Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
First off, let's be clear: If you're an actor, filmmaker, screenwriter, or any other behind-the-scenes person in Hollywood who's been nominated, of course the Academy Awards matter. For those select folks, their careers—scratch that—their lives change. Just look at last year's surprise Best Actor nominee Demián Bichir, who earned his unexpected acknowledgement with a painfully sympathetic, heartfelt turn in the little-seen drama A Better Life. Before 2011, nobody outside of his native Mexico even knew he existed; now, he's already made two major studio films, last year's Oliver Stone thriller Savages and this summer's Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy action-comedy The Heat. Without that nomination, Bichir probably wouldn't have done any of that.
When we say "The Academy Awards don't really matter," we’re coming from the point-of-view of people outside the industry. As in, moviegoers who keep those glammed-up performers on the red carpet by purchasing tickets. People who will never meet super-producer Harvey Weinstein—the returning Oscar champ who was in attendance last night for producing winners Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained, as well as multiple nominee The Master—in person, or even care about him in any serious way. These are the same ladies and gentlemen who fall victim to the big lie that's perpetuated by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) celebration of superlatives, the idea that the nominees for "Best Picture" are literally that year's greatest works of cinema. Which, more often than not, is not the case. In fact, it's bullshit.
Now that we're almost two years removed from the 2011 film calendar, let's briefly reflect back. According to the AMPAS, that year's top movie was The Artist, the clever, entertaining black-and-white champagne burp that fleetingly brought silent filmmaking back into the mainstream. According to us, the year's top movie was Drive, the hip, brutal, and subversively genre-savvy oddity starring Ryan Gosling. Which didn't receive a single nomination from the Academy.
In the Academy's play-everything-safe minds, a film like The Artist is a no-brainer. Like the still-unbelievable and still-awful 2010 nominee The Blind Side, it's upbeat, it pleases crowds. Most importantly, though, like this year's Argo, The Artist pats Hollywood on its back with a plot that hinges on the magic of cinema. Here's the thing, though: If not for it being mentioned here, would anyone even remember The Artist? Did it influence pop culture or modern filmmaking in any discernible or important way? Nope. Casual popcorn eaters still can't tell you who starred in Modern Times without consulting Wikipedia. (Which is a shame, but still.)
As for Drive, go rent the blockbuster smash Taken 2 and notice how one of its coolest soundtrack cuts, Chromatics' "Tick of the Clock" is blatantly ripped off during one if its key action sequences. Or wait until the Elijah Wood-starring horror remake Maniac opens and recaptures its '80s-heavy ambiance. Or go ahead and Google Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn's name and read about all of the projects he's been attached to since the film opened, including Denzel Washington's in-development The Equalizer, which Refn has recently departed, but at least he was there for a moment. Drive's impact and resonance are still in effect. The Artist, meanwhile, has Oscar bloggers saying to themselves, "Man, I still can't believe that film won Best Picture." Not to mention, its minimal resonance led to Oscar host Seth MacFarlane's jab about The Artist star Jean Dujardin's lack of visibility in 2012. Dujardin was in the audience.
The fact of the matter is that movies like Drive will never stand a chance of winning over Academy voters—that's just accepted at this point, however begrudgingly. A few prominent awards season pundits, namely In Contention's Kristopher Tapley went to bat for last year's excellent Liam Neeson flick The Grey, but that was never going to happen. To the Academy, that's an action movie about a guy fighting wolves—even though it's not—and therefore off-limits. The same probably goes for Rian Johnson's inventive time travel film Looper, another genre production that ended up on several highbrow critics' year-end lists but got shut out by Oscar's handlers.
For them, the more neatly and prestigiously packaged a movie is, the easier it is to nominate, save for the occasional anomaly that's just happy to be nominated (see: this year's Beasts of the Southern Wild). For example, take Les Misérables, one of this year's Best Picture nominees. That overlong, divisive (its positive review percentage on Rotten Tomatoes is 70%), but star-laden musical screamed "Nominate me!" from the moment it was first announced. And, of course, the AMPAS obliged. Director Tom Hooper's (who made the 2010 Best Picture winner The King's Speech) take on the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic tale has all of the necessary ingredients: elegant costumes, A-list stars, beloved source material, and a prime December release date.
So what if many of the nation's top film critics—like The New Yorker's Anthony Lane ("I screamed a scream as time went by") and former Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum ("The fake-opulent Les Miz made me long for guillotines")—loathed it? It means nothing that The Grey (Rotten Tomato rating: 79%) and Looper (93%), and, hell, even the superb meta-horror knockout The Cabin in the Woods (92%) were met with much better critical responses overall. Because, as previously mentioned, they're "genre" movies, not to mention dark, unconventional, uncompromising, and, particularly in the cases of Looper and The Cabin in the Woods, destined for cult-favorite status. In other words, they're exactly the kinds of movie that stodgy, non-risk-taking AMPAS members and voters avoid like the plague. Most Academy members probably didn't even watch those movies. They'd rather watch the entire Les Miz cast stiffly belting out the big musical number, as Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, and the tone-deaf Russell Crow did at the center of last night's festivities.
Here's where it gets really interesting—well, more like soul-crushing. For Best Director, the nameless voter said, "Amour is purely a performance piece; besides, Michael Haneke has pissed me off in the past because he’s made movies that are so misanthropic. He just hates human beings, and I happen to be a human being and don’t like being shit on." Which, of course, has little to do with Amour's qualities as a film and more to do with his bias against its writer-director (Not to mention that Amour is hardly misnthropic).
The best (or worst?) is saved for Best Actress. Thought No. 1, in respect to pint-sized Beasts of the Southern Wild breakout Quvenzhane Wallis: "I also don’t vote for anyone whose name I can’t pronounce. Quvez---? Quzen---? Quyzenay? Her parents really put her in a hole by giving her that name -- Alphabet Wallis. The truth is, it’s a very sweet but immature performance from a 9-year-old." As if a 9-year-old should be expected to exude Meryl Streep-like maturity. Now onto thought No. 2, about Silver Linings Playbook star, and last night's Best Actress winner, Jennifer Lawrence: "I was on the fence about [Lawrence], but she lost me with that Saturday Night Live bit; I thought it was mean-spirited and shows a lack of maturity on her part." Because, obviously, what somebody does on SNL directly reflects their performance in a movie they shot over a year beforehand.
Yes, the THR article only represents one voter's process. It's not all-encompassing, but, still, that's the kind of jaded, arbitrarily opinionated person who selects which films become part of the canon. Someone who can't be bothered to see all of the nominated motion pictures, takes offense to a challenging artist's penchant for avoiding uplifting sentiments, and judges an actor's performance based on his or her extracurricular activities. Those feelings and reactions would be fine if the only power he or she wielded manifested itself in an online message board. But for the Academy Awards? Passionate yet impressionable cinephiles deserve better.
The awards themselves, historically speaking, haven't helped matters. For some historical background, consider this: Stanley Kubrick never won a Best Director statue. He didn't win for Dr. Strangelove (for which he was nominated), nor 2001: A Space Odyssey (the same), nor A Clockwork Orange (likewise). But wait, it gets worse: Alfred Hitchcock was also shut-out during his 50-plus-year run. And, unlike the more esoterically minded Kubrick, Hitchcock made accessible films for commercial audiences, something the Academy traditionally appreciates. That's right, two of cinema's most important directors both died empty-handed. Hell, they never even felt the sorry-we-screwed-up-before residuals that Martin Scorsese received when he won for 2006's memorable but flawed The Departed, many years after losing for, oh, just two cinematic masterpieces titled Goodfellas (1990) and Raging Bull (1980).
Granted, neither Kubrick, Hitchcock, nor Scorsese needed the recognition like, say, Demián Bichir did last year. They couldn't have benefited from a Best Director victory lap the same ways that Beasts of the Southern Wild's first-time director Benh Zeitlin could have if he'd won last night. But of course the accomplishment of adding an Oscar trophy to their home's shelf-space mattered to the late Kubrick and matters to Scorsese. It also mattered greatly to Hitchcock. In 1968, Hitch received the commemorative Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, the Academy's way of honoring the film titan well after the fact. When he walked onto the stage to accept, Hitchcock opted for a brief, subtly dismissive speech, not a showstopping monologue. He simply said, "Thank you," then headed back to his seat. To which, he were alive today, we'd say, "Well done, sir." Why humor the Academy with the speech he should've given many times over already?
In a 2011 Huffington Post article titled "Alfred Hitchcock Never Won An Oscar: Go Figure," Hitchcock's personal friend, and playwright, Samuel Taylor is quoted as saying, "The basic hypocrisy of Hollywood is that they don't really believe film is art. Hitch knew all this." Harsh, yes, but who are we to question such a pronouncement? It's not like we'll be popping bottles with Harvey Weinstein anytime soon.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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