It seems fitting that, just a day or two after Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman lamented the elitist state of the present Academy Awards, the Screen Actors Guild throws a minor monkey wrench into the entire end of the year argument. For weeks, the gimmicky French phenomenon The Artist has been racking up accolades, landing love from the PGA (Best Film), DGA (Best Director) and those self-appointed pundits of film fortune - the Internet - as the presumption 2012 pick. Then the thesps decide to do something a bit…radical (?)...and give The Help a hand up. Sweeping the female acting awards (Viola Davis - Best, Octavia Spencer - Supporting) and even earning the coveted Ensemble prize, it looks like now we have a foot race to final red carpet of the season.
Or do we? According to Gleiberman, the pre-coronation of The Artist as the presumptive winner may have as much to do with the Weinstein Hype Machine and its annual drive to bring one of its distribution diamonds to the fore as it does the quality of Michel Hazanavicius’ vision. But going deeper, EW‘s chief critic argues that it’s also a sign of the Academy’s new snobbery. Ever since The Hurt Locker (the lowest grossing film ever to win Best Picture) topped Avatar (the highest grossing movie of all time) in 2010, Gleiberman suggests a ‘sea change’ among the AMPAS voters. In his opinion, the days when commercial popularity played a part in the determination of Oscar glory are gone. In their place is an insularity which follows trends and co-conspirator consensus in determining who wins.
In other, less fancy words, Gleiberman is suggesting that all the awards shows - from the increasingly pointless Golden Globes to the various upstart offshoots and Guilds - draw all the drama out of the Oscars. In their place is predictability, granted, but also a lack of true perspective. Now no one is suggesting that box office lead the way toward an eventual Academy crowning (in fact, many are taking Gleiberman to task for even suggesting same) and the argument that the mainstream used to have a “say” in the awards is specious at best (look over the list for the last three decades and then prove said theory). Still, the main theme has some indirect connection to the truth. With dipping ratings and a Messageboard Nation poised to pick it apart, the Oscars have become…irrelevant.
Not as a status symbol. David Fincher would probably prefer to be known as “The Academy Award Winning Director of…” instead of the apparent AMPAS pariah he seems to be (don’t worry, Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky will make room at their talent table for you) and if Tom Hooper, Ron Howard, and now Mr. Hazanavicius can claim the prize, Mr. Se7en‘s day will surely come. No, where the Academy has seemingly lost touch is in The Big Picture. Instead of using a bit of brain power and determining whether their choice will stand the test of time, they leap onto whatever bandwagon is currently passing down the avenue (female director, stuttering royalty) and ignore the true classics. This may seem to support Gleiberman’s claims, but the opposite is actually true.
Here’s a way of looking at it. Katy Perry may have the dubious honor of selling more ‘records’ than The Beatles (or she has more #1 hits, something like that), but she’s never going to be compared to them for the cultural and medium impact. She’s not timeless. She’s just a perky pop chanteuse making the most of her marketing and the new technological landscape of the music scene. The kids love her, and when they stop, they will go on to love someone else. For Oscar, The Artist is Katy Perry. It’s the lead-off track on most critic’s group’s mix tape, a swooning appreciation of an artform done better several dozen decades ago. Want proof? Head over to your local brick and mortar and pick up a few of Buster Keaton’s features. Now argue that The Artist is anything more than a delightful superficial homage. In fact, it’s less a film and more an obtuse approximation of same.
Of course, The Help doesn’t really countermand the argument either. As whitewashed claptrap, a weird attempt to argue racism within a serio-comic gross out message movie, it’s about as eternal as any other sacrosanct civil rights rewrite. Sure, it has great performances and a genial approach to its hot button issues, but like The Artist, it’s really nothing more than a stunt. Who cares about the tickets it’s sold. A real film about racism in the South would never stoop to a shit pie in order to make its point. While future generations would use sit-ins and non-violent protest to earn their equality, the characters in this farcical fiction use feces and chocolate to earn a modicum of respect - and an eventual book deal. Because its “heart” is in the “right place,” many have forgiven the fallacy.
Yet Gleiberman’s argument is that The Help should really be the front runner because audiences prefer it to a movie without dialogue. Within that dynamic, Inception or Toy Story 3 should have won last year over The King’s Speech. Both were critically praised and big time box office hits. Going a bit further, he also appears to be saying that The Academy no longer speaks to the demo it’s directed to - the movie fan. Frankly, that’s been the case since Chariots of Fire became a shoulder shrug winner. Gleiberman name checks Rocky as proof of the Oscars’ former ‘relevance.’ But the same could be said of Ordinary People (which beat Raging Bull and The Stunt Man), Dances with Wolves (besting Goodfellas and Reversal of Fortune) or Titanic. In fact, the AMPAS always throws spanners into the works, leaving latter historians to scratch their heads - The English Patient? A Beautiful Mind?
Perhaps a better way to put it is that the Academy Awards are like a tweener waiting for the new socially mandated fad to occur so they can latch onto it. And since their society is cinema, they pay too much attention to the November to January awards run-up and then catch the first train to trendiness. SAG’s determination means that most of the major acting awards are pretty much predetermined (for men, it’s Christopher Plummer as this year’s life timer and Jean Dujardin as the stand in for Roberto Benigni), and the win for The Help‘s ensemble will probably do little to change its fate on 26 February. No matter how confusing crowds find it, the silent Artist seems poised to be another debatable Oscar pick, and with all due respect to Mr. Gleiberman, that’s par for a very long course indeed.