a few. She actually has a second film out this year that has a much better shot at a best picture nomination than May December (and is incredibly deserving of one): Celine Song's Past Lives.

At least if that happens, Haynes and Vachon can finally both be considered Oscar nominees. But it still will not quite sit right with me until there's a world where they are both nominated for the same film.

Now, Haynes and Vachon are certainly not be the sole people that deserve recognition for May December's brilliance. Its script by newcomer Samy Burch is astounding, as are the performances by Portman, Moore and Melton (the latter of whom — known best before this for his role as Reggie on Riverdale — more than holds his own onscreen with his much more established co-stars). I hope they all get all the nominations too. But Burch and Melton are just starting out, and Portman and Moore both already have Oscars, so my plea is focused on their director and producer.

Natalie Portman (left) and Julianne Moore in May December.
Natalie Portman (left) and Julianne Moore in May December. (Netflix)

Obviously there's a very fair argument to made that most of Haynes and Vachon's films are simply too challenging (or, let's face it, too queer) for the generally mainstream tastes of the Academy. That argument is already being made when it comes to May December, which is up against the much more Oscar-friendly likes of Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon.

But I find it hard to believe that there couldn't be enough reasonably minded people in the ever-evolving, 10,000 member Academy that a) love May December and b) know how overdue both Haynes and Vachon are for a dual nomination to give it the push it needs. They just need us all to nudge them — and that starts by us making May December the huge cultural talking point it deserves to be after we all see it in cinemas (or, if absolutely necessary, on Netflix).

Check back monthly for all of our predictions for this year's Academy Awards, which have now been updated to include the production design, costume design, editing and cinematography categories.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

Say hello to our newsletter: hand-picked links plus the best of CBC Arts, delivered weekly.

...

The next issue of Hi, art will soon be in your inbox.

Discover all CBC newsletters in the Subscription Centre.opens new window

now