“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Oscar ballots don’t go out until February 14th. That’s two whole weeks of madness that might occur just as ballots are sailing out to voters’ mailboxes.
It’s too quiet.
This is the calm before the storm, the moment just before the dirty work begins. Remember last year’s congressman debacle where he called into question the veracity of Spielberg’s Lincoln? Publicity abounds and in all of the wrong directions. It isn’t anyone’s “job” except the publicists to ensure that an Oscar campaign runs smoothly. It is anyone’s game where controversies, faux controversies, hysterical outbursts, fleeting outrage that seems so all important at the time but really only amounts to voters backing off one of their favorites just at the time when they have to start making those choices.
This is my least favorite time during Oscar season, second only to those few days before nomination ballots are turned in. Now is crunch time in a very competitive race. That the BAFTAs website was hacked seems mighty suspicious to me. Who has what to gain on that? Does it have anything to do with a disgruntled fan? Is it some kind of high tech robbery? All I know is that it’s that time of year. If there is a scandal involving any aspect of any film this is the moment chosen to force that thing through the hole.
Since only one of the Best Picture frontrunners isn’t a true story (Gravity) the others are ripe for exploitation by truthers. In all instances, the truth is important. But you have to weigh that against the purpose bringing it out now serves. It only serves to gain publicity for someone, at best, and to derail an Oscar hopeful at worst. The truth exists whether the film says it does or not. The truth exists whether it’s uncovered during final Oscar voting or not. Last year that congressman’s efforts to disclose the falsehoods in Lincoln were, to me, too well timed to be taken seriously. He brushed it all off, of course, but what was he going to say? That he had his pal Ben Affleck’s back? Who knows what drove him but the fact that he didn’t wait until the Oscars were over, him being a politician and all, will always seem suspicious to me. Call me paranoid.
What this means is this. The real ABSCAM story is a mess. It has nothing really to do with American Hustle because that film says at the outset, “some of this actually happened.” They are winking at the audience and informing us that David O. Russell took the truth and made his own story out of it. The truth of ABSCAM, should you be interested, is deep and involved. Don’t look to a movie to help you out with the truth, however. If you do that you deserve to be deceived.
The most ridiculous of these thus far was the silly notion that the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis was supposed to be an accurate accounting of the life of Dave Van Ronk. First, they never claimed it was that. Second, you’ve heard of the Coen brothers, right? They make movies. They write them. Their not supposed to be “true.” It’s called fiction. Look into it.
There was some fuss about town as to whether Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio made Wolf of Wall Street to celebrate Jordan Belfort and the excess he stands for. To make that assumption about the country’s most vital and vibrant filmmaker, a film historian himself, is to really really miss the whole point. Scorsese got out in front of it, however, and adamantly defended himself, which he certainly did not have to do. Why that, why now? It was a good thing the hubbub over Wolf did not last. Part of the that was how the industry validated the film by honoring with nominations across the board. Sometimes Oscar season can be a good thing.
The next two week might bring some kind of 12 Years a Slave eruption. The underdog in this year’s race is being predicted to win Best Picture and has been since Telluride. But Gravity has the edge on 12 Years by anyone paying close attention to how voters usually vote (with their hearts). Pundits who continue to predict 12 Years now are assuming that the industry will begrudgingly “do the right thing” as opposed to the heart-light thing. When they “do the right thing” they drag Picture and Director along for the ride to make a full statement. They were never going to give Kathryn Bigelow director and Avatar Picture as many pundits were predicting. It was never going to go down that way. It was either Cameron or Bigelow and picture would be decided that way. The only time they have ever split, in fact, was to give picture to the film they liked best. Period.
But because the films are neck and neck right now, because both directors of these films Alfonso Cuaron and Steve McQueen are nice guys whose wins are historic in their own ways, might something erupt from the sidelines to tip it one direction or another? What might that be? One reason why it’s better to launch in Telluride or Toronto is that you can run the gauntlet long before Oscar season starts. Any shit that was going to come out about 12 Years might have come out already, right? You’d think. The next two weeks is traditionally when the shit comes down.
Best Picture is so wide open right now, anything could happen to change the outcome of the race. That makes this a treacherous moment in time. While most of the hardcore Oscar strategists aren’t in the ring together as they were last year, there are still major players in the game.
Probably nothing is going to derail Cate Blanchett, even with the sudden resurgence of Woody Allen in the news. Blue Jasmine still got a screenplay nod. Nothing is going to derail Philomena and Judi Dench. Any controversy about the film’s stance against the Catholic church (which was far too kind from my own point of view) has been dispelled by the real Philomena Lee showing up at awards events. Matthew McConaughey is probably solid to win but he isn’t nominated for a BAFTA, which complicates things slightly. I can’t see any controversy about Dallas Buyers Club ruining his or Jared Leto’s chances.
Who has what to gain and where is usually more fierce in previous years than it is this one. That’s partly due to the good intentions of the projects in the race. Dallas Buyers Club is the final film of Focus Features under James Schamus. What a legacy he leaves behind. This film is a fitting tribute to the end of his reign. 12 Years a Slave was nobly put together by passionate believers like Brad Pitt. Everyone involved is on the up and up. You aren’t going to see what happened to The Hurt Locker in 2009, where one of the film’s producers sent out letters begging voters to vote for them, violating Oscar’s rules which resulted in his being shut out of the ceremony. Nothing like that is likely to happen. And what’s there to complain about with Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity?
It’s a squeaky clean race so far and doesn’t look to be getting dirty. But this is the moment where the claws can come out and the whisper campaigns start. Stay frosty, Oscar watchers.
Marshall Flores’ statsgasm odds:
Picture: Gravity*, 56.09%
12 Years a Slave, 12.08%
American Hustle, 11.90%
Director: Alfonso Cuaron*, 60.58%
Steve McQueen, 23.34%
David O. Russell, 12.90%
Those seem right on the money to me, despite what the majority of pundits are saying. I myself won’t change my personal predictions, however, as I believe the deserving film this year is, without question, 12 Years a Slave for all of the reasons I’ve stated and will likely repeat until Oscar’s last gasp. It won’t matter, of course. I beat the drum for Lincoln, Hugo and the Social Network. And in all instances, I went down with the ship, continuing to play pretty music on my fiddle until the water took us all under.
Whatever film is named “best” of this year or any year we all acknowledge that it doesn’t mean that much, ultimately. We know that it represents a snapshot in time of what a particular demographic (mostly white, mostly male industry voters) felt. Best means “here is who we are,” not “this is the highest achievement in film this year.” We all have our own ideas about what’s best anyway, right? The consensus has to factor in everyone’s opinion and majority rules.
I’ve been lucky enough to watch the race starting all the way back in Cannes. Lucky enough to sit in the Grand Lumiere and watch the soundless All is Lost, JC Chandor’s reflection on the meaning of life, a film that didn’t make it into the Oscar race in any way, shape or form. Does that mean anything? No. It means that many voters did not want to take the time to put that DVD in their players and give the movie a chance. I got to see it, pinned back to my seat in awe of it, the audacity of making a movie with no dialogue. I’ve been lucky enough to wait in the rain for two hours to be one of the first in the blue line to see Inside Llewyn Davis. My clothes were soaked to the bone as I took my seat way off to the side. I knew that the film was so specific it might not hit a broad consensus but it was the kind of film you reach into, not one that reaches out to you as you sit back and relax. That made it a tough sell for the industry. That they didn’t choose that movie as one of the year’s best should not be a reflection on that film in any way. That is a reflection on their lack of imagination, their inability to reach in.
I was lucky enough to see Bruce Dern’s beautifully aging and confused face spread across the screen at the Grand Lumiere. Nebraska would make it all the way, partly because Dern’s is an experience many of the current Academy voters must address: confronting the sum total of one’s life.
I was lucky enough to be ten feet away from Steve McQueen and Brad Pitt announcing the first ever screening of 12 Years a Slave in Telluride. It was too rough to win. Too hard to watch to win. Too … something. That was the word out of Telluride, even though not one person walked out of that theater with a dry face. I got to see it before the Oscar race smeared it with its greasy fingerprints. Later, it would be pronounced as the film that was going to win Best Picture by Vulture.com. That put a target on its back and it was suddenly very uncool to vote for that movie.
At the same time, I was lucky enough to see Gravity in Telluride, again, while still fresh and not the award winner it is now. That is some kind of cinematic experience, seeing that film.
Because 12 Years and Gravity and Nebraska made it in, but Inside Llewyn Davis and All is Lost did not only means that it was an extremely competitive year. There wasn’t much wiggle room and in the end, the films that were more accessible overall triumphed. All that’s left is the final decision, the one of them that gets the Maltese Falcon which looks so valuable until you start peeling off its surface sheen. What you are then left with is artifice and vulnerability. (I sure hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck).
It is a mistake to believe that the Oscar race is the most important achievement for a work of art. Time sorts that out. Love the movies you love. The Oscars ought to be reserved for power shifts in Hollywood, career moves, popularity contests. An embarrassment of riches, that’s what this is.