“There are a lot of people to thank. Rather than thank some of them publicly, I think I’ll thank all of them privately. What I want to say is — I want to thank anyone who spends part of their day creating. I don’t care if it’s a book, a film, a painting, a dance, a piece of theater, a piece of music… Anybody who spends part of their day sharing their experience with us. I think this world would be unliveable without art, and I thank you. That includes the Academy. That includes my fellow nominees here tonight. Thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for this.” — Soderbergh’s Oscar speech
As we clatter three-wheeled but determined towards the bitter end, it’s a good time to remember how little these silly contests really mean. A twitterer said yesterday “awards experts saying the awards don’t mean anything.” It got retweeted. And those who have removed themselves from the clusterfuck get to do that. They blame us for turning it into a circus. And after this year we can probably safely say they’re right.
When I first started this 14-year odyssey there were mostly no other Oscar sites. There was Gold Derby but it was primarily just a gathering of a few critics who would predict the Oscars. No one really monitored the Oscar race year round. I was the first to do that back in 1999. There were Oscar sites that came to life when FYC season heated up, and every newspaper and magazine had their own Oscar coverage. But what I did was unique: I looked at the race from the beginning of the year to the end in hopes of cracking the Oscar code of why certain films won and why others didn’t.
My objective at first was to just watch it happen and report on it. Oh, the things I’ve seen in the years since. Sites bloomed around me and pretty soon it seemed everyone was watching the Oscar race. It turned into its own industry, where low budget films could find an opening to break through, where advocacy led to more inclusion and less exclusion. Or at least it seemed it would go that way. Advocacy is an arrogant approach to the Oscars but a common one that’s been around as long as the Oscars have existed.
I always figured if I could point to Oscar history, point out the rave reviews and perhaps the box office, if I could guide voters towards the movies that “deserved” to win they would naturally vote that way. As if. It seems silly to have ever believed that. I am not sure I ever believed it but that didn’t stop me then, and it doesn’t stop me now, from doing it anyway. It goes down on record regardless. Because to fall for the trick that winners get their deserved riches with a film award is to buy into a system that also continually rejects deserving films as ‘losers.’ You can’t believe that one means something and not the other. But it’s a trap, isn’t it?
In many ways I am right back where I started, even with Ang Lee in the race again. That first year Gladiator faced off Traffic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Erin Brockovich. It has all come full circle because once again a film is winning without a director attached and once again it’s a popular choice and once again we have no idea whose name will be read when they open the Best Director envelope. And once again there is an inexplicable Weinstein Co. entry, and that year it was Chocolat — which, compared to the way women are depicted in films today, seems practically like a revelation in retrospect.
That year, Chocolat took the place of Almost Famous. But I bet under the new system, which allows more than five, Almost Famous would have gotten in. We would never have known whether Cameron Crowe being left off was a “snub” or not. Would we have assumed it? Would it have mattered?
That year I predicted Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to win. Ang Lee had won the DGA that year for his breathtaking wire-fu masterpiece. Silly me, I actually thought a film with subtitles had a chance. Gladiator had won the PGA and Traffic had won the SAG ensemble. The WGA went for Traffic and You Can Count on Me. But Almost Famous would win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and a lot of that, I think, did have to do with the outcry that it had been left out of the top two categories. After all, it is the only movie to date that Roger Ebert said he wanted to hug himself after seeing.
I remember that year like it was yesterday, and maybe that’s because Ang Lee is back again with yet another masterpiece. It joins the other masterpiece of this year, Lincoln — the breathtaking, masterful accomplishment by Spielberg. Both of them are the masterclass and I hope they have many more films in them. Winning the Oscar won’t transform them into greater masters. It doesn’t mean they’re better because they get a consensus vote; it simply means the consensus has good taste. You would never want Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino to make the kinds of movies that get a consensus vote. They would lose everything about them that we love.
Gladiator, of course, like Lincoln, had 12 nominations, and topped the box office — two major selling points back then. This year is maybe only the second or third time in 85 years that a film with 12 nominations might go home with only one Oscar. No film with 12+ has ever gone home with no Oscars. I did not think Gladiator was a good movie, certainly not as good as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Traffic. But it was the popular, unstoppable choice and the public’s favorite. More importantly, it hit solidly with the straight, white male demographic and they control the awards race now more than ever.
What 2012 has in common with 2000 is that there are not just two films competing for the big prize, there are several. If you deep-sixed Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook you could have a two-way contest between Argo and Lincoln. With a preferential ballot, or a weighted ballot, Argo has come out the presumed winner. Whether that’s to do with people “just liking” that movie or better, or the “Affleck snub” or his being a stunningly good-looking and likable person in the race, or a combo of all three, similar perfect storms have resulted in a majority vote time and time again.
I went to the wayback machine to see what I could find out about that year. Because I didn’t use blog software then it is easily archived. Once I switched over to the blog format years of material stopped being archived. But in March, before the Oscars, this is how the contender tracker looked:
The Oscars resulted in surprise wins in actor (Russell Crowe), supporting actress (Marcia Gay Harden) and director (Steven Soderbergh). But that was because there was a lot of time to contemplate the buzz and the hype. People started to ruminate on what and who should really win. Since Soderbergh had been nominated for two films, and he kept splitting them up, voters decided to contact each other and align behind one. They picked Traffic, and that movie collected Director, Screenplay, Editing and Supporting Actor. But Ang Lee went home empty handed. He would win again for Brokeback Mountain in 2005, but Picture would go elsewhere. Ang Lee has yet to win for both Picture AND Director.
All of these years later, I look at the explosion of the race around me, all of the sites, all of the pundits and all of the guilds and I feel like Soderbergh must feel: it has all changed so much I don’t even recognize it anymore. The only thing that really seems to matter at all is that these films are being made and people are buying tickets to see them. What happens inside the sticky walls of Hollywood is really just a game. Yes, here’s a so-called “awards expert” saying that the awards don’t matter.
But this year, I was especially alarmed to discover that now, the giant guilds really do dictate how the Academy votes. Since 2009, when they upped the count from five to ten, the PGA and DGA have created uniformity in awards voting, so much so that, as you can see from this year, there is no wiggle room for anything else or any other choice. It’s really a strange thing to see and it won’t serve the Academy very well, I don’t think. Oh, maybe the studios, the publicists and the bloggers who scrambled around eventually like flies until they found their sticky paper in Argo. Perhaps we are all served well by the money we make off of all of it. But what does it really mean in the end? One team played the game better than the other? Uniformity of choice defines greatness?
Every year around this time most people who are following the awards race become disgusted by it. They then turn on the awards bloggers, people like myself, for turning it into a mud wrestle. There is nothing great or noble about what I do. I can’t say after 14 years I’ve made any difference at all. If a concerted effort is in force from the beginning of the year to bring down something as well intentioned, elegant and moving as Lincoln, if making that movie was a bad thing, if a movie that good doesn’t get rewarded for its efforts what is the point of handing out awards at all?
At the end of the day, all of the films in the lineup are good, even some of them great. No matter what wins it won’t be a bad choice. There is something to be said for that, I suppose.
And I have to say that when I think about walking away from this endless dog chasing its own tail that is the awards race I think about you readers. I think about how much you love coming here. I think about a letter I once got the night Brokeback Mountain lost and how a young man was considering suicide because he felt that when the Academy rejected Brokeback Mountain it somehow rejected him as a valid member of our community. But Crash was the “popular” choice too and voters then, like voters now, never want to be told what they “should” vote for. Just like on Facebook people hate it when you tell them to “like” your status. I couldn’t make them vote for Brokeback Mountain, tried though I did. But I could make a reader better complaining about it.
With every meaningless awards year that passes, there have been letters and comments and shared experiences with you readers from all over the world. I just want you all to know that I think the awards race is meaningless when the best film doesn’t win — but the one part of it that isn’t meaningless is our shared experience. Our relationship to each other, and to those who are close to us in life, is all that really matters. I promise.
If the Oscars aren’t going to be treated like the Pulitzer or the Nobel prize where many things are taken into consideration beyond checking off the “like” box on Facebook then we have no choice but to treat them like a horse race, whether that “bothers” film critics or not. Let’s never forget that a consensus vote is a popularity contest. It means nothing more or less than that. So yes, Vertigo never won an Oscar. Citizen Kane didn’t win Best Picture and Bob Dylan is still the greatest songwriter who ever lived whether he’s won Grammys for them or not (he’s won 11). At the end of the day, the films make the voters look good, not the other way around.
And you readers make me look good. Not the other way around. I wanted to take time out to thank you for the kind and inspiring comments over the past month. It means more to me than you know that you still care about “this,” because you make me care enough to want to keep writing every day. That’s not nothing.
The pundits this year have been flopping around like spawning salmon trying to find their “anything but Lincoln” choice all year. It was Argo, then it was Silver Linings Playbook, then it was Les Mis, then it was Zero Dark Thirty, then it was maybe Lincoln? Nope, not Lincoln, back to Argo. But the numbers still back the Picture/Director union so I have no choice but to follow the numbers, not the buzz, not the pundits. I will, as I always do, offer a companion predictions list of “Awards Daily’s Most Likely” and for that I would predict Argo.
Remember, Ang Lee won the DGA for Crouching Tiger yet people were still predicting Gladitor, the PGA winner, to take it.
My own predictions
alt. Ang Lee or Benh Zeitlin
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
alt. Jennifer Lawrence
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Alt. Joaquin Phoenix
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
alt. Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln (if Lincoln doesn’t win BP)
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
alt. Sally Field, Lincoln
Best Original Screenplay
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Alt. Michale Haneke, Amour
Best Adapted Screenplay
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
alt. Chris Terrio, Argo
alt. Zero Dark Thirty
Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi
alt. Roger Deakins, Skyfall
alt. Life of Pi
Life of Pi
Life of Pi
alt. Wreck-it Ralph
Searching for Sugarman
alt. The Invisible War
alt. Mondays at Racine
Live Action Short
Alt. Adam and Dog