Charlie Kaufman’s takes quite a hefty slug to Oscar’s pudgy middle in his script, Frank or Francis, on its way to being, maybe, the most critical look at entertainment awards since All About Eve. But even in Eve, which showed, in no uncertain terms, the kind of distasteful practices that go into being a star and winning awards, there is stilsl reverence paid to the awards themselves. Kaufman is not so optimistic about what they are and what they do to people. Bob Dylan’s Positively 4th Street is about public adoration — how it can ebb and flow, how you can be loved one minute and forgotten the next,
“You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend.
When I was down you just stood there grinning.
You got a lotta nerve to say you got a helping hand to lend.
You just want to be on the side that’s winning.”
Ryan Gosling has said in interviews that one of the reasons he doesn’t pay attention to “Oscar buzz” is that, to his mind, the same people who are now lavishing praise upon him once paid him no attention at all. “So now all of a sudden I care what they think?” were his words.
The Oscars, though, can transform a nobody into a somebody – and as that gold statue sits somewhere — the toilet, the mantel, tightly gripped in a mother’s hand — it is a reminder, every day, that there was once a moment in time when you were a winner. A winner’s story can begin and end there. Many have. Your obituary will lead with “Oscar winner, ___ ___.” Even if you are a nominee, your obituary will lead with your having been noticed by this insular group of voting members. Even Charlie Kaufman who rightly outs it for the dog-and-pony show that it is, for the whorish circus that it has always been, will see his own obit (unless directed otherwise) lead with “Oscar winning screenwriter…” Only being President and/or winning the Nobel Peace Prize trumps it.
Most film critics dismiss the Oscars and all who cover them as a ridiculous way to judge a film’s worth: and they are right. Many film writers hate those who cover the Oscars because they think we treat the race like a sport; they are right. The contradiction there is they both seem to revere the films themselves as art and yet they hate the process of deciding which is best. Ironic since many of them participate, too, in the awards race by voting on their own awards: the Los Angeles Film Critics, The New York Film Critics, the Online Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Online. I’d be hard pressed to find a single critic of the Oscars and those who cover the Oscars who doesn’t vote on film awards.
So does that make them hypocrites? They too sit down in a room and vote. Their vote — despite protestations to the contrary — is affected by buzz, both organic and manufactured. The New York Film Critics last year for instance, though they gave their top award to the Social Network — forced, like every other group, to recognize it for the cinematic marvel that it is — actively voted to foist The Kids Are All Right into the race. Why? In order to give that film a legitimate shot at the Big Show. Why? So that a film like that – written and directed by a lesbian, about lesbian parenting, could break through. Some will deny this is what went down because they were ostensibly “just voting for the best.” Ask them today if they still agree with how their votes went down or whether they too were caught up in the excitement of the race, and I wonder what many of them would say about awarding that screenplay over Aaron Sorkin’s. But that brings us back to what “best” really means and how you go about deciding it. It comes down to a majority vote. So it’s not really the “best” you’re deciding on but rather, the one most people agree is the best. Not everyone is ever going to agree what film is best. So the lowest common denominator wins out. Year after year, decade after decade. One can only hope that when the lowest common denominator factors out to its purest distillation that they pick a great film. This is where the critics come in.
But you can’t tell me that the very same people who criticize the awards don’t participate in them. How many writers vote in the WGA awards, for instance? And how many of those who vote do so in hopes of driving that screenplay that much closer to its Oscar win? Whenever there is one contender at the SAG awards, or WGA, for that matter, that happens to be one of the only contenders also nominated for the Oscar, it’s almost impossible that the Oscar nominee doesn’t win that guild award, whether “deserved” or not. Participating in that vote is to participate in the race. Even Oscar bloggers like David Poland, Kris Tapley and Jeff Wells vote in the Broadcast Film Critics Awards. At this point we have to wonder if there is anyone out there who doesn’t vote somewhere for something that helps build momentum for an Oscar contender.
So when the critics, in an unprecedented consensus told us that The Social Network was the best film of last year, voting against the buzz, seemed like voting against critics themselves. It started with an NBR sweep. That was so unexpected that it crashed Awards Daily’s server for hours. But that turned out to be just the beginning. The film no one thought could ever win Best Picture was winning everything. And I mean, everything. Hell, even the Hollywood Foreign Press voted for the Social Network. Some would say that they voted for it so as not to look out of touch, like they did when they voted Avatar the winner over the Hurt Locker. Some might genuinely feel that the critical consensus around The Social Network was the Emperor’s New Clothes. But they didn’t see the film I saw.
How depressing it is for all involved when that momentum comes to nothing, as it did last year when such a traditional winner took the PGA, then the DGA, then the Oscars. Total division among the ranks. There was no unity to be had: sappy, conventional drama beats edgy thrilling masterpiece, whose director, in one of the freakiest things to ever happen in the awards race, lost out to a total newbie previously regarded for his work television. Talk about the world turning upside down. After last year, how could anyone take the Oscar seriously ever again. So then the question must be asked, how could anyone ever have taken them seriously? And yet … we do.
So now we are about to head into the critics voting stage of the Oscar race. The strange thing about this year, though, is that many of the major players are being held until the last moment. This reminds me of the No Country year when the LA Film Critics came out with There Will Be Blood as their Best Picture choice before that movie ever even opened. We still have no clue what movie is going to take the critics this year. They will once again be faced with the dilemma of joining the race by putting their power behind a specific contender, or selecting themselves out of the race completely by voting for something or someone so obscure it has no shot at winning the Oscar. I like to think of it like voting for Dennis Kucinich or Ross Perot: no chance of winning but an honest vote.
To that end, let’s look at what’s coming next. These are, to my mind, the most influential circles.
1. The National Board of Review — Announcing December 1, 2011
Love them or hate them they start the race, first group out of the gate. Their announcement is always followed with “yadda yadda yadda – they’re bought and paid for.” Doesn’t matter. They still start the race. Perception is everything in the Oscar race (or so we thought). Still, the NBR from last year shows an earlier snapshot of what the awards race might have looked like, with Invictus coming on strong (the refrain goes, “they love Clint Eastwood.”). Where the Wild Things Are also made the cut. But the Social Network swept. No film sweeping the NBR the way it did has ever failed, in all of NBR’s history, to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Just to say yet again.
2. The Los Angeles Film Critics and New York Film Critics – announcing some time mid-December usually around the 13th or 14th.
Even though it is rare for a film like The Social Network to win both the LA and the NY film critics, it does happen. Still, if we can say anything about the critics awards now we can say that they help with nominations but perhaps not so much with crowning winners.
3. General state by state, and online critics awards, with Boston and Chicago carrying slightly more weight. But what we try to do is pay attention to their overall consensus. A contender popping up here or there isn’t really going to make that much of a difference. What you look for is a groundswell that will then look good on For Your Consideration ads.
4. The National Society of Film Critics and the Southeastern Film Critics — they can sometimes make a difference. Not last year. We’ll see about this year.
5. The Critics Choice (December 13) and the Golden Globe awards (December 15) – these are important not so much because they predict the Oscars – they didn’t last year – but because they are televised. What happens on these shows — especially the Golden Globes — can sometimes impact the Oscar race. Kate Winslet winning for Actress and Supporting was bound to have an impact, for instance, not to mention how great she was at the podium. Conversely, Mickey Rourke was not so good at the podium, nor was Jim Cameron, nor Jason Reitman. It doesn’t mean everything but it can sometimes mean just enough.
4. The Guilds – The PGA, the WGA, The SAG and the DGA. Some think the race doesn’t even really begin until the guilds start to announce. That is mostly true. However there have been years when things get split up. That the guilds united almost 100% behind the King’s Speech (except the WGA but only because it wasn’t eligible), it was a no-brainer that the King’s Speech, barring some sort of miracle, was going to take that baby home. The key last year was in the number of people voting. Larger groups went for the King’s Speech, while smaller voting bodies went for The Social Network. In the end, Social Network did win Screenplay, Score and Editing, while King’s Speech took Picture, Director, screenplay, Actor. A very small haul for a film with 12 nominations but all of the major awards won.
5. And finally, the anti-climactic Big Show – always a lavishly gaudy disaster, almost always a demoralizing letdown. The surprises are almost always too few and the dance numbers always too long. At least we have something semi-unexpected this year with Eddie Murphy.
So why then do we keep coming back? Why are there movies made with high hopes for Oscar? Why do film critics pretend to hate them so much but then find themselves unable to fight against their gravitational pull? Why are we Oscar watchers so attached to how this thing turns out? Why should anyone care what 6,000 insulated, over-privilaged, mostly male, mostly white, totally out of touch people think? Because we DO, Blanche, WE DO. It’s like that Christmas or Thanksgiving where you can’t bear to be there but you can’t bear to leave. We need a definitive answer as to what is the best because maybe if the Academy’s taste aligns with ours it somehow makes it more valid? Or is just, as Bob Dylan sang, we just want to be on the side that’s winning.
We are a culture of winners and losers. We are genetically predisposed to this because our very survival depends on it. We need a prettiest, a strongest, a most desirable. We need to know where the end is, the rapturous ideal or what it is that we have yet to live up to. We are a culture of losers waiting to see our ship finally come in so when, by chance, a loser wins it and wins it big, victory is all the sweeter.
And so we head into the thick of the season we know that we’re still in the red light district of the film community. We’re the place people want to be but can never admit to being. We’re the place people think about but never talk about. We’re always going to be dismissed in public but a hopeless addiction in private. Those who want to be near the Oscar race do so because they either want to win one or they want to influence who wins one. But if you write about film, if you love film, somehow you end up dipping a toe into our murky waters whether you like it or not. It isn’t a matter of selling out, or a matter of treating films like baseball teams or wrestlers — it’s a matter of your own tastes and wanting to see them validated, even if you have no respect left for the group that ultimately counts in obituaries and pop-culture consciousness. Still, as Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
As the season begins my worst anxiety isn’t fear of which films will win, but worry for which ones won’t.