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The State of the Race: The Return of the “Oscar Movie”

It’s been a while since we could say there was an “Oscar movie,” but that old trope roared to life today, as did the Oscar Whisperer, Harvey Weinstein’s dominance with the AMPAS. Longtime readers will recall that we always had a saying around here, “never underestimate the power of Harvey Weinstein.” I think we can bring that back today.

What is an ‚ÄúOscar movie‚Äù? Well, it‚Äôs what various Oscar pundits were banking on when they saw The King‚Äôs Speech in Toronto: it hit every note for Oscar — a period film, a bravura leading male performance by a beloved actor, a story that makes you care about the characters, and even a little Holocaust/World War II thrown in for good measure.

And “Oscar movie” is also one that does well at the box office, but not too well. It does well with the critics but not too well. It usually bespeaks the better qualities of human beings, our higher selves, our ideal selves. It helps us out when times are tough by giving us a little tiny bit of hope in an otherwise cruel and cynical world. An “Oscar movie” is the stuff of legends.
This is why Anne Thompson and Dave Karger and a few others were so convinced The King’s Speech could sail through the critics’ awards and come in second place a few times but never win big. They knew it was a movie the Academy would respond to because they’ve been responding to these kinds of movies for decades. But what about the last five years, I would say back to them. Doesn’t that count? No Country for Old Men, The Departed, The Hurt Locker – great movies by visionary directors, doesn’t that count for something? No. Because once a movie comes along that hits the right notes for Oscar, all bets are off.

A return to traditional filmmaking goes hand-in-hand with a return to conventional wisdom: The critics? They don’t matter, they’re sheep. The Globes and the NBR? They don’t matter because they’ve been bought off. A publicist said recently that the critics are afraid of being irrelevant and the bloggers are whores, driven by ad buys. (Which raises the question, What’s a publicist doing palling around with whores?). Perception is everything in the Oscar race, and the perception is that The King’s Speech is the scrappy little British movie that could, and The Social Network is the big old Oscar juggernaut that couldn’t lose. That’s this year’s “Oscar story” so far. And is definitely one that could ride itself all the way to the end.

With 12 nominations, The King’s Speech takes us back to the old days of Oscar. For a long while there, the same old jokes weren’t flying anymore. The old Holocaust joke (although The Reader qualifies, probably). Like it isn’t good enough that Mark Zuckerberg is Big Jew on Campus at Harvard sticking it to the WASPS. It isn’t good enough when you have the stammering King overcoming his disability so that he could lead a people through THE war, the AMPAS war, the Hitler war.

The Oscar race is not over yet. There is still the DGA (I’m starting to think they will give that award to Tom Hooper) and the SAG (King’s Speech will win there), the BAFTAS? Forget about it. It will sweep the BAFTAs. That’s one way the story could go. It could also be split up among many films, like the year Gladiator won Best Picture up against Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ang Lee won the DGA but Steven Soderbergh won the Oscar. Gladiator still won Best Pic (it had also won the PGA).

What is most unusual about The King’s Speech dominance here is that it is a British story, about the British monarchy, made by a British production company. In that way, it does sort of cry out to be this year’s Chariots of Fire, or I suppose Shakespeare in Love Рthese two films were heartstrings movies whose directors were not well known enough to get honored. In both instances, a more lauded, well known director took Best Director.

Looking back over Oscar history, during the time that there were films with ten or more nominations, only two movies got 12 nominations and higher. One was The Song of Bernadette, which walked away with four Oscar wins but did not win Best Picture – it lost to Casablanca, which won three Oscars — but three KEY Oscars: Picture, Director and Screenplay. Song of Bernadette won Score, Art Direction, Cinematography and Actress.

Mrs. Miniver, the only other one besides The King’s Speech, to come into a ten Best Picture race, won big Рsix Oscars Рlead actress, supporting actress, cinematography, score and screenplay. The King’s Speech could go either way. There are only two examples and no other precedents. Neither Casablanca nor Song of Bernadette had won the New York Film Critics, which was the only critics group around then.

So will The King’s Speech be Song of Bernadette or Mrs. Miniver? Likely the latter, considering that, too, was a British film and has this in its synopsis at IMDb:

Mrs. Miniver has to deal with an escaped German flyer who makes his way to her home while husband Clem helps evacuate the trapped British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. Vin and Carol are married but their time together is to be short. Throughout it all, everyone displays strength of character in the face of tragedy and destruction.

Mrs. Miniver all but swept the Oscars in 1942. It’s 2011 and here we are again, right back to 1942 Рepic, World War II British film.

One key difference here, though. Of all of the films that have won Best Picture with 12 nominations, whether they had ten Best Picture nominations or not, Gladiator is the only one that won Best Picture but did not win Best Director. If The King’s Speech doesn’t win Best Director it will become only the second film in Oscar history to do so.

Basically, it’s a rarity to get that many nominations and not win Best Picture, but it’s even rarer still to win Best Pic but not Director. The most reliable Oscar stat now and always is that the director is usually the reason a film is as good as it is, which is why they almost always win along with the Best Picture.

Gladiator and The King’s Speech could share another stat Рthey could end up being the only two films in Oscar history to win the PGA and Best Picture with no other awards. The BAFTA didn’t change their awards to be before the Oscars until after Gladiator won Best Picture. So we can’t count the BAFTA, particularly. The King’s Speech, though, has a really good chance to win the SAG ensemble. It can’t win the WGA because it wasn’t eligible, but it could win both the PGA and the SAG (Little Miss Sunshine did it). The way the Oscar race usually goes is that Tom Hooper would then win the DGA. At which time, the film would simply sweep the Oscar race entirely, with no challenger.

It is a cliffhanger, which makes for the best kinds of Oscar races. No one likes it when it is all set in stone. It is rare and mostly unprecedented for film win so many awards heading into the race as The Social Network has.¬† That alone is not a reason to award it, particularly when people vote with their hearts and not any other part of their body. There is no good reason to award it except that it is the better film. True Grit, Black Swan, Inception, Winter‚Äôs Bone — are all great films.

The Gurus of Gold have all hastily put The King‚Äôs Speech back in the number one position. Its leader, David Poland, has been firmly in the camp of “The Social Network cannot win Best Picture.” It’s too smart, too technical, too mean about human beings to win – the Academy members don’t even know what “hit refresh” means. Most of them only reluctantly changed over to The Social Network when it looked like it was too big to ignore.

So people will say that I was wrong, that I felt so strongly for The Social Network it clouded my objectivity. And that would be correct except for one factor: I really had no other choice.¬† As someone who follows the race, I go by certain things – reviews, early critics awards, box office and buzz. All of those signs pointed to The Social Network. Yes, it was helped by my feeling it was the best film of the year, and that it was one of those movies you just don’t walk by. But you do if you’re not looking carefully enough. Oscar movies are such that you can walk into a theater, see it once, be moved by it completely, and go home. They do not beg second viewings or analysis, particularly. But you have to look closer at The Social Network to get why is such a good movie, to get what all of the fuss is about. Usually this emerges upon second viewing, not first. The same goes for Black Swan, True Grit and Inception: you have to look deeper. You don’t have to, of course. You can just not. Plenty of people are cheering for The King’s Speech. Plenty of people love it – and it follows that old Oscar rule of being to sit anyone in front of it, man, woman, child, grandparent and they will at least get it, if not love it. All of the other great films up for the award this year are not so easily grasped, and especially, not moving in the way The King’s Speech is.

Finally, a word about the Academy snubbing Christopher Nolan. All I can say to that is what I said already on Twitter – if he wants the Academy to like him, to really really like him, he has to change the way he makes movies. He has to dumb them down enough and make them sappy enough to get in one go. Should he ever make that kind of movie he will win big. But that would mean he’d have to stop making the kinds of movies he makes. And that would be the bigger crime. It’s their loss, not Nolan’s.

In the end, the trick is not minding.¬† No, really. Watching Oscar can be the world’s most frustrating — however trivial — experience. So one just has to adjust and lower expectations and act accordingly.

Finally, there is a possibility that we are seeing, and will continue to see, a backlash against the babble and the chatter. No one likes being told what to do, least of all voters. Not saying that isn’t part of it – god knows there are twenty times as many Oscar sites and pundits and predictors than there were when I started. The Oscar race, and those who watch it, are always evolving, whether that evolution takes us all in a new direction, or whether it tumbles backwards to a time more people could comprehend and understand.

The Facebook movie represents the new. The King’s Speech represents something more reassuring and familiar. When things tip too far in one direction, the natural response is for everything to tip backwards.

Seems like old times.