It’s about time we faced facts as film fans. The Oscars are really out of touch. It’s not just the usual omissions and snubs – this year’s avoidance of Dreamgirls no exception – or the ‘holier than thou’ hierarchy it lords over all other awards. No, it seems that, ever since the ‘70s renaissance in cinema, the Academy has missed opportunity after opportunity to reward actual artistry. Say what you will about the last five Best Picture winners – Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago and A Beautiful Mind – but all except one will remain an aesthetic afterthought when it comes to a final filmic analysis. Indeed, looking back to Midnight Cowboy in 1970, the one time studio shill fest, designed as a kind of self-congratulatory salute to itself when it began in 1929, is starting to stink of industry insularity all over again.
When Crash defeated everyone’s odds on favorite, Brokeback Mountain, last year, people seemed to sense that all was not right with the glorified golden statue. It was rare that such a hit or miss production, a film that received as many pans as it did praise walked away with the top honors of the year. Listen to people pontificate, and they’ll point to Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, and Titanic as recent examples of the big show getting it wrong. Granted, the alternates for each one of the aforementioned is hard to delineate – it’s hard to argue that The Thin Red Line, Life is Beautiful, or Elizabeth deserved to be in the same category as Saving Private Ryan (which Shakespeare beat for the award). No, what cinephiles fail to take into consideration when criticizing the Oscars is that many of the great films, many of them considered classics of the artform, never even make it to the nomination phase.
Take the 2002 BFI List of the Top Ten Films of All Time. Vertigo (#2), The Rules of the Game (3#), Tokyo Story (#5), 2001: A Space Odyssey (#6), Battleship Potemkin (#7) and Singing in the Rain (#10) all failed to make the Academy cut. Of the rest, The Godfather films (#4), Sunrise (#8) and 8 ½ (#9) actually won, while Citizen Kane (#1) received a Best Picture nod, but was beat by How Green Was My Valley. While its easy to argue the BFI selections, what’s obvious is that a yearly awards ceremony, especially one guided by politics, campaigning, knee-jerk pop culture reactions, and occasional outright incompetence can’t be counted on to determine the greatest movies ever made. Indeed, as stated before, it can barely get the choices from specific years correct.
This year, Dreamgirls was crowned the de facto winner by more than a couple of cinematic know it alls. As far back as October, those in the know (meaning anyone invited or privy to exclusive industry screenings) picked the Chicago wannabe as musical manna from Heaven. As the minority representative of the cinematic song and dance renaissance, those lucky enough to warrant an early glance were praising the performances and the filmmaking as if no other movie could walk in its superiorly crafted footsteps. When that joke of a journalistic organization – the Foreign Press Club – picked the late December release as its Golden Globe winner for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, the Oscar nom was signed, sealed and delivered. Unfortunately, someone forgot to mail that memo to the people over at Price Waterhouse. When Selma Hayek and AMPAS President Sid Ganis announced the five choices for 2006’s Best Picture, Dreamgirls didn’t make the cut.
Bill Condon and crew shouldn’t care. They are in very good company. United 93, a film debated and deconstructed since its early April release was also supposed to be a shoe-in. So was Little Children, the Todd Fields scourging of suburbia and Children of Men, Alfonso Cuoran’s amazing future shock social commentary. Sadly, they will all have to settle for vindication in the lesser categories. Then there were those complicated, occasionally misunderstood movies that made several Best of Lists – The Prestige, The Fountain, Inland Empire – that many felt really represented the best of what post-millennial moviemaking had to offer. Even Borat was bandied about as a potential Oscar choice, since the industry is always willing to reward a newcomer who brings something fresh and original to the overall dynamic.
On the flip side, almost all of the five films that finally made the cut have major detractors. Aside from The Departed, which got universally glowing reviews, and The Queen which has parlayed its pitch perfect performances by Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen into more than a little comprehensive appreciation, each potential winner has its fair share of critics. Probably the clearest two examples of contentious nominations are Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. Each one has loud detractors – the main condemnation being that each effort is cloying, scattered and lacking real narrative focus – and, oddly enough, both are now the favorites to win the award. It’s Crash all over again, except this time, there’s no agenda-oriented darling waiting to be disappointed. Indeed, with no one film making the pitch as overall favorite, Oscar has done something strangely similar to its decisions of the past – it has picked a group of nominees that tend to flatter the film that eventually wins.
In this case, if Little Miss Sunshine picks up the trophy - as it did recently at the Producers Guild of America - it will be seen as a victory for the small, independent feature, a direct slap in the face of a film like The Departed that has big budget, high profile performers filling out its artistic reality. Babel – a real example of love it or hate it histrionics - has the same A-list pedigree and when it took home the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Picture, it pushed its way beyond the rest of the foreign filmmaking pack. Letters of Iwo Jima remains the wild card, Clint Eastwood proving more popular among Academy members than he is elsewhere in the entertainment community. For most groups, this look at the war from the Japanese side, featuring a non-English speaking cast and dialogue delivered in subtitles, was a better Foreign film choice than Best Picture candidate.
Now there are some who contend that Oscar really reserves recognition for the year’s best in other, less prominent categories. They point to examples of wins in Best Original Screenplay (The Coen Brother’s Fargo, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) and Best Director (Ang Lee, Roman Polanski) as ways of determining artistic merit. This year appears no different. Paul Greenglass gets back for the United 93 snub here, and Children of Men finds itself fighting for recognition among the Best Adapted Screenplay throng. Even overlooked efforts like The Prestige appear in the technical awards (Art Direction and Cinematography) and some unlikely nominees– Marie Antoinette, Apocalypto, The Good German – turn up here as well. They would call it “spreading the wealth”. Most film fans would consider it avoided complete embarrassment.
It’s easy to dismiss the Academy Awards, an organization that failed to recognize the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Robert Altman, Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa (and, NO, those late in life Honorary nods don’t count). And there are times when they get it right, even in spite of themselves. But as the new millennium motors along, it is becoming clearer and clearer that a Grammys style revamp is in order. If Babel or Little Miss Sunshine wins, the chasm between critics, film community, and the general public will grow wider and more antagonistic. While no one expects a more People’s Choice approach, or even a broadening of the nomination criteria, it is clear that the same issues that plagued the documentary branch (which still is less than perfect) are complicating the major motion picture picks.
By moving the awards up a couple of weeks, and avoiding the intense lobbying that went on in year’s past, Oscar is trying to remove both the predictability and the relevance from its annual love-in. While many might see this as a step in a positive direction, those whose tastes run more toward the unusual and eccentric will continue to see their choices ignored, their well-honed aesthetic substituted for a mob rule mainstream mindset. And as long as this kind of collective approach continues to dominate the Academy, their all but predestined picks will continue to fall further and further out of classics consideration.