The Guild-ed Cages of Awards Season

Sometimes, the communal consciousness of the cinematic community gets it “right”. Of course, by ‘right’ we mean modeling most of the critical consensus that arrives via the various journalistic organizations and collectives providing their positions over the last few months. Awards season is all about a shared coming together, about a year’s worth of performances and personality whittled down to a determination of ten, or five — and then finally one. As trophies come and go, as bottles of champagne are uncorked and gift bags bulge with unnecessary trinkets, the suspense dissipates, each new member of the annual media shouting match removing one more layer of intrigue to the seemingly predetermined list of winners.

Of course, there is always a baby to come along and soil the bathwater, and this year it’s the Director’s Guild of America. The DGA, almost always a bellwether for who will win the coveted Oscar for filmmaking, is rarely ever wrong. Even when they are — Stephen Spielberg’s snub for The Color Purple, Ang Lee and Rob Marshall’s Guild wins vs. Academy loses — they tend to be on the correct side of the situation. But over the weekend, the DGA pulled one of those unbelievable movie biz boners that will have movie lovers kvetching until the next time they nullify reason. In a decision of deceptive bends, they gave Tom Hooper — a UK TV name with only four features to his name — the year’s highest honor.

Look, The King’s Speech is a very good movie. It’s a calculated crowdpleaser that substitutes urbanity and British wit for in-depth psychological explanations or action scenes. It features fantastic performances, a wonderful script, and one of those bigger than real life true stories that skirt specifics to simply “feel” right and authentic. Like The Queen, it remodels English royalty as flawed individuals struggling both inside and outside the manipulated monarchy. It’s a funny, familiar film. While it will probably also take home the Academy Award for Best Picture (thanks a lot, Producers Guild of America), it is not 2010’s supreme achievement in cinema.

In fact, it’s hard to see just what Hooper did to deserve the DGAs love. He didn’t mold the amazing acting work of stars Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, or the rest of the considered cast. He did not write the script — that was left to playwright David Seidler (who had previously proved the materials merit on stage). While he signed off on each one of them, he did not build the sets, design the costumes, or digitally manipulate the backdrops to recreate pre-War era England. In the end, Hooper was like a general contractor. He subbed out all of the important work and then sat back and made sure the camera was in the right place. Even the question of keeping things in focus was the job of cinematographer Danny Cohen.

While that may seem like downgrading Hooper’s efforts, it’s actually a matter of fact — and artistic distinction. Ever since the French founded their famous “auteur” theory, there have directors who made their aesthetic presence known, who placed their outsized vision directly on the screen for everyone to see and sense. Like judges who are accused of rewriting the laws instead of merely interpreting them, these filmmakers inject passion, not passivity, into their designs. Hooper, on the other hand, is more of a technician. He keeps the mise-en-scene in check, continually drives the narrative forward, and sprinkles each scene with just the right amount of magic to make it seem accomplished. You can’t pick out what he’s doing well, you just know he’s not doing anything wrong.

While you contemplate that concept for a moment, let’s look back at who he beat. First and foremost, there’s Darren Aronofsky, whose work behind the lens in Black Swan showcases a brash, bold artist eager to embrace genre convention as well as spit directly in its formulaic face. Similarly, David Fincher’s frontrunner status for the Facebook film The Social Network indicated a rare combination of geek love and genuine appreciation for his inventive, elusive mechanics. Christopher Nolan, a stranger to AMPAS recognition but beloved by the DGA, picked up a third nod for the brilliant Inception, and David O. Russell redeemed his ranting, raving self by showing — Terry Gilliam like – that he could handle a measured mainstream movie like The Fighter.

Yet among these arguably gifted filmmakers, Hooper was declared the best. Theories run the gamut from infamous Weinstein interferences and campaigning, to the size of the DGA vs. the far smaller sampling of Oscar. Age vs. youth, classicism vs. an avoidance of the new and predominantly post-modern have also been batted about. But the truth is, as with every end of year stampede, The King’s Speech picked up steam at the strategically correct time. While The Social Network was taking a stand among almost every critic’s group and True Grit was trampling the competition at the box office, the little British biopic that could kept chugging along, working on its endurance in order to make a run for in the prestige playoffs. Everyone else was Lebron James. Hooper and his crew are like the Celtics, or Lakers.

Of course, this doesn’t make the win any more satisfactory. One would hope that a decision like this would be based on merit, not timing. Among the five (and feathered out to include The Coens and a couple others), Hooper barely makes this writer’s top ten. Indeed, David Poland of Movie City News said it best when he suggested that any one of a dozen or so known names could have made The King’s Speech and done as good — or even better — a job as Hooper. It’s hard to say the same for the other nominees. Yet just like the Screen Actors Guild awards that went by the book on 20 January (Firth and Natalie Portman for Best Actor/Actress, Melissa Leo and Christian Bale of The Fighter for Supporting), there’s a weird inevitability to the decision. Just when you think the institutions are catching up with the culture, unpredictable predictability like this steps in and spoils things.

Fincher will survive. So will Aronofsky and Nolan and Russell. Portman’s cute little baby bump will look even more fetching come the end of February, and also-rans like Annette Bening and Hailee Steinfeld will have to feel “thankful” for the mere nomination. After decades of decided handwringing, Hollywood finally has what it wants — a sense of specialness undeterred by surprise or a sense of wonder. A month from now, it will all be over aside from Joan Rivers’ rating of the various fashion flubs. Who knows – Hooper may join that elite group of DGA winners with no Oscar to show for it. On the other hand, each guild seems to be follow a script only a stuffed shirt could create. 2010 promised to be something significant. If showcasing sameness is noteworthy, then we’re right on course.