Wow. When Oscar gets it wrong, they get it REALLY wrong. Amid rumors that the ongoing Writer’s Strike may dampen the 24 February festivities, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did there typical early morning “thang” and proved it couldn’t be more out of touch. It’s not just the glaring omissions, ridiculous choices, or questionable nomination tactics (in at least one major category). It’s the knowledge that, in an arena that saw nearly 600 movies arrive in theaters worldwide, this is the way the old guard sees things.
Clearly not wanting to play favorites, four films walked away with 30 of the major nominations. Of that group, only two technically deserve such amassed recognition. There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men (eight each) have garnered so many critics awards that to have Michael Clayton (good, but not great), and Atonement (middling Merchant Ivory at best) one acknowledgement away seems specious. And when you add to it that Clayton‘s got seven of the big ones - including picture, director and acting - while our pretty British period piece is left holding up the technical ends, the distinction is even greater.
That just leaves Juno as the odd duck out in what, by now, is being labeled the Little Miss Sunshine Recognition of Indie Quirkiness achievement. It is a huge feat for such a divisive little movie. Even more amazing, Jason Reitman walked away with one of the five coveted Best Director slots, beating out DGA given Sean Penn. Speaking for the accomplished actor/director, his brilliant Into the Wild deserved a lot more attention than two whole nominations (Hal Holbrook, Supporting and Jay Cassidy, Editing). In fact, going back to Atonement for a moment, there is nothing in that stylized snooze fest that can match the final moments of Penn’s life in limbo real life drama.
But that’s why Oscar is Oscar, and why fans are flocking away from its narrow minded backslapping year after year. Take the two Supporting actor categories. No offense intended to the individuals in the running, but its dead pool time once again. No matter how good Javier Bardem is, or how memorable Casey Affleck (Jesse James) or Philip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson’s War) are, Holbrook is probably going to win. By the time the ceremony rolls around, he’ll be 83, and with this being his first trip to the Academy red carpet, visions of Alan Arkin and James Coburn begin filling one’s head.
The Best Supporting Actresses have it even worse. The clear front runners - Cate “I’m Not Dylan” Blanchett and Amy “Gone Baby” Ryan - figured to be even money come envelope ripping time. Even the talented Tilda Swindon, who perspired like a champ in Michael Clayton, had an outside chance of swiping Oscar gold (the less said about Atonement‘s bratty little Saoirse Ronan, the better). But all that changes now that Ruby Dee is in the mix. Another certified oldster (she’s 83 also), her blink and you’ll miss it - literally - turn as Denzel Washington’s mother in American Gangster is the kind of left field freak accident, Marissa Tomei meets the Grim Reaper wrench that’s destined to destroy the predictions of many a prognosticator.
It just feels like that kind of year. The kind where conventional wisdom - and creative logic - loses out to warm fuzzys and already celebrated career achievement. How else would you explain the inexplicable decision to nominate three songs from Disney’s Enchanted? It’s not like Alan Menken needs another Oscar (he has eight). Even worse, the craptacular sonic sludge referred to as music in August Rush got a nod - and a weird “nominees to be determined” on the accompanying press release. This must make Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder groan. His work for Penn’s Wild was crucial to the film’s overall success. Since the movie failed to get any real awards push, he appears to be the victim of your typical Academy myopathy.
Even worse, some artists never got a chance to go for the gold. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood delivered an amazing score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic There Will Be Blood. But because some of the music was “not made specifically for the movie” an arcane rule was invoked and he was disqualified. Similarly, films from Israel (The Band Visit) and France (Persepolis) were discounted from the Foreign Film category. The latter now battles it out with Pixar’s mighty mouse and some lame cartoon penguin flop for Best Animated effort (someone involved with Surf’s Up must have pictures of naked Academy members cavorting with livestock - it’s the only way to explain that jaw dropper of a nom).
It never changes. George Clooney picks up another Best Actor nomination for playing a legal eagle version of himself with gambling issues. Cate Blanchett, already rewarded for her brave turn as the iconic ‘60s protest prince finds herself listed among the baffling choices for Best Actress for replaying (rather unexceptionally, mind you) the role of Queen Elizabeth I. Sweeney Todd - all but forgotten except in a couple of inconsequential categories and the wink to Johnny Depp, can’t even call up a glance from the sound segment of the Academy…and it’s a musical. And back to foreign film for a moment. Like documentaries a decade before, the randomized manner in which these no name offerings got on the ballot continues to baffle the mind.
It’s not that the choices are bad - for all this critic knows, they could be amazing. Of course, very few if any were screened for the general reviewing populace, nor did companies send out screeners. So how, you may ask, did these five get chosen? By a combination of The Da Vinci Code and The Star Chamber, apparently. Industry insiders can explain the process much better, but apparently, Oscar takes noms from specific countries, determines if they meet their mysterious and sometimes contradictory rules, and then gives their handpicked choices to a group of Academy volunteers (usually old members who’ve retired) who agree to screen them and narrow the field. That sounds fair, right? Well, it’s not. There are a couple of egregious omissions this time around - the 2007 Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, The Orphanage - and all this just one year after two masterpieces (The Lives of Others and Pan’s Labyrinth) battled it out for best film supremacy.
There is a little light here and there. It’s nice to see Julie Christie - and even better, Sarah Polly - get acknowledged for Away from Her, and Nancy Oliver’s bump for Lars and the Real Girl argues that the members of the Writer’s Branch understand the value of a good script (they did reward the undeserving Savages, and the gimmicky Juno however). Yet if you were a betting man or woman, you can easily see the Academy setting you up. Atonement gets the surprise Best Picture win in a classic Shakespeare in Love style statement. Aside from Christie, the entire Best Actress category seems set up to simply hand the statuette to a far too young to deserve it Ellen Page. Depending on how the DGA decides, the directing trophy could be another of those out of left field flukes, and there is the distinct possibility that Norbit, one of the worst if not the worst film of 2007, will walk away with more Academy cred than Sweeney Todd, Into the Wild, or Eastern Promises (it’s already beat The Darjeeling Express, Zodiac, and Knocked Up - films that didn’t garner a single nomination).
The best thing that could happen to the Oscars is a Golden Globes like lockout, with host Jon Stewart and a select group of union busting performers reading the list of winners and then running away before the villagers remember where they put the pitchforks. There’ll be the standard 15 minutes of moaning, the typical ‘woulda’, ‘coulda’, ‘shoulda’ of a collective that can’t get its pejorative head out of the studio’s behind. Consensus will crown the true non-Crash champ, and the motion picture planets will temporarily realign. Then like the most sinister and secretive of cabals, the Academy will slink away and reconfigure its formula to guarantee even more ennui next time around.
Perhaps we have their purpose all wrong. Maybe AMPAS was designed not as a means of recognizing the industry’s best. It could have been specifically crafted to create contention and debate. Of course, that would make them very smart and rather forward thinking, and so far, their methods have been very, very dumb. As the mainstream moves further and further away from the sainted celebration, as a stint on TMZ or You Tube becomes the larger badge of fame whore honor than a symbol of old school studio system stagnation, as Indie’s continue to forge new art, and established names go digital, or simply disappear, Oscar 2008 remains a lot like Oscar 2007, 2006, etc. That means more Acade-mediocrity at its bumbling best.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.