The Oscar Expert Eyes This Year’s Pageantry

by Matt Mazur

19 February 2009

Penelope Cruz with fans 

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t watch the Oscars.

I became obsessed with the awards races at an obscenely early age. One of my first “film memories” involves thinking quietly to myself that Jessica Lange, who won the award for Best Supporting Actress in 1983 for her work in Tootsie, triumphed in the lesser category because her superior performance in Frances would be snubbed later for Best Actress in favor of Meryl Streep’s tour de force in Sophie’s Choice. This was my first lesson in awards show politics and it was basically like learning that there was no Santa Claus. I was seven, and I haven’t missed a show since.

As much as my childhood illusions about the actual best performance prevailing were shattered, I am still a slave to this awards-voting body—even though I infrequently agree with their policies and often vehemently disagree with their pedestrian tastes to the point of being personally offended. At age ten, I sat slack-jawed as Moonstruck’s Cher stole the gold from Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction) and Sally Kirkland (Anna). The very next year when Jodie Foster’s The Accused performance won the top award despite being nominated against Close’s Dangerous Liaisons, Streep’s A Cry in the Dark, and Sigourney Weaver’s Gorillas in the Mist, I knew something was rotten in the land of Oscar voters.

Perhaps that is what keeps all of us coming back to the Academy for more: masochism. We want to punish ourselves with a disgusting, garish parade of babbling starlets while we openly curse the Gods that, oh, Joan Allen didn’t get nominated for her brilliant turn in The Upside of Anger in a year where the lifeless Reese Witherspoon swept the entire circuit with a performance of very little depth or ingenuity in Walk the Line. We true cinema enthusiasts enjoy the secret knowledge that our tastes are much better than these mewling industry standards.

My personal favorites rarely even get nominated, though most of them do instead become legendary amongst cineastes the world over: please remember that in recent memory alone the brightest work by women such as Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive), Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher), Sally Hawkins (Happy-go-Lucky) and Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut, The Others, Dogville, Birth, Margot at the Wedding) has been given the cold shoulder by the Academy. How can we be expected to take an organization that would turn its back on actual art such as this, in favor of cinematic junk food such as A Beautiful Mind or Dreamgirls, seriously?

Well, the tide seems to be turning a bit in the recent ten years. Thankfully, the quality of the actual winners is getting better. There is more of an even playing field in terms of ageism in the past few years, with more mature women like Judi Dench and Streep scoring multiple nominations, and there is at least more visibility for films featuring women of color, albeit primarily in the supporting category. The xenophobia isn’t as overt and rampant recently as it usually is, as evidenced by four European winners last year and a smattering of foreign-language performances here and there. Though one glaring snub this year, Sally Hawkins for Happy-Go-Lucky, is a bad omen for future performances in films that dare to not pander to American audiences.

Still, it is the behind-the-scenes politics and the relentless campaigning that are paramount, and these are the elements that will seal the deal for many eventual winners. This is a tradition that extends back to the second Oscars, when Mary Pickford took the statuette for a bad performance in Coquette after tirelessly working and courting the press and voters. It is a tradition that has gotten more and more hysterical and Machiavellian as the years have gone by. How good are the speeches at the precursor awards? How much money did the films make? How many ads were placed in Variety? Did so and so look dewy fresh, and was she dressed to kill for such and such award? Did she not care about what she was wearing? Did she look fat? Nominees should be prepared for such ruthless scrutiny and more, and should take it all with a smile should they actually be interested in winning.

These are all tedious questions, and the system demands that it’s heroines be boiled down to their base archetypes, stripped to the bone for the world to see, to be sure, but all of this factors into the pageantry of it all in some bizarre, watchable way. It is infinitely more digestible a sound bite to have Best Actress chewed down to a little tidbit that would read something like this: “respected, two-time Oscar winning vet in the best year of her career (Streep) versus enfant terrible who has made a lot of money and has never won (Kate Winslet).” I get the sense that “stories” like this actually do matter to voters, as much as they want to make you believe that they don’t. We are led to believe that it is the actual quality of the performance that is being voted on, when clearly so many other idiosyncratic, superfluous little pieces of the puzzle factor in just as much as the actual acting.

With many of the recent female Oscar winners, it is this whole story that matters. Jennifer Hudson’s rise from the South Side of Chicago to American Idol rejection to Bill Condon’s sparkling, gay revision of a Broadway classic– poof! Oscar! Diablo Cody’s (not very) scandalous past as a wise-cracking blogger-cum-stripper-cum Steven Speilberg employee – poof! Oscar! Marion Cotillard basically got out there and pounded the pavement last year, single-handedly charming all of the red-blooded male press (and probably most of the gays and the women, too) with her loveliness, style and cute broken English – poof! Oscar! There are several formulas, but generally there is a strong PR hook that all winners possess.

This has been a banner year for women in film, though you will not necessarily find that reflected in this year’s crop of Oscar nominees, not that this is a surprising revelation or anything, mind you (and not that the nominees are bad, per se, they’re just blah—with an exception or two). And now a look at the nominees in the top female acting races, along with those who really should have been given more consideration. My qualifications for discussing actresses and the Oscars? I’m gay and have watched the awards for more than 25 years now. If that doesn’t make me an Oscar expert, clearly nothing does.

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