To hear many people talk about this year’s Oscar race you will hear them say the same thing over and over again, “It’s been the Artist since Cannes.” There are some Oscar years where the undertow is simply too strong to fight against. There are also some Oscar years where surprises are hiding in the shadows. While last night the Critics Choice, a group that mostly tries to align themselves with Oscar and/or supplant the Golden Globes in precursor status, went overwhelmingly with The Artist for Picture and Director, Score and Costume, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer took Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, which is shocking in and of itself, but especially shocking considering how predictable the race has seemed so far.
For those wins, and really only those wins, the BFCA might actually end up being somewhat influential after all, as this has been the first critics awards that has not gone to either Meryl Streep or Michelle Williams. In every other way, I’m afraid, the Critics Choice mostly fell in line with conventional thinking. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It really could be that we’re in for a year like Slumdog Millionaire which, if you remember that year, was like having to sit through the Don’t Stop Believin‘ for an entire weekend. It’s pretty great the first couple of times you hear it but after a while you start to feel impatience creep in and before you know it you’re unleashing waves of hatred for something fairly harmless. Why, because we don’t want people to always agree one everything. Sooner or later popular opinion becomes distasteful. So then we have to wonder, why do actually want any film to win if we’re just going to hate it in the end?
Even the delightful Michel Hazanavicius, upon beating Martin Scorsese for Best Director, was a little dumbfounded, and admitted he felt stupid winning, especially after that Scorsese reel. Yeah, it’s like that. It takes a French dude to put it all in perspective, doesn’t it? But we don’t measure the win for Best Director by the level of difficulty, the artistic achievement so much as we reward the buzz, or the Critics Choice folks do at any rate.
The Artist is a great movie, there is no denying it. But it wasn’t built to sustain the onslaught of the Oscar race. Whether it can or not is mostly a mystery, although there is no shortage of know-it-alls who keeps repeating it like a mantra – believe me, that’s all I ever hear on Twitter. And the truth is, I really don’t care if so and so thinks The Artist is going to win. That’s sort of like saying it’s going to be sunny tomorrow in Los Angeles. It makes me want to say after, “yeah, and?”
I’ve never been a person who wants surprises for the sake of surprises. To tell the truth, there isn’t a whole lot I do believe about the awards race. When you’re talking about a majority vote, a consensus, you can’t possibly ever learn anything from that except to know what was popular at a given time. In an ideal world, the film critics would have a greater depth of knowledge about what makes something great. But we all know that the awards race doesn’t work that way. Because we are a species inclined towards the notion of winners and losers, most of us will always see the Oscar ceremony as the end-goal and if a film doesn’t “win” there it somehow means that the film is less so. On the contrary, the important lesson to take from last year’s colossal goat fuck was that winning the Oscar race doesn’t mean you made the best film. It just means you captured the buzz for a brief moment in time. You made people feel something for a brief moment in time. Don’t stop believing.
For many of us watching the race, we know that what the Oscars are really about is power positioning. What wins decides what kinds of films get made the following year. Who wins decides who gets offered the better parts and the higher salaries. What studio takes home the gold, what publicist ushered in a winner simply means they did their job the best that year. Does it mean anything beyond that? The only time it means something is when a major group does something different, against the commonly held notions that drive our business. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer winning last night, whether they won because the BFCA are second guessing the Academy or because they won for the right reasons – that the voters thought they deserves it, the end result is the same: fucking wow.
For me, I cling to those moments when something like that happens and it doesn’t happen very often. The business, as it were, is run by people who sell things to a public that really only likes one kind of thing, one kind of actress, one kind of story. For the Oscar race, that is usually the most likable, vanilla, least offensive film of the bunch. Say what you will about The Help, or even The Iron Lady, but those films have people talking at least — The Help is bringing up all sorts of interesting discussions about race relationships in our culture. The old guard will have you believe that black characters are only worth celebrating if they are portrayed “right,” if they illustrate “progress” and not depict “stereotypes.” Meanwhile, the river roars on, doesn’t it. White stories rule the day because they are untouchable. They don’t have to be “right.” Black characters and actors have to carry both the burden of our own shameful past and the burden of our shameful present: why can’t WE get it right? Because in our hearts we are a racist culture. This is the reason they can’t put a black woman on the cover of Vogue (unless she’s Oprah) and why there aren’t any major prime time television shows with any kind of demographic except white people.
But Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer got lucky one day when a script with black characters in it came across their desks. For Davis, a black woman over 40, to get a leading role in a major studio film is mostly unheard of. Despite being a characters actress for many decades, despite being a Soderbergh regular and versatile, brilliant performer, she’ll never get offered the kind of parts Meryl Streep or Michelle Williams wouldn’t even read let alone agree to do. When Meryl Streep won with Viola Davis she sent out a wish to Hollywood for them to find better parts for Davis to play – and someone finally did. To watch Streep watch Davis win was one of the more moving moments at the ceremony. This is one of the many reasons why Streep is one of the great ones.
At any rate, there isn’t much else to talk about with the Critics Choice awards that hasn’t already been said. We have the Globes on Sunday, which will alter perception yet again. What these early awards sometimes do is test the reception of a winner. Does it feel good to watch The Artist win again and again? I tell you one thing, with Slumdog Millionaire it never got old watching Danny Boyle win. It never got old watching Kathryn Bigelow win. Will it get old watching Michel Hazanavicius win? I don’t know. But for now, until Sunday, don’t stop believing.