It’s been interesting to read the reaction to the Academy Award nominations this past Thursday (22 January). Naturally, most of the discussion has centered on the unfathomable snub sustained by Christopher Nolan and his Summer spectacular, The Dark Knight. While industry organizations like the Director’s Guild of America and the Producers Guild acknowledged the revamped Batman sequel, the lords of self-importance, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences decided against giving the box office hit the critical credit it deserves. Some seemed genuinely shocked by this decision, believing the Oscars had turned a kind of corner in the last years. But looking back at its recent history and the under the radar issues involved with the movies actually nominated, one starts to recognize the same old boy bullspit.
Let’s face it - the Academy Awards will never be hip. They aren’t founded on a philosophy of what’s trendy or what’s cool. They tend to stay within very strict standards and must be dragged kicking and screaming - sometimes, unsuccessfully - into the 21st century. In the last decade alone, there has been controversy surrounding the documentary, foreign film, and Best Song categories. Various film writers have taken Oscar to task for ignoring qualified entries, employing arcane and limiting rule requirements, and generally ignoring consensus for their own oblique aims. Many point out that some of the most important films of the last century never received Academy Award consideration, while others love to look at the list of ignored or marginalized talents and shake their heads in shame.
So it’s clear that the Academy plods along to its own often arrhythmic drummer. Type in “Worst Oscar Winners” into Google and you’re bound to stumble on a million messageboard debates, most centering on unworthy winners (Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, and American Beauty being the most common ones called out). There’s also the reflective invocations of movie that should have been heralded (Pulp Fiction, Little Children), got close, but then no golden cigar. But the one question few can answer is “Why?” After all, if so many people enjoyed a film (The Dark Knight‘s tracking over a billion dollars worldwide), so many critics supported it (a high 90s percentile on most review collective sites), and so many other awards stables sought fit to at least nominate it (DGA, PGA, Golden Globes), how can the Academy ignore it?
Let’s try to answer it, shall we? First off, there’s the ‘age’ factor. Oscar skews older - much older. A perfect example is someone like Ernest Borgnine, winner for his work in 1956’s Marty. At 92 - yep, 92 - he is still a vocal member of the old school Hollywood brigade. He and his demo want significance, not splash. He’s the perfect example of someone who would not have seen The Dark Knight, let alone support its nomination. And sadly, there are a lot of Borgnines out there. Reports suggest surviving Academy voters tend to be in the mid to late ‘50s (or much, much older), unimpressed by commercial carte blanche, and wait until the end of the year (when screeners come pouring into their mail slot) to make their final determinations. They are passionate about the old school Hollywood ideal, and their votes reflect same.
Of course, the minute you look at something like Slumdog Millionaire, that argument appears to hold no weight. After all, Danny Boyle’s unusual mosaic of Mumbai life as seen through the eyes of a desperate game show contestant isn’t the antiquated Tinsel Town type. Something this fresh and vibrant shouldn’t turn an Oscar holders head, and yet clearly it stands as this year’s front runner. The Academy obviously can’t ignore the clamor and consensus of the various sub-groups that make up their membership. No other film this year has received more outside acknowledgement than Slumdog. Not even The Dark Knight (only WALL-E can almost stand toe to toe, and there’s a whole separate category thing to take into consideration).
Without a doubt, Oscar uses the Nov/Dec hype machine, along with the various critic’s lists and the so-called “important” awards to gauge where it goes. Had The Dark Knight racked up dozens of Best Picture recognitions from bellwethers like the Golden Globes (who went with Slumdog), the National Board of Review (Slumdog), the New York Film Critics (Milk) or the Broadcast Film Critics (Slumdog), the momentum might have been there for an Academy acknowledgement. As it stands, we can clearly see that many found the Christopher Nolan to be a fine, even masterful film. But when it came time to make a final determination about the year’s best, few placed it on top.
That doesn’t matter, you say. The Dark Knight still deserved placement above something like The Reader - and you know what, you’d be right. The Reader does not deserve to be in the Top Five films that the AMPAS considers worth congratulating. In 2008 alone, amazing movies like Frozen River, Doubt, The Wrestler, Happy-Go-Lucky, Synecdoche, New York, and Revolutionary Road deserved to take its slot. Even if you put both The Dark Knight and WALL-E in the mix, The Reader still trails down toward the bottom. The shock many felt on 22 January wasn’t the Nolan snub so much as the Stephen Daldry bow. His lax resume, including a similarly startling nod for the overrated The Hours (remember that movie? Exactly) indicated someone who should feel lucky to be mentioned in someone’s acceptance speech, not sitting in the auditorium with the rest of the year’s best.
The DGA thought so. They did not nominate his work as a director. Neither did the PGA, which passed on recognizing The Reader as one of year’s top efforts. So how did it sneak in over other deserving movies? The answer appears to be sympathy. This past year, both Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack passed away. Well loved, universally respected, and highly influential behind the scenes, these men were two of the four producers ‘acknowledged’ for their work on the Holocaust themed drama. Some have even speculated that the response to The Reader from inside the industry was so strong (mostly due to the community’s feelings for Minghella and Pollack) that the groundswell helped push the picture past other deserving entries.
Since the movie can’t stand next to the other Best Picture contenders and claim its celluloid legitimacy, the age factor and the sympathy vote seem like the real reasons The Dark Knight is missing from the final tally (or at the very least, why The Reader is there). It won’t change the fact that more people will know Nolan’s work and anticipate his next move than ever care if Daldry gets another job (he followed up his work on The Hours with…nothing - until now). One could argue over the importance of a film focusing on how human beings deal with something as evil as the Nazi extermination of the Jews, but since The Reader mostly skims over that material, the point becomes moot.
It’s safe to say that, once again, politics, good publicity machines, previous experience pushing subpar product, and the unusual fluke of a critically acclaimed picture being popular as well undermined The Dark Knight‘s chances at Oscar gold. Hollywood apparently likes to champion the underdog. Heroes need not apply.