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Challenging Movies Make Voters Nervous, but If they Can’t Take the Heat…


One of the hardest parts of Oscar watching is the inevitable truths that come out every year about the behavior of Academy voters, who are more like your average movie-goer than they are like film critics. A friend of mine said, after seeing 12 Years a Slave, that if the Academy chose that film for Best Picture it would be a step forward for a group that tends to pick more comforting, uplifting fare. Probably the two most challenging Best Picture winners in recent years have been Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men. Both of these wins had the rooting factor included – the first woman to win, and finally rewarding the beloved Coens. Regardless of what Academy voters are doing now, regardless of their resistance to “difficult” movies, there is a very strong added element to this year’s race: making Oscar history. And not just because Brad Pitt will finally win an Oscar.

There are many Oscar pundits who report on the infamous Academy screenings. How they respond to certain films, how long the applause lasts, how many show up, etc. I have found over the years that these reports are spotty at best, though they can sometimes lend insights into human nature overall. The reports of voters “dancing in the aisles” after Chicago was maybe a good indication it would win. According to Steve Pond over at the Wrap the Gravity screening went exceedingly well, which is generating all of the Best Picture talk of late. And now this:

A week after every seat in the 1,000-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater was filled for the official AMPAS screening of Alfonso Cuaron’s space movie, only about half as many members showed up for a Sunday night screening of Steve McQueen’s harrowing “12 Years.”

And that screening had the added lure of featuring a post-screening Q&A with McQueen, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Alfre Woodard, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and composer Hans Zimmer. (The “Gravity” screening did not include a Q&A, which normally increases attendance.)

Maybe Academy members were home watching the Red Sox/Tigers game, or the Cowboys/Redskins battle. Maybe they were in other theaters seeing “Gravity” or “Captain Phillips.”

Or maybe they just didn’t feel as excited about a brutally powerful slavery drama as they had about a whiz-bang zero-gravity adventure.

Or maybe voters pay some attention to critical favorites from the festival circuit (a crowd of 500 is still a substantial Sunday-night turnout), but far more attention to box-office hits and pop-culture phenomena.

Whatever the reason, several members who attended the screening immediately mentioned the size of the crowd, which was not only smaller than the “Gravity” screening but also smaller than the recent audiences for “Captain Phillips.”

And while members reported that the applause was robust for the film, particularly for McQueen and its principal actors, the film’s relentless violence also prompted a few walkouts, and left some voters visibly disturbed.

There is no denying that Gravity has the “wanna see” factor and 12 Years a Slave doesn’t. People are afraid of it. They’re afraid of the seriousness, the confrontational aspect and what they’ve heard is the violence. And that’s fine. It’s fine if they choose Best Picture the same way they hit “like” on Facebook when they see five baby pigs poking out of a picnic basket. “Like.” They should, however, stop pretending that their top prize is about the “highest achievement in film” because it isn’t. It’s a favorited photo, a snapshot of a moment in time when they felt good for a few minutes. It is about anything but finding the best film of the year.

Word of mouth on 12 Years a Slave is going to drive people to see it. Yes, it is an uphill battle to get people to watch that movie on screener. I’d be willing to bet many voters didn’t even watch The Hurt Locker but merely got caught up in the Bigelow vs. Cameron narrative and wanted to side with Bigelow. You know hardly anyone saw The Hurt Locker because its box office take was so low.  Lots of people wanted to see Avatar. The Academy screening was similarly PACKED.   

Lest we forget, 12 Years a Slave won the audience award in Toronto – that means if enough people see it, chances are they’re going to vote for it. And if they don’t see it? Throw their asses out of the Academy stat.   Here is what David Denby recently wrote about 12 Years a Slave:

“12 Years a Slave” is easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery. It shows up the plantation scenes of “Gone with the Wind” for the sentimental kitsch that they are, and, intentionally or not, it’s an artist’s rebuke to Quentin Tarantino’s high-pitched, luridly extravagant “Django Unchained.” For McQueen, who comes out of the London gallery-and-museum world of short films and videos, the movie is an enormous step forward. “Hunger” (2008), his first feature, was a kind of sacerdotal monument to Bobby Sands and other I.R.A. prisoners who staged a hunger strike. The movie, which starred Michael Fassbender, was marked by a fetishistic absorption in beatings, self-denial, the disintegration of the body. His next feature, “Shame” (2011), also starring Fassbender, was a sexually explicit folly about the utter hell of being a single, straight, handsome, well-employed young white male in New York. Both movies were staged as austere rituals. But now McQueen has opened himself up to society, history, and narrative. There are expertly composed short scenes set in Saratoga and at various slave-trading posts on the journey to Louisiana. McQueen and his screenwriter, John Ridley, might have done more with the minor characters that Northup encounters—Paul Giamatti as a fussy slave broker, Alfre Woodard as a cynical plantation mistress—but they move on fast.

If Academy members can’t be bothered to see this film, at the very least, they can’t be called anything but totally useless and incompetent. They should certainly not be in charge of deciding what should be called Best Picture of the Year. They should be put out to pasture where they can sink into the warm bath that is nostalgia TV for the rest of their lives. If they can’t show up and do their jobs they should get out of the fucking way so other more responsible people can do it for them.