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Oscar Roundtable Take Two

In light of the recent twist of this year’s race for Best Picture, I asked a few of the best and brightest in the biz for their input. The participants (in random order):

Damien Bona, Inside Oscar
Dave Karger, Entertainment Weekly
Craig Kennedy, Living in Cinema
Ed Douglas, Coming Soon
Mark Harris, New York Magazine, and Pictures at a Revolution
Pete Howell, The Toronto Star
Katey Rich, Cinemablend
Guy Lodge, In Contention
Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today
Jeff Wells, Hollywood-Elsewhere

1. Do you think The King’s Speech was always going to be the film that appealed to the highest number of voters and that it was only a matter of time before it started winning the big awards? Or do you think it became the stronger pick as an anti-vote to the rest of the more challenging fare?

Bona: After the Toronto Film Festival and even before its Thanksgiving release, The King’s Speech was pegged by most Oscar observers as the movie to beat. In fact, in the last Round Table discussion, a number of us were foreseeing a redux of 1998, with little-known Tom Hooper in the role of Shakespeare’s John Madden watching his movie take Best Picture while he himself loses to this year’s Spielberg, David Fincher.

(Bona, cont.) With The Social Network’s subsequent awards sweep (including the expected-to-have-been-friendlier-to-The King’s Speech National Board of Review and Golden Globes), however, the dynamic changed, and it looked as if a more cerebral film would keep it up and win the favor of Academy voters, with King’s Speech suddenly seeming to have fade into also-ran status. But then Speech’s recent Guild Awards hat trick — a reminder that the people who make movies are closer in taste and sensibility to people who go to movies than to critics — showed that the initial supposition might be were correct after all. The amusing “Odd Couple” interplay, the kindly familial relationships, and the climactic “uplift” of The King’s Speech pushed all the right emotional buttons, and members of the guilds responded in Pavlovian fashion. I don’t think the DGA, PGA or SAG voters were specifically looking to vote against The Social Network, but that they simply enjoyed themselves more watching the British film. Also, people of a certain age ‚Äì and the Academy largely consists of people of a certain age ‚Äì may feel that The Social Network is telling them nothing new. That the ultimate result of an unprincipled quest for unbridled wealth results in unhappiness and isolation is a lesson already taught in Wall Street, Citizen Kane, even A Christmas Carol, Jesus‚Äôs Parable of the Rich Fool and Greek mythology’s King Midas.

Wloszczyna: When I saw Speech all by my lonesome back in August before Toronto, I thought it would be the one to beat. Why? First off, it was hugely entertaining and had top-notch performances by all involved. Secondly, as I think Tom Hooper always does when handling historical-based material, he found a way to bring the past to life and make it very present in a way that is the anti-thesis of most period pieces. It was intimate as opposed to sweeping. Secondly, it cleverly had all the beats of a romantic comedy — the early resistance, the seduction, the relationship-threatening rift, the recovery and strengthening of commitment. In any case, it was one of the few fully satisfying film experiences I had in 2010 up until that point.

I can’t pretend to guess what nearly 6,000 people would think of it but I know how I felt. And I do not know if The Social Network is a more “challenging” film. Biutiful is a challenging. Inception is challenging. But in many ways, Speech and Network are the same film — a man with few social skills who finds himself in a certain place in time where a revolution in communication technology is exploding.

For those who say The Social Network is the movie that tells us more about who we are today, I can’t disagree. But instead of an anti-vote — and the few things I have heard from people who do vote is that they don’t appreciate being told what is the “right” choice as few of us do — I’d say The King’s Speech gives us hope that with all the craziness that faces us each day, sometimes people do rise to the occasion and conquer it briefly. And they rarely do it alone. And maybe that speaks more to what we hope we are than the uglier reality of billionaires screwing one another over on an Internet device that alienates as many people as it connects them.

Kennedy: King’s Speech is a film that is loved by many, liked by most and hated by few. Assuming it wins, it’s that simple. It seemed for a while that The Social Network was that film because of the unanimous critical praise, but in the end the critics don’t get an Oscar vote.

Karger: My hunch was always that The King’s Speech would appeal to the Academy more because of its emotional pull. But I never thought it would sweep the guilds.

Lodge: A bit of both, I think. Chances are Academy types were always predisposed to The King’s Speech, supposedly the warmer, more humane film in the race. (I not saying that’s how I personally see it, but that’s how it’s been very cunningly cast and campaigned.) They may have gone for cooler, more contemporary fare in recent years, but that’s because the last few seasons haven’t really turned up a contender in the mold of The King’s Speech — the films that have attempted the old-fashioned period bait formula have either failed to find an audience or proved too distanced and/or intellectual for Academy sensibilities. So perhaps it was always “the one.” But I don’t think the critical landslide of favour of The Social Network helped matters. High on their success with The Hurt Locker last year, it feels like the critics’ groups tried to force the issue this time round — but with a chillier film that offered a less appealing awards “story” to last year’s history-making Bigelow triumph. I suspect many industry types felt the film was being imposed on them, and that made them cling tighter to their first choice.

Rich: On some level I agree with this– The King’s Speech has an inherently broader appeal than The Social Network for all the reasons we’ve been discussing this season. But that didn’t necessarily guarantee it would be taking in more awards as a result. Atonement had a broader appeal than No Country for Old Men, but the latter film was the awards season steamroller because it turned critical success into awards season momentum. The Social Network, in a way that’s still kind of mysterious to me, failed to do so.

Howell: From the moment I first saw The King’s Speech at TIFF last September, I knew it was the movie to beat for Best Picture, and I said so. ¬†It’s a prestige historical drama, funny and moving by turns, and it just seems made for Academy love. ¬†I think people are voting for it as a positive move, not a negative one.

Douglas:: It was probably a combination of both. The King’s Speech has always been a crowd-pleasing movie and it has all the elements that would appeal to the largest group in the Academy, the actors, but everyone is making such a big deal about how many nominations it got or the SAG Ensemble award, but honestly, it was always going to get those. It has basically the same awards as others but then it has three actors nominated (same as The Fighter) and then all of the costume and production design nominations that The Fighter would never get.

Wells: I’m sure that many, many people who wanted/needed that extra emotional oomph factor in their Best Picture preference decided somewhere along the way that they were anti-“Social Network” to some degree. They looked around for that distinguished huggy bear/comfy blanket factor, and they found it in “The King’s Speech.”

Harris: I don’t see this as a backlash vote. If The King’s Speech wins, I think it will win because its coalition of voters–old people, Brits, actors, esthetic conservatives, the “mean people suck” contingent that rejects The Social Network simply because they don’t like those nasty Facebook boys, and, to be fair, any number of people who for their own perfectly good reasons just like it more than the other nominated movies–will be larger than any other movie’s coalition. And with ten nominees, that coalition doesn’t have to be very large.

I think there’s been one other big factor in its favor all along: The King’s Speech is a movie about a Big Guy who needs a Little Guy to help him be the Big Guy that he is destined to be. Academy voters have always loved that. The Geoffrey Rush character really hits their sweet spot–he’s a combination of Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy, Tom Courtenay in The Dresser, Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People and Billy Elliot’s dance teacher. And the movie itself practically ends with an acceptance speech in which the Big Guy says, “Hey, thanks, Little Guy–I couldn’t have done it without you! You were the wind beneath my wings!” There are a lot of Little Guys in the Academy who feel chronically under-thanked. The King’s Speech caters to them (rather than to critics) in a very specific way.

2. Do you think The King’s Speech is a film that would have won in any year or do you think its popularity is somehow specific to this year, 2010? Does Obama have anything at all to do with it?

Bona: The King’s Speech‚Äôs essential ingredients would have made it a serious contender in any of, say, the last 30 years, but an ultimate victory would have depended on its competition. For instance, there’s no way it would have prevailed over as formidable a film as Schindler’s List or cultural phenomena like Forrest Gump and Titanic. It probably would have fared well in such years as 1985 (Out Of Africa), 1991 (Silence of the Lambs), 1995 (Braveheart) and 2000 (Gladiator). I don’t think Obama is a factor in the popularity of The King’s Speech — in fact, with his eloquence, he can be seen as the antithesis of George VI.

Wloszczyna: Someone asked me at the end of the year if I had seen any great films in 2010. I answered, “I have seen many good films but great? I do not know if Hollywood in its current state is capable of making great films anymore.” They are in the money business, not the great business. That they still make good ones is a godsend. I am fully satisfied by the 10 nominees, but even True Grit will never go down as the Coen brothers’ greatest. Neither is The Fighter David O. Russell’s best. And I prefer even Zodiac to The Social Network. Maybe none of these films would have a chance in any other year. But this is what we are left with and if Speech wins it obviously spoke to the academy more than the rest. As Obama, I have never thought of him once during the viewing of any of the nominated films.

Kennedy: The King’s Speech would win in any year that there was no other film like it and where there was no other compelling challenger. I know fans of The Social Network think otherwise, but it’s just not the “must vote for” film that is going to overcome a movie that makes an audience feel good and is smart enough to allow them to feel classy about it.

Karger: I don’t think it has anything to do with the times. It’s an inspiring true story very well told.

Lodge: It’s always hard to say if a film would succeed in another year, since momentum so often comes down to alchemy, as well as the nature of the competition. Would it have been anything but an also-ran in the middle of last year’s more compelling Bigelow/Cameron face-off? I don’t think so, but who knows? I don’t think Obama is much of a factor, but strangely, I think the upcoming Royal Wedding might be — the film has come along at a time when the public is seeing the Royal Family in a romantic, sympathetic light for the first time in years, if not decades. The King’s Speech would have sank like a stone in post-Diana 1997 — or even in 2006, when The Queen was still riding off public antipathy to this particular British institution.

Rich: Nah– The King’s Speech is just a strong, strong film, and would have been in the thick of it in any awards season. If we were still in the Bush era we’d see the view of a cuddly and vulnerable King as an antidote to anti-Bush feelings.

Howell: It’s hard to say. It would have been a contender in any year. I think it would have won last year, if it were up against Avatar and The Hurt Locker. But would it have beaten Slumdog Millionaire, the year before? Not sure on that one.
As for the Obama comparison, I don’t get that at all.

Douglas: Well, it hasn’t won yet! 🙂 But no, I don’t think it has anything to do with 2010 or Obama… I really don’t see the connection at all cause Obama has always been a good speaker.

Wells: We’re all part of just as much of an agitated political/cultural climate under Barack Obama as we were under George Bush, if not more so. I don’t think there’s any connection.

I’ll tell you one factor that hasn’t yet been brought up. Naysaying “The Social Network” is a way of conveying a roundabout fuck you to the GenYs and GenXs by the less-hip, less-engaged, less-forward-looking portions of the Boomer and blue-hair community. I’m not saying all boomers and blue-hairs feel this way, but a lot of them, deep down, are essentially telling the younger generation that “The Social Network” is “very nice film but it’s yours, not ours….a very good film but there’s not much of an emotional arc and not nearly enough heart. Now sit in that chair in the foyer and wait your damn turn. We know you’re nipping at our heels and that you’ll be taking over the industry sooner or later, but we run it now and so KISS OUR COLLECTIVE ASS, you computer-head, iPad-obsessing, insufficiently emotional, “Jersey Shore”-watching, hoodie-wearing, sandal-wearing, constantly-texting whippersnappers!”

Harris: The only thing about 2010 that feels especially conducive to a King’s Speech win is that often, when the American movie business has faced a moment of uncertainty and insecurity about its relevance, Academy voters have punted and gone for something “classic” and British. I’m thinking of the early ’80s when Best Picture went to movies like Chariots of Fire and Gandhi and Amadeus. Sometimes it’s easier to go for “timeless” over “current” when “current” makes you anxious–although something that’s instantly labeled “timeless” usually turns out not to be.

3. Why do you think Christopher Nolan failed to get his third potential Oscar nomination for direction?

Bona: I think Nolan probably came closest to grabbing a nomination with Memento – it’s the kind of small, offbeat film the Directors Branch occasionally does acknowledge. But that year they instead nominated the director of an even more offbeat film — David Lynch for Mulholland Drive. Both The Dark Knight and Inception were perceived as summer popcorn flicks — albeit exceptionally well-made ones — and this Branch rarely ventures there.

Wloszczyna: I don’t think he plays the game. Nor should he. That is not who he is. And maybe having that Oscar seal of approval wouldn’t be good for someone like Nolan. They give him money to build his amazing, complicated worlds instead. They entrusted an artist with one of their most valuable franchises. Maybe that is more important.

Kennedy: I just don’t think enough of the Academy likes his films all that much. It’s one thing to get one of the 10 BP slots, but another to get one of the 5 directing slots.

Karger: I wish I knew. Three DGA nominations and zero Oscar nominations? It makes no sense. Maybe he simply got displaced by five films that came out later in the year.

Lodge: Because, when push comes to shove, Nolan doesn’t make Academy movies. I think Inception’s Oscar potential was vastly overestimated from the get-go — it’s a dense, convoluted sci-fi action thriller that skews very young. What’s in it for them? A lot of audiences (particularly older ones) found it hard to follow, and worse still, many found it emotionally lacking. The DGA and PGA took the bait because they’re broader groups that skew more populist than Academy, but I don’t think the film was ever in the top tier for Best Picture. Consequently, Nolan was never a lock for Best Director, however many pundits said he was. I don’t think the widely held perception that Nolan indirectly caused the shift to ten Best Picture nominees helped his cause either — is there a possibility some voters felt they were obligated to vote for him, so resisted doing so? Inception had to surpass The Dark Knight to overcome that stigma, and for many viewers (this one included), it didn’t.

Rich: I think it’s a double whammy of the late breaking True Grit (and the fact that the Coens are now Oscar safe thanks to No Country) and that the Academy, for whatever reason, is not so into Nolan. Maybe he’ll be like Cameron and need to make a film that’s a line drive into their territory before he gets recognized. It’s clear that they didn’t like Inception nearly as much as the rest of the country did– my guess is a lot of people still saw it as big-budget flash and not emotional, “real” filmmaking.

Howell: Excellent question. I can only assume he’s done something to annoy the powers that be.
He is deserving of all honors.

Douglas: Probably just a matter of so many other directors having strong movies and while most were thinking the Coens and Russell would fight for that fifth slot, more people probably liked those movies, which meant Nolan got bumped. It’s a shame really.

Wells: WELLS as STEPHEN COLBERT: Because he’s too cold, too British, too geeky-fanboy-tecchy. He needs to grow up, find his soul and make a nice huggy bear/comfy blanket movie….or he’ll get no love from us!

Harris: The obvious analogy would be to Steven Spielberg, who, twice fairly early in his career, failed to get Best Director nominations for Best Picture nominees. The directors’ branch can sometimes be ungracious about acknowledging a director whose huge early success grants him virtual autonomy. I usually hate the word “snub”–when people don’t get nominated, it’s usually not willful–but this is starting to feel a little like a tantrum.

4. Do you think that the recent spate of darker, less traditional Academy Best Picture winners – The Departed, No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker only won because they didn’t have a movie like The King’s Speech to go up against? Is the King’s Speech like Titanic in that way?

Bona: For each of these films, the answer is probably yes. Given the Academy’s preferences over the years, these films did luck out by not having any overtly inspiring/warmhearted films in play against them. The Hurt Locker’s more intimate competitors, Up In The Air and Precious, were downers, while Avatar overwhelmed the senses but didn’t do much for the mind, and as such was a visceral experience that didn’t really stay with you once you left the theatre. In retrospect, the temperament of these films left a clear field for Hurt Locker. Like The Social Network, The Departed faced a movie about the House of Windsor, but The Queen but that was a more clinical, less emotional presentation of British royalty than The King’s Speech, and Juno‚Äôs sentimentality was offset by its sass. No Country did have a British period piece to contend with, but Atonement was all about unfulfilled love and a lifetime of guilt — a far cry from fun with a charmingly eccentric speech therapist.

Wloszczyna: All those movies were picked for any number of reasons — especially who their directors are. And they are actually very traditional films — a gangster thriller, a neo Western a war movie. But we live in dark times and those movies spoke to us directly about how we cope with the chaos. What those movies didn’t give us were easy answers. With Speech, we know how that war ended.

Kennedy: I think it’s more complicated than that in each instance. No Country is a stronger movie than any of the competition that is up against The King’s Speech this year and I have to believe it would be no contest head to head. The Departed had the Marty factor plus generally weak competition. I think the former would’ve put it over The King’s Speech had they gone against each other. The only plausible alternative to The Hurt Locker last year was Avatar and I think deep down in the voter’s hearts they knew that would’ve been a stupid decision – a real Around The World in 80 Days type lulu. I think The King’s Speech probably would’ve beaten The Hurt Locker.

Karger: I do think that the Academy is more willing to recognize a tougher, edgier film in a general sense. And The Social Network would fit that bill. But The King’s Speech is just too popular this year.

Rich: I’m not sure I understand the Titanic comparison– that win came in a decade where giant-scale epics were winning year after year, and was a far more “typical” winner for them at the time than, say, L.A. Confidential. But the rest of your analogy makes some sense to me–The Hurt Locker easily would have been unseated by something as good as The King’s Speech (if, say, Up in the Air had caught on better), or No Country by Atonement. The thing is, The King’s Speech wouldn’t be an embarrassing choice for them– it is very well-made, well-loved filmmaking that a lot of people are behind. It’s just not the exciting choice we’ve tentatively been expecting from them the last few years.

Howell: Interesting thought. I think the Academy, given its druthers, prefers a feel-good picture to a darker one. So a head-to-head contest between The King’s Speech and those other films you mention would likely see The King’s Speech triumphing. But as I said above, I’m not sure it would have beaten Slumdog Millionaire. I’m not sure it’s like Titanic; maybe it’s more like the iceberg.

Douglas: I don’t really see that connection. The King’s Speech has always been Shakespeare in Love. No Country had Juno and the HUrt Locker went up against cheerier fare like THe Blind Side and the SAG winner Inglourious Basterds. The Departed had Little Miss Sunshine and The Queen!

Wells: The last four or five years witnessed an abandoning of the Academy’s huggy-bear requirement in Best Picture selection. The wins of “The Departed,” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Hurt Locker” were evidence of this. If you analogize this with the pattern of an alcoholic getting sober and attending AA meetings, hailing “The King’s Speech” is a huge relapse — the Academy has fallen off the wagon and is back to slurping the booze.

Harris: No, I don’t think “inspirational” automatically trumps everything else, although this year it might. Every year’s different.

5. Do you personally think it matters what film wins Best Picture?

Bona: Well, it matters in the sense that whatever movie triumphs on Oscar night will be forever be known as a Best Picture winner and will, therefore, have a permanent place in popular culture history. Also, it’s better when this kind of fame is attached to a movie you care about, as opposed to watching a picture you can’t stand basking in Oscar glory. Still, it‚Äôs best not to get too emotionally involved because, in reality, all that winning an Oscar ultimately means is that one certain group of individuals — i.e. 5,600 people who work or have worked in some facet of the film industry — liked that film the most.

And when you stop and realize that these are people who deemed Gladiator, The Greatest Show On Earth, Braveheart and A Beautiful Mind the year’s best, it puts it all in perspective: their taste is — to put it kindly — questionable. Films that people cherish will endure without the Academy’s imprimatur. Hell, The Searchers, King Kong, The Big Sleep, Duck Soup, The Big Lebowski, Modern Times, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Bringing Up Baby, Paths of Glory, Rushmore, The Lady Vanishes, Johnny Guitar, The Shop Around The Corner, Kiss Me Deadly, Rules Of The Game, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Sullivan’s Travels, Sweet Smell of Success, My Own Private Idaho, Groundhog Day, Make Way For Tomorrow, Zodiac, Night of The Hunter are among the films that did not receive a single NOMINATION. So if the Academy’s choices don’t gibe with yours, take it as a failing on their part and not yours. Two-time Best Director winner Milos Forman said it best: “If you take the Oscars too seriously, as some sort of final judgment, you’re in trouble. But if you take it as a game, it’s wonderful.”

Wloszczyna: Personally, I like it when the actors and filmmakers I enjoy are encouraged to produce fine work. But on a bigger scale, I think many of us are in the business of ruminating on the meaning of it all because, somehow, what is considered the best pictures each year is a reflection of who we are as a culture, as a society and it is as much of a celebration of greatness as it is mediocrity at times. The critics say that movie is The Social Network. The voters so far say it is The King’s Speech. The eventual Oscar winner will get the final word. And maybe history will prove it wasn’t the “right” one. But picking the “right” one all the time is not what we do as humans. So that is even a reflection of who we are.

Kennedy: Personally? No. It’s a talking point and that’s it. I’m sure it’s a lovely honor for the winners and there might be some box office juice for the films still in theaters, but that’s all. However it shakes out Oscar night is irrelevant. All that matters at this point is whether the show is entertaining or not.

Karger: Of course it does! It’s the Time Capsule effect: The winner is the film that will be remembered as the symbol of the year. Plus we’d all be out of a job if it didn’t matter!

Lodge: In principle, yes; in practice, no. No film has ever become more or less beloved by the public (or by the cineaste community) because it won or lost Best Picture — people will always stick steadfastly to their convictions about what should have won. Indeed, I think the award can be something of a poisoned chalice. I maintain that losing the Oscar is the best thing that could have happened for the long-term reputation of a film like Brokeback Mountain; the perception that the film was wasn’t accepted by “them” only makes its loyalists more fiercely devoted. In many cases, even the Best Picture winners we like, are unavoidably “theirs”; the losers we love are “ours.”

Rich: I’d like to say it doesn’t– I eventually got over Crash winning Best Picture, and the fact that I was never that nuts about The Hurt Locker anyway. But every year before they open the envelope I get really nervous, and do feel this sense of history lining up to embrace whatever the winner is. It’s not so much that I want to see The Social Network rewarded this year, but that if The King’s Speech wins it means that the shift we saw in what “an Oscar movie” means might not be there at all. If it turns not No Country/Departed/Hurt Locker were just outliers and we’re going back to the days of The English Patient and Forrest Gump… then it matters a lot.

Howell: It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I rarely see a Best Picture win I agree with.

On the morning of Feb. 28, the sun will still rise, the Earth will still turn and babies will still be adorable, no matter which movie wins Best Picture the night before. I think a few over-caffeineated Oscar pundits might do well to remember this!

Douglas: Honestly? Not really. I like all of the BP nominations a lot except for True Grit and I’d only root against that and Social Network (my #1 movie of 2010) out of spite, pure and simple.

Wells: A Best Picture Oscar is a kind of marble statue, a stamp, the chiselling of a thought or moment in time on an obelisk that will be looked at and contemplated for decades to come.

Harris: I think it matters a great deal to the winner, less to the losers, and not at all to the reputation of the movies over the long term. The Best Picture winner is just an interesting (and eventually, historically interesting) snapshot of what a plurality of Academy voters wanted to say was their best work in any given year. That’s all. When something you really love wins, you can feel affirmed, and when something you really hate wins, you can feel like THEY JUST DON’T GET IT. Either way–and I say this as a proud Oscar obsessive–it’s nothing to take too seriously.