Thursday, February 27, 2014

It's Easy to Be Cynical About the Oscars: Here's Why You Shouldn't Be

It is easy to be cynical about the Academy awards. When you look at everyone’s predictions this week (including mine) you will see that very few people will argue merit as a sign a film will win the Oscar. It will all be about precursors and who has or has not won in the past. The reason people who predict the Oscars talk about those things is simple – merit is only one thing that comes into play in the Oscar season, and the most difficult to quantify, since everyone has different opinions. But patterns have certainly emerged in how the Academy votes over the years. They don’t often “think for themselves” – films and performances that won a lot of precursor awards are the ones that usually win on Oscar night. Who already has an Oscar at home certainly comes into play with them – especially in the acting categories. Would Amy Adams have any shot at beating Cate Blanchatt on Sunday if Blanchatt didn’t already have an Oscar and Adams wasn’t on her fifth nomination with no wins? No. Would Sandra Bullock be a legitimate threat to win had she not already won just a few years ago for The Blind Side? Yes. Would Jennifer Lawrence be one of the biggest locks of the night for American Hustle had she lost for Silver Linings Playbook last year? You bet. But she didn’t lose – she won. And she’s 23, one of the biggest stars in the world and so I highly doubt the Academy will give her a second Oscar at this age. Having 2 nominations by the time you’re 23 is amazing – having 3 and an Oscar already, like Lawrence does, seems like she has enough. And isn’t Lupita Nyong’o beautiful and talented? Yes. So Lupita will win. Which I’m fine with – after all, I think Lupita actually completely deserves it on merit alone. But I’m not naïve enough to think that’s the only reason she’ll win. Michael Fassbender could have, I think, make a real play for Best Supporting Actor – or at least made the season more competitive – but he decided not to campaign this year after the festival circuit – whereas Jared Leto was everywhere. Add in the fact I’m not sure if the Academy really wants to give another white actor an Oscar for a movie about slavery while not rewarding the film’s black star the year after Christoph Waltz won for Django Unchained – and Leto becomes an easy winner.

What happens in this race will affect future years as well. I’m convinced Amy Adams becomes an instant frontrunner if she ever gets nominated a 6th time. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to build his reputation of being oft-overlooked – so again, a 5th nomination for him in the near future, and he could well become a shoo-in. It won’t really matter if their next nominations aren’t their best work. Paul Newman won for The Color of Money, John Wayne for True Grit, Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, Henry Fonda won for On Golden Pond, Geraldine Page won The Trip to Bountiful, etc. These are all actors who probably “deserve” at least one Oscar at home – but I don’t know too many people who would argue that the films they won for are their best work. Perhaps we’ll get lucky and Adams and DiCaprio will actually deserve their eventual wins – but there’s a good chance they won’t. Although they are roughly the same age, DiCaprio is just now entering the prime of his career in terms of when actors win Oscars, while Adams is at the tail end of that prime time for actress. Don’t believe me. Ask Julianne Moore or Glenn Close – who at one time were like Adams, always someone the Academy thought they award “next time” – and never got around to (Close was nominated 5 times between 1982 and 1988 – and then not again until 2011. Moore was nominated 4 times between 1997 and 2002 – and hasn’t been nominated since). The sad truth in Hollywood is once a woman hits 40 (if she’s lucky), the number of quality roles they get offered drops dramatically. The same is not true for actor – just look at the past 10 Best Actor winners – Daniel Day-Lewis, Jean Dujardin, Colin Firth, Jeff Bridges, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis (again), Forest Whitaker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jamie Foxx and Sean Penn (again). Most if not all were older than DiCaprio is now.  The last 10 Best Actress winners? Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Sandra Bullock, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotrilard, Helen Mirren, Reese Witherspoon, Hilary Swank and Charlize Theron. There are a few older than Adams (Streep, Bullock, Mirren) – the rest are younger.

I could go on of course. I could list the great directors who never won a Best Director Oscar like Stanley Kubrick or Robert Altman of John Cassavetes or Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks – whose films have become known as some of the greatest ever made, and the films that often beat them have largely been forgotten. It’s rather shameful that only 1 woman has ever won the Best Director – and only two times in history has a non-white director won – and both of those went to Ang Lee. Or that Steve McQueen is only the third black director to even be nominated – after John Singleton and Lee Daniels. Never mind the fact that the Academy has never given the Best Picture of Director Oscar to a film in another language – meaning the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Jean Renoir and many, many other of the greatest filmmakers in history have to settle for a “Foreign Language Film” Oscar – if anything at all. For those who think this is all a new phenomenon that the Oscars used to be based on merit alone, please be advised that you’re wrong. In 1936 for example, they did away with the entire Academy voting for the nominees, and went with just a “select committee” of prestigious people in the industry instead – who then all promptly nominated themselves. There are other example of course – too many to name.

So after nearly 1,000 words on why it’s easy to be cynical about the Oscars, how can I possibly defend them? The answer really is rather simple – the Oscars matter, not in terms really of who wins and loses but because they still inspire passionate debate about movies – a debate that matters. That debate rages on long after the year is over. Head online and you’ll still find people arguing about Crash vs. Brokeback Mountain, Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan, The English Patient vs. Fargo, Dances with Wolves vs. GoodFellas, Titanic vs. L.A. Confidential. You’ll still find people bitter about the wins by American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind or Driving Miss Daisy – and almost all of them will mention how the Academy shamefully ignored Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing that year. People still debate the older winners as well – maybe not with quite the same level of vitriol and hatred – but you can still find places that will argue over How Green Was My Valley and Citizen Kane – or The Grapes of Wrath and Rebecca, etc. The Oscars set the parameters of the debate that we have at the end of the year – without them, all the other awards groups, as well as the critics top 10 lists, etc. probably wouldn’t exist. But they do exist – because the Oscars are big business and everyone wants a taste. Some of these groups are horrible, and worthy of no discussion. Some are great. That’s the way things are. But I think the debate that is inspired every year – about what we value in film is important, and that is at least partly due to the Oscars. 

But there is another, simpler reason why I will always love the Oscars. As a teenager who was just starting to get interested in film, looking back at film history was daunting. Where does one begin to start exploring 100 years of movies? As a teenager back in 1997-1998 I started in three places. The first being the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies List. The second being Roger Ebert’s annual top 10 lists dating back to 1967. The third being – The Academy Awards. With my book of movie awards in one hand, and my Maltin in the other, I looked up the films that had been nominated in years past and starting picking the ones that sounded interesting. I started seeing everything that had been nominated in the early 1990s on back. Would I, a 16 year old male, normally have rented Merchant-Ivory films like Howards End or The Remains of the Day? No – but I did because they had been nominated. And I found I loved them.

And because I started watching all the Oscar nominees, I got interested in the films by directors who had been nominated in other years. I loved Secrets and Lies – so I went back and watched other Mike Leigh films like Naked and Life is Sweet. I loved The Last Emperor, so I watched other Bertolucci movies like The Conformist or Last Tango in Paris. Loved Annie Hall – saw Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors and everything else Woody Allen has ever made. You get the idea.

The Oscars, although they get things “wrong” more often that they get things right still does a great job of nominating some great films and performances every year. Not everything they nominate is great – obviously – but if you want to see a quality selection of films, there are worse things you can do than pick a year at random and watch all the Best Picture nominees. As a teenager with no idea where to start looking at the films of the past, the Oscars gave me an in – gave me a place to start. And that’s just what I used it for - a jumping off point. But once you’ve fallen in love with Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder or John Huston or Elia Kazan or John Ford or Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola or Woody Allen, it became impossible to stop. Just like Ebert’s great movies series encouraged me to start exploring Godard or Bergman or Fellini or Kurosawa or Mizoguchi or Renoir or Antonioni – I didn’t stop when I had seen Breathless and Persona and Seven Samurai and Sansho the Bailiff and Grand Illusion and L’Aventurra. I kept going with those filmmakers. The Oscars did the same thing with classic American films.

So that is why I love the Oscars. A teenager like me today has an even more daunting task ahead of them in terms of diving into cinema history – after all, there are nearly 20 years more of film to explore, including pretty much the entire filmographies of Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Alexander Payne, Michael Haneke, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Steve McQueen, Alfonso Cuaron, Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan and Terrence Malick (who when I started falling in love with films had only directed 2 – and nothing for 20 years. Now he has directed 6). Many teenagers won’t care about these filmmakers or their films – hell many adults don’t. But some will. And so a teenager like me will start looking at the Oscar nominations in the recent past, and fall in love with some of these filmmakers. Then delve deeper into cinema history – and end up down the rabbit hole like I did. The Oscars get a lot of things wrong – but I’ll always love them for helping to introduce me to great films and filmmakers – and for continuing the debate about what it is we love about film. We want the Oscars to mean more than they do – which is a fancy way of saying we want them to award our favorites. That’s natural. But the truth is, the Oscars already matter plenty – no matter how often they’re “wrong”.

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