Oscar Flashback

The shades of US presidents, real and imagined, have always weaved in and out of Hollywood films. This year, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln might be the best film ever about a US president, and Argo depicts one of President Carter’s hidden secrets that might have rescued his presidency for a second term. And then there is Zero Dark Thirty about the raid on Bin Laden, which is the only film that is somewhat related to President Obama, other than HBO’s Game Change. I suspect there will be many more to come.  It’s hard to imagine our attentions being anywhere but on these three films heading into the race, given the current political climate. But the news cycles pretty quickly. Who knows what awaits us in a few months.

Great presidents and terrible presidents inspire filmmakers. There are films about the electoral process, about the rise and fall of presidents – sinister takes on our government and idealistic ones.

The presidents with the most influential on Hollywood in recent history would be JFK, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Of those, there are two heroes and three villains, by Hollywood’s standards. This, because Hollywood is usually liberal. Republicans are villains, for the most part, which is why any major player in Hollywood with conservative beliefs is run out of town on a rail, unless their work is beyond reproach, like Clint Eastwood.

Why is Hollywood liberal? Because it is, despite its greed, corruption and lust for fame it is a compassionate bunch of misfits who made good. Misfits tend to grow up more compassionate, therefore they believe in looking out for the other guy. Republicans believe in individualism – which liberals think of as selfish and short-sighted.

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It was horrifying news to wake up this morning and find out that the great Harris Savides had died. Though he leaves behind quite a legacy, his best being his work on David Fincher’s Zodiac, but also The Game but also his work with Sofia Coppola.  None of the obits, however, can lead with “Academy Award nominee” or “Oscar winner.” Why? Because the Academy never nominated him.

The Oscars are designed to have the experts nominate per category. Once the nominations are in it gets even worse because the entire Academy votes for the winners. As the years have worn on, I’ve noticed a trend in the various guilds and societies to match up with Best Picture. I’m not sure what the reason for this is. But generally speaking, the stronger the Best Picture contender, the better its chances for getting guild nods – like the Eddie, the Ace, etc.

How else do you explain Harris Savides work on Zodiac getting a snub? Have a look at this. Immediately, in every vein of Zodiac is Fincher’s eye. But even beyond that, just look:

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1987 wasn’t a great year for movies, what with these 5 nominees in the running for Best Picture – THE LAST EMPEROR”, “Broadcast News”, “Fatal Attraction”, “Hope and Glory”, “Moonstruck”. Not a bad bunch of films but none of which really stood the test of time, although I would still call Broadcast News a minor classic and far and away the best picture out of the bunch. However what the Academy failed to do then, and are still guilty of doing now, was not nominate a fantasy movie that ultimately became a classic (“Edward Scissorrhands”? “The Holy Grail”? “King Kong” “Pan’s Labyrinth”? . Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride starts off what will be a weekly column for me as I will go through a film a week from 1987-2011 that never got nominated for Best Picture but should have had a shot at the big prize. There are plenty of contenders for every year and I encourage you to give your own choice in the comments section below.

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It’s really hard, isn’t it, to defend, spend time on, invest any emotion on an institution that could continually, and repeatedly, up to and including this year, make such ridiculous choices when the better films are staring them right in the face. Blame the public too, blame the critics especially, and blame our human experience, which seems to like narratives separate. For all of our liberal talk, Hollywood has still not figured this whole racism thing out.

Two decades ago, racism played itself out uncomfortably at the Oscars, when a young filmmaker and upstart named Spike Lee, one of the best filmmakers working in and outside of Hollywood, released Do the Right Thing. It was by far one of the best, if not the best film of that year. However, Oscar, in all of his progressive glory, decided to nominate Do the Right Thing for only supporting actor for Danny Aiello, and screenplay for Lee. The Best Picture nominees that year were instead:

Driving Miss Daisy (9 nominations, won 4, director NOT nominated)
Born on the Fourth of July (8 nominations, won 2)
Dead Poets Society (4 nominations, won 1)
Field of Dreams (3 nominations, won 0)
My Left Foot (5 nominations, won 2)

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“You gotta trust me on this one thing.  You need a lot of drinks.”
“To break the ice?”
“To kill the bug that’s crawled up your ass.”  — Terms of Endearment, one of the best Best Pictures.

The day after Christmas we look at the box office to try to figure out how the weekend that has been traditionally reserved for Oscar movies has fared so far.  The first thing someone tweets to me is that The Dragon Tattoo finished fourth with $20 million – was that going to impact its Oscar chances? Is that disappointing?  The answer for Sony is probably yes.  The answer for me is when I look at the top of the box office now it’s more of an insult to win it than it is anything else. Why, because audiences have stopped wanting to see films that were good.  Whatever it is they’ve been conditioned to want, whatever the dream machine is wafting out into the air ducts to get the people to spend money on entertainment — it is no indicator of quality. Not anymore.

Yes, if a film has a high budget and it can’t make back that money that almost always impacts its Oscar chances. But when the top three films of the weekend are sequels – passable (not terrible) sequels (passable now can be defined as actually good) I wouldn’t be caught dead dropping a cold twenty on, how can that possibly mean a movie that comes in fourth behind those three is a bad thing?

The question of the day for me, though: has it always been that way? When did the top of the box office stop showcasing good to great films? Why have things changed so dramatically? Is it the rise of the fanboy culture? Is it the economy? Is it the comfort of watching great HBO on our flat screens without having to spend money on pure crap? Is it all of those things?  When I can’t answer a question I dig back into our past.  And that is what I’ve done here.  I decided to look back at the past thirty years and the top twenty films of those years.

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While audiences and film fans are open to other possibilities, the generally held opinion is that the Academy voters are big softies in the final analysis. They’re spoken about like the old relatives you’ll be inviting to Thanksgiving — condescended to, and essentially written off as having any sort of validity when it comes to choosing the best.

The subject was brought up recently on Twitter as to whether or not the Academy “could handle” The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or whether the film would be “too much” for their delicate sensibilities.  When did this idea come up, that the Academy had to have things soft and mushy and family-friendly?  It’s hard to know, but last year’s end game didn’t help matters.  There will always be the mind vs. heart argument and there will always be the “it’s too much for them” lament. Would you take your grandmother to see that movie? Would you take your grandmother, your teenager, your maid and your boss to see that movie? Your Oscar winner almost always fits – even when it was The Hurt Locker, even when it was something as seemingly abstract as No Country for Old Men (my pick for their best choice for Best Picture in the last twenty years).

This year more than any other the popular films aren’t necessarily “Oscar movies.”  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a crowdpleasing thriller with, gasp, actual sex scenes. Real sex scenes and a graphic rape scene (two, actually).  Believe it or not there are still some hard core thinkers in the Academy – there have to be, right?  Let’s take a look back at films that might have seemed at first glance like they weren’t “Oscar movies” and yet, they were good enough that voters decided to break out of their stereotype.

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People always ask me what I thought was the main reason The Silence of the Lambs swept the major categories the way it did.  The simple reason is one really great scene. Sure, Silence of the Lambs is full of great scenes.  But it’s not a perfect movie, despite what we think about it now.  I remember that time — Bugsy was the film everyone thought would win.  But Silence was simply the better film.  When I think about it, though, I’m certain a film can win on one, maybe two, maybe even three really great scenes.  But for me, I don’t think the movie would have won without this scene:

Ah, those were the days.

Can you think of other films that won Best Picture and did so mainly because of one scene? The one scene from The Godfather (maybe) after the cut.

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One thing that’s important to note about the Oscar race for Best Actress — and Best Actor too, come to that — is that much of the time being in a Best Picture contender makes all the difference.

With ten Best Picture nominees, the number of Best Actresses from films driven by those performances rose.  Last year there were three Best Actress contenders — Natalie Portman, the winner; Annette Bening and Jennifer Lawrence.  If there had only been five Best Picture nominees, probably only Black Swan would have been represented.  This is one of the many reasons having ten Best Pictures was, in my mind, such a great idea.  But the Oscars aren’t designed to please people like me. They’re designed to please hundreds of thousands of people who see maybe two or three movies at the theater every year during Oscar season. The rest of them they catch up with later on cable or Netflix.  A shorter list for Best Picture is more manageable, more profitable, more suspenseful.

Now that we’re back to a scenario maybe closer to 5, but perhaps 7 or 8 Best Picture nominees, we have a slightly better chance of seeing some women in the race with Best Picture contenders represented. Of course, the strongest of these so far is Viola Davis in The Help which would slide in easily with ten, and might still even with five.  The other contenders — Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs, Ellen Barkin in Another Happy Day, Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur, Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method — are all actresses who must work outside the mainstream in order to get the better parts, some of them, like Barkin and Close, became producers themselves, involved in the earliest stages of development in order to carve out a great part for themselves.

Only Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and perhaps Charlize Theron in Young Adult have the unseen potential to sit where Viola Davis is sitting — both roles are dark, of course.  Both are anti-heroines, if you will.  Yet their directors have enough heat to have their films earn enough votes to be included.  Young Adult because it is uncompromising and interesting for this director.  And Fincher because he is the best American director working in film today, whether the Academy has the good sense to recognize this or not.

Therefore, theoretically we could have three actresses working in the race with Best Picture contenders standing firmly behind them. Of course, none of them are a done deal.   Not yet.

So why is it so important to have a Best Picture contender? It simply means more Academy members liked the movie enough to give it their vote.  There is strength in numbers.  But let’s look back at a little bit of Oscar history.

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It isn’t often that a love story wins Best Picture. By my count, loosely including films that are really about something else, like the Civil War or the sinking of an unsinkable ship, there have been only 16 winners in 83 years of Oscar history. Here’s the list.

It Happened One Night 5/5
Gone with the Wind 8/13
Rebecca 2/11
Casablanca 3/8
An American in Paris 6/8
Marty 4/8
Gigi 9/9
The Apartment 5/10
West Side Story 10/11
My Fair Lady 8/12
Annie Hall 4/5
Out of Africa 7/11
The English Patient 9/12
Titanic 11/14
Shakespeare in Love 7/13
Slumdog Millionaire 8/10

Most films have love stories in them, of course. But those movies that are about a central love story between two people seem rare, perhaps because there isn’t enough importance to them. The sheer joy of their love, coming together or being ripped apart, isn’t enough to sustain a Best Picture win; another component must be added — a story about the poverty in India, World War II, gang warfare, corruption, sweeping epics. Movies that are really just love stories rarely get nominated, and when they get nominated they rarely win.

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The idea that Academy members are prudes is deeply rooted in their voting history. The way most people talk about the Academy is that they “will never go for that” or they can’t really handle anything except the most traditional, straight up and down drama. These are, apparently, the same people who lived through the 1970s and lived to tell about it. But after that, they settled down, had kids, retired — the other half of them are perhaps a bit more daring. But films featuring extreme sexuality, as was depicted in last year’s Black Swan, which won an Oscar for Natalie Portman and garnered 7 4 more nominations, are few and far between. Once a film crosses over into the blue zone, it ends up joining the ranks of movies that either aren’t take seriously or are too rough going for many of them. This is why I always love it when films that makes people blush, as Steve McQueen’s brilliant Shame does, enter the Oscar race.

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I’ve been doing this website long enough that I remember the Almost Famous year.  The movie got so close to getting a Best Picture nomination yet didn’t make it in the end.  So many critics and film writers loved it — Roger Ebert famously said he wanted to hug himself after seeing it.  The most prominent Oscar-y thing that happened that year was that it made Kate Hudson a star and an almost-Oscar winner.  Cameron Crowe won the Oscar for the script, but the film only received four Oscar nominations.  Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson both got supporting nods and of the two, McDormand’s performance was the better (“Don’t take drugs”) but Hudson got the acclaim.  Crowe didn’t get a Best Directing nomination, and the film was shut out of the Best Picture race.  Guess what they ran instead:

Gladiator, the winner (can’t really argue with that, I suppose)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (no problem there)
Erin Brockovich

Now, Traffic deserved it; Erin Brockovich did not.  Chocolat?  One of the best films of that year? Really? Smoking whose crack pipe?  No one remembers it – it was Academy manipulation like nobody’s business – and nobody can play them like Harvey can.  Nobody.  That’s why he’s the Oscar whisperer. But history will always remember Almost Famous and Chocolat?  Not so much.

One of the best things about the two prominent film critics at the New York Times, AO Scott and Manohla Dargis, isn’t necessarily their take on new releases, although that’s certainly valuable, though often frustrating — and I don’t think it’s their Q&As particularly, at least not the way they do them now — and they don’t really dig into film discussion the way most movie bloggers do – which puts The Times at a disadvantage, I think: they really need a couple of hard core movie bloggers on their team because their film critics will never offer the same kind of ruminating. But where they are essential is in their knowledge and appreciation of great cinema. Check out this critics pick by Scott on The Last Picture Show:

A while back, when we were still doing them (we’re trying to get it together to start them again), Craig Kennedy, Ryan and I discussed the year that The Last Picture Show was up for the Oscar. For me, this year stands up as one of the best and a moment in Oscar’s history, and frankly in the DGA’s history as well, when they didn’t only want to pick the movie that most moved them, but seemed to have an appreciation for films that were breaking new ground, pushing the envelope, and not giving us the kind of the easy way out that Oscar winning films, and Oscar nominated films, often do, and certainly, with a few exceptions, have since the 1970s.

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In anticipation of tonight’s HBO premiere of Toddy Hayne’s Mildred Pierce, here’s a look back at my favorite Haynes masterpiece to date — his voluptuous Sirkian swoon, Far From Heaven. My personal choice for Best Actress of 2002, Julianne Moore, lost to Nicole Kidman’s supporting role in The Hours. The film was nominated for Best Music (Elmer Bernstein), Best Cinematography (Edward Lachman, now DP for Mildred Pierce), and Best Screenplay (Todd Haynes).

The Sundance Channel used to have a terrific recurring feature called Anatomy of a Scene, 30-minute deconstructions spotlighting the collaborative elements that combine to make a movie come alive. You can watch the anatomy of Far From Heaven after the cut.

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This piece by Cinema Blend’s Mack Rawden is quite wonderful. I would disagree with his initial premise, that Annie Hall won the battle but Star Wars won the war: both films forever changed the future of cinema. Both had tremendous impact. Both were films I myself have seen countless times and can recite them line for line. Both of them. If American films had a museum, Annie Hall would be in it. So would Star Wars. The difference for me between them is that Annie Hall has aged along with me. I loved it when I was a teenager, as a young woman and now, as a woman and human being aging. Woody Allen’s profound insight lends itself to me on almost a daily basis. I can’t really say the same about Star Wars, though you couldn’t find a more devoted fan when it came out. I can watch it now but it isn’t like Annie Hall. It doesn’t cut through my soul the way Allen’s film does. At any rate, and be that as it may, I appreciate this article and absolutely agree – why? Because Sorkin’s brilliant script IS like this:

That, in a wall post, is why The Social Network is the Annie Hall of the nominees, but it’s also the Star Wars. The comparison may seem ludicrous on the outset, but let’s delve a little deeper. That’s what both The Social Network and Star Wars are about anyway. Each is a reasonably simple to understand story. Each has a ton of very good acting performances but few with the outward dazzle to win Best Actor or Actress. More importantly, each is a product of exactly what you put in. You can watch The Social Network paying half attention and understand the general ins and outs. Mark Zuckerberg latched onto an idea that may or may not have been his. He turned it into an empire, pissed a lot of people off and became the youngest billionaire in the world. That’s the story. It doesn’t take brains to follow it, but to accurately understand the complexities of how it happened and why, you must pay careful attention, listen to the side characters and pour over the algorithms. Every little formula here adds up, it’s just a question of whether you take the time to notice. The Social Network caters to both the casual fans and the obsessives, exactly like Star Wars and in doing so, creates a final product that can be cherished by both.

Check it out – it is well worth the read.

(Which of these filmmakers actually won the Oscar they’re posing with?)

As already reported tonight, the Academy is discarding the lovely heartfelt tributes to each of the lead acting nominees in an effort to eliminate any genuine flavor from the broadcast, boiling it down to the slick chemical consistency of low-fat sugar-free pudding. Producer Bruce Cohen says, “we found a version of that, without using the five people on stage, from the 1970 Oscars, and we stole it.”

AD reader Buzz is curious: “Gee well now I want to know what different thing they did back in 1970‚Ķ too bad I wasn‚Äôt even born then.”

Partly because it’s supercute that we have a reader named Buzz, I did some research to see what we could find out. So they stole the new plan from the 1970 Oscars? Does Mr Cohen mean the ceremony for the movies released in 1970? That’s an odd year to choose for stealing presentation ideas, judging from reports of that broadcast in Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar:

  • Orson Welles wasn’t there for his Lifetime Achievement Award. His acceptance was pre-recorded.
  • Freddie Young had already won 3 Oscars for Best Cinematography. Didn’t attend to win his 4th.
  • Coppola skipped picking up his Patton Screenplay Oscar (too busy with The Godfather)
  • Helen Hayes watched herself win Best Supporting Actress on TV, from home.
  • Ingmar Bergman didn’t show up to collect his Thalberg Award.
  • Franklin J. Schaffner won Best Director, but no, wasn’t there.
  • George C. Scott outright rejected his Best Actor award.
  • Glenda Jackson was a no-show for Best Actress.
  • Director Luis Bu√±uel‘s Tristana was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1970, so there’s a legendary guest. Except Bu√±uel said, “Nothing would disgust me more morally than receiving an Oscar. Nothing in the world would make me go accept it. I wouldn’t have it in my home.”

Interesting night, if they replicate that.¬† Saves a lot of 45-second nonsense when the winners aren’t in attendance.
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The British have taken over the Oscars.  Before we get to how everything old is new again, here is a first look at Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher:

Oscars 2010 feels like a step backwards in time for so many reasons.

1. The British rule once again. After Obama’s State of the Union speech where he talked about our “Sputnik moment” and how America needs to support American industries and American talent, it is ironic that Oscar’s Best Picture is going to go to a British film made by a British production company about a British monarch. ¬†Surely Oscar historians will take note. ¬†All nine of the Best Picture nominees except the one that’s going to win are American stories, essentially – some about our past, some about our present – gay parents, meth in the backwoods, social networks, our collective childhoods, the western – our confusing identity in the modern world. ¬†The one that isn’t is not only the frontrunner to win, but was funded by the UK Film Council. ¬†In a year when the studio system here in America backed risky, uncompromising projects like Inception, The Social Network, Shutter Island — the Academy will go a different way.
2. The kids are all white. There are no people of color. ¬†The luncheon photo looks like a snapshot of the first class passengers on the Titanic only without the waitstaff. ¬†It isn’t necessarily the Academy’s fault. ¬†Last year after Geoffrey Fletcher became the first African American screenwriter to win, and Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win I joked that the Academy would figure they paid their affirmative action dues and “now can we get back to awarding white men?” And that’s exactly what’s happened. ¬†Well, then again, there are two films directed by women in both the Picture and the Writing category. ¬†Surely that’s something. ¬†But the rest? ¬†The five best directors, after such diversity last year, are once again white males.

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For some reason, it is always fun to take a dip into the psyche of the Academy of old to look at their history.

From our perspective, though, there has been a recent shift in how they vote for Best Picture, one that was matched only in the 1970s in terms of the kinds of films they rewarded. I don’t know how much of that has to do with the critics and their influence. Surely there was much of it back in the 1970s because, for one thing, people like Peter Bogdanovich were making films after and while writing about them. Or how much of it has to do with the kinds of the films the public responded to. If a film like The French Connection is doing well at the box office, it will get rewarded by the Academy, no matter if it has a happy ending, a redemptive character (it doesn’t), or not. It was probably a combination of those factors — a new guard coming in, a generation of visionary directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Friedkin, Bogdanovich, etc. It was the influence of big stars like Dustin Hoffman,Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda and Jack Nicholson’s desire and willingness to do unusual, art-driven cinema. All of those same voters grew older voting for Best Picture. Somewhere along the line, their tastes changed. They changed to reflect the thing the Academy’s Best Picture has almost always been about (with a few notable exceptions, like All About Eve), redemptive characters, likable characters, something that either makes you cry or makes you happy.

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Since many of you readers have commented here and on Twitter that 2010 could be a repeat of 1976. I thought it might be fun to take a look back at that pivotal year. I must admit to having written about it on more than a few occasions over the years. It is one of those memorable Oscar years that we here at Awards Daily keep going back to. The other years that are often brought up is the year Driving Miss Daisy won without a Director nomination, the year that Chariots of Fire beat Reds (others have compared that to this year as well), and of course, the biggest one of all, How Green Was My Valley beating Citizen Kane.

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For this week’s Moviegasm, Craig Kennedy, Ryan Adams and I were thinking of selecting the Oscar year 1964/1965 when My Fair Lady beat Dr. Strangelove. Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Becket, Mary Poppins and Zorba the Greek. I was but a mere embryo during this year and I would be born March of 1965, so this is my Oscar year. Do you ever look at the Oscar year you were born?

First off, the Academy gets major props for nominating Kubrick’s masterpiece for four crucial Oscars: Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor (the superb Peter Sellers). Depending on your point of view, the Strangelove script was the most deserving in retrospect — but Becket was a fine choice for more traditional Academy temperaments of the day.

Dr. Strangelove is one of the most memorable scripts ever written. And one of the best films ever made. It’s always a big letdown to discover that the Academy missed the boat (but you may disagree). It’s easy to see their making this crucial error because Dr. Strangelove wasn’t “lofty” enough, even if it did echo the sentiments of its time. It has become timeless, however. It has more resonance today as it ever did. In fact, you might find a lot in common with some of the talking heads this year, some of whom won in elections last week, sounding not unlike Jack D. Ripper.

Please use this space to toss out questions or requests for Craig, Ryan and I and we will do our best to fulfill them.

“You ever see a communist drink a glass of water?”

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Movie Videos & Movie Scenes at MOVIECLIPS.com

It was a particularly disastrous Academy year in 1987 when Broadcast News lost to The Last Emperor.¬† It’s probably so much easier to look back now and see how little impact The Last Emperor has had on cinema in the past twenty years than to acknowledge the other truth, that it’s more about how much more meaningful Broadcast News has become.

The Last Emperor is the kind of film that was, and maybe still is, too big to ignore. The costumes, the cinematography, its epic sweep – how could it lose? It was, in truth, a beautifully looking film, and at the time I remember it having quite an impact. It was one of the few Oscar best picture winners to have won without the force of its actors. It always follows with best picture frontrunners that it must have equal amounts of great writing, directing and acting and most of the time, each of these is represented in the various categories. In the Oscar world we call this “broad support.” One clue that Sandra Bullock was winning for The Blind Side last year was that the film was also nominated for Best Picture. Since this a vote across the various branches, representation in the major categories is always essential. Usually, actors rule.

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