By Daniel Kenealy
I am not yet ready to issue my final predictions although this year feels deceptively simple with most prognosticators penciling in ‚ÄòSlumdog‚Äô, Danny Boyle, Kate Winslet, Heath Ledger and Penelope Cruz for Oscars. The two main categories that seem to possess the label ‚Äòhead-scratcher‚Äô this year are Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Personally I am feeling somewhat less baffled by these two categories than I perhaps should be and am struggling to finalise my technical category predictions. The purpose of this article is to consider a couple of things. First, the inevitability of ‚ÄòSlumdog‚Äô and an article published over the weekend in the UK broadsheet The Guardian on that issue. Second, to consider the notion that ‚ÄòThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button‚Äô may emerge as a default winner in the technical categories by virtue of its haul of 13 nominations. And finally, to look at this years Best Actor race.
The Guardian issued several interesting articles this weekend. The first was a list of ten reasons why ‚ÄòSlumdog Millionaire‚Äô will win the Best Picture Oscar. The Guardian might be coming a little late to this particular party but, nevertheless, perhaps we should embrace the fact that they bothered to show up at all. David Thomson‚Äôs ten reasons why are:
1 It is good enough to win ‚Äì and it helps that it has poor competition this year.
2 Like its hero, it is the dark-horse, outsider candidate that has come out of nowhere with no stars.
3 In the crucial voting period, it is the film that continues to do great business wherever it plays.
4 The people who like this film adore it ‚Äì there is no other film in contention that has such an enthusiastic following.
5 For years now, the Indian film industry has been a much discussed but marginalized phenomenon. Now the western audience begins to see what “Bollywood” is like and is reminded of old Hollywood.
6 The fable-like structure of the film has the strength and simplicity of a fairytale.
7 The film is full of delightful newcomers.
8 It is all about money at a moment when no topic concerns us more.
9 The profound hatred or mistrust of corrupt wealth and the consequent adoration of lucky poverty could not have a better dramatic demonstration.
10 The new air of magical realism is about to crush photographic realism in the movies.
Personally, I tend to agree with most of the ten although I question number 1. I do not think ‚ÄòSlumdog‚Äô is good enough to win and I take issue with the notion that it has ‚Äòpoor competition this year.‚Äô In my estimation ‚ÄòMilk‚Äô stands as far superior to the other four Best Picture nominees this year. I do not have the space to review five films in this column but to pithily summarize I felt ‚ÄòBenjamin Button‚Äô was a technical marvel that lacked a soul. At 165 minutes it felt incredibly long and it lacked the distinctive quality that David Fincher has brought to his previous outstanding efforts. I have discussed previously my issues with ‚ÄòThe Reader‚Äô and will not rehash them here. ‚ÄòFrost/Nixon‚Äô struggled to escape its stage origins in my opinion and the dynamic between Frank Langella and Michael Sheen ‚Äì compelling though it was ‚Äì failed to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Compared to Peter Morgan‚Äôs previously dialectic examinations (Tony Blair/Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair/Gordon Brown) this one did not crackle. Finally ‚ÄòSlumdog‚Äô was terribly fun and I did enjoy my time in the cinema. It was somewhat undemanding and unreflective but I recognize that it depended on these facts in order to be enjoyable. ‚ÄòMilk‚Äô was, in my humble opinion, in a different category to its co-nominees. A celebratory biopic of a maverick politician sees Sean Penn transform into Harvey Milk superbly. Meanwhile Gus Van Sant recreates the gay scene of 1970s San Francisco lovingly and without exaggeration. It is my small hope that ‚ÄòMilk‚Äô walks off with the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in a few days time but, of course, I am not so na√Øve as to think that will happen.
This, in a round-about way, leads me to my second point. I have been struggling to finalize my predictions in the technical categories and was struck by the notion that ‚ÄòBenjamin Button‚Äô may become something of a default winner given its 13 nominations and the knowledge by the Academy voters that it will be shut out in the major categories (with the possible exception of Best Supporting Actress where I continue to believe that Taraji P. Henson is a serious threat to the presumed frontrunner Penelope Cruz).
In making my technical predictions I cast my mind back to 2004 and the division of awards between ‚ÄòMillion Dollar Baby‚Äô ‚Äì a smaller film that caught the hearts and minds of the voters ‚Äì and ‚ÄòThe Aviator‚Äô ‚Äì a sumptuous epic that perhaps lacked a genuine emotional hook, especially in contrast to Clint‚Äôs offering that possessed emotion in abundance. The former collected the top Oscars of Best Picture, Director, Actress and Supporting Actor and Scorsese‚Äôs historical epic was consoled with the Best Supporting Actress prize and four technical awards (Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing). It felt, to me, that ‚ÄòThe Aviator‚Äô was benefiting from a sense amongst the voters that if it had not been for ‚ÄòMillion Dollar Baby‚Äô Scorsese‚Äôs Howard Hughes biopic would have swept the awards. It thus became a sort of default winner in the technical categories. The effect would be somewhat similar to a frontrunner in the Best Picture category that sweeps technical categories that it does not necessarily deserve. For example, the sweep afforded to ‚ÄòThe English Patient‚Äô in 1996 saw the opulent costumes of ‚ÄòHamlet‚Äô, the arresting sets of ‚ÄòRomeo + Juliet‚Äô and ‚ÄòEvita‚Äô, and the outstanding sound of ‚ÄòEvita‚Äô falling under the wheels of a particularly strong bandwagon. My point is that it is not just Best Picture frontrunners that can become default technical category winners. It can happen to other films too.
The more I thought about this however, the more I felt that ‚ÄòBenjamin Button‚Äô might be a poor case for this theory. Its 13 nominations make it facile to assume that, absent ‚ÄòSlumdog‚Äô, David Fincher would have had a sweeper on his hands. But would he? The more I think about it, the less convinced I am. I strongly suspect, although I have no concrete basis for the suspicion, that ‚ÄòMilk‚Äô and perhaps even ‚ÄòThe Reader‚Äô would have benefited most from the absence of ‚ÄòSlumdog‚Äô. Thus ‚ÄòBenjamin Button‚Äô might be more comparable not to ‚ÄòThe Aviator‚Äô but to ‚ÄòGangs of New York‚Äô ‚Äì a movie that was much anticipated, much admired for its ambition and scope, but ultimately was shunned in each and every one of the ten categories in which it was nominated.
Thus I issue a plea for help, what fate awaits ‚ÄòBenjamin Button‚Äô in the technical categories? It goes into Oscar night with 8 technical nominations. I think we can safely assume it will not be triumphant in the following categories:
Best Sound Mixing ‚Äì where I believe that the race is between ‚ÄòThe Dark Knight‚Äô and ‚ÄòWall-E‚Äô with ‚ÄòSlumdog‚Äô lingering should there be a considerable sweep.
Best Film Editing ‚Äì where the overlong ‚ÄòButton‚Äô seems unlikely given the presence of ‚ÄòSlumdog‚Äôs outstanding pace and ‚ÄòThe Dark Knight‚Äôs action sequences.
Best Original Score ‚Äì where A.R. Rahman‚Äôs very ‚Äòpresent‚Äô score for ‚ÄòSlumdog‚Äô seems likely given the predilection of this branch to embrace music with an international flavor.
That leaves five categories ‚Äì art direction, cinematography, costume design, makeup and visual effects ‚Äì where the film is a strong contender. Does it win all five almost by default and thus save itself from the ignominy of collecting just one or two Oscars out of 13?
Its art direction and costume design have the added bonus of spanning many decades (and thus several eras) but the sheer opulence of ‚ÄòThe Duchess‚Äô seems a threat on both fronts (although I suspect a stronger threat on the costume front).
As for cinematography, ‚ÄòButton‚Äô is a rich visual experience and the digital photography of Claudia Miranda conforms to a pattern where the Academy often votes for the scenery being filmed rather than the actual cinematographic achievement. That is not to suggest that Miranda did not do a fine job, he did. The lighting, so pivotal to capturing many of David Fincher‚Äôs visions, was first rate and the films designers certainly provided Miranda with stunning visuals to film. But is ‚ÄòSlumdog‚Äô on for a significant sweep? If so, Anthony Dod Mantle‚Äôs handheld camera ‚Äì bouncing so entertainingly through the Mumbai slums ‚Äì could trump the visual opulence of Miranda. And of course the vets ‚Äì Roger Deakins and Chris Menges ‚Äì are serious contenders for their detached but pitch-perfect work. And, lest I be eaten alive by ‚ÄòThe Dark Knight‚Äô fans we also have Wally Pfister whose work contributes much to Chris Nolan‚Äôs vision of Gotham (ultimately I expect the extensive night-time and interior work might prevent Pfister from collecting the statuette).
So that leaves makeup and visual effects. In the former category it is important to note that the makeup in ‚ÄòButton‚Äô almost becomes a character in itself. The movie would struggle to work without it. And Greg Cannom is a legend. That being said ‚ÄòThe Dark Knight‚Äô was iconic and the answer to the question ‚ÄòDo you know how I got these scars?‚Äô might be: ‚Äòbecause of some outstanding makeup talent that we feel deserve an Oscar.‚Äô As for visual effects, ‚ÄòButton‚Äô was eye-popping but ‚ÄòIron Man‚Äô was tremendously enjoyable.
My current technical category lineup has ‚ÄòButton‚Äô predicted for just three Oscars ‚Äì art direction, makeup and visual effects. Am I being too harsh? Is there more momentum behind the film than that? Will the movie become a default winner across the technical categories?
Finally, I come to the issue of the Best Actor category which I find simply fascinating this year. No doubt Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn both delivered incredible performances where they transformed into their characters. There was no hint of ‚Äòacting‚Äô in either of these performances. I imagine an Oscar prognosticator behind a marginal ‚Äòveil of ignorance‚Äô. Suppose our prognosticator has viewed all Best Actor winners from Emil Jannings to Daniel Day-Lewis (with the exception of Sean Penn‚Äôs win for ‚ÄòMystic River‚Äô). They then watch ‚ÄòThe Wrestler‚Äô and ‚ÄòMilk‚Äô and are told that they are viewing the two performances, A (Mickey Rourke) and B (Sean Penn) that are the frontrunners for the Best Actor Oscar in 2009. The know nothing of the nominations in other categories. So we have our prognosticator who knows each and every Best Actor winner of the past (minus Sean Penn) and knows that performers A and B will vie for the prize this year. I suspect our prognosticator, behind his limited ‚Äòveil of ignorance‚Äô would confidently predict actor B (Sean Penn). He portrays a real person; he meets a tragic end and so forth. It all would seem to fit the pattern. Imagine then that some new information was offered to our prognosticator. First, they were allowed to see the entire nominations list for the years Academy Awards. They see that ‚ÄòMilk‚Äô is a heavyweight with 8 nominations including Best Picture and that ‚ÄòThe Wrestler‚Äô has just two nominations. The prognosticator may well sit back, content in his prediction; even more assured that he has made the right call. Suppose we then provide biographical information about actors A and B. At this point, our prognosticator might begin to question his prediction and wonder what factor sentiment may play in the voting dynamics. Finally, suppose we screen for our prognosticator the missing historical Best Actor performance, namely Sean Penn in ‚ÄòMystic River‚Äô. Now I suspect he might seriously question his choice. He has an actor with an incredibly compelling biography, a great and satisfying comeback story and a quasi-biographical role versus an established and critically acclaimed actor who collected an Oscar just four years ago.
This thought exercise is the way I have reasoned through this years Best Actor race. Whilst I was never behind this veil of ignorance I had an iron-clad conviction that Sean Penn would collect his second Oscar. But as the season has evolved and I have thought more about the dynamics of this category I have shifted 180 degrees to Mickey Rourke. His speeches at the Globes and BAFTA can only have helped his cause. And the fact that both actors are on the record as rooting for the other makes this an incredibly emotional race and it will be fascinating to see the reactions of the ‚Äòloser‚Äô whomever he may be.