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Oscar Roundtable Take 6

Happy New Year Oscar Watchers! To give you a break from my prattling, here are few intelligent voices to shed light on the state of the Oscar race. The participants are:

Damien Bona, Inside Oscar
Pete Howell, The Toronto Star
Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today
Kris Tapley, In Contention
Pete Hammond, Notes on a Season, LA Times
Steve Pond, The Odds at
Nathaniel Rogers, The Film Experience
Erik Childress, The Oscar Eye
Craig Kennedy, Living in Cinema

1) Katharine Hepburn won Best Actress a record four times. She never once showed up at the Oscars to accept the award. But her multiple wins prove that, back then, if they thought you deserved it you won. Why do actors have to show up at awards and walk the line now? Why do they have to do so much publicity in order to win? Is it that there is more competition or that they don’t build stars the way they used to?

Bona: Katharine Hepburn could get away with it when she won Oscars number 2, 3 and 4, because she was already legendary for her independence, and her non-conformism was part of her appeal.  When the movie neophyte didn’t show up when she won for Morning Glory in 1934 (1932-33 Awards), however, she was roundly criticized by Hollywood and the press, especially since she didn’t send a telegraph to the Academy acknowledging the honor.

During the studio system days, it was implicit that nominees would attend, and the top brass was not pleased when their contractees did not comply. (All that free publicity!) Luise Rainer balked at going the night she won for The Great Ziegfeld because she was weary from a drive back down from San Francisco, but MGM publicists showed up at her house, gussied her up and dragged her to the Biltmore. When Paramount executives got wind that Bing Crosby had no intention of attending in 1944, they sent out minions to search his favorite haunts, finding him playing golf. He poo-pooed the thought of showing up at Grauman‚Äôs Chinese, and it was only when his mother called and insisted he attend that he reluctantly agreed. And he picked up a Best Actor Oscar. In the 1950s, when a good number of Hollywood movies were being filmed around the world, it was understood that some nominees wouldn‚Äôt be able to get to the ceremony so no-shows were not uncommon. Proxy acceptors used to be allowed (most infamously, Joan Crawford accepting for a stuck-on-Broadway Anne Bancroft, who beat Crawford‚Äôs What Ever Happened To Baby Jane co-star, Bette Davis), but Sacheen Littlefeather‚Äôs acceptance for Marlon Brando put an end to that practice. Numerous nominees didn‚Äôt show up in the late 1960s and 70s, a period when, to many people, the Academy Awards seemed hopelessly out-of-step with modern times. Old Hollywood did not look kindly upon such absences, which included at various times Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Peter O‚ÄôToole, and, of course, Woody Allen. On the other hand, Jack Nicholson always showed up ‚Äì- even when he epitomized New Hollywood cool — and if he wasn‚Äôt a nominee, he still showed up as a presenter.

The Oscars started to regain their luster in the late 70s and the 80s, largely, I’ve always thought, because many of the people now in contention for Oscars, were of the generation who grew up watching the Academy Awards on TV. The Oscar, therefore, had a mythical quality to these nominees, and it was again cool to be there. But not so cool that Paul Newman didn’t stay away when he won Best Actor in 1986.

Howell: This is a bit of an apples and oranges argument, I think. Katharine Hepburn was a unique actress, a once-in-a-lifetime talent. She cultivated a mystique about her which including snubbing the Oscars. She was able to get away with it because she was Hepburn. I think much of today’s dog-and-pony-show campaigning is due to insecurity and herd mentality. Actors are very insecure, and if they think they have to campaign to keep their fire burning or because the other kids are doing it, they’ll keep at it until it kills them. Unless their name happens to be Mo’Nique…

Wloszczyna: The media has increasingly scrutinized the behavior of nominees up until the night of the Oscar telecast, often even before they are officially in the race. As a result, an actor’s performance off-screen while campaigning seems to count as much if not more than the one in the movie. Look at the way they stalked Mickey Rourke’s every move and ill-chosen epithet last year when it appeared he would be among the chosen. Most believe Russell Crowe’s outburst at the BAFTAs damaged his chances to win for A Beautiful Mind.

But sometimes lying low helps, too. Sean Penn did not do a fraction of the press that Rourke did and he won for Milk. Sometimes letting the performance speak for itself seems to work, too — especially for those who are notoriously anti-media.

However, I think most nominees show up simply because it is the rare human who does not want to be lauded for their work, especially in a public forum and by one’s peers. As far as I know, Meryl Streep has shown up practically every time she has been nominated — even the 12 times she hasn’t won. Couldn’t she pull a Hepburn and get away with it? Probably. But as a consummate professional, she probably wouldn’t want to miss it.

Tapley: It’s the nature of the Oscar circuit beast. The squeaky wheels get the grease. If you want a nomination or win, you have to show the Academy that you want it. Case in point: Terrence Howard, who was any and everywhere in 2005 and managed to push Russell Crowe out of the line-up because he was hungry for it. Same with Sean Penn, who finally played nice in 2003 and got his Oscar.

There’s also a noise factor at play. Lots of squeaky wheels. So aggression tends to stand out, but even that is a delicate balance. The thing is, we’ll never know whether it is all “necessary” because of the mentality from studio to studio: “If we don’t do it, someone else will do it, so we’ll do it.” And I think that mentality has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The rush and aggression are expected now, and if the Academy isn’t seeing it out of your camp, you’re likely to be passed over. Sad, but true.

Hammond: It was a different view of things then. There weren’t all these other shows, all this blogging, all this year-round talk. It was a big deal but people thought they could skip it or just “send for one” as Bob Hope quipped after absent Sophia’s 1961 win for “Two Women”. It was in fact a very uncommon year to have all four acting winners present and in those days the Academy allowed substitutes to accept so the winner knew they could get their message across without having to show themselves. There’s so much more money involved now and its written into contracts that actors have to support their pictures, and in some cases it includes the Oscar process. With satellite technology they also know there’s probably no way of getting around attending in one form or another. Today’s stars are born of a different time and mentality when it comes to awards. It’s rare now for one not to show up. The Oscars have evolved.

Pond: Are people losing because they don’t do publicity? I mean, Meryl Streep shows up at all the shows and acts gracious and submits to endless interviews, and she hasn’t won in 26 years. Mickey Rourke worked the town relentlessly and lost to Sean Penn, who doesn’t give a damn. Sure, potential nominees are expected to do more publicity these days. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. But except in a few obvious cases, I think it’s dangerous to attribute reasons to why people won way back when and why they win now.

Rogers: I’m not sure anyone has to do any of this, actually. It depends on the year and the playing field. But I think we see stars walking this line because everyone is scared to lose and if it’s a close race in particular, you will lose if the other person is playing the game and you aren’t.

Childress: Because voters have notoriously short memories. And if they don’t do the press their competitors surely will. When Meryl Streep wins this year – she will show up.

Kennedy: I’ll have to defer to people who know their Oscar history on this one. Did they actually campaign for awards back in Hepburn’s day? It’s such a process now, though I wonder how much of that process actually determines the winners. What really goes on in the minds of Oscar voters as they confront their piles of screeners and crowded screening schedules and then ultimately sit down to make their picks? Does all the hubbub that comes before make any kind of impact or is it just for people like us to pick over and argue about?

I know voters don’t exist in a vacuum, especially not now with the internet, but beyond ensuring certain movies and performances are the most likely to be seen, I doubt any of it much matters. The voters will be more likely to watch the films everyone is chattering about, but that doesn’t mean they’ll like them the same.

2) What impact, if any, do you think the so-called “bad press” about Mo’Nique has had on her own chances to win?

Bona: Why would an Academy voter care whether or not Mo’nique attends the New York Film Critics awards presentation? Plenty of winners over the years have missed the NYFC celebration, and news of her absence has certainly not seeped into the general consciousness. We’re not talking about Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan behavior here. I never look at Jeffrey Wells’s website, and I don’t know what his credentials are, but a couple people asked me what I thought about what they deemed his “racist vendetta” against Precious in general and Mo’nique in particular. Having read his posts, I don’t think Mo’Nique has anything to worry about. Who would take seriously anything this guy has to say? His clownish comments tell a lot more about him than they do about Mo’Nique, and are merely fodder for Oscar junkies on the Internet.

Howell: Two weeks ago, I would have said “a lot.” I’m not so sure now. The air seems to be leaking out of the Precious balloon, and there’s considerably less heat concerning Mo’Nique’s performance in the film.
She may not have fatally hurt her cause by seeming to be disinterested or arrogant, but she didn’t help it, either.

Wloszczyna: Very little. If she somehow doesn’t win, it will be more because the voters found it hard to warm up to what is perceived by some as a “downer.” Plus, Precious has done only modest business compared to the hype that was initially heaped upon it. I would venture to guess, however, that once the noms could out, Mo’Nique might be putting herself out there a bit more.

By the way, save for appearances at the Toronto and Venice festivals, George Clooney has done no press that I am aware of for Up in the Air. Given that moviegoers have been far less responsive to the film than critics have, he is far from a shoo-in for best actor lately. So where is his bad press for not supporting his movie?

Tapley: I don’t think the “bad press” for Mo’Nique is even visible outside the horseshit ouroboros of the media. I doubt AMPAS is paying attention. She’ll win the Oscar and everyone who participated will be embarrassed.

Hammond: No impact. I don’t think most members pay attention. She hasn’t said any of this stuff herself in any major public forum including her talk show. It’s all second hand. Lions Gate has been smart to keep quiet and just let the awards keep rolling in. Her MO’mentum hasn’t slowed one bit and likely won’t.

Pond: Virtually none. Does the Academy care if she shows up at the New York Film Critics Circle dinner? Of course not. In fact, they’d love it if she skipped every single awards show, because they know she’d never skip the Oscars (pride and Oprah wouldn’t allow it), and her appearance at the Kodak after shunning everybody else would just reinforce that their show is the only important one.

I suppose that if she does something awful at the Golden Globes, or comes out on her show and says the Oscar doesn’t mean a thing (which she didn’t do), it might cost her a few votes. But she’s going to have to do something a lot worse than snubbing some critics and offending a few bloggers before Oscar voters will care.

Rogers: I think Mo’Nique is exempt from this. If you have the goods in a big way (i.e. a performance that just about everyone agrees is masterful and “the best” inside of a film that they need to honor in some way) you’re going to win. Mo’Nique has so she will.

Childress: Hopefully a lot. Although I would rather see her lose because people would acknowledge that she gave an embarrassingly overwrought performance rather than some pithy nonsense that she’s being difficult. Eddie Murphy losing for Dreamgirls because people don’t like him or because Norbit was in the national consciousness – if that was the case – is pretty sad. Supporting Actress is an area that loves to spring surprises though and wouldn’t be out of the realm to think that Anna Kendrick walks away with it – because she gave a really terrific performance – even with Twilight on her resume.

Kennedy: None. Whatever bad taste she leaves in people’s mouths will be balanced by the simple fact that people are talking about her. At this point, being in the conversation for better or for worse is better than being out of it. Some of the people deluded into thinking they’re mounting some kind of a Mo’Nique take down are just doing her a favor. As far as awards go, I’d rather be Mo’Nique right now than the universally beloved Hal Holbrook. He gave a terrific performance in That Evening Sun and is a lovely man, yet you wouldn’t know it from Oscar buzz. Maybe he should get in a ruckus with a hotel clerk or a tranny hooker on Santa Monica boulevard.

What’s annoying is that if Mo’Nique loses because people genuinely didn’t buy the 1.5 notes she was repeatedly asked to hit in Precious, everyone will chalk it up to bad press to the detriment of whoever actually wins.

3) Oscar ballots are being mailed as we speak. What film do you feel has the heat right now? And do you think that it will last through the next two months? In other words, is it more important to peak during nominations or afterwards?

Bona: As we speak, Avatar is the “must-see” film and the one that everyone’s talking about, so it has that “heat” quality. Because Avatar is such a visceral experience, its impact may lessen in the collective memory of Academy members by the time the final ballots are marked. On the other hand its admirable (if simplistic) anti-Bush Doctrine/anti-Neocon politics should resonate with voters. I’m sure that, because the film swept up at the critics’ awards, many Academy members are finally checking out The Hurt Locker. I also suspect many of them will be wondering what all the fuss is about. But to me, right now, Up In The Air feels like a horse whose jockey is holding him back until the last turn and the final stretch –- it’s undeniably one of the favorites in the race and, like Slumdfog Millionaure last year, it seems that it will have staying power.

Howell: I think it’s more important to peak after the nominations, as long as you’re confident that your profile is high enough to snag a nomination. Voters have been watching their screeners during the holiday break, and I suspect Crazy Heart, The Blind Side, A Serious Man and It’s Complicated will all benefit from this increased interest. For the films that voters actually left the nest to see, Avatar has the big-screen heat, and Up In the Air is somewhere in-between, because it’s also available on screener.

Wloszczyna: Avatar seems to have the heat for best picture now, with The Hurt Locker second and Up in the Air slipping along with Precious. And it has yet to peak given its box office receipts. Meanwhile, Up in the Air should be hitting its stride right now, too, but it hasn’t caught on with the public nor with those pundits who should be writing thumbsuckers about how it captures the emotional state of the nation in economic decline. Instead, it seems the deep thinkers are more wrapped up in Cameron’s fantasy world and what it all means.

What does it mean timing wise? If you have the goods, which Eastwood proved with Million Dollar Baby and Cameron is re-enforcing with Avatar, being the last one out of the gate might work to your advantage. Plus Avatar has the advantage of taking the technology of filmmaking to a new level, besides being an enjoyable viewing experience. It has impact and a great back tory with Cameron’s comeback. And all that might keep it hot for several more months.

Tapley: Avatar, Avatar, Avatar. It landed, it worked, it made (and is making) money. Timing couldn’t have been better in this instance. And fortune as well. I think it’s better to begin peaking around the end of November. Just looking at a general timetable of events, it makes the most sense. You can land too late, too, but if you have the goods and you can establish yourself dominantly between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I think those films tend to last. But it’s still a long haul. Anything can change your trajectory in an instant.

Hammond: For the nomination process it is important to peak right now. This is where NINE is going terribly wrong because it’s getting bad press about its boxoffice and the word “flop” is being thrown around (unfairly I think). For the final though you want to peak in about four weeks. Right now Avatar has the heat. Whether that lasts is a good question but unless people start piling on it , I can’t see it slowing down too much.

Pond: If you’re peaking during nominations and you get a truckload of nods, that’ll keep your momentum going for a while by itself – and if that peak is big enough, the votes you get from the earliest voters might be enough to carry you through. And if you peak late, that peak had better be big enough to make up whatever ground you’ve lost to the earlier hot movies. So I guess it’s more important to have a really big peak, or to make sure that your valley isn’t too deep, than to make sure your peak comes at any particular time.

Rogers: Right now I think Sandra Bullock, Up in the Air and Avatar have ‘heat’. It’s more important to peak prior to nominations because you can’t win if you aren’t nominated. Heat is tricky to maintain in a crowded/worthy field but you can always try and scooch closer to the fire after the nominations are announced.

Childress: If critic groups continue to bestow The Hurt Locker with awards then its going to be a real threat to Up In The Air as the safe choice. The DGA is likely not only to nominate Kathryn Bigelow but give her the award. I don’t think there’s any serious challenger to her right now except her ex-husband – and he’s won already. Peaking now or then depends on a number of factors. Hurt Locker is peaking now with the year-end awards. Up In The Air could just be getting warmed up at the box office where Precious has lost its steam there. You would rather be the team with positive momentum going into the playoffs.

Kennedy: For the majority of people who fell for it, Avatar has struck a chord in ways that few if any movies do each year. My original pick, Up in the Air, went wide this weekend and did ok, but not great. More importantly, no one is really talking about it right now. Avatar’s stellar week and 2nd weekend at the box office tells me that enthusiasm isn’t likely to trail off anytime soon. It’s my pick for the darling of the hour and I think it might have enough phosphorescent juice to last until final ballots are cast.

Somehow you have to peak twice. Once to get a nomination (easier this year, though there are still plenty who will be left out in the cold) and then more strongly for the 2nd voting. I’m inclined to say it’s still too early to pick a front runner, but that’s a chickenshit response so I’m sticking with Avatar.

4) Now that the Oscar year has at last come to a close, do you think it’s more helpful for voters to have ten slots? Or do you think five are adequate considering the lineup?

Bona: It‚Äôs certainly making the race more interesting, as there are additional angles to analyze. For instance, the mostly negative reviews and poor word-of-mouth would certainly keep Nine out of a 5-nominee race, but are there enough Musical Queens in the Academy to push it into the top 10, supporting it on the grounds that a nomination for even a lousy singing-and-dancing picture is good for ensuring more musicals coming down the pike?¬† Will the beneficiaries of the extra slots be films that wouldn‚Äôt have made it otherwise — a well-received summer blockbuster (eg, Star Trek), a small movie with passionate devotees ((500) Days of Summer), an animated film (Up) or two (The Fantastic Mr. Fox) – or just more of the same (Invictus), or worse (The Blind Side).

And after the nominations are announced, we’ll all have fun debating which nominees were the fillers for the 6-10 spots.

Wloszczyna: This year, five would have been plenty. Including something like Nine or The Lovely Bones is a reach and those titles will make the cut only if the voters even bother to fill out all 10 of the slots on their ballots.

Howell: I won’t be able to answer this question intelligently until after the nominations and perhaps after the Oscars. It’s an interesting change and perhaps a good one. But if the nominees are weighed down with crap, it won’t be so interesting or good. We’ll see.

Tapley: Five is adequate. Most voters don’t put enough thought into those five. Even more won’t put a lot of thought into 10. This has been a great year of film, in my opinion, and I think it’s interesting that this is the year the 10 was introduced, given the cross-section of great indie and commercial cinema, but such an instance is a bit rare.

Hammond: I think it makes it a curious year to be sure but I would be just as happy with five. Still I think the bigger question of art vs commerce and what it means to the future of Oscar is a fascinating one being played out with the big ten . For me it is making it more interesting all of a sudden and the post game analysis should be eye opening.

Pond: I think five slots are adequate considering the lineup, but those extra five spots will be nice for deserving films like “An Education.” And no doubt for a few undeserving ones too.

Rogers: I’m guessing that 5 is more than adequate — 10 would be awfully exciting if all of the precursor voting bodies weren’t trying to “speculate” on what might get nominated by Oscar and were trying to evaluate the year’s best instead. Then you’d see more disagreement and there’d be more suspense. As it is, barring maybe 1 spot here and there, everyone is pretty sure about what’s going to get nominated. And it should be less predictable than that.

Childress: No, I think you’re going to find the ten nominees as a way of the Best Picture race becoming a cop-out. In the past we all bemoaned one or two films getting screwed out of a nomination. Now that is going to shift into thinking that 3 or 4 are not deserving of a nomination. If we still had just five nominations the race would likely come down to Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious and Up In The Air. Full of the usual debate with a blockbuster and indie fave thrown in for balance. Animated features screwed again we would all think. But would anyone be surprised with A Serious Man or An Education not getting nominated? Would there really be an outrage if Invictus or Nine were left off? I doubt it. For every Where the Wild Things Are that we hope might have a legit shot to be called a “Best Picture Nominee” there’s an equal shot that junk like The Blind Side could get in as well. The new system is only going to expand the bitching ten-fold.

Kennedy: I don’t think the 10 slots really helps or harms voters. The impact is all on the films themselves. It gives more films the hope of a nomination and it allows the perceived front runners to lay back a little bit and save themselves for after the nominations are announced. If you take the favored front runners, Avatar, Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker, you have to ask yourself if any of these would get left out if there were only five slots. At this point, I don’t think they would (I guess that’s why they’re front runners, eh?), but Summit would’ve probably felt the need to spend more money on The Hurt Locker than they have so far and they might not have been able to.

5) Do you think ten Best Picture nominees will make for the most exciting race for the Best Picture win in recent history? Or is one film towering above all others, like last year’s Slumdog Millionaire?

Bona: As of right now, no film is in control right now.  Hurt Locker dominated the critics’ awards, but has not resonated with general audiences, and Academy voters tend to be more in lock-step with the public than with critics. Things may start falling into place over the next few weeks after the Globes and the Critics Choices are awarded. Or then again given the wide-openness of this year’s races, they may not.

Howell: I don’t know if 10 will make it more exciting, and I don’t see any towering going on. A lot of supposed “locks” seem to be falling by the wayside. For those who think Avatar has what it takes to win, I remind them that the Academy doesn’t usually go for that kind of film. The first Lord of the Rings had the most nominations for 2001 and it received few prizes.

Wloszczyna: Right now, it is Avatar’s to lose and The Hurt Locker, despite its lack of box office, feels like the only title that could offer any real competition — especially as the air seems to be seeping out of Up in the Air.

Tapley: Ten doesn’t make it anymore exciting than five did or 15 would. It’s rarely a five-horse race, it certainly won’t be a 10-horse race and looking at where we are, it’s rather clear that three, maybe four films have the most heat for a win. So there will be six or seven painfully obvious bridesmaids. At the end of the day, keeping five this year might have in fact made for a more exciting race because the bottleneck for a nomination would have had us glued to the proceedings.

Hammond: I don’t see one film “towering” and in fact it could be a very split year: Avatar gets Pic and techs; Up In Air takes screenplay; Hurt Locker gets director; Inglourious Basterds grabs original screenplay etc etc.

Pond: Despite the potential “Avatar” may have to become an Oscar colossus, I don’t think one film is going to tower above the field. But neither do I think the 10 slots will make the race any more exciting. I think that the true contenders will be pretty obvious – “The Hurt Locker,” “Avatar,” “Up in the Air,” maybe one or two others – and the rest of the field will be in the “happy just to be nominated” category. We won’t have an exciting ten-picture race by any means; we’ll have a race between four or five films, with a bunch of category-fillers watching from the sidelines.

Rogers: I don’t think any film is the “obvious” winner at this point like Slumdog was last year. The Hurt Locker is a much better film than Slumdog but it doesn’t share that movie’s ‘just getting started’ trajectory going into the nominations. It’s going to have to fight hard to be seen by all the voters in order to win and even then it’ll be an uphill battle because it’s not exactly a comforting film and we know how they feel about happy endings.

Childress: The race is going to be interesting – but it will have nothing to do with there being ten nominees since we can virtually knock 7 or 8 of them out of the running by the end of nomination morning. The race is likely going to come down to The Hurt Locker and Up In The Air at this point. Avatar will have its cheerleaders but history would dictate that a director is not getting two Best Picture wins in a row.

Kennedy: From a pure horse race standpoint, it still feels interesting at this stage with a handful of films perceived as having a real shot, though the rest of the field feels like filler so I’m not sure the 10 slots have had much impact yet. Plus, the critics have weighed in, but we haven’t heard from any of the guilds besides SAG nominations. In order to crown a true favorite, we have to see what the professionals are thinking. If a juggernaut emerges then, it won’t matter if there are 20 slots.