The Oscar Race

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There is not much to count on in life anymore but one of the constants is that upon the announcement of the Academy Award nominations there will be a significant group of people outraged by the choices made by the group’s almost 6,000 voting members. This is not to denigrate the passionate emotions those who are outraged display. I myself have still not gotten over the fact that Mia Farrow was not nominated for her star turn in Rosemary’s Baby and that movie was released before I reached adolescence (Note: Yes, it’s true, I had opinions even then). Not to mention, we’re not taking into account the biggest Oscar slight of all – Judy Garland losing the best actress race to Grace Kelly in 1955. I mean, all things being equal could you honestly say that you’d rather watch The Country Girl on a loop until the end of time rather than A Star Is Born??? Please.

Lest we forget 1951's blasphemy

Lest we forget 1951’s blasphemy

So you see where I’m going with this.

This year the principal outrage is about the movie Selma receiving only two Academy Award nominations – one for best picture and the other for best song. So powerful were the passions stirred that the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending almost instantly. Among my favorites was:

#OscarsSoWhite that the statue counts as a person of color.

Oh snap!

Oh snap!

Bravo! (or Brava!) to whoever thought of that one.

As a lifelong Oscar watcher, former entertainment reporter, person who has been going to Academy screenings for 30 years, and screenwriter who admittedly would LOVE to at some point get nominated for one of those things as I’m simultaneously made fun of by 50 million people from their beds and/or living rooms, let me just say this:

None of this is fair. And it is NOT a conspiracy of exclusion. The day that the creative types and non-creative types who make up the membership of the Academy could truly agree on what is a good movie is the day when Oscar watching will cease to be an attraction. Or even vaguely interesting. Which, in laymen’s terms means — IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN.

Here’s the deal. Minorities ARE underrepresented in movies. But if you take the entire list of films in distribution in each year, so are — intelligence, depth, humanity, and individuality.

And just think.. 3 years ago this was the Black and White debate of the Oscars

And just think.. 3 years ago this was the Black and White debate of the Oscars

There are a MINORITY number of films in release these days with many of the above qualities and most of those are the ones being considered for Oscar statuettes. That’s a small number compared to the amount of movies each year that can qualify for consideration by the Academy but a large number when taken as a group unto themselves. So given that most categories are limited to five nominees means that when it comes down to it there is A LOT of competition for those top slots.

What happens then is that it becomes a matter of taste. Well, all you have to do is go into the recently revamped bland, near empty, high-tech nightmare that accounts for the new lobby of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and you can see that its ingenuity in that area is – to be kind – sorely lacking. While it does deserve credit for keeping the traditional cushy red velvet seats in the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre – still the best sound and best place in town overall to see a movie – the design of the new lobby itself tells you all you need to know about the organization’s taste level at this moment – or really, any moment. And that is – well, go down the list of nominations and judge for yourself. The one thing that is for certain is that you can find quite a bit not to like.

The only Oscar lobby we care about this year

The only Oscar lobby we care about this year

It’s difficult to defend the Academy’s record for the employment and recognition of non-white, non-male and non-heterosexual people on the whole. On the same token, it’s equally difficult to find much consistency in many of their choices. For instance, if the 21st century of Academy voters were truly white-centric why did they award Oscars to 12 Years A Slave last year for best picture, screenplay and supporting actress, among the film’s nine nominations? If they are so white, traditional and such an insular club, how is it that they failed to even NOMINATE the unofficial KING of Hollywood directors, Steven Spielberg, for best director on The Color Purple in 1986 yet saw fit to vote the movie a whopping 11 nominations back then?

Apparently having brown eyes also puts you in the minority. #creepy

Apparently having brown eyes also puts you in the minority. #creepy

Don’t try to answer because none of it makes any sense and it’s about as fair as who wins the lottery or is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games. Though it is a lot more fun to watch than either. Especially when the right people lose and the wrong people win. Admittedly those are sad facts but undoubtedly true ones.

I took myself to see Selma a few days ago before I weighed in on any of this. I liked the film, which gained power as it went on – not unlike the march for voting rights did in Selma. Its director Ava DuVernay did a fine job and David Oyelowo so powerfully evoked the spirit of the late Dr. Martin Luther King in such a uniquely human fashion that there were occasional moments that felt like discarded behind-the-scenes documentary footage rather than beats of a large scale, mainstream Hollywood-type movie.

And to think he's British!

And to think he’s British!

Yes, it would have been just to finally have an African American woman nominated for best director. In fact, it’s beyond ridiculous that it hasn’t yet happened. But when going over the list of nominees, who clearly doesn’t belong and should absolutely be eliminated?

Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Not going to happen. Those two are the frontrunners of arguably the most unusual and complicated films made this year. So that leaves three more slots.

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Morten D. Tydlum, The Imitation Game

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

One thing's for sure: they all need a haircut.

One thing’s for sure: they all need a haircut.

Well, I for one always feel left in the lurch with Wes Anderson movies (Note: Students don’t hate me and yes, it’s probably a bit generational). Yet given the complicated visual execution here and the fact that the Academy has a new and growing group of younger voters who have finally brought the average age down to somewhere around 60, you can see why it’s hard to argue a case against this. It’s a film that feels hip and quirky and there almost always seems to be one slot for that.

The Imitation Game is, like Selma, somewhat of a film about injustice but unlike the march for civil rights it centers on the life of a little known previously unsung GAY man who pioneered the use of computers which significantly contributed to the Allies winning WWII (Note: Never underestimate WWII stories in Academy circles).

OK... maybe not all of the time.  #sorryangie

OK… maybe not all of the time. #sorryangie

It’s also strangely about humanity and civil rights but also manages to make the puzzles surrounding the computers that baffle most Academy voters in daily life seem decipherable. All told that’s a triple relevance factor overall and it’s hard to compete with that.

That leaves Bennett Miller’s nomination for Foxcatcher, a rather unsavory, artsily-disturbing look at a murder. It has a lot of sparse, directorial flourishes and features a beloved comic actor who has not been recognized previously by the Academy in a stomach churning, disturbing star turn. One can’t imagine it’s the White choice or even the commercial choice. The oddness of it feels like the choice of the director’s branch – a group composed primarily of men who probably related to its themes of maleness.

And yet THIS is the Academy president

And yet THIS is the Academy president

The latter could alone validate the reasons of the outraged and the fact that certainly more female-driven stories need to be made, hopefully by more female directors. Meanwhile, the one female to actually win best director, Kathryn Bigelow, did so seven years ago for The Hurt Locker – a war film with maleness written all over it, despite its female director. 12 Years A Slave had an even more violent underpinning and also got recognized in spite of, or perhaps because of, its quite violent subject matter. Hmmm.

This all does not address the best director omission this year of perennial Oscar alpha male favorite Clint Eastwood for American Sniper, The Theory of Everything’s James Marsh’s unique take on Stephen Hawking, or why Whiplash could get a best picture, screenplay and supporting actor nod while Damien Chazelle was completely left out of the aforementioned category. Did that movie direct itself?

Ageism?

Ageism?

Best actor is an even more impossible competition. Do you by pass by Michael Keaton for Birdman, Eddie Redmayne in Theory of Everything, or Benedict Cumberbatch in Imitation Game? Those three were locks. That leaves two major movie star, star turns. Both Bradley Cooper and Steve Carell left behind all traces of their charismatic and jovial selves in American Sniper and Foxcatcher and if nothing else the acting branch are suckers for that. I would wager at least a box of Red Vines and a small Diet Coke that Mr. Oyelowo came in sixth for a performance that was so good it managed to blend into the movie rather than stand above it. That is a credit to him as an actor, regardless of race. It is just not always the best strategy to net an Oscar nomination in a super competitive year. One only needs to look at the Oscar nominated best actor performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave last year to see the difference. Which begs the question of why Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler was overlooked this year for totally transforming into…well, see it. My guess is he was #7 even though he clearly delivered one of the three best acting jobs of any sex or race in 2014.

Someone get this man a hot meal!

Someone get this man a hot meal!

Of course, this and all other Oscar analyses and prognostications are sheer guesswork.   Yes, we all need a lot more work on inclusion and equal opportunity. But like most of us, Oscar is primarily an equal opportunity offender. Which is to say there is no coherent reason for why they are doing the offending in the first place.  This makes it quite different from the events in Selma and near impossible to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why that film received a paucity of nominations.   Or why some of the others you and I didn’t care for received a plethora of them.

Which doesn’t mean I won’t be watching, waiting and ready to comment when they give out those little suckers for the 87th time next month – along with most of the rest of you.

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3 thoughts on “The Oscar Race

  1. It seems Selma damaged itself by distorting history in a large broad stroke. Dramatic license is warranted for any historical drama, but, there is a line. King’s story didn’t need altering to be powerful, especially one so lazy as to create a fictional additional conflict with the president.

    Zero Dark Thirty suffered from the same thing. A historical film can be good, but with a significant alteration of history, can never be considered great. The academy has always seemed leary of awarding films of similar nature with a lingering lie, or controversy.

    You probably have a better sense of the history of the Academy than I do, but it seems that if there is a conflict of that nature, its a no go for the oscar.

    • That could be a factor but I’m not sure it applies since it received a best picture nomination. There will always be those displeased with what a dramatist does with a historical story since almost always there has to be some tinkering with the absolute sequence of events because life does not happen in three act structure and demonstrable external conflict. It seems more like a combination of many of the elements I described. One factor I left out is that the “Selma” DVDs were sent to Academy members a bit later than the other films and no guild members received them at all. Never underestimate the power of laziness and accessibility in the determination of decisions – on anything.

  2. I’m boycotting the #oscars #4ever because of the #legomovie #snub. #donthatemeginsberg #everythingisawsome

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