One of the strangest developments of last year’s Oscar, probably the thing that was most difficult to predict, was Jason Reitman’s loss for Adapted Screenplay. I have to say that this kind of thing rarely happens. I haven’t actually looked at the history closely enough, but I can say that in the past when someone has won as many awards as Jason Reitman did – Golden Globe, WGA, Critics Choice, LA Film Critics, NBR, SEFCA, Scripter, BAFTA — it is unheard of for them to lose the Oscar.
Here are some of the reasons I think it might have happened.
1) Sap vs. Cynical – the one year I found that was comparable to this in some ways was The Cider House Rules vs. Election. Election was by far the better script, in almost every way except one crucial way: it wasn’t a tear-jerker. Yes, there is a world of difference between Geoffrey Fletcher and John Irving – one win made history for African American writers; the other honored an literary icon. But one can’t help but wonder if sentiment played a part. Up in the Air was a bittersweet cinematic experience — it didn’t end things in the “right” way. It tips its hat to those who value relationships and families but it doesn’t put its hero anywhere near a happy ending.
2) Reitman’s quest to be the sole writer on the project. This was the moment I felt like Reitman wasn’t someone who wanted to win an Oscar because anyone competing for an Oscar knows that it is a public relations game. I get it that he didn’t feel the script was “co-written” but it kind of blew up in his face when it turned out that Sheldon Turner did contribute to the finished product. Reitman already had to contend with people seeing him as a spoiled rich kid with all of the advantages so a move like this made him look selfish, I believe. Voters like to feel like they doing a good deed when they award someone – it is usually about “who needs it more” rather than “who deserves it more.” When that good will evaporates it can sometimes result in an eventual loss. There is no way to measure whether or not this was the reason, but it might have been a contributing factor.
3) He’s Ivan Reitman’s son. I gained much respect for Jason Reitman after it became clear to me that he was gunning for an Oscar for his father. I don’t think Reitman particularly cared if he won or not (I know that he’s been a punching bag for manchild bloggers who delighted in seeing him fail) but he definitely wanted to see his old man reap some glory. The other thing he did was work harder than any contender I’ve ever seen, going from state to state, theater to theater pushing his film. Usually that kind of hard work is rewarded in the end. But maybe there was some resentment that he was Ivan Reitman’s son, someone who never worked a day in his life and was already a successful filmmaker. Hard to know; I feel fairly strongly, though, that if he weren’t a Reitman he would have won the Oscar (Sofia Coppola notwithstanding).
4) They just liked Precious more. We had long suspected that Precious was a force to be reckoned with, especially since it earned an editing nod where Up in the Air did not. Precious was present with consistency in all of the most important guild awards, most notably, the SAG ensemble, which Up in the Air missed. It should not have missed there, with or without the screener snafu. George Clooney’s popularity alone should have guaranteed it an ensemble nod.
5) George Clooney didn’t campaign hard enough for his film. At some point, even after Clooney chatted up many of the online bloggers, he simply stopped showing up. Yes, it was right around the same time as the earthquake in Haiti and his attention was drawn there, but he definitely jumped ship right at the crucial time when he really needed to be out there making it happen for the film. He was nowhere to be found. On the other hand, he campaigned pretty hard for both Michael Clayton and Good Night, and Good Luck. Clayton took home only supporting actress, while Good Night went home empty-handed.
Still, Up in the Air went home empty-handed, even with three acting nominations. Even with one of the best publicity teams in the business. Even with George Clooney. It was an odd, unprecedented event, and one that confirms that occasionally, nobody knows anything.