The AMPAS rocked the Oscar blogging world …cough cough, sputter sputter. Let’s start that again. The mildly interesting news announced overnight that the AMPAS has decided that they will not be beholden to a solid number of ten Best Picture nominees. And will instead choose an arbitrary number. It could be somewhere between five and ten.
The truth that those of us who have been following them for these many years know that the Oscar race is a game. It’s a game of winners and losers. It’s a game of very astute publicists, popular stars, good looks, the occasional naked lady, and a lot of people whose greatest moments of revolutionary thinking happened back in the 1970s. They can keep tinkering with the plumbing but it’s never going to make the shit not stink. Nevertheless, there is some maybe interesting fallout from this and that’s their loose admission here that picking ten, for them, was probably a mistake.
One has to wonder if that isn’t due to their having made such an extraordinarily bland choice for last year’s Best Picture – with so many pics vying for the Academy’s vote, it’s much more likely for a split to occur. What’s that? Oh, there wasn’t a split? Right, they gave their Best Director prize to Tom Hooper. There goes that idea. What was the problem that caused them to switch? Who whined the loudest? More importantly, who is more invested in their being only five nominees? I guess because we all still know there are really only five Oscar contenders anyway. Five directors and five Best Pictures. We all knew that last year the five were pretty clear. But having ten did seem to work because ten is what the critics use – ten matches the top ten and it allowed for smaller movies to make a play for the big show.
Funnily enough, the Academy is yawning all the way back to their beginnings with this decision. And isn’t the idea to forward-think here? I liked the idea of ten because ten acknowledged, or seemed to, that all kinds of films COULD, in theory, be eligible to have the high honor of being named one of the ten Best Pictures of the year. They could have the blockbuster, the Blind Side, the Brit Nazi war weepy, the Fincher masterpiece, the Black Swan, the Hurt Locker, the Avatar, and the Kids are All Right all rolled into one big group as if to actually try to float the idea that there can be more than five Best Picture nominees.
But they never did really like that idea. It took the Academy only a few years to decide that their herding cats method of choosing a random number for Best Picture wasn’t working, so in 1937 or so (someone will correct me on the exact year) they switched to a solid ten. But by the time Casablanca won with ten nominees, they decided to switch, finally, to five — probably either because there were less films being released overall, but also to make it more of an exciting race. They stuck with five for the next three or four decades until two years ago.
The suspense is mostly overrated anyway because publicists rule this race and, give or take the critics and the audience, the race is pretty much set early on and changes very little in the course of a few short months.
In the age of reality TV where people are much more invested in the outcome of American Idol than they will ever be in the Oscar race, the AMPAS is still lagging woefully behind the times. Their majority is a cloistered, pampered, out of touch group who look at the screeners in front of them and simply pick what they “liked” best. They aren’t all that different from the American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance public — except that at least with those shows? There are judges who kind of shaping public opinion, trying to educate the audience on what a good singer is, what a good dancer is. With the AMPAS there is no discussion. There is merely an anonymous vote by people who do not seem to care about what defines a best picture.
Okay, so maybe I’m being too hard on the AMPAS. After all, they are just people. We know from last year that the public loved the King’s Speech. People from all over the world were cheering on the stuttering king. It was a beautiful moment — that, as we know, was fleeting. No one is going to look at 2010 and call that film the year’s best. It is the one people liked best. It was the people’s choice. So why then didn’t the people tune in? Because they aren’t involved in it, in any way. They don’t care. If there aren’t pretty stars to look at or a major blockbuster dominating the race, they don’t care. So the AMPAS is an outmoded operation trying to survive the modern age, not unlike the monarchy in Great Britain. Coincidence?
All bitching aside, where does that leave us? With a potentially random number at the hands of this voting body I am afraid to see how it all turns out. What horrors await? Bruce Davis actually says with a straight face, “A Best Picture nomination should be an indication of extraordinary merit. If there are only eight pictures that truly earn that honor in a given year, we shouldn’t feel an obligation to round out the number.” Oh Bruce. Since when are those 6,000 voters arbiters of taste? Extraordinary merit? Meaning what, it made more than $100 million dollars? It made grown men cry?
I guess the point I’m making here is that ten is better than five. Ten is better than five because those people, no offense, play right into the hands of studios and publicists. The Oscar race is broken because it is not about public opinion (like American Idol), and it’s not about great cinema — the critics have a much better batting average than the Academy in terms of choosing lasting films. Hell, the Golden Globes have a better batting average.
If it’s not about having good taste (“extraordinary merit”) and it’s not about public opinion, what is it about? It’s about the business of Hollywood. It has always been about the business of Hollywood and it always will be about the business of Hollywood. Friends of studios, employees of studios, maids, mistresses and nannies. And the more Best Picture nominees there are in a given year, the better it is for the business of Hollywood.
But let’s talk about the real problem here. The reality of it is that these 6,000 voters simply don’t see everything. When it comes time for them to vote, they look at their pile of depressing screeners and they say, okay. Didn’t watch that, didn’t see that, won’t see that, The King’s Speech, loved it. Social Network? I don’t get what all the fuss is about – didn’t see it cause I don’t use Facebook. Saw it, didn’t get it. Couldn’t hear it. Black Swan? It was okay. Inception? What the fuck? Didn’t see it, won’t see it, no naked girls in that one.
Most of the time they didn’t even see all of the contenders so they can’t choose ten. Those of us who DO try to see everything know that we could fill up at least twenty slots of Best Picture of the Year. But with the Academy, Best Picture doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean. It’s means “best picture of the ones I saw.”
However, now that I’ve said my peace on this issue, we can talk about the game. This should make predicting the Oscar race a little bit more difficult, no less fun. Not only will we have to pick their favorites but we’ll have to pick how many they will say are worthy. Remember, it’s not about picking the best – it’s about guessing what THEY think will be the best.
You can talk about supposed strong contenders — but it really won’t matter if the film isn’t good; if Harvey Weinstein grows it from seed, you can pretty much take it to the bank but barring that, the film has to be seen before it can be called a “strong Oscar contender.” But if you wanted to play that game, you could say that War Horse, hot off its Tony win, with Spielberg at the helm is unstoppable. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has the stink of my own soggy tears all over it so hopefully that won’t curse it. The Eric Roth screenplay is magnificent. Those are the only two that feel like Oscar movies (“That doesn’t feel like North, Charles.”)
We’ve a long way to go yet. I do love it when the AMPAS changes the rules of the game, even if I complain about it. We’re all just going through the motions here – it’s like a bad marriage – we don’t have the strength to leave and we’re mostly comfortable anyway. Oscars 2011: it is on.