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Oscar Flashback: It Never Could Have Won Today

Something has happened to Academy voters. Is it really true that they’ve all just aged out to the point where they really can’t tolerate any loud noises? The truth is that you can’t really say “The Academy” anymore because there isn’t such a thing. The guilds now decide what wins Best Picture, but more specifically the Producers Guild. In scheduling their awards earlier than the Directors Guild, the PGA has now become the dominating force in the race. Oscars 2012 felt like a staged coup against the branch of the Academy that dared to “snub” Ben Affleck.  We’ll never know what the race would have looked like had Affleck gotten a director nomination. Argo might still have been their consensus pick – after all, it is in keeping with their pattern of late.

And that isn’t particularly a bad thing. It reflects who THEY are, who the industry is and how they want to present themselves to the world. The rest of us are often left in the dust scratching our heads and if we can even remember what won Best Picture in any given year we certainly can’t tell you why. I started this website to figure that out. But 15 years later I am no more closer to a conclusion. It is a combination of publicity and popularity but the very last thing it represents is “best.”

What has made it all even worse is the way the media has evolved over the past ten years. There were no Oscar blogs when I started in 1999. None. Not one. Mine was the first. There were predictions sites but no one was analyzing the race from start to finish. Two things happened at the same time — reality-TV turned everyone into a celebrity and mobilized the public to become involved in contests like American Idol, and all media went online. The rising popularity of both of these has significantly altered the Oscar race. It reached a new level this past year. Imagine the silly hoopla around Lincoln’s screenplay by puffed up congressman Joe Courtney, or the Zero Dark Thirty torture debate resulting in the best reviewed film of the year earning nothing more than one half of a sound editing win.

But that is really just the tip of the iceberg of what we saw in 2012. This year’s Oscar campaigns were run like political campaigns, so much so that Ben Affleck shaved his beard only after his Oscar win. Did he do it on a bet? Like, “if you win you have to shave your beard,” or did he shave it because he wasn’t playing that guy anymore? USA Today:

He grew the beard as some sort of lucky talisman during awards season, even though the academy snubbed him in the directors category. But he had the last word when he claimed the statue as one of the producers of Argo, the story of a little-known CIA caper to rescue a group of Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980.

But the beard was that guy in Argo, you know, the unrewarded Tony Mendez guy who finally got to take credit for the freeing of the Americans in Iran? It was more than a good luck beard, of course. It was the same thing Julia Roberts did when she had already broken up with Benjamin Bratt but they showed up everywhere together so she looked like a winner until she finally won. Everyone in the awards race knows that you don’t mess with a winning streak. The only reason it stood out more this year was because of Affleck’s “Oscar story”

Oscars 2012 was its own reality show. Everyone seemed to be involved in it in a way they never have been. Part of this is that Ben Affleck’s Oscar story was bigger than just the insular world of industry awards. Everyone worldwide knows Ben Affleck. His snub was a notable shockwave. That made his win all the more celebratory.

I took a lot of shit on Twitter for doing what people consider “a complete turnaround” on Argo. This, because I called Argo a “perfect” film in my review of it and said it was a “great fucking movie.” And that was true then, and it’s still mostly true. For what it is, Argo is that. But a great movie in an awards race is only as good as the film it’s standing next to and what happened in 2012 wasn’t what usually happens — usually you see a movie like Argo and you think, yeah, that was good. Not the best but good. Then the Big Oscar Movies open and usually fail so we all look back to Argo and think, yeah, that one really WAS the best.

This year, though, the Big Oscar Movies were beyond good. Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and Life of Pi blew Argo away almost completely. How can anyone, like Mike Ryan for instance who would not let this go on Twitter, not feel some irritation that these movies were brushed aside in the name of a reality contest like we saw in 2012? Maybe they just liked Argo better. Who am I to say? I only have my own opinion, box office and reviews. Argo clocked in right behind Lincoln for those — but Argo had one better than Lincoln and Life of Pi at least: it had hardly any negative reviews. The only film with fewer negative reviews than Argo? Zero Dark Thirty.

But critics don’t matter. The public doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters now is how voters feel.  Argo made Hollywood look good. More than good, useful. It also took the piss out of Hollywood, which they also like.  But the movie itself I don’t think it could have gone all the way.  It needed that sense of urgency to pull off a win and Affleck’s snub did that.  The narrative swallowed up the race in every way.  Nothing could beat it.

But my question is this, can a polarizing or divisive film ever win again? Sure, I know it has always been next to impossible for that happen. After all, we’re talking about a consensus of 4,500 PGA members, 14,500 DGA members and 100,000 SAG members. How can a polarizing film win over that many people? And how can you ever make a great film without it being at least a little polarizing?

Here is my list of films I don’t think could win today.  I could add many more to the list but these are the inexplicable winners that were great because they were polarizing — many of them are about history and some of them might be “offensive” today. But I wish the Oscars could free themselves up to be open to films with flaws but their greatness can’t be denied.

1. The Lost Weekend
2. All About Eve
3. The Deer Hunter
4. The Godfather
5. On the Waterfront
6. The French Connection
7. Midnight Cowboy
8. American Beauty
9. The Departed
10. No Country for Old Men

And this, my last and final lament for 2012 — I say this while being happy for Ben Affleck and George Clooney and lest we forget, Grant Heslov. They wanted to win, they campaigned to win and they won. They are politically minded already and theirs was a campaign for the record books.