With the potential for 2015’s Best Picture nominees to include the likes of The Martian, Creed, Mad Max, Bridge of Spies, Inside Out, Joy, Black Mass alongside niche films that have achieved critical acclaim, in a few weeks we will perhaps see a pile of Oscar nominations for a half dozen important films before most people “out there” ever see them: Carol, Spotlight, Brooklyn, Room, The Revenant, The Big Short, The Danish Girl.
I suspect one of the biggest draws, in addition to Creed and The Martian, to encourage the younger generations to give a damn about the Oscars will be the question of whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio can pull off a victory, since his lack of an Oscar win has become practically a cultural cause célèbre. That alone is going to drive interest and ratings. My 17-year-old daughter, for instance, who has been watching me watch the Oscars her entire life, knows all too well about DiCaprio’s Oscar-less status. It’s inexplicable to her generation why this fine, versatile actor has never won. The other thing my daughter observed about the Oscars is that they only seem to reward “one kind of movie and they’re all the same.”
Another big draw could be Sly Stallone’s triumphant return to the Oscars after 40 years. There is so much celebration and buzz around Stallone’s appearance as Rocky in Creed. The same kind of excitement the first Rocky generated seems to be back in full force. Hoping for this kind of thing is sort of like hoping your parents — or grandparents — got you what you really wanted for Christmas. Knowing the Academy, they will be caught in the grips of highfalutin snobbery and might look down their nose at Creed. That would be a shame, both for the movie business, and the business of the Oscars. The Academy simply can’t survive if they keep alienating themselves from the public and the generations coming up from behind. Sooner or later they’re going to have to evolve to accept different kinds of films for their Best Picture prize.
Put Leonardo DiCaprio’s potential win alongside the appearance of Sylvester Stallone, throw in Jennifer Lawrence, with Chris Rock as the host, and you have a hip and happening, very popular Oscar telecast. The great thing about a popular Oscar telecast is the way it can bring more attention to the lesser-known films and stars that will likely be nominated.
In all of the years I’ve been watching and reporting on the Oscars I’ve never seen so much involvement in the Oscar win of one actor the way I have with Leonardo DiCaprio. On the one hand, it would be just like the Academy to deny him again anyway, as if this were an ordinary year. But he’s finally given a performance that they can’t dismiss that easily. DiCaprio’s work in Alejandro G. Inarritu’s exceptional epic The Revenant is simply too big to ignore. Not only does he carry the entire film — not a big deal for this actor, who has carried so many great films already — but he takes himself to his absolute limits. He is up against stiff competition with the also overdue Ian McKellen and Johnny Depp. The reason the chips are stacked in DiCaprio’s favor this time around is that what he does in The Revenant is physically transform himself, and with so many of scenes that have no dialogue whatsoever he must convey his emotions with his eyes and his body language, a body that’s been ravaged by a bear attack (a heartbreaking scene but probably among the most exciting five minutes of cinema you’ll see all year). He also speaks a Native American language for much of the film, drags himself across the snow with no leg strength, and eats raw meat on camera. If that isn’t going to win you an Oscar, then I don’t know the Oscar voters.
Here is but a small sampling of DiCaprio and Oscar memes. To recap: The one thing younger generations know about, or care about the Oscars is that Leonardo DiCaprio never won one. Where it gets weird and dubious is when the memes start morphing into DiCaprio actually wanting one. I think the many people want him to win one, and hope he does. I have never thought he himself wanted one. There are many different kinds of parts he could have played if he wanted an Oscar. Sympathetic Oscar-baity stuff where he has a disability, for example. Instead, he usually plays characters that are loathsome — and everyone in Hollywood knows those rarely win Oscars.
The highest Oscar Night ratings in recent years happened in 2013 when 12 Years a Slave won. Viewer interest was partly due to Gravity’s success, no doubt, but also thanks to the possibility that a film directed by a black director might actually win the Oscar. It could have also been that Ellen was hosting, and who doesn’t love Ellen? So to score higher ratings than that, this telecast will need to have more than 43 million households tuning in. I’m just gonna bet that if these factors I have named here are realized, that number will go higher. If they aren’t, all bets are off.
Sylvester Stallone’s mere presence in Creed is the stuff of ugly cries. It’s because he’s so gentle and sweet, just like he was in the original Rocky. It’s also that so many of us remember what the movie Rocky meant to us at the time, even if the discussion, always, for years was how it shouldn’t have won Best Picture over more “elite” rivals. I’ve done a complete reverse on that now, and it isn’t because I don’t think those other movies are great. It’s because I firmly believe that Best Picture shouldn’t only be about what the critics think, or what the bloggers think. The Academy should name the film that captured everyone’s attention as a snapshot of American taste and sensibility each year – a film that is both critically acclaimed and made a cultural impact. Lean too far in one direction or the other and the Oscars fail, in my opinion. So I can’t imagine a more meaningful moment than seeing old Sly walk up to the stage on Oscar Night and finally collect the Oscar he never won for the original Rocky.
There is also the chance that Brian Wilson might show up to perform a song for the Academy if he’s nominated for Love & Mercy in the Best Song category. Hey, they snubbed Patti Smith so anything is possible, but I’m holding out hope that Wilson is nominated and lauded on such a grand scale. The Oscars aren’t always particularly exciting to watch, but something like this would go a long way toward making the thing semi-tolerable.
On the less popular but no less important side of things, those who have been watching the race along with me these many years will know how many times Todd Haynes has been shut out of the Oscar race, both for Best Director and Best Picture. With Carol, he has the best chance in years to see his first nomination. For Haynes fans, far fewer in number than DiCaprio fans though we may be, this is potentially a very very big deal.
What’s also exciting this year is that there is not a lot to complain about. From Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation being backed by Netflix and thus made widely available for audiences across the country; Charlie Kaufman/Duke Wilson’s Anomalisa made possible by thousands of honorable donations of Kickstarters contributors; and Tangerine, a film starring two trans women filmed with an iPhone — pathways into the Oscar race have never been more wildly diverse and wide open. Gone are the days when Oscar success or failure was held tightly in the strict grip of the studio system. That system, as it once was, has been challenged in significant ways this year. Even within that dynamic, the studios have stepped it up this year with some challenging and interesting experiments. Steve Jobs — a film driven entirely by artistic daring. Three different types of film, a surreal setting to tell the life of Jobs with Aaron Sorkin’s crackling, utterly brilliant writing driving the thing — backed by the same studio that released Jurassic World. Their independent arm has given us Suffragette and The Danish Girl. Warner Brothers has Mad Max: Fury Road, Black Mass and Creed all headed to the Oscar race, possibly. Fox has The Revenant — you don’t get more artistically daring than that film — Joy and The Martian in the mix. Sony is in play with Concussion and Sicario on their big studio arm. On their other arm, they have Son of Saul.
The Weinstein Co. is handling Carol and The Hateful Eight, and Paramount has The Big Short and Anomalisa. Then there are the new production companies and distributors pushing in from the outside – A24 with Room and Open Road with the Best Picture frontrunner, Spotlight.
The Oscars could be more popular than ever this year, not that the voters themselves care about such things. The members don’t seem to notice or care whether the ratings are up or down. That’s for the AMPAS non-profit executive board to sort out. Still, I spend a lot of time talking to people all over the world and their lack of interest in what the Academy thinks is a good movie seems to be steadily shrinking. That’s partly because we’ve come to a point where too many films are pre-selected based on tastes and assumptions of what the Academy might like. It’s kind of like having the most experimental, diverse restaurant in New York City (and I’ve used this comparison before, I know) and making a separate menu for the regular customers you know have a limited palette. “Nothing too spicy, please. Nothing I’ve never tasted before. Just give me what you know I like.”
Yes, sir, we know what you like. Right away, sir.