This year, a coronation will be held during the Academy Awards ceremony. It happens periodically: An actor has waited an eternity to win an Oscar, and then a year comes when his or her performance is so undeniable (and, maybe, the competition not as strong as usual), and suddenly it’s the moment.
That’s why King Leo the First will be crowned at Sunday’s Oscar event. For years now Leonardo DiCaprio has worked his keister off in a variety of ambitious, ultra-serious roles. He’s been a pretender to the throne before, nominated for The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator, and a couple of other roles. But his physically exhausting stint in The Revenant will likely put a statuette up on his mantelpiece.
Aside from that sure thing, there are some toss-ups in the Oscar race this year. Best Picture remains a tantalizing guess: Will the Oscars go with the momentum of The Revenant, or reward the social-issue punch of Spotlight? Or does the political satire of The Big Short catch the mood of the moment?
I have no proof whatever that when the final ballots were tallied, late at night at the Academy, and the prospect of a second year of the dreaded hashtag #OscarsSoWhite hung over the room, considerable thought was given to The Messenger of this news. Messengers.
I do know that it was really nice to see that Guillermo Del Toro and Ang Lee were given the first swath of nominations to read. The second list was handled by redoubtable Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and John Krasinski.
It was a gallant show of inclusiveness, before the truth was out and hellfire rained down from every side.
– Sylvester Stallone but not Michael B. Jordan? So, who was Creed about, an old, slow white guy from Philly?
– Idris Elba nowhere in sight, unless you count Netflix ads.
– Straight Outta Compton? Not exactly the screener that . . .ummm, mature Academy voters bring out to share with poker cronies.
– Women? Don’t start. Freud said it best, “My god, what do women want?”
– Spike Lee? Maybe no one could pronounce Chi-Raq. In any case, he just got an honorary Oscar. . . in November, at one of those ceremonies that happen way, way off-stage. Check out his speech, every last minute of it.
Don’t even want to think what he’s saying today. No, actually, I do.
Last year it seemed so easy: 12 Years a Slave was the pre-ordained Best Picture winner, Matthew McConaughey and Cate Blanchett had acting awards locked up, and nobody was going to deny Frozen in the animation category.
Well, the 87th annual Oscar race has been a little more fun. Even though certain movies have been winning regularly with groups such as the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice (I’m a voting member in the latter), I do think there’s actual suspense about the big prizes this year. It could turn into something because of the way the votes might split. Boyhood stands as the odds-on favorite, and critics’ awards seem to favor it. But Birdman has won some key prizes, including the nod from the Directors Guild.
More complications: The late-arriving American Sniper is the only one of the Best Picture nominees to qualify as a real box-office smash. That does count for something with Academy voters. And then there’s the Selma kerfuffle. Oscar commentators and political pundits took umbrage at the film being shut out of most categories, especially Best Director, even though it was nominated for Best Picture. Could there be a strong response to the perceived snub (as there was when Argo didn’t have director Ben Affleck nominated, but the movie won Best Picture after all)?
Set out to write about Academy Award upsets and right away the ground starts shifting under your feet. Oh, some neck-snappers we all remember—like Jack Nicholson coming out to present the award for best picture of 2005, opening the envelope, and saying, “Whoa.” Moments when the title of the movie everybody figured to win suddenly wasn’t the one being read aloud.
But those are ya-hadda-be-there moments. Looking back over Oscar history, you encounter what we might call upsets-in-reverse—instances when a movie or a performance that has long since become part of the racial unconscious did not, in its day, win proper recognition. Then you find yourself in a sort of “What did they know and when did they know it?” situation. How could they have been so blind? We’ve collected some of that kind of upset as well.
Upsets come in all valences, triumphant and appalling. Truly the ways of Oscar passeth understanding. But that needn’t spoil the party.
1939 It was Hollywood’s golden year. Stagecoach … Mr. SmithGoestoWashington … Ninotchka … TheWizardofOz … OnlyAngelsHaveWings … YoungMr. Lincoln … WutheringHeights … OfMice and Men … GungaDin … Midnight … Drums Along the Mohawk … Love Affair … The Four Feathers (OK, made in England, but still). Yet it was the making of one movie that obsessed fans all year long, and when it ended up with a then-record 13 Oscar nominations, no one doubted that David O. Selznick’s nearly-four-hour Technicolor megaproduction Gone With the Wind would take the brass ring. A lot of brass rings, including best director for Victor Fleming despite the fact that some half-dozen directors (preeminently George Cukor and Sam Wood) had worked on the film. Most of the major players were nominated (including Thomas Mitchell, albeit for Stagecoach, not GWTW); newcomer-to-Hollywood Vivien Leigh won best actress as Scarlett O’Hara, and Hattie McDaniel edged fellow cast member Olivia De Havilland for best supporting actress. Yet what was wrong with this picture? Although novelist Margaret Mitchell had written the book visualizing Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Gable had to settle for a nomination merely (best actor went to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips; we’d have given it to Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart). The King took it like a man, of course. But watch GWTW today and try telling us all that Selznickean flapdoodle would be tolerable without Gable’s movie-star gravitas to center it.
The Academy Awards were born in 1927, the brainchild of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, a studio head whose original idea for an organization to negotiate labor disputes and industry conflicts evolved into the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The awards themselves were an afterthought and initially more public relations gimmick than egalitarian celebration of the arts. Every member of the Academy (then as now an exclusive organization where membership is by invitation only) was involved in nominations but a committee of five judges picked the winners and Mayer, of course, oversaw it all. If he didn’t actually handpick the winners, be surely put his thumb on the scales. By 1929, Academy members were voting on the final ballots themselves and in 1934 the ceremony moved from November to March. Additional categories were added and other refinements made over the years (Foreign Language Film got its own statue in 1957) but otherwise the Academy Awards as we know them today were born: a glitzy event that brought the stars out and handed out trophies.
That leaves practically the entire silent movie era out of Oscar history. Hollywood had reached a zenith in terms of craftsmanship, glamor and ambition when The Jazz Singer was released before the first awards were handed out. By its second year, sound films dominated the awards.
Let’s imagine an alternate history where the Academy Awards had been born earlier and (as long as we’re dreaming) with a more egalitarian purpose from the outset. What kind of winners might you have in an era when movies were more international and there was no such thing as a “foreign language film” when credits and intertitles were easily replaced for each region? What landmarks leading up to that first ceremony, where the twin peaks of populist blockbuster and artistic triumph—Wings and Sunrise—represented the Best of Hollywood, might have been chosen in the golden age of twenties cinema, or the birth of the feature film in the teens, or even the wild days of experimentation and rapid evolution in the decades previous?
Here are my picks for a few key awards in the imaginary Oscar history.
1928: Metropolis Best Picture, Cinematography, Production Design
Released in January of 1927 in Germany and two months later in the U.S., this landmark was just too early for consideration in the inaugural awards (handed out in May, 1929). So I’m giving this early 1927 release a clear playing field with its own Oscar year: Academy Awards Year Zero. Sure, science fiction isn’t a big player with the Academy, but otherwise it has all the hallmarks of an Oscar favorite: epic canvas, astounding sets, visionary visual design and the timely theme of man struggling to find his place in the rapid spread of technology and machinery, all under the firm control of filmmaker Fritz Lang. Hollywood had never seen anything like it before. The film was soon edited down for and the original cut was lost for decades. The 2010 restoration restores scenes, characters and story lines unseen since opening night and confirms just how grand Lang’s vision was.
By the time the Oscars air on March 2, most moviegoers will not have been able to get to theaters to see all the nominees. But thanks to the era of DVD, Blu-ray, streaming video and movies on demand, those who really want to cram for Hollywood’s big night can catch up on a bunch of the films at home.
Some of the front-runners still require a theater trip (more on that later), but for those of you who want to order in and prep for your office pool from the comfort of your own couch, it’s possible to cover a lot of ground.
The biggest talkers
“Dallas Buyers Club” picked up six nominations, including best picture and best original screenplay, but its best chances are in the acting categories, where Matthew McConaughey is a front-runner for best actor and Jared Leto is up in the supporting actor category. The two already took home Golden Globes for their performances. It’s available on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, and On Demand.
“Captain Phillips” also received six nominations, including best picture, adapted screenplay, and actor in a supporting role for Barkhad Abdi, a non-actor who made a vivid debut in the role of a Somali pirate. Star Tom Hanks was overlooked for his equally strong performance. It’s available on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, and On Demand.
Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” earned Cate Blanchett her sixth Oscar nomination and she is a wonder as a Blanche DuBois in contemporary San Francisco. That would make fellow nominee Sally Hawkins (up for best supporting actress) the film’s Stella. It’s available on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, and On Demand.
For an Oscar year in which several big awards were foregone conclusions, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences soiree this past Sunday included its share of surprises.
It also featured an equable, perhaps accidental, distribution of the prizes among a range of movies. When we consider how set the Hollywood community appeared to be on anointing the sixth-best nominee as best picture, it’s gratifying that 2012 won’t go down in Oscar history as a sweep year.
Yes, as predicted here and just about everywhere else, the George Clooney–Grant Heslov–Ben Affleck production Argo copped the big one. But it won only two others, tying with the execrable Les Misérables and running one behind Life of Pi. Scoring two each on the tote board were Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the James Bond movie Skyfall, and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
It was Django that drew first blood, with the second supporting-actor win by Christoph Waltz in a Quentin Tarantino movie. As in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Waltz was really a costar rather than supporting player. And once again Waltz gave an impeccably gracious acceptance speech, naming and literally bowing to his esteemed fellow nominees and praising his writer-director through artful repurposing of Tarantino’s own words.
Did Waltz’s sorta-surprise win foreshadow an evening of academy voters taking pointed stands against pinched-face controversy? Django Unchained, an outrageous historical revenge tale framed as a spaghetti Western, had been deplored (especially by people who refused to see it) for its ballsy, N-word–laden take on slavery. What about Zero Dark Thirty—only the for-real best movie of 2012—glibly maligned for endorsing the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation” even though it hadn’t done so?
Best Pictures ‘Argo’ is better than The Broadway Melody, Cimarron, Cavalcade, The Great Ziegfeld, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, The Sound of Music, The Sting, Rocky, Gandhi, Driving Miss Daisy, Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Pictures ‘Argo’ can orbit with Wings, Grand Hotel, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Life of Emile Zola, Mrs. Miniver, All the King’s Men, An American in Paris, From Here to Eternity, Marty, Gigi, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, Tom Jones, My Fair Lady, A Man for All Seasons, In the Heat of the Night, Oliver!, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, Platoon, Rain Man, Dances With Wolves, Forrest Gump, The English Patient, Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, Gladiator, Crash, The King’s Speech
Best Pictures ‘Argo’ can’t touch All Quiet on the Western Front, It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It with You, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Going My Way, The Lost Weekend, Hamlet, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, The French Connection, The Godfather, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, Amadeus, The Last Emperor, The Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Departed, The Artist
Best Pictures ‘Argo’ can’t see with an astronomical telescope How Green Was My Valley, Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Apartment, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather Part Two, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker
Best Picture nominees that lost (top shelf) Grand Illusion, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, The Maltese Falcon, The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Sunset Blvd., Shane, Anatomy of a Murder, Dr. Strangelove, Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, Nashville, All the President’s Men, E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial, The Right Stuff, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Saving Private Ryan, Brokeback Mountain, Winter’s Bone
Best Picture nominees 2012: a ranking Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, Lincoln, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables
God love Tom Shales and this Tweet last night: “For the first time ever the Oscar show is worse than the Red Carpet crap that preceded it.”
For anyone who does not regularly rejoice in the work of the former Washington Post TV critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, he blogs here. For fear of suddenly sounding a whole lot smarter than I have a right to, I haven’t yet read a word of it, beyond his blog headline and this Tweet. Soon as this is posted I plan to luxuriate in Shales’ gentle, dove-like tones, since we seem to have seen the same show.
One of the hundreds of tidbits the Academy chummed to its ravenous readers was an interview with the show’s producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago, The Bucket List, Footloose) who confessed that for years, they’d been dying to stage the Oscars since they’d knew exactly what they’d do, “But no one asked us.”
Then, for better or worse, they were asked.
Let’s go with the best first. The awards themselves, over which they had no control, were wide-ranging and generous (if your name isn’t Steven Spielberg.) It seems almost impossible not to love Ang Lee, people seem to beam in his presence, and he returns the favor. The whole theatre seemed to love his winning Best Director for Life of Pi, a seemingly impossible-to-pull-off, spiritually charged and breathtaking film.
Argo, the movie inspired by the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, is going to win the Academy Award as best picture of 2012. Go ahead, place that bet in your office Oscar pool, but don’t expect to reap much advantage, because everybody else is just as sure that Argo is going to win.
The signs are impossible to miss, or to deny. Like The King’s Speech a couple years back, and like The Artist the year after that, Argo has been sweeping the film industry’s pre-Oscar contests: the Producers Guild Award, the ensemble award from the Screen Actors Guild, “outstanding directorial achievement” from the Directors Guild (DGA), and the BAFTAs—the trophies from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts—for best picture and direction. Since many of the voters in those various contests are also members of the Hollywood academy, they’ve already vouchsafed a de facto peek at a lot of Oscar ballots.
There is, to be sure, a notable break with the usual pattern. Most years, the director of the movie about to be named best picture will be called to the podium to collect the Oscar for best direction. And much more often than not, that Oscar victory has been predicted by a DGA win. So we’re on track, right? Ben Affleck, star and director of Argo, won the DGA. Yes, but. Whereas the five nominees for the DGA and those for the best-director Oscar tend to be the same, or pretty much the same, this year only two of the DGA nominees made it onto the Oscar slate. And neither of them was Ben Affleck.
How and why this happened boggles the mind; we’ll probably never know. What we can say is that, far from blighting Argo‘s chances for winning best pic, the snubbing of its director seems to have inspired a backlash. Argo lovers are all the more determined to honor their movie, and mere Argo likers who might have been inclined to vote for one of the other eight best-picture nominees have swung aboard Argo. Also—as past best-director winners Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Richard Attenborough, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson can tell you—the biggest voting bloc in the academy is the actors branch, and they like to see one of their own make good. That Affleck has made good as a director after often being belittled as an actor only adds to the payback fervor.
For the record, those other eight nominees for best picture are: Amour, a rare instance of a foreign-language film breaking into this category; Beasts of the Southern Wild, the fave rave among American independent films in 2012; DjangoUnchained, Quentin Tarantino’s expectedly outrageous foray into spaghetti-Western territory; LesMisérables, from the decades-long-running musical; Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s version of the “unfilmable” mystical novel; Steven Spielberg’s historical drama Lincoln (which leads with twelve Oscar nominations); SilverLiningsPlaybook, the best romantic comedy in living memory; and ZeroDarkThirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s distillation of the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden.
As for the directorial scorecard, only Ang Lee and Spielberg carry over from the DGA slate. MIA along with Affleck are fellow Directors Guild nominees Bigelow (winner three years ago for TheHurtLocker) and Tom “LesMiz” Hooper (winner two years ago for TheKing’sSpeech); their slots on the Oscar ballot have gone to Michael Haneke (Amour), David O. Russell (SilverLiningsPlaybook), and Benh Zeitlin (first-time director of Beasts of the Southern Wild).
We’ve spoken of Argo‘s conquest of industry awards (and don’t forget the goofy Golden Globes!), but it should be noted that Affleck’s crowd-pleasing movie barely showed up in critics-group award reckonings. In such contests, Bigelow/ZeroDarkThirty and Haneke/Amour mostly traded first-place honors, with Lincoln (though curiously not Spielberg) crowding for second position.
The discrepancy is easy enough to account for. Bigelow’s, Haneke’s and even Spielberg’s films are complex works of art that challenge audiences and then leave it up to those audiences to deal with the implications of what they’ve witnessed and experienced. Argo is a well-made movie with a fascinating (and mostly true) story to tell, of how six U.S. foreign service workers were exfiltrated from Tehran during the 1979 Iranian hostage-taking crisis, and when it’s over, it’s over. No resonance, no takeaway. An entertaining, quality movie, yes indeed, and there can never be an oversupply of those. But “best film”?
So, since it can’t be Ben Affleck (and the academy no longer allows write-in votes), who takes best director? It’s anybody’s guess. Spielberg has won twice already, and although Lincoln is much respected, I don’t get the sense people are excited about it. LifeofPi must be accounted an awesome technical achievement (the costar and most of the action is all CGI), but should it win Ang Lee a second Oscar? Haneke doesn’t make a wrong move with Amour and, denied the chance to vote for Bigelow, I guess I’d go with him. David O. Russell isn’t my kind of director visually, but SilverLiningsPlaybook is the first movie in 31 years to score nominations in all four acting categories, and he’s gotta rate for that. Zeitlin doesn’t belong here.
Best actress: SilverLiningsPlaybook‘s Jennifer Lawrence (“Hey!”) is the favorite, and certainly mine, but it will be deeply moving if Emmanuelle Riva, of Amour, celebrates her 86th birthday with an Oscar win; hers is one of the bravest performances ever. Also plenty worthy is Jessica Chastain as the fierce CIA analyst in Zero Dark Thirty. Inappropriate: Naomi Watts, in TheImpossible (but not enough of it); Quvenzhané Wallis, best thing about Beasts of the Southern Wild (but a kid).
Best actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln—take it to the bank.
Best supporting actress: I don’t see how anything stops Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables, though I wish something would. Sally Field deserves the Oscar for her Mary Todd Lincoln, and Helen Hunt deserves another for TheSessions.
Best supporting actor: His lovely work as the sports-obsessed Philly father in Silver Linings Playbook is the first performance Robert De Niro has woken up to give in years. He could even win (and I cast my top National Society of Film Critics vote for him). But keep an eye on Tommy Lee Jones in his rather too showcase part in Lincoln. Philip Seymour Hoffman, TheMaster, and Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained, both world-beaters, seem out of place in the supporting category. Alan Arkin’s vaudeville turn in Argo was easy meat.
Further remarks plus notes from the battlefield next week. The Oscars will be awarded this coming Sunday, Feb. 24, 5:30 p.m. on KOMO-4.
Ah, the glories of infinitely expandable space in online editions … and so, a sidebar.
It seemed, still seems, unthinkable that anyone could deprive Tony Kushner of the Oscar for his Lincoln screenplay, which raises subtlety to epic proportions. And yet Kushner shares a category with Chris Terrio, the screenwriter of Argo, and if this turns out to be one of those sweep years when Academy voters just don’t know when to quit, it becomes horribly thinkable that Kushner could lose. And speaking of category … Adapted Screenplay? I know that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful Lincoln history Team of Rivals is technically the source of Lincoln, but to consider Kushner’s script as anything but an original seems picayune. Also nominated: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook.
Original Screenplay is stronger yet: Amour (Michael Haneke), Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, who won the BAFTA), Flight (John Gatins), Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola), Zero Dark Thirty (Mark Boal). Shut your eyes and throw for the dart board, you’re going to hit a winner no matter what. My preference: Haneke for Amour, then the Moonrise Kingdom boys.
Amour will also almost certainly be announced in the Foreign-Language Film category. Of course, predicting that award is dicey because of the peculiar, but entirely appropriate, rules restricting who gets to vote for it. Only members on record as having seen all five nominees may mark a ballot, so even if one film has loomed largest in publicity and critical acclaim, it’s possible that the all-but-unseen (by everybody else) little nominee from Upper Volta is going to pull an upset. No, there’s no film from Upper Volta in this year’s batch, but there are Kon-Tiki (Norway), No (Chile), A Royal Affair (Denmark), and War Witch (Canada). Amour, set in France with dialogue spoken in French by French cinema acting royalty, is technically an Austrian film.
In Film Editing, William Goldenberg will take home an Oscar—but for Argo or the more meticulously shaped Zero Dark Thirty, on which he shares credit with Dylan Tichenor? Other films nominated: Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook.
It is grotesque that Roger Deakins, arguably the world’s greatest living cinematographer, has no Oscar for his mantel. Skyfall marks his tenth nomination, and is (top this for trivia) the first James Bond film ever nominated for Cinematography. In Deakins’ favor, Argo isn’t a factor here. However, Life of Pi is, and that film is continuously stunning to behold. However (like 2009 Cinematography winner Avatar), it’s a movie wherein a lot of what we see is the work of Visual Effects people of various specializations. What cinematography there is is Claudio Miranda’s. Also nominated: Anna Karenina, Django Unchained, Lincoln. Roger and out.
Original Song, Costume Design, Sound Mixing, etc. are not in my wheelhouse. And anyway, I always do abysmally in Oscar pools. —RTJ
Expanded version of a column that appeared in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, Feb. 20, 2013
Waded through many double-page newspaper ads lately? Checked any late-night talk shows? With Academy balloting closing today it’s last ditch stand time for nominees, who’ve suddenly popped up on every flat surface to remind Academy voters of their existence.
It’s not just the ballots… although it IS, of course. But also, all those end-of-the-year movies have just been released on DVD – and, bien sur, Blu-ray – and their reappearance has given their stars a chance for one last chorus of “Hey, big spender, spend some time with me.”
The results have been. . .informative. You might imagine after The Hunger Games and especially her nominated work in Silver Linings Playbook that Jennifer Lawrence was a peppy thing, but who could have predicted she’d throw in a mention of anal leakage to David Letterman? Bet you he didn’t.
Helen Hunt’s Letterman moment was calibrated to a nanosecond. She’s gorgeously naked for a good deal of The Sessions, slipping between motel room sheetsin her role as a sexual surrogate, so she and Dave kicked that one around to a fare-thee-well. She got to rap him on the knuckles for taking the low (i.e. leering) road with his questions, which only made him… ummmm, aim lower. Big surprise, huh, Helen?
The really electrifying thing about all their merriment was the name that never once came up: John Hawkes.* He’s the actor in the other half of that bed, Hunt’s un-nominated co-star. Hawkes’ deeply soulful playing of this wry, shy Berkeley writer and (partial) iron lung patient, anchors The Sessions and gives the film its greatest depths.
Everybody gets to gripe about the Academy Awards. Sometimes it’s a matter of “How could you nominate that mess for anything but oblivion?” Sometimes it’s disbelief at a great performance or great camerawork being passed over to reward something not-necessarily-bad but not nearly as good. Then there are the compensation awards — giving somebody an Oscar for second-tier work because their first-rate achievements have somehow never won in the past. (Certainly not meaning you, Martin Scorsese!)
Those are all fun conversations to have, but in this case we want to call attention to something different — some amazing, mostly appalling oversights. There’s a surprising abundance of great and/or universally admired and/or culturally indispensable and/or dearly beloved films that were ignored by Oscar the year they came out. In some cases, totally ignored: not even a nomination, let alone a statuette.
Fortunately, most of our candidates have been, or will be, redeemed in the fullness of time — in many instances outlasting and outshining the pictures that beat them in their day. Better yet, all of them are available for us to resee and reevaluate. Pass the popcorn.
The Searchers (1956)
What movie most influenced the “American renaissance” filmmakers of the ’70s? If you answered The Searchers, take a cigar, pilgrim. This towering Western, acclaimed as the supreme example of its genre, the masterwork of director John Ford, featuring the best performance ever given by John Wayne, and firmly ensconced as one of the Ten Best Films of All Time in international polls devoted to such things, has left its DNA in dozens of later movies, from Taxi Driver to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Each year, new audiences discover its visual grandeur, shattering power, and the enigma of its monstrous hero Ethan Edwards: long before it became fashionable to take a “revisionist” view of frontier life, Manifest Destiny, and the Indian wars, Ford and Wayne had wrestled with the demonic side of Western myth and achieved a deeper, more disturbing complexity than anyone would afterward.
And yet in 1956 The Searchers came and went as just another, perhaps slightly above-average Western. The film, director Ford, John Wayne, supporting actor Ward Bond, the never-more-vivid Technicolor and VistaVision cinematography by Winton C. Hoch — none received an Oscar; none was even nominated. Probably they didn’t expect to be, given the way both the industry and the culture regarded Westerns then. As Ethan Edwards would say, “That’ll be the day!”
And the 1956 Oscar went to … “Around the World in Eighty Days”
There is always such a feeling of inevitability by the time the Oscar nominations roll around. Even moved back to early January, it arrives after weeks of Top Ten lists, an unending array of critics awards, and predictions from every pundit with a blog. At least they beat the Golden Globe Awards this year, but the final tally is still measured against the consensus.
This year, no surprise, belongs to “Lincoln,” which entered the nominations as the film to beat and emerged with 12 nominations and an almost sure lock on Best Actor. The Best Picture category swelled to nine nominees, spreading the recognition around muscular studio pictures, big Hollywood Entertainments, and demanding independents. “Amour” emerged as the foreign upstart and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” the American indie that could. The front-runners and underdogs stake their positions and the critical kibitzing begins.
That’s not to say there were no surprises. Who foresaw five nominations for Michael Hanake’s harrowing “Amour,” or eleven for the survival drama by way of a storybook tale “Life of Pi” (albeit mostly for technical categories)? “Les Misérables” took eight nominations yet was ignored in directing and writing categories, which doesn’t bode well for Oscar night. “Silver Linings Playbook” scored better than expected and “Zero Dark Thirty” underperformed. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a game of numbers, it’s about the movies and performers and artists. The numbers just help take the temperature of the race.
Why do we care? Because politics and oddsmaking aside, the Oscars still matter to us, both as a star-studded spectacle and a sign of industry appreciation. A nomination is indeed an honor (certainly more of an honor than the Golden Globes) and a snub is still something to get worked up over. So here is our annual scorecard on Oscar’s slights and oversights: they shoulda been a contender.
The new shapeshifting incarnation of this category can shrink to five nominees or sprawl to ten films, depending on the Academy’s complicated formula. This year it’s a substantial nine nominees, including the inevitable but undeserving “Les Misérables,” and yet it left out Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” a film celebrated on best lists across the country (it was the fourth-ranked film on the MSN poll). The story of puppy love and adolescent runaways in a summer wonderland is Anderson’s most mature film to date and the most authentically benevolent and affectionate piece of filmmaking to come out of the American cinema in ages. I guess that kind of mix of storybook playfulness and unabashed sincerity isn’t considered serious enough, but I’ll take it over the often condescending clichés of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
The raw dysfunction of “The Master” may have been too uncomfortable for Academy voters but I appreciate its uncompromising intensity. There were cheerleaders rooting for “The Dark Knight Rises” to legitimize the comic book movie and “Skyfall” to honor Bond, but they’ll have to settle for their blockbuster box office.
Yes, we’re past the point when anything more needs to be said about the 84th Oscars, and yet I’ve seen no mention of the most wackily wonderful moment of the evening. It afforded a look inside Academy ritual, and an instance of late-blooming justice being done against considerable odds. So please indulge one last Oscar commentary.
It was around mid-show and the category about to be announced was Best Editing. Four of the five films in contention were Best Picture nominees, which is typical, and understandable: surely a picture’s putative Best-ness has a lot to do with the excellence of its various elements? So Editing would just be part of the politics, the gamesmanship, the emotional rollercoaster of the night. Hugo had taken the lead with two wins right out of the gate, Cinematography and Art Direction—would Editing further hint at an upset of frontrunner The Artist, with Martin Scorsese’s editorial right arm Thelma Schoonmaker adding a fourth Academy statuette to her mantel (she’s won for Raging Bull, 1980; The Aviator, 2004; and The Departed, 2006)? The other Best Pic contenders whose editors had been nominated were Moneyball (those wonderful boardroom schmoozes! Brad Pitt working the phones!) and The Descendants (uh, OK). The fifth slot had gone to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a much-ballyhooed Christmastime release that hadn’t exactly flopped, but neither had it inspired brushfire enthusiasm among critics or ticket-buyers. An “It’s an honor just to be nominated” entry if ever we saw one. Your seats are way in the back, guys.
Then The Girl won. And as co-editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall were making their way down the aisle, you could read the mutual WTF body language and expressions plain as day. When they got to the podium they made it explicit: we weren’t expecting this, we have prepared nothing to say, but thank you David and, er, yeah. Exit, pursued by a chuckle.
“David” was director David Fincher. At last year’s Oscar ceremony Baxter and Wall had collected the selfsame award for editing his The Social Network. Back-to-back wins are rare. That, even more than The Girl‘s overall also-ran status among 2011 films, was why they weren’t expecting to be called to the stage again on this particular night.
But they belonged there, because their editing has a lot to do with why Fincher’s movie is going to find more and more favor over the years. People will stop worrying that there was a 2009 Swedish film rendering of the Stieg Larsson bestseller because, with the exceptions of leading actors Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, it doesn’t hold a candle to the American version. Fincher’s movie runs only a quarter-hour longer than its predecessor but encompasses much more of the material, atmosphere, and teeming gallery of characters (including the Vanger dead) in Larsson’s 600-page tome. Steven Zaillian did the adaptation, a heroic task, but it’s Fincher’s visual and aural detailing and the at-times-subliminal editing by Baxter and Wall that set it before us and make it play, laminate past and present with breathtaking translucency.
The secret of having a fine night watching the Academy Awards is having a horse in the race, and I had two: Meryl Streep, whom I couldn’t bear to see lose again, not after that performance, and Undefeated, a documentary longshot about high school football players in North Memphis,Tennessee, that didn’t stand a chance in a field that stretched from Pina to Hell and Back.
So, understandably, our house echoed with shrieks, after Undefeated’s win. You may remember the bleeping disbelief by one of its pair of young director-editors, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Oscars in hand.
As the extraordinary Manassas Tigers’ coach Bill Courtney says, “Football doesn’t build character; football reveals character.” Undefeated reveals the almost overwhelming personal struggles of three of Courtney’s young black athletes as they move toward manhood, captured by the kind of filmmaking “luck” that comes from being there, day in day out, recording routine moments and ones of high and sometimes almost hidden emotion.
One of these came on the filmmakers’ first day with Montiel, known as “Money,” a small, speedy offensive lineman and honors student. He took Lindsay and Martin behind his grandmother’s house where he lives, to show them his pet: a tortoise. As he picks it up, explaining gently how its hard shell protects the soft creature inside, we get the first glimpse of the heart on each side of Undefeated’s lens.
If you saw The Blind Side, and think you already know this territory — you don’t. There’s no Sandra Bullock (lord love her) facing genteel opposition as she steps in to change the life of one gifted black player. If Undefeated’s kids see college football as the only way out of their flat-lined lives in this weed-filled, scraggly patch of North Memphis, they can also see the odds as clearly as we can.