[19 November 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If we are to believe the non-professional pundits, as well as actual journalists invested in the entertainment industry, the race for Oscar 2006 is more or less over. At a selective advanced screening of Bill Condon’s December offering Dreamgirls, critics got their first chance to see the big screen adaptation of the famous Broadway spectacle – and apparently, it was pretty good. David Poland, of Movie City News and The Hot Button, practically anointed it the next Best Picture prizewinner (better than Chicago, he argues rather convincingly) while mentioning multiple times that Jennifer Hudson (in the role that made another like named performer – the fabulous Ms. Holliday – a certifiable diva) is guaranteed to win a statuette, no matter what category she ends up in.
Even Drew McWeeny – a.k.a. Moriarty over at Ain’t It Cool News – finds himself dumbstruck by Dreamgirls prize potential. Pointing to Poland and his “astute analysis”, he comments that, while he doesn’t “do” the whole pre-award season buzz thing, a film like this more or less mandates such a discussion. After arguing for Eddie Murphy as a potential Best Supporting Actor candidate, the rest of the review (or preview, as it were) is an unabashed love letter to Condon and everyone involved. And he is not alone. The Daily Mail recently put up a piece proclaiming Dreamgirls “brilliant” and figuring prominently in Britain’s own Bafta Awards, while The New York Times feels that the film has all the “hardware” locked up.
Now there is nothing wrong with such strong prognostications. After all, ever since the Oscars stopped being a self-congratulatory exercise by the controlling old school studio system, the race toward Academy Gold has always been a vicarious cinephile thrill. Who among us hasn’t cheered on a personal favorite (All That Jazz, Pulp Fiction) only to see a lesser effort (Kramer vs. Kramer, Forrest Gump) pick up the eventual trophy. We all back our long shots and pray that an overlooked acting or directing effort gets the recognition it so richly deserves. So picking favorites and laying odds is all part of the Oscar game. Heck, office pools and Las Vegas betting parlors enjoy the whole handicapping process, separating the winter awards season wheat from the also-ran chaff.
But in this new ghost-modern Internet driven experience, where information is instantly accessible 24 hours a day, endlessly streaming from keyboards to webpages worldwide, the desire to be first – and then, hopefully, right – is driving film scholarship right out of the year end debate. Granted, no amount of online criticism or complimenting can thwart the efforts of someone like Harvey Weinstein when he has a film he wants to win (the less than exceptional Shakespeare in Love), and there will always be instances where an obvious frontrunner (Saving Private Ryan) falls under the weight of a well-positioned publicity campaign (see above). Yet how fair is it to declare a winner before the race is even over? And better yet, haven’t the so-called experts learned their lesson from previous preemptive predictions.
Take 2005, for example. When Crash came out in May, no one was chatting up its Oscar potential. Oh sure, a few critics saw through its cloying racial realities to argue for its excellence as a social statement, but very few were featuring it as an Academy front runner. Then September arrived, and with it, the much beloved Brokeback Mountain. Instantly, the awards season race was over. The sobering story of gay cowboys in love was declared the preemptive favorite, and as the various ancillary organizations (The Golden Globes, various critics groups) bestowed it with numerous additional accolades, the competition was more or less over. Forget all the other films coming out between October and December – no one was going to eclipse Brokeback.
Except, it didn’t win. And it wasn’t even late season offerings like Good Night and Good Luck or Munich that unseated the supposed victor. Instead, that lamented long shot from the start of the Summer known as Crash claimed the top prize (much to the dismay of the celebrity audience, one might add). It was a shocking turn of events, a situation so unpredictable that it led to a series of lawsuits among the many producers, all of whom now wanted a taste of Oscar’s heady broth. It’s an aesthetic division that still stings, even eight months after the fact. Yet it appears that the critical community, so anxious to label a winner in advance, still hasn’t learned their gun-jumping lesson.
While backlash is a harsh term – and no great piece of art deserves to be purposefully taken down because of its perceived or real popularity – there is something to be said for the concept of tripping the frontrunner. Declaring a preemptive favorite is just asking for a last act comeuppance. Granted, some years the pickings are so slim (1990, for example) that almost anything can win (as in the dismal Driving Miss Daisy). But in an era where independents challenge the major studios for artistic supremacy, each contest can be far too close to call. This year alone, films like The Departed, The Prestige and The Queen have garnered major award oriented buzz. But by giving the nod to Dreamgirls, said entries become non-entities in a race they’ve really yet to run.
Very few writers have the power of their convictions. When Gene Siskel stuck his neck out in 1996, declaring that he would not see a better film that year than March’s release of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, his end of the year assessment stayed the course. The difference of course is that the late, great Chicago Tribune critic wasn’t picking the potential Oscar winner. He was giving his opinion, and much to his credit, he held fast to his convictions. Today, a messageboard mentality tends to lead most online thinkers. They are swayed by the vocal outcries of groups unrecognized and geeks unsupervised. Granted, groundswell and grass roots support are much easier to achieve when you’ve got millions of potential minions reading your words, but there is always a possibility that such a connection can be abused. Declaring a winner this early smacks of such a soap box stance.
Dreamgirls may indeed deserve to be the favorite. Bill Condon is a talented professional (already an Oscar winner for his Gods and Monsters script) and if Ms. Hudson is half the performer of the original Effie, she’ll be dynamite. But having been anointed the de facto champions accomplishes two very destructive things – it sets everyone up for a potentially mighty fall, and displaces dozens of films and/or actors who haven’t had their moment in the limelight yet. Instead of a legitimate determination between like positioned pictures, what we end up with is a comparative exercise where a predetermined benchmark sets the tone for all others to meet, or miss.
In the case of Brokeback Mountain, the early declaration of its Oscar worthiness set up a scenario by which all that came afterward was compared. If it couldn’t hold up to Ang Lee’s wistful western, it was instantly placed behind such a so-called standard. In addition, a film like Crash found itself doubly dismissed. Since it had already been released, and failed to measure up to Brokeback‘s level of Best Picture praise, it was seen as a mere nominal unknown. Smart scribes took note that its eventual nomination was sending a signal to all those self-serving predictions. But its eventual win provided another, more troubling trend. By declaring a winner before all the votes were cast, the election was rendered more or less an afterthought. While it may work in politics, the players in motion pictures don’t appreciate it. And, obviously, they rebelled.
What this means overall is that Dreamgirls becomes a target, the unintentional king of the hill that all other films will be gunning to unseat. Campaigns will be built around the notion of playing catch-up to a critically called victor, and those who make their living undermining the positions of populists – i.e. bloggers – will plant the plentiful seeds of discontent. You can already see it starting. Quoting the Times article, Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel takes great pride in pointing out that two websites (Hollywood Elsewhere, The Envelope.com) have lowered the musical’s Oscar prospects post-preview, and he himself argues that the film, and its participants are more of “Golden Globes winner(s)” than Academy triumphs.
So while the rest of the year’s fine films jockey to reposition, and Condon and company put on their amiable armor for the coming barrage of backseat prognostication, such a situation begs the question – why make such early predictions? Wouldn’t it be more aesthetically apropos to wait until all the possibilities are presented before securing your selection? Dreamgirls probably deserves better than being the envisaged prom queen before all the attendees arrive. And if it doesn’t claim the award, what does that say for those who declared its victory months before? There is a big difference between “Oscar Worthy” and Oscar won. Apparently, in today’s hype-driven hubris, that lesson’s long been forgotten.