“I remember those cheers, They still ring in my ears, And for years they remain in my thoughts. ‘Cause one night I took off my robe, And what’d I do? I forgot to wear shorts. I recall every fall, every hook, every jab, The worst way a guy can get rid of his flab, As you know, my life wasn’t drab. Though I’d rather hear you cheer When I delve into Shakespeare …’A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!’ I haven’t had a winner in six months. And though I’m no Olivier, If he fought Sugar Ray, he would say That the thing ain’t the ring, it’s the play. So give me a stage Where this bull here can rage, And though I can fight, I’d much rather recite. That’s entertainment.”
And for a time, the raging bull was a beautiful thing. He was in his prime and no one, not even Sugar Ray, could knock him down. By the end he’s lost everything, even knocked out the stones in his champion’s belt. His life has come to nothing. Looking at the year Raging Bull was up for Oscar you have to make a choice about what is better, Ordinary People, which is magnificent in its own way, or Raging Bull – an out and out masterpiece, but one that isn’t necessarily about the goodness in people, but rather, the the damage they do.
Today’s True Detective loving audiences would have loved Raging Bull were it released again today. That movie would blow the minds of people who are stunned and amazed by anything HBO produces. Those who have seen it know what I’m talking about. There are no ambitions that high today. And yet, to have to somehow frame that movie in terms of an awards race automatically ruins everything. To put its fate and the judgment of it in the hands of a consensus, however well-meaning it may be, is to instantly devalue the film.
This glaring truth, despite what people who look at my job think, presented itself years ago. Therefore that question of why Citizen Kane did not beat How Green was My Valley can be answered quite simply — yes, it’s true that a movie like Citizen Kane isn’t consensus-friendly. But the real truth of that year was that John Ford, the icon, the genius, had won Best Director twice without winning Best Picture. He was Ang Lee back then. He was way overdo. Given the choice of awarding John Ford’s sweeping epic and upstart Orson Welles was an easy call. The same dynamic would work itself out today. Nothing has really changed that much in 86 years.
So who are the chumps here? The Academy for not willing to embrace great films on a massive scaled, particularly in the last three years, or those of us who give a damn. The Academy are content with their choices. Moreover, they will likely be in lock-step with the New York, National Society and Los Angeles Film Critics, none of whom awarded 12 Years a Slave Best Picture.
Most anyone now, in the stifling heat of the these few weeks, will have long since stopped believing 12 Years a Slave was a good movie, or even a great movie. It will look like a hooker at the end of the night, hobbling alone down the street with one heel broken off and no friends to offer her a ride home. It will have been banged one too many times during Oscar season, raked over the coals for reasons that have nothing to do with whether it’s a good film or not. The popular movies have captured a zeitgeist — Gravity because it is a technological marvel, one that seems to be about the future of film. American Hustle because it is loose and easy, with juicy performances and lots of sex. It doesn’t matter in the least bit that it has no real plot, no real story. It was enjoyable and that’s all that counts. The New York Film Critics, after all, declared it the year’s best so how can anyone make the argument that it isn’t?
We ask too much of them, perhaps. No one really has any other choice but to vote with their hearts. The fault lies in us, those of us who spend any of our waking days caring about the outcome. The statues don’t define the worth. The statues only define their collective taste at a given moment in their history.
Let’s face it, most Academy members are old. They’ve already done all the suffering they plan on doing. They pay their taxes, perhaps contribute to political campaigns that might further social causes. They want movies that entertain them, move them, help them enjoy what remains of their lives. They don’t want movies that pick a scab, poke and prod their tender spots – just let it all be easy. But if it were only the Academy we might have a point. The industry consensus has rewarded in unison with the Academy since 2009. A solid wall of taste. The Academy aren’t alone in their decisions. Whether they’re doing it to pick the one they think the Academy will choose is unclear. What is clear is that Argo was popular with critics and guild voters alike, ditto The Artist. So what are we even saying here?
What I think about, and what not enough people in my field seem to acknowledge, is how this very large consensus closes doors of opportunity. Opportunities for women, for black filmmakers, for all but the ones who, like Alfonso Cuaron and Ang Lee, manage to work within the Hollywood system and get rewarded for it. In short, they make movies that appeal to largely white, largely male majority. Tough luck for anyone else unless they, like Kathryn Bigelow, can make movies a white man might have made. Had Steve McQueen directed Gravity, I suspect it would be an easy sell for him to win.
But Steve McQueen, like Spike Lee, like Lee Daniels, like Ryan Coogler, like Ava DuVernay, like Robert Townsend, like Denzel Washington carries White Man’s Burden. Very few black storytellers can do what Bigelow did – transcend definitions of race and gender. They would be criticized as Uncle Toms if they did, if they didn’t tell important stories about positive black role models.
Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
It wouldn’t sting so much if this hadn’t been such a watershed year for black auteurs. It wouldn’t sting so much if those movies hadn’t tried – two with the Weinstein Co backing them – to get into the Oscar race, to calm down the violence and rage in their films to be soggy enough and palatable enough for white voters. It wouldn’t sting so much if the one movie that did make it through is now TOO VIOLENT. Too full of hate and pain and rage and suffering. What is poor Goldilocks to do?
Someone in a comments section said to me that my reaction to 12 Years a Slave reads like someone who didn’t know slavery existed before and thus, was newly horrified by that which I didn’t know. It isn’t slavery itself that astonished me about 12 Years a Slave. I have been a McQueen fan for a long time now – what astonished me about it was the raw truth and shocking nature of telling a story from the point of view of slaves. In Hollywood. To rave reviews and Oscar nominations. That just doesn’t happen. Ever.
Sometimes using your vote to do the right thing, even if it runs counter to your conditioned heart, can do such good in the world the simple act of that alone might make you sleep better at night, even if it didn’t have half-clothed movie stars in funny hairdos, or million dollar visual effects, or a character that made you feel good about yourself and your place in the world. Doing the right thing often requires some kind of inner constitution.
At this point, any of the three could win Best Picture. It isn’t going to matter, particularly, which one does except 12 Years a Slave. Take it from an old lady who knows her Oscar history too well by now. The Academy will lose either way. If they pick 12 Years the film will be thought of as a “white guilt” win. If they don’t pick it they will be accused of being racists, even though the New York Film Critics, National Society and Los Angeles did not pick the film either. And once again, they will have to live in the shadow of the more daring Hollywood Foreign Press who, despite their continual blow jobs to celebrities, still managed to give 12 Years a Slave Best Picture, the only award it won that night. Maybe they didn’t “like” it, really really “like” it, but it was the right thing to do.
It’s been an interesting year. People tried hard not to make it be about race, but about “merit.” Yet, given their history, it had to be about race. We’re just not at the point yet where race doesn’t matter. Doors can’t be gently opened. They must be kicked down. With big black leather biker boots. If the Oscars represent the pinnacle of power in Hollywood, that is where the change has to happen. I hope, for their sake, that they do the right thing.
One thing to watch out for – there is a lot of buzz and heat on American Hustle all of a sudden. It is the one movie people seem able to settle on, no one hates it, lots of people – actors especially — love it. I suspect it could indeed be the spoiler on Oscar night. But we shall see. Mercifully, it will all be over soon. By next year, there likely won’t be a film about race in the race – the status quo will settle back into itself and no one will have to worry about watching a film no one wants to face.
So let’s do it, shall we? One last epic post. One more for my baby, and one more for the road.
12 Years a Slave
Why it will win: Because it has won most of the major precursors so far, including Globe, PGA, BAFTA. Because it will make Oscar history. Because, dammit, it’s time. It is a visionary, breathtaking work, easily among the most memorable of the year.
Why it won’t win: It did not win the DGA, which it really needed. It did not win SAG ensemble, which it really needed. It did not win the New York, LA, National Society, which it could have used. The consensus turned against it, only a few brave voting bodies were willing to go there. No one wants to reward a bummer experience. They just don’t care enough to sacrifice that heart-vote.
Why it will win: It has the PGA and DGA. A powerful combo that really can’t be beat. People love it. They just do.
Why it won’t win: I did not qualify for a SAG ensemble nod, it did not win the Globe (where it should have), it’s 3D, set in space, effects-driven and has only two actors (never in the history of the Oscars has a film with so few actors won). It all rests on Sandra Bullock. If you don’t like her, as many older males likely do not, they won’t vote for it.
Why it will win: Two acting wins + Picture at Globes; SAG ensemble + Eddie usually precipitates and Oscar split. People like it and people love it. Very few people hate it. It takes zero risks. Sexy hot stars coupling, funny Jennifer Lawrence, tans and costumes – therefore it maintains zero baggage. Remember the words of Peggy Siegel, if you want to win Oscars you have to make movies “they” will want to watch. You do that with traditional roles of men and women, plucky successful white celebrities, a movie that doesn’t ask too much of you but takes you along for the ride, and never forces you to make any bad decisions.
Why it won’t win: It is the weakest of the nine. It didn’t win the BAFTA nor the DGA. The plot really makes no sense (not that people trouble themselves with details like that). It seems unimportant next to the other films.
Alfonso Cuaron – has everything you need to win Best Director. Becomes the first Latino director to win.
Steve McQueen – hope is the thing with feathers that perches on the soul.
David O. Russell – your Steven Soderbergh spoiler if McQueen takes anything away from Cuaron and they split the vote.
Matthew McConaughey – won the SAG, namely. Also did True Detective, Wolf of Wall Street and Mud. The James Schamus reign at Focus Features, if voters are paying attention to such things, should push Dallas Buyers Club into the winners circle.
Chiwetel Ejiofor – if voters are feeling guilty about not awarding 12 Years Best Picture.
Bruce Dern – the major spoiler, talk about overdue.
Leo DiCaprio – someone pulls a candle out of his ass. Gets major props for pushing it all the way to the limit but voters like mostly good guys doing good things. You never know, of course.
Christian Bale – coming at you like a dark horse. Bale is representative of Academy voters: oldish, paunchyish but women like Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence find him irresistibly sexy anyway. Sort of like a Nancy Meyers movie for dudes. Good performance for sure. Great performance? Get outta town.
Cate Blanchett – no one else can touch her, performance-wise.
Amy Adams – with four acting nods for AH, Adams could be the one winner.
Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto – has that shit locked and loaded. Such a likable character it’s not possible not to fall in love.
Barkhad Abdi – the BAFTA gave him a big boost.
Best Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong‘o absolutely deserves it. But if they never watched the movie…
If Lawrence can beat 86 year-old Emmanuelle Riva who flew to the Oscars on her birthday only to lose to Lawrence, she can certainly and easily beat Lupita, winning her second consecutive Oscar, blah blah blah. Next?
June Squibb – your potential spoiler
Best Original Screenplay
American Hustle – it could be Russell’s consolation prize for turning in three consecutive Best Picture nominees, with actor prizes and nominations up the wazoo. This win seems predicated on Best Picture heat. But supposedly no one likes him in Hollywood. That can hurt you in a popularity contest.
Her – the deserving winner could out, which would be funny considering it is the partner film to Lost in Translation which also won screenplay.
Best Adapted Screenplay
12 Years a Slave – I predict this with zero confidence the film will win anything. I just don’t think they vote that way. They vote with their hearts and if they weren’t moved by 12 Years they are soulless to begin with. What can we expect of their hearts if they have no soul?
Philomena – probably the likely winner but I don’t have the guts to predict it.
Best Production Design:
Let it Go
Spoiler: U2, Pharrell
Live Action Short: Helium
Animated Short: Get a Horse
Doc Short: The Lady in Number 6
I might change some of these in the coming days but for now, these are my best guesses.