Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oscar Update: Newcomers vs. The Veterans and the Academy's Bias

As with everything in life, getting your first Oscar nomination is often harder than getting nominated after that. Until you have that first one, you are an outsider, no matter how good you are at your job. After you’ve broken through however, you’re in the club, and all the nominations you get after are much easier. It is also much easier to win an Oscar if it’s not your first time being nominated. For the Academy, you often have to pay your dues before you can win.

Often times, the Academy is more willing to go with an old favorite rather than a young upstart. How else could you explain the nominations in the past few years of Peter O’Toole in Venus, Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah, Cate Blanchatt in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Judi Dench in Mrs. Henderson Presents, Frances McDormand in North Country, Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give, Jon Voight in Ali or Sean Penn in I Am Sam? Do any of these performances really scream Oscar to you? Or did the Academy play it safe and nominate people they have liked in the past, instead of honoring someone fresh and exciting.

It’s true that Academy have started to welcome in the new generation of actors in recent years. Philip Seymour Hoffman struggled for a long time to break through, but now that he has, he’s a favorite. Ryan Goslin, Keira Knightley, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Javier Bardem, Adrien Brody, Naomi Watts, Natalie Portman, Ellen Page and finally Johnny Depp have all made major breakthroughs with the Academy this decade as well.

But when you look at the nominees every year, for the most part you see 3 or 4 Oscar veterans mixed in with 1 or 2 newcomers almost in almost every category. Some are worse than others, but to a certain degree they all play by the same rules.

Look at Best Actor. Right now, my top ten candidates for the year include 7 past nominees – Daniel Day Lewis, Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Viggo Mortenson, Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, (among them 4 winners) and only three guys who have not been nominated – Jeremy Renner, Colin Firth and Michael Stuhlbarg. While I can see two of those three newcomers breaking in, do you honestly believe that Renner and Stuhlbarg, two unknowns to most people, will be among them. If one gets in, the other one won’t.

The same is true for best actress. Although I have heard both An Education and Precious tossed around as possible Best Picture nominees (perhaps even winners), I have heard WAY more about the possibility of An Education’s Carey Mulligan winning the Best Actress Oscar (her nomination is now assumed) then I have even heard about Precious’ Gabourey Sidibe even being nominated. Is this because one completely unknown, young actress is all the category can fit? And what puts Mulligan over Sidibe? I haven’t seen either movie yet, but could it be possible that Mulligan has an advantage because he’s gorgeous, white and British, while Sidibe is overweight and African American? I don’t want to call the Academy racist, but sometimes they are. Would it make any sense for Precious to be nominated for best picture, and not have Sidibe get into for actress, while Meryl Streep gets her 16th nomination for her fine (but nowhere near great) work in Julie and Julia – a film not likely to be nominated anywhere else? You tell me.

The same holds true for directors though. Both An Education’s director Lone Scherfig and Precious’ director Lee Daniels, could find themselves on the outside in favor of more established Academy directors like Clint Eastwood, Rob Marshall, Jason Reitman, Peter Jackson, Terence Malick and the Coen Brothers. While Scherfig, a woman, have any chance at all if the Academy decides to nominate Kathryn Bigelow for her brilliant work on The Hurt Locker? Since only three women in history have ever been nominated for the prize, do we really think that 2 will be nominated this year? If you’re Mira Nair of Jane Campion this year, you don’t stand a chance!

Out of all the categories, I believe that the writers are the least concerned with a persons standing in the Academy. True, it used to be an ongoing joke that Woody Allen would get nominated for everything he wrote, but even the writers did not nominate him last year for Vicky Cristina Barcelona – opting instead for newcomers Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) and Martin McDonagh (In Bruges). In the past few years, they have honored newcomers like Diablo Cody (Juno), Nancy Oliver (Lars and the Real Girl), Sarah Polley (Away from Her), Michael Ardnt (Little Miss Sunhine) among many others. The writers are among the only branch who has no problem nominating foreign or animated films for their major prizes, and not only that, they seem to be the most equal opportunity branch. Where there are still some categories where women nominees are rare, the writers don’t see, to care if you’re a man or a woman – if they like your screenplay, they nominate you.

The worst offender for playing inside baseball is undoubtedly the musical branch. A new composer usually has to pay their dues for years before the Academy will even nominate their score. And if you’re not a professional composer – say you’re a rock musician moonlighting as one – then you don’t stand a chance at all. Only 11 of the nominees this decade for Best Score have been newcomers – the other 34 had all been nominated previously. I would submit that this number would be even lower if John Williams had not effectively retired earlier this decade. That man could far into a microphone, and they would nominate him for an Oscar for Best Score. Once you’re in though, you’re in for life, and your scores get listened to much more closely than the rest of them. Some of the best scores this decade – There Will Be Blood among them – have been ignored because they were guys the music branch did not like. Someone as brilliant as Carter Burwell is still waiting for his genius to be acknowledged.

But every branch has their favorites. Even if we most people do not pay attention to who the sound designers are, their fellow sound designers do when they fill out their ballots. The same goes for every other category out there. If you’ve ever sat around and wondered how a movie you didn’t think had particularly good cinematography or costume design got a nomination in those categories, look up the nominee on IMDB. Invariably, you will see someone who has been nominated for more Oscars than Steven Spielberg as the person behind the work.

I would certainly argue that getting your first Oscar nomination – in any category – is harder then getting any of your other ones. For every Hilary Swank out there, who seemingly swoops out of nowhere to win the Best Actress Oscar – there are many more people like Johnny Depp or Philip Seymour Hoffman who see a half dozen or more great performances pass the Academy by before they get nominated. Can you believe for example that Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Mark Ruffalo, Sam Rockwell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Paul Schneider, Evan Rachel Wood, Scarlett Johanson, Maria Bello, Audrey Tautou, Christina Ricci, Kevin Bacon, Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeff Daniels, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Zhang Ziyi, Rachel McAdams, Ray Winstone, Robin Wright Penn, Ashley Judd, Kelly McDonald, Leslie Mann, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vincent Cassell or Paul Dano have never been nominated for an Oscar – and that’s just off the top of my head.

Every year, Oscar announces a few breakout stars, but even more of them are left on the sidelines. Someone like Meryl Streep (who is brilliant, and I do not mean to keep picking on her) has half of her work done for her just by benefit of being Meryl Streep. To many people, the Oscars are simply a popularity contest, where the Academy rewards the people they like, and ignore the rest. To a certain extent, of course, this is true. There is nothing much you can do about it, except acknowledge it and move on.

Note: I have not decided what next week’s column is going to be about, but I hope to get into a little more specific details about this year’s race. It’s just in these early these first early weeks, I find little interesting happening every week, so we get these more general columns.

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