Wrestling the Oscar beast is no easy task. Everyone does their best in the first part of the season to get some kind of foothold on it. We make lists. We think everything is settled and then, wham. Things change. I am used to pushback. It happens to me every year, as I’m sure it happens to anyone who writes about the race. The only way I can keep my sanity is that I have a few people, literally, maybe three, whose opinions I trust. The rest I have to try to balance with what I already know.
And what I know, what anyone else knows, isn’t much. Not on October 12.
There is a filter between seeing films in screenings and how they eventually “do.” The critics are really the ones who mostly shape perception. The bloggers can praise a film until they’re blue in the fingertips, but ultimately – it’s about the critics, the industry, the public and the Academy. Sorry, bloggers, but it just is.
That is why seeing a film in a screening can sometimes be a misleading experience. If the critics don’t agree with the early blogger praise, a film will have a hard time passing the first test. That is why it’s always dangerous to get our strong opinion out there — others are likely to throw it back in our face should the movie fail. This happened to me with The Kite Runner. I am always surprised when I like a movie that ends up doing really well in the race. It is a win-win for me.
There is a mob mentality that forms amid the heat of Oscar race.¬† Each member of the Oscar mob tends to think they’re more right than everyone else. It’s always surprised me the level of presumption that goes along with a gig that is essentially as reliable as predicting the weather. Bob Dylan wrote that you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, and in many respects, in the heat of Oscar season, you don’t need a blogger to tell you which movies are going to get nominated. Nobody knows anything at this stage, and anyone who pretends to know is talking out of other openings.
The Oscar blogger phase doesn’t make much of a difference early on except to champion films that wouldn’t ordinarily get any attention. All of the crowing we (and others) did about In the Loop last year did finally manage to get that film a screenplay nod. Or maybe the Academy just liked the movie? The talk does get the thing in front of people. Ultimately, the voters decide what they like and what they don’t. It’s simple, not fuzzy.
Here’s the thing: if you love a movie, love the movie. If it isn’t a player in the awards race, does that matter? Not really.
So back to Fair Game and the Oscar race. To talk about this film in terms of its Oscar potential, one must believe that it doesn’t matter entirely what the critics think; their consensus is only part of the overall picture. However, not helping Fair Game was this key opinion by the NY Times’ Manohla Dargis, who wrote:
“Greeted with solid applause and a smattering of boos after its first press screening, ‘Fair Game’ has an enjoyable opening hour before disintegrating into melodramatic hooey. Naomi Watts … plays Plame as a no-nonsense operative who‚Äôs always rushing, whether at home tending her family or in the dreary basement halls of the Central Intelligence Agency or on the streets of a foreign country. Sean Penn, who plays Ms. Plame‚Äôs husband, skipped Cannes to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the need for continued relief for Haiti.”
I could see how one might see the film that way. Here is what I know about Cannes, though. Talk about rushing? One is herded from one screening to another – and no one will tell you this but almost everyone struggles to stay awake at screenings and press conferences because everyone is so tired. The same could be said about any festival. Festivals are not really designed for critics; they’re designed to sell movies studios think have potential. It is inorganic to have so many critics there. It reminds me of the county fair, where animals are put in pens and judged by potential buyers. How could really tell all that an animal has to offer when it is confined that way? Let it run free in its natural habitat (a movie theater full of people if you’re still following this metaphor) and a whole different creature might emerge.
So, dear readers, try hard to not put judgments on films before they have a chance to play in front of audiences and get proper screenings.F
Films are meant to be seen by audiences, not critics.
Therefore, a film’s Oscar story does not end, necessarily, at a film festival. Some of them do, of course, like Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Walk the Line had the opposite effect – it was beloved in Toronto but fell flat with Oscar voters for Best Pic (with ten nominees it would have made it in).
I try to reserve judgment on a film until it’s made it through the gauntlet of the festivals, the critics, and finally the public. Others in my line of work don’t do that. They want to be first, so they are motivated to give a pass/fail grade to a film before it’s even had a chance to open properly.
All of this to say that I loved Fair Game. I didn’t just love it because I’m a bleeding heart who still hasn’t forgiven an administration for leading us into war under false pretenses, I loved it because Sean Penn and Naomi Watts show us how it’s supposed to be done.
One forgets just what a good actor Sean Penn really is until you see him on screen. The truth is that he may well be the best living American actor. He gets better with each role, and in Fair Game, he has so much charisma, such cinematic force one can hardly wrap one’s mind around it. He may have been hit and miss in the early part of his career, but now? After so much real life has formed so many deeply worn wrinkles, after his efforts to help change the world has broadened his perspective on human nature — Sean Penn is someone different now. And he commands the big screen like no other, coming close to the likes of Humphrey Bogart.
Doug Liman also does the DP work on the film, cutting out the middle man, which gives us a sense of urgency with every shot. We are right there, up close, warts and all.
Now, full disclosure: much of what moved me about this film was my own personal anger at the Bush administration. 2010 is the chickens coming home to roost. A few of these films protest the wrongs done to us these past ten years in the wake of 9/11. Hollywood has been told to sit down and shut up by the right. But filmmakers and actors are doing just the opposite. But Hollywood is bringing to the surface the Bush administration’s illegal war and the corruption on Wall Street, and the cover up of the death of Pat Tillman all in the same year.¬†¬† It’s time to pay the piper.
There is a bigger picture here than whether this is an Oscar movie or not. This is an important story that needed to be told. Maybe it didn’t need to be told for Valerie Plame’s sake, a woman who served our country for a decade before being used as a pawn to promote an illegal war. Maybe it didn’t need to be told because Joe Wilson’s reputation needed to be repaired. And it certainly didn’t need to be told so that Sean Penn could win another Oscar.
It needed to be told because this is still the Unites States of America. Freedom of speech is alive and well. Karl Rove, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney got away with crimes that make Nixon’s look like a kindergarten food fight. If it takes Hollywood to get the truth out there, then so be it. Our mainstream news has become corporate-owned. In the wake of 9/11 the Bush Administration made the unprecedented move to quiet the press. The amount of power they had over all aspects our freedom is exposed, to a degree, in Fair Game. Are we really prepared to totally write off the film because Manohla Dargis was bored and a few French journos booed the film at Cannes? I’m certainly not. Great filmmaking, acting and a vital message – what more could I ask for.
So, what does this mean to the Oscar race? It is too soon to tell. If voters don’t feel the same connection to the film that I felt, it’d done. Here is what I know about Sean Penn: he has a lot of friends in Hollywood. His work in Haiti has only made him more admirable. I think he is a force of nature when it comes to the Oscar race. The film will have to be panned completely to disregard him, Watts and the film. In my opinion, of course.
How would Fair Game fit into the Oscar race, though, if we have to ask the question. If it were me, I would vote for it for Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress. But it isn’t me, Blanche. It isn’t.
Right now, I wouldn’t count out Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, for starters. At the very least, Naomi Watts should be in the conversation.
Therefore, Best Actress could be grouped this way:
Overdue for a nom/win:
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Naomi Watts for Fair Game
Breakout performances/Critics Darlings
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Lesley Manville for Another Year (she should be put in supporting).
Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine
Star power plus good reviews could make the difference:
Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole
Hillary Swank for Conviction
Best Actor might be grouped this way:
Overdue for a nom/win + critical acclaim:
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Breakout stars/Critics’ Darlings:
James Franco, 127 Hours
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Star power plus good reviews could make the difference:
Robert Duvall, Get Low
Sean Penn, Fair Game
Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges True Grit
Mark Wahlberg for The Fighter
Sam Rockwell for Conviction
Matt Damon for Hereafter
If we group the Best Picture candidates, we might do it this way:
The Social Network
The King’s Speech
Toy Story 3
The Kids Are All Right
Potential Crowdpleasers and/or The Blind Side Slot
Still big question marks:
The Way Back (just added)
We are still in the wide open phase right now, Oscar watchers. There is no good reason to think the race has all but been decided. There is a lot of time left for things to change. Stay frosty and keep an open mind. And fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.