Back in the late 1920s, when the fledgling Hollywood studios were looking for a way to further extend public awareness of their increasingly popular product, the Academy Awards were invented. Unlike the high security scripting of today, winners were determined in a kind of conspiracy theory cabal, with the individual heads of MGM, Warners Brothers, etc. determining who should receive the coveted gold trophies. Backs were indeed slapped and favors forwarded and returned. Over the course of years, executive influence (and the eventual birth of the publicity-based campaign) made Oscar a known necessary evil. You could almost guarantee that certain names would never be acknowledged, while overblown efforts with bloated budgets and high profile stars typically walked away with far too many prizes.
Now, eight decades later, things are back to the way they were. No, we don’t have suits sitting around a table divvying out the coveted accolades. In their place, however, is a series of pre-Academy awards shows that have all but taken the guessing out of the game. Look at this year for example. Of the many trophies handed out on 22 February, only two were a real shock - Okuribito winning for Best Foreign Film (over the considered given Waltz with Bashir) and Dustin Lance Black’s nod for Best Original Screenplay (in what was truly a “you pick ‘em” category). Every other victory, from Slumdog Millonaire‘s many titles (eight in total) to the Sean Penn/Kate Winslet/Heath Ledger/Penelope Cruz domination of the acting categories meant that, as recently as a month ago, the Academy Awards were already pre-determined.
That’s what Oscar means now. It used to signify glamour and a misguided sense of what represented the best in film. The Academy frequently got it wrong, and still does (Penelope Cruz? Really?), but today such erroneous hype judgment is certified by a process that takes every event from May’s Cannes Film Festival to the numerous critic’s and guild awards to whittle down a monster list of possibilities into some kind of consensus. Gone mostly are the days when a wild card like Marisa Tomei can walk away with an unexplained (and much discussed) Best Supporting Actress nod. By the time they get to the red carpet, the new meta-nominees have been positioned, polished, and poised to become yet another name in what is increasingly becoming a meaningless Hall of Fame.
Does Ms. Winslet deserve an Academy Award? Absolutely. Was The Reader the movie that should forever be associated with said merit? Absolutely not. For this British beauty, this Oscar was a pay-off, industry graft admitting that past times when the actress was overlooked (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children) were not really slights. Instead, they were character building lessons in moving up the AMPAS ladder. Of course, not everyone has to travel such skewed paths (right, Helen Hunt, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Mairon Cotillard). For years, no one thought Sean Penn would ever receive Academy recognition, let alone stop his political grandstanding long enough to actually show up and claim his prize. Now, with a second gold man to match his Mystic River statue, he’s suddenly one of the artform’s best.
And then there’s Slumdog Millionaire, the little independent exile that apparently could…and did. It’s interesting to look back at the Summer of 2008, to all the press surrounding the “dumping” of the film by Warners Independent - and the 50% stake eventually bought by Fox Searchlight - to remember that this multiple Oscar winner was almost sent straight to video. Naturally, there were issues with money and studio security (WIP has since shuttered), but there was a vocal contingent who thought Danny Boyle’s episodic epic was too slight, too stylized, too ‘foreign’ to represent the best of Western cinema. Yet here it stands, the winner of as many trophies as Gone with the Wind, On the Waterfront, and My Fair Lady. Even without the acting nods, it stands as a monumental achievement for a well-deserving work.
But there is no real surprise in the result. Ever since it became the frontrunner, Slumdog was seen as the answer to many of the Academy’s lingering issues. It was a small film outside the studio system. It was multicultural in cast and approach. It offered a chance for Oscar to recognize another underserved race in its historic cavalcade of inferred (and sometimes overt) prejudice. And, in many ways, it represented the perfect upset fodder. With such an unusual choice in the mix, many felt that a true Hollywood heavy hitter like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Frost/Nixon could sneak in and steal the limelight. But ever since the end of November, when the snowball started rolling in Slumdog‘s favor, there was no denying its ability to win.
It’s the same with the others. Ms. Winslet walked away with TWO Golden Globes, the double barreled statement daring Tinsel Town not to respond. Some felt that Mickey Rourke, making the comeback route after years in self-imposed banishment, would win the actor trophy. But with the political positioning of Milk, and the recent events of California’s election season, gay rights trumped a personal downward spiral. Only the Foreign Film category remains a puzzle, Bashir‘s animated take on Israel’s occupation of Lebanon in the early ‘80s as searing and visually unforgettable as any war film, pro or con, could be. Many an office pool underperformed thanks to the pre-Oscar spin on that one. Besides, Bashir deserved to be in the Animated category, leaving room for equally stellar entries like Italy’s Gommorah and Sweden’s Let the Right One In.
Perhaps it’s best to remember what the Academy Awards truly represent. This is not the people’s choice, where popularity and commercial appeal almost always overrule talent and timelessness. This is not a critic’s choice either, since getting a group of self-important scholars to agree on anything would be virtually impossible. Over the years, the studios have stepped aside to allow an elite group of past nominees, winners, and invited members to sit back and study the year in film, find a series of nominees, and then vote on who they think is the best. Some categories, like Best Documentary, have consideration rules so arcane and complicated that tax lawyers look over the by-laws and thank God for the IRS code.
It’s all so insular. Go back over the last decade of nominees and winners and mark how many of your favorites made the grade. The Oscars are not a chance for you to share in the glittering prize of motion picture perfection. It’s the annual attempt by an occasionally out of touch organization to put their stamp of approval on the year in film. It’s the last word, the final statement, the frequently whacked out wrap-up of all the politicking, hype, consensus, disagreement, box office totals, international spin, personal vendettas, corporate positioning, PR missteps, and ever-present backlash. That it attempts to address so many of the movie industry’s needs over the course of three and a half hours is somewhat noble. The eventual winners can even outshine such self-serving righteousness.
So here’s to WALL-E and The Duchess. Here’s to the unheralded sweep by Slumdog in many of the so-called minor categories. Here’s to the short films no one saw and the terrific tightrope act of Man on Wire. There will be those who state that the nomination itself is all that matters, and actually, that’s pretty accurate. It’s amazing to look back over the hundreds of films released in 2008 and comprehend that, indeed, these are the five actors/actresses/writers/directors/cinematographers/set designers/special effects technicians/costumers/sound engineers/make-up artists/animators picked to represent the business’s best. They may not get it right, but at least the Academy Awards have remained true to their roots - sort of. They are serving no other needs than their own. We should feel lucky they let us in at all.