Rain and wind soaked the proceedings at yesterday’s Spirit Awards, held inside a tent right on the beach. Massive, folding waves twisted themselves around before pounding the shoreline. For the first time in my 15 years on the Oscar beat I was covering the Independent Spirit Awards in person. For this, I’d been given a red carpet spot, a seat in the press room, and a ticket inside the tent. But inside the tent I was not assured wi-fi and a plugin for my computer so I figured the press room was the better place to be. I don’t normally work the red carpet — actually I never have. For some reason I thought it would be fun to try it out this time. I would later learn that you must high tail it to the press room upon arrival to find a spot to plugin, otherwise you have to depend on the kindness of strangers to let you snuggle in and share an ethernet connection.
The red carpet patrol is a quick way in this business to confirm one’s lowly status in the tribe. If you’re placed down towards the end most of the guests there for publicity purposes (and why else would anyone bother) don’t deign to deal with the stragglers down on the end. But there we stand anyway, for two hours. To my left, the throngs would shout the names of celebrities to stop and talk. If not stop and talk, at least please smile and pose for a picture. If smiling and posing is out, please just acknowledge our existence with a look towards us. You would not believe how many people did just that — walked by and completely ignored us. You would see their publicists come along beforehand, look at our outlet names and make a snap preemptive decision about whether we were “worth” talking to or not. See, I get that. But I don’t get why someone would not look our way. It wasn’t even for my benefit. Honestly, of all of the things about this job that are appealing (and that list shrinks annually) celebrity contact has never been high on my priority list. We’re all cogs in the machine in one way or another. We all take a shit in the morning and we’re all going to die.
Occasionally one will impress me — but usually it’s just a surreal internal rumination on tribal status, our need to worship people with symmetrical faces and the halo effect, the pointlessness of it all, and the self-hatred that goes along with any kind of crippling star/fan encounter. One tries to remain above it all, whenever possible, but every so often one of the special people will pierce the fake detachment I have. John Waters is one such individual. Though John Waters did not acknowledge us he kind of wandered in our general direction which, for me, was like seeing the Pope. So there’s that.
But mostly my red carpet experience was painful high heels, and a really great time with Thompson on Hollywood’s Ryan Lattanzio. If you’re ever on the red carpet anywhere make sure you stand next to someone really funny. He was the better interviewer on the rare chance anyone would actually come over and talk to us. One such person was 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley who was gracious to Lattanzio, saying how supportive Anne Thompson had been to him and his career.
Once inside the press room, mercifully sitting in a chair, the awards began. It was clear from 12 Years a Slave winning cinematography that a sweep way about to get underway. I suppose we’re all used to seeing the awards divided up by the Globes, the BAFTA and every other major group — giving 12 Years maybe Best Picture, maybe Best Supporting Actress, maybe Screenplay. But never all of them together. The only major award 12 Years lost was Best Actor — and no one is taking that one away from McConaughey.
But what struck me about how the awards shook down was that the Spirit Award voters were listening. They were paying attention to what was happening. Sure, 12 Years was not up against Gravity, nor American Hustle here. Those are big money productions with big money studios attached, and big money publicity teams. I’ve seen the Spirit Awards reward the alternative, year after year. I know we call them the “kiss of death” for the Oscars. But that always seemed to be a kind of insult to them. That phrase could take on new meaning tonight. This could be the moment things really turn around, perception wise, if the Academy shuts out 12 Years a Slave.
In other words, the divide between the Spirit Awards and the Academy will seem greater than it’s ever been. I think of that Academy member I encountered — so closed minded to the way the world has changed, to the way film and the Oscar race has changed. They remain untouched, frozen in time and space, like the bodies in Pompeii.
Last year I complained that the Spirits honored Silver Linings Playbook instead of, say, Beasts of the Southern Wild which, to me, seemed more like an “independent spirit” darling if there ever was one. But this year, my thinking on that has changed. If they have become bigger than they once were, if they really do now represent an alternative to the Oscars, then they have done it this year in a really big, really loud way — honoring 12 Years a Slave with more awards than the film has ever gotten from any other awards show. Looking back on this year, the Spirit Awards will stand out from the rest.
Already I can hear the pounding and hollering that this movie was better and that movie was more entertaining and affirmative action this, racism that, torture porn, whatever. Anyone paying attention, though, will feel the shift, the tiny/giant revolution when it comes to the whole purpose of film awards at their core. Just as Annie Hall is a much better film than the very good Star Wars, someday 12 Years a Slave will stand out as the best film of this year (with the possible exception of Inside Llewyn Davis and the Wolf of Wall Street) once the shock and awe wears off. The point of all of this is — so far, at least — it seems the Spirit Awards voters were listening.
After 12 Years a Slave won its inevitable top prize the producers came into the press room. For the first time Brad Pitt was in attendance. He’d been mostly MIA for the entire press tour — leaving the heavy lifting up to Steve McQueen (not the warmest, fuzziest who ever walked the line) and the glorious charmer Lupita Nyong’o. Pitt was really their ace in the hole, since he is Hollywood royalty by now. So I kept wondering why they weren’t playing their best hand during Oscar campaigning. Once I saw how the press in that room responded to Pitt I finally got it. They didn’t really even want to talk to anyone else. He even had to say, “Why am I up here talking instead of Steve McQueen”? This is a group that really really wants it to be about Brad Pitt, really wants it to be his award, his success. Cause that’s how we roll.
I don’t know how many times I can encounter Brad Pitt at a PR function and not be blown away by the guy. And here I am falling into the same trap — worshiping the one with the halo effect so bright it nearly blasted out the rain and wind in Santa Monica. Think: the end of Quiz Show.
If Gravity wins the Best Picture, that isn’t the worst thing that could happen. It’s an exceptional film in all ways and a step outside the Academy’s comfort zone. Yes, it will likely take a hit going forward as almost all Best Picture winners do. But history will likely not treat kindly any other film that beats 12 Years a Slave.
In the end, one is left with the question — do the Oscars matter? When you are looking at the tastes of a group that is 95% white, 77% male why should we care what they think? Moreover, why should that be the gold standard? What does that really say about the future of movies? It says to me that they are a relic of the past and not a representation of the world I know, the world I see in international filmmaking. Why did it take a Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron, to put a female in the lead? Why did it take a British director, Steve McQueen, to tell a story from the point of view of the slaves? American directors are holding fast to the American tradition of making a film’s center all about the white male. All of the other films, save Philomena (another British director).
There are only four American directors in this year’s Best Picture race and all of their films are about men — with the possible exception of American Hustle, which is mostly about men but the women are so dynamic they upend the film. That tells me that we’re in trouble here in the States. We’re raised to believe that the only stories worth telling are those about the central male figure, usually white. Two films by American directors about the American experience — The Butler and Fruitvale Station were shut out completely. I am not sure where we have gone wrong with our product but something major has to change here.
All in all, the Spirit Awards for me was a satisfying way to close out the year. I kind of don’t even care what happens tonight — because, for me, if anything other than 12 Years a Slave wins it will be a disappointment. It isn’t that no other film “deserves” to win — if Academy voters are asked to vote for what they like best then it’s an honest vote, and honest results. But it will just be another year where the Oscars didn’t really mean anything. I’ve lived through years when they did. This might still be one of them.