2012 Oscars Backstage

It’s been a rough year for Zero Dark Thirty fans, a rougher year for Lincoln fans.

Starting as far back as October with the systemic and relentless takedown over at Hollywood-Elsewhere.com, Lincoln could not catch a break. The top pundits in the field like Steve Pond and Dave Karger knew in their bones Lincoln was “too boring” to win, that too many people “didn’t like it.” It didn’t pass the “kitten in a cup” test.  Their predictions flew all over the map as the result. They knew what couldn’t win but they didn’t know what could. They’d seen Argo and written it off as a fairly bland choice to take Best Picture.  It was good but not good enough.   When Zero Dark Thirty came out it especially seemed to take away much of Argo’s luster.

But then Zero Dark Thirty was taken out by a continual debate. But then Zero Dark Thirty was taken out by the blow-back of continual debate. If Bigelow and Boal said it wasn’t based on true events they would be branded as reckless torture advocates. If they said it was based on true events they would be accused of perpetuating a right-wing ideology that seemed to justify torture by making it appear effective and claiming it was key to getting Bin Laden.   Bigelow was called Leni Reifenstahl and took the kind of hard fall you can only really take now, with the news cycles in fast-motion and a hungry beast that needs continual news, preferably scandal, to keep it going at such high speed.  We feed the beast because the beast must be fed and Zero Dark Thirty was the perfect sacrifice: not one, but two women set to take a fall, both the film’s director, headed for her second Best Director nomination in three years, and the film’s star, who was and is the only female lead in the Oscar race that isn’t defined by her male co-star. (You could make a good case for Beasts of the Southern Wild in this regard).

Add to this witch’s brew an October surprise by Affleck groupie/Congressman Joe Courtney out to really hit Lincoln as hard as possible on the one hand, and a tamped down Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor keeping mostly quiet about the “who really cares in America” detail that yeah, that whole Argo thing? It was kind of Canada, not really the US.  But Joe Cortney waited until the peak of Oscar season (as any good politician knows, timing is everything) to really try to shame that mean ol’ Spielberg who was attempting to paint Connecticut on the wrong side of history. In typical Maureen Dowd fashion, she piled on hard.  Blood is in the water, you see, and the sharks are circling.  Not just satisfied to be aiming at Spielberg she had to paint writer Tony Kushner as defensive and arrogant. Her commenters picked after her crumbs happily.  No one noticed because all it did was drive the “anything but Lincoln” meme further along.

Sorry, Connecticut, changing the film Lincoln to show you voted yes on the 13th amendment can’t wipe away your shame, nor should it wipe away the same of anyone who voted yes back then, nor the shared shame of America overall.  It was a sneaky move by a smart politician who essentially tricked Congress into passing the 13th amendment. Racism continued unabated for decades, and continues to this day.  Someday everyone involved in this clusterfuck will look back in amazement that a film that good, that well intentioned was maligned so miserably by people who really thought what they were “concerned” about any detail that actually mattered.  “It’s history!’ They will cry. And I would say to them, history? You don’t really want to know, my friends, especially haughty politicians from Connecticut.

12 nominations put Lincoln in an elite category of Oscar films that usually take along with them Best Picture and Director.  Except when they don’t. And this year a movie star director crashed the party.  And he finally made a movie people really liked — not only that but it was praised in Telluride and Toronto which is what put it in the race to begin with.  But it was only after Zero Dark Thirty’s fall that the critics realigned behind Argo.  And when Affleck was left off the Oscar Best Director list — it set into motion the one thing people will remember from Oscars 2012: the Affleck snub.

From that point on, Argo could not be stopped.  It seemed to be the perfect film that wasn’t Zero Dark Thirty — the CIA are good guys! They aw-shucks their way into Iran and aw-shucks their way into Hollywood and then Hollywood aw-shucks its way to saving the hostages.  Funny, light, cute, nice, everything turns out well in the end.  Argo is satisfying enough to win the Oscar these days when satisfying and non-controversial is what matters most.  Imagine The Deer Hunter, The Godfather, No Country for Old Men trying to run the gauntlet now.  Imagine any film that was, in any way, steeped in history that wasn’t aw-shucks about its themes making it through today’s litmus test.

The way my fellow predictors follow the race, and the way Anne Thompson, Kris Tapley, Steve Pond, Tom O’Neil cover the Oscars is to make them not personal. The tail wags the dog and they watch what is happening, report on what’s happening but never do they comment on what’s happening particularly. They are journalists.  And a detached journalist working in the Oscar race makes you a weatherman.  As Bob Dylan says, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  But many people do — they look to the pundits to give them the simplest basic clarity in a nutshell. Who knows more? Whose predictions will turn out to be right? It’s “analysis” of something that has no business being analyzed.  The masses all vote the same way over and over again. And?

Right now there are two weather narratives running through this “anything but Lincoln” year — the first is that Ang Lee is making a rise. Just as many predicted Ang Lee would win the BAFTA until Affleck took that award too so are they now predicting he will win the Oscar because “they” aren’t going to give it to Spielberg.

The other strong narrative is that no, it won’t be Lee it will be David O. Russell because he surprise-won Best Screenplay at the BAFTAS.  Most of my colleagues value the BAFTAS over other precursors because in the past the surprise winners at the BAFTAS usually became surprise winners at the Oscars, like Marion Cotillard, like The Pianist. But the BAFTAs changed their voting this year. They have probably lost that unique ability to predict a winner since they just proved themselves to be just another consensus vote.   When your Oscar race is nothing but one consensus vote after another we all begin to feel like we are wasting our precious time, but don’t think twice, it’s all right.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

life_of_pi_35830

So if Ang Lee wins, it will likely be credited to those pundits who saw it coming first, the Tapley/Thompson/Pond/Karger pundit circle. They are basing this on general buzz around town and an LA Times article that gives Lee the “headwind” heading into the race.  This headwind and general support for Lee irks me a bit because where was it weeks ago?  Given a chance to linger further, and indeed it might prove to be the case on Sunday, Life of Pi AND Ang Lee could both be winners.  Sure, it would be an oddity in Oscar history but no more an oddity than Argo winning.  Argo’s momentum won’t have stopped by the ballot deadline but if there was more time — sooner or later they probably would have rallied around Pi.  Indeed, whenever someone sticks a mic in a movie star’s face they almost always say Life of Pi was their favorite.  11 nominations shows its popularity and more to the point, many pundits are predicting it to win between 4 and 7 Oscars.

Just for history’s sake (because clearly no stat matters anymore after this year) — the most Oscars a film with 11+ nominations has won without winning Best Picture is 5, and only two of those has won Best Director without picture: Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan and the other is Warren Beatty for Reds.

From the handy dandy filmsite.org

Films with 11 nominations – 24
11
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2003
11
11
 West Side Story
1961
10
11
Gandhi
1982
8
11
Amadeus
1984
8
11
Out of Africa
1985
7
11
 The Godfather, Part II
1974
6
11
Oliver!
1968
5
11
Terms of Endearment
1983
5
11
Saving Private Ryan *
1998
5
11
The Aviator *
2004
5
11
Hugo*
2011
5
11
 Sunset Boulevard *
1950
3
11
 The Godfather
1972
3
11
Julia *
1977
3
11
 Rebecca
1940
2
11
Sergeant York *
1941
2
11
Judgment at Nuremberg *
1961
2
11
A Passage to India *
1984
2
11
 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington *
1939
1
11
The Pride of the Yankees *
1942
1
11
 Chinatown *
1974
1
11
The Turning Point *
1977
0
11
The Color Purple *
1985
0
11
Life of Pi
2012
?

With 11:

The Aviator won 5: Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Costumes, Best Supporting Actress
Million Dollar Baby won 4: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor
Hugo won 5: Art Direction, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
The Artist won 4: Picture, Director, Actor, Costumes
Saving Private Ryan won 5:  Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing
Shakespeare in Love won 7: Picture, Actress, Supp. Actress, Art Dir, Score, Screenplay

With 12: Zero films won 5 Oscars without also winning Best Picture.

With 13:
Mary Poppins won 5: Actress, Visual Effects, Editing, Score, Song
 My Fair Lady:  Pic, Director, Actor, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume, Score, Sound.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf won 5: Actress, Supporting Actress, Art Dir, Cinematography (b&W), Costume
A Man for All Seasons: Pic, Director, Actor, Screenplay, Cinematography (color), Costumes               (color).

Cinematography is a common thread that runs throughout.  I suppose that’s because they tend to like to award the movies that won’t win with big prizes where they can.  That could benefit either Pi or Lincoln.  You have to figure out which is their number 2 choice.

More likely, if you’re edging towards 5 Oscars for Life of Pi, you would start to get into Best Picture territory.  If I had the guts to do it I would predict for Life of Pi: Picture, Director, Editing, Sound, Sound Editing, Cinematography, Visual Effects and Score.  Seven Oscars.

But I don’t have the guts so I might instead go for Pi for Cinematography, Visual Effects, Score, Sound and Sound Editing.  5 Oscars.  But it could make history and win more.  It might also lose Sound to Les Miserables.

When all is said and done, I’m wondering if this year will prove that the Academy is no longer at the wheel.  Someone else is driving this car but who is it? Is it, finally, the BAFTA? Have the Brits gotten so tight a chokehold they make a nominee “respectable” just by voting for it?

Or is it the 100,000 voting members of the SAG, the 4,500 voting members of the PGA and the 14,500 voting members of the DGA?  Can Oscar ever wriggle out from underneath that and will this now be called not the Oscar race but the guild race?

And again, the argument comes full circle because most analysts conveniently forget what a big deal this was the minute the Academy turned in their ballots without the DGA or the PGA to guide them. For the first time in Academy/DGA history we got to see what the directors branch in the Academy, and the Academy as a whole, would do without the big guilds to guide them. They deselected Argo as one of the best films in the race by leaving off Affleck, and did the same with Zero Dark Thirty. No one wanted to accept this, least of all the industry.

 

For the first time ever we have the opportunity to test influence.  We all assume the Academy will buckle, “admit their mistake” and award Argo the big prize.  But there’s that tiny little chance that they will assert their own authority over this dog and pony show and pick something else instead, something that does have a director nominated.  No outcome has a precedent, however, whatever you pick to win, it is a longshot.

Ira Deutchman just wrote a piece about how different Oscar voting has been this year from his perspective as a voting member. He said that online voting has made everything a lot easier, and the extra time they got to actually see all of the movies might impact how they vote, particularly, he said, the younger voters.  What that means, we’ll have to see, but he predicts it will screw with everyone’s predictions.

But if all goes as planned, that means, at least until Oscar goes back to five, every year we will know that once the Producers Guild reads their winner the Oscar race is over.