Skip to comments.Oscar's filter: Worldview, not artistic merit, helps unpopular films dominate the Academy Awards
Posted on 02/25/2012 10:31:50 AM PST by rhema
Nine films are competing for the Best Picture award to be handed out at the 2012 Academy Awards extravaganza on Feb. 26and the average box office gross of the nominees is one of the lowest in the last 20 years. Only one of the nine, The Help, could be considered a genuine hit. And, as with popular nominees of the previous two years, few industry insiders give it much chance of winning. (One Oscar betting site currently pegs its odds at 33 to 1.)
Since underrepresentation of crowd-pleasers prompted the Academy's decision in 2009 to have up to 10 Best Picture nominees each year rather than five, the natural question when sizing up this year's race is, what gives? The answer lies in a story that shows how worldviews make a difference both in making movies and choosing winners.
Let's start with that expansion decision, which followed years of sliding Oscar night ratings. The president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Sid Ganis, said in a press conference that the Academy's goal was to expand the playing field for worthy films: "Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going to allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize."
Yet while the move wasn't without precedent (prior to 1943, the Best Picture category often included as many as 12 nominees), many skeptical industry watchers surmised that while a desire to cater to the movie-going public played a part in the Academy's decision, the Academy had been shamed into it.
The 81st Academy Awards four months earlier saw the snubbing of The Dark Knight, one of the most financially successful, critically acclaimed films of the last decade: It was the highest-grossing movie of 2008 and also received a 94 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that averages the scores of film critics across the country. It received neither Best Picture nor Best Director nominations. Instead, less-regarded films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader, which received only 72 percent and 62 percent positive averages, respectively, and grossed only small fractions of The Dark Knight's haul, made the cut.
Speculation that its popularity and superhero subject matter caused Oscar voters to diss The Dark Knight sparked widespread outrage across the blogosphere. Awards Daily, in a piece titled Oscar Shoots Self in Foot, wondered what criteria could have possibly accounted for the Academy's choice. "They don't think about ratings, they don't think about critics, they don't think about the public anymore (they certainly used to). So what do they think about?" wrote Sasha Stone. The Chicago Tribune's Marc Caro warned that Oscar might be flirting with irrelevance: "When the Academy denies top recognition to such critically and popularly beloved movies as The Dark Knight and WallE ... it risks confirming the suspicions of those who think it has grown out of touch with mainstream tastes."
During the question-and-answer session following his 2010 announcement of the Best Picture expansion, Ganis admitted, "I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words 'Dark Knight' did not come up."
The new, enlarged 2010 ceremony featured indie productions like The Hurt Locker and An Education going head-to-head with crowd-pleasers like Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, and Up. The widely publicized insider wisdom was that Avatar, based on the seismic impact it had on the entertainment landscape, stood a good chance of winning, and the other three nominations were pure audience bait with little to no hope of taking home the big award. In the end, all the big box-office players lost out to the low-budget war drama, The Hurt Locker (which made less money at the box office than any Best Picture winner in modern Oscar history), and 5 million more viewers tuned in.
Why did that happen? Britain's Daily Telegraph argued that the Academy refuses to "bow cravenly to box-office success; instead it rewards serious, accomplished filmmaking." But here's another suggestion: Filmmakers with the talent and resources to make excellent movies (which usually means movies that treat ideas seriously) are choosing themes that the broad swath of Americans find uninspiring if not outright offensive.
Think about Best Picture nominees that also have big box-office numbers. They tend to be films in which the main characters struggle to overcome either their own inner weaknesses or outer obstacles to achieve a specific moral ideal. Gladiator, Erin Brockovich, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Juno, Up, Inglourious Basterds, Seabiscuit, Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed, Avatarall of these high-grossing Best Picture contenders of the last 10 years, whether you ascribe to their worldview or not, present a fixed concept of virtue. Character development and the subtext of the story serve to reinforce, not deconstruct, that concept.
Take last year's big winner, the natty, quintessentially aristocratic The King's Speech. For the good of his country King George perseveres to overcome his stutter and thus deliver a speech that uplifts and steels the hearts of his people during a war. Though it bore none of the usual markings of a movie likely to top $100 million, word of its excellence spread, and it eventually became a bona fide blockbuster. This year's sleeper hit, The Help, in which a young white journalist helps black maids in the segregated South speak out against oppression, followed a similar (indeed, even more dramatic) trajectory, as did 2009's The Blind Side, in which a wealthy family adopts an impoverished teenager. (It goes without saying that, though a conflicted character, The Dark Knight stands with those who battle on behalf of unconditional morality.)
The films Oscar voters have tended to award in recent years, on the other hand, frequently have themes of inner uncertainty and lack of a fixed moral compass. The characters may start out clutching onto an ideological ideal, but events of the story conspire to show how misguided or naïve they have been in trying to consistently apply that ideal to the vagaries of life.
For example, The Hurt Locker, while an excellent film, features soldiers unsure of their role in the Iraq War, questioning whether they fight because their cause is just or because they love the rush that comes from combat. The Descendants, one of the favorites to win Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards on Feb. 26, follows a man whose concept of marriage and family is decimated after he discovers his comatose wife had been cheating on him. He must learn, through blow after blow to his ego and his notion of what it means to be a parent, to accept new ideals, drawing wisdom from his teenage daughter and her pot-smoking boyfriend. When one minor character tries to apply an overarching virtueforgivenessto the distressing situation, she is portrayed as something of an embarrassment.
The 2010 indie nominee, The Kids Are All Right, which superficially made the case for same-sex parenting, featured partners who, along with cheating and lying to each other, are unsure of their sexual feelings and unsure whether those feelings are good or bad. Besides the inessentiality of fathers, the only moral ideal the film leaves its characters with is that acknowledging their uncertainty and slogging on despite it is better than fixing on a single definition of marriage and family.
Though not a Best Picture nominee, The Iron Lady (for which Meryl Streep is considered the frontrunner for Best Actress) serves as perhaps the best illustration this year of how a filmmaker's thematic choices may keep the public away from a movie they would otherwise have great interest in.
The basic facts of Margaret Thatcher's life are thesea lower-middle-class grocer's daughter struggles to win acceptance in the male-dominated Tory party of the 1970s before going on to become first leader of her party and then prime minister of Great Britain. During her time in office she triumphs over her political rivals, governs her country to renewed economic prosperity, and collaborates with other world leaders to help end the Cold War.
It would not have taken a hagiography to make a movie about Thatcher that resonated with American moviegoers. But it would have taken the perspective that Thatcher deeply believed in her stated political and moral ideologies, and that her dedication to them was what drove her to overcome all obstacles. Instead, in between showing a young Thatcher as blindly enthralled by politicians as other young girls were by the Beatles, director Phyllida Lloyd shows Thatcher's motivations and her own feelings about her goals to be suspect.
Told through the conceit of Thatcher looking back on her life while enduring the hectoring of her now-deceased husband, she considers that it may have been ambition rather than righteous passion that drove her: She quietly grieves what her triumphs may have cost her. In the end, the ideologies the Iron Lady stands on are shifting sandperhaps not worth her lifetime of dedication. No wonder, despite its brilliant acting and riveting subject, the film failed to win much attention from moviegoers.
As in the case of The Iron Lady, filmmakers don't necessarily have to believe in absolute moral values to draw audiences, but if they want to make movies that make money for something other than mammoth spectacle and genre pandering, they should probably create characters who do. If Academy members want to draw more viewers to their TV screens next year, they might give more attention to well-made movies that feature crusaders, caped or otherwise.
So what stops us from staging a conservative counter-Oscars?
Which of this year’s nominees is he talking about?
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
Most Best Picture winners tend to be fairly conservative.
If a movie pushes the homosexual agenda, drug addled entertainers, the “black struggle”, how evil corporations or the USA are then it will get the full attention of the Academy. Only these are considered to have “artistic merit”.
Oh, occasionally they will include narcissistic a movie about Broadway or the movie industry.
The Oscars are a lost cause and not worth watching.
(I know; don’t be so mealy mouthed. I should tell you what I REALLY think!)
BP winners from past years have been “The King’s Speech”, “Slumdog Millionare”, “No Country for Old Men”, “The Departed” etc. Where do you see those themes?
I saw 4 of the 9. The Help, The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and War Horse. My wife would like to go see The Artist before Sunday night but I just can’t bring myself to want to see it....Maybe she can talk me into it after Mass tomorrow afternoon. Anyway, The Help was good, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was so boring!!! The Descendants was another snoozer....I slept good in that movie my wife says....lol. Very true story. War Horse was very good. Out of the 4, War Horse was the best.
I wrote off the Oscars way back in my younger days when I heard the acceptance speech for “Hearts and Minds”. When I heard the praise for the Khmer Rouge, my parents heard me cuss a blue streak at those commie (censored).
At the 2009 presentation, the very pro-American and pro-military film The Hurt Locker cleaned up. Problem was, nobody went to see it. It was a very low-grossing film. Everyone went to see Avatar instead.
Of the movies you mentioned I only have seen The Help which I thought was good and very close to the way things were and in places may still be. War Horse was more of a kids movie. I was jerked emotionally up and down through the whole movie and I got a bit sick of that because I am not a kid.
Million Dollar Baby, Chicago, American Beauty, deer hunter, one flew over the cuckoos nest, midnight cowboy, out of africa, platoon, driving ms daisy, ordinary people , kramer v kramer,
I think it's a mish-mosh... The Passion of the Christ getting snubbed for foreign language and best picture is about the most recent example of what will NEVER win an oscar. Politics has everything to do with best picture.
Now I'm off to go watch Act of Valor. Let's see what the Hollywood bunch did and will do for recruiting SEALs. I think it looks like Top Gun. Lot of fellers are gonna want to try to be a SEAL. Just one little problem I see with that.
SEAL training and service is NOT Hollywood and NOT just about blowing crap up.. it's a way of life and even though they're getting some publicity now, they're life is a warrior's life.
The author of this piece decided on a storyline and then cherry-picked to back up her thesis. You could write this story every year, just picking different movies to compare.
Not having enough conservative actors and actresses.
C'mon, they gave Heath Ledger the Oscar for it, and he didn't even bother to show up to accept it.
I know he was dead, but did you really expect a Batman picture to get a Best Picture nomination?
Bear in mind, that the year it was nominated was the last year with only five Best Picture nominees.
Under the current rules, with 10 nominees, The Dark Knight probably would have been nominated ... along with an animated feature and something with Sandra Bullock in it.
The academy has always considered financial failure a sign of artistic merit. Lots of Oscar winners are movies nobody watched before the award or will watch again after.
How about this:
The vast majority of what hollywood makes is crap. For the most part, unimaginative, lowest common denominator, for a public that really doesn’t expect much.
Then - this crap is fed through an industry based marketing/popularity contest - in which the insane ward inmates & fags and leftist wanna be intellectuals rate their own work.
Why anyone would care what this system produces as a “winner” is beyond me. Most of the people involved aren’t worth the time of day.
It was over when “Shakespeare in Love” beat “Saving Private Ryan”. Fonzi jumped the shark right there.
I will make my own judgements - and just watch “Magnolia” again for the XXth time - waiting for some quality film to sneak out of Hollyweird.
The Oscars are irrelevant. I go to the movies to see ones I think I might like- and those are not likely to be ones the Oscars will go to.
Best Picture winners are money makers for the most part. ‘The Last Emperor’ was the last one that could really be called a flop. And the films that win BP get the ‘Oscar Bump’ at the box office.
SIL was a more original film than SPR. There wasn’t anything in the latter we hadn’t seen before in many other WW2 films.
POTC was not eligible for the Foreign Language Oscar. Those films have to be submitted by a given foreign country.
They don’t have to be a flop, my statement was they often don’t make money, because that’s the truth. Lots of Oscar nominees and winners are kicking around in the low revenue section. Nobody gets an Oscar bump anymore because nobody is in the theaters anymore when the Oscars are handed out.
And let’s not forget that POTC was quite simply a terrible movie. Some of the worst directing not by Ed Wood ever, just plain heavy handed with a terrible pace.
SIL was a very nice concept for an afternoon soap opera for girls. I have smarter farts.
Although Gwyneth Paltrow almost saved it.
Remind me - what was the theme again?
Remind me also - which - WW2 film - had a similar theme to SPR?
Or - does your depth of analysis stop at “they blew up a lot of stuff - and killed some Germans” - and “SIL is wicked intellectual - it has Shakespeare, and stuff”.
I liked The Help and Moneyball.
Nope, producers and directors determine the politics, of the actors. Unless they have somehow became superstars without revealing their political persuasion.
SIL was written by Tom Stoppard...one of the world’s greatest living dramatists. It was filled with his typical wit - a Romantic comedy that was actually romantic and comic.
SPR was a combination of all the war movies Spielberg had ever seen...war is hell (Sam Fuller), war is father figures (Oliver Stone), war is absurd (David Lean, Stanley Kubrick), war is necessary (John Ford), war is surreal (Francis Coppola), war is exciting (Robert Aldrich), war is upsetting (all of the preceding and Lewis Milestone), war is uplifting (ditto)and nothing that suggests an independent vision.
If a film is out of theaters by the time the Oscars are given out it will frequently get re-released.
Everybody wants their taste and worldview verified by some silly Awards, Grammys, Oscars. Include me out!
With the exception of not a single false moment (well, absent Ted Danson's cameo).
Utter nonsense. WWII movies were antiseptic and dated. "Saving Private Ryan" showed for the first time what those guys actually went through. It had a real impact on the nation.
Not anymore. Re-releases are a rarity, unless they can come up with a “good” excuse like making it 3D. In this modern cinema world where the DVD release is scheduled for 4 months after the theatrical release most of the Oscar movies are not only out on DVD they’ve been out for a while by the time the trophies get handed out, theaters don’t want a movie that’s competing with its DVD. The age of the Oscar bump has passed, didn’t even survive into this century.
Name a single element or emotion from that film that was new apart from the technology to replicate what Kurosawa had done with battle scenes in Ran. What impact did it have? I learned just as much from those old Time Life books about WW2. It’s a fairly impersonal film (as opposed to ‘Schindler’s List’).
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Three Musketeers, and Sherlock Holmes II were all very entertaining.
SIL was “Friends” in costumes.
And by the way - you skipped answering the questions.
Go troll someone else.
“SIL was Friends in costumes.”
Idiotic comment. Literary critics as renowned as Harold Bloom and M.H. Abrams liked ‘Shakespeare in Love’. I explained very clearly how every aspect of SPR had already been seen in other films. It’s a banal and cliched film complete with an A-Team style ‘Getting in Gear’ montage.
“...Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was so boring!!!”
I agree with you on that. I got dragged into seeing it. I told the person who wanted to see it that the movie wasn’t what she thought it was gonna be.
The movie was annoying. The kid in the movie was annoying. He was a freaking basketcase! I wanted badly to reach into the screen and duct tape his mouth shut.
Since we're not watching anyway, I guess he's not afraid of driving away still more audience...
It was not the usual thing I enjoy, but if you can leave a lot of expectations at the door it is a beautiful thing to watch. More like a poem than a story.
Was made by a conservative, so it can't win for BP.
“and I hear Billy Crystal is planning to do lots of jokes about the GOP primary.”
Do ya think he’ll throw in a joke about Obama’s big ears and call it “even”?
I don’t go to the movies, I prefer to watch in my own home. So I’ve only seen Help, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball and Tree of Life. I like Moneyball the most of those four.
Ryan is a vastly overrated film.
The opening and ending are stunning, but the rest of the film is frankly no better, and a lot worse, than other war films. And the characters are cardboard cliches, the script is unremarkable, the history shoddy. The scene with the German trying to speak American English is so bad its embarrassing.
IMO it wasnt even the best American war film made that year, let alone an oscar winner: that goes to the low budget but much better When Trumpets Fade.
Cornell Wilde did it in 1967 with Beach Red, a film SPR clearly rips off.
When Trumpets Fade, made the same year for a fraction of the budget, is a far superior film.
We just got home from seeing The Artist. It was interesting and different but I got really tired of it before it was over. Curious to see how it will do tonight.
Are you going to tell me you could get the same (or better) result from Shakespeare in Love?
Yankees love The Help...lol....who knew?
Same folks who think Mississippi Burning is subtle and Deliverance is a documentary
The only thing worse than a troll is a whiney troll.
We are rating on different scales.
I’m looking for a piece of art - a COMPLETE piece - with a theme, cohesion, tells a story, develops characters to support the theme- etc.
THEN - when we have an internally consistent story that presents a valuable theme - we start in on “were the costumes pretty” and “did the bullets make the correct “zzziiiippp” sound as they went through the water.
And “is Tom Hanks a hack most of the time, and was the dialogue realistic”. (And please - just for simplicity - this is in comparison with SIL - where the entire premise, actions, and characters were as un-period correct as possible - yet - they had the right costumes! - and they delivered their lines with just the right steamy glances and out-thrust chins!)
Rather than assuming that all get it - which frankly I thought was safe - let’s have a quick review.
SPR - opens with the old man (with his family - that is US) visiting the Normandy graveyard. Then - he brings us back - to see the terrible sacrifices, and stupidity, and frankly terrible events of going up that beach, and al lthat followed. And how many sacrificed EVERYTHING - regular guys - like school teachers.
(Of COURSE it might be stupid that school teachers are war studs - but then again - we had Col Chamberlain from Civil War - and I took it as nod to him - but it could have been just an “even the bookworms” type character.) (See - NOT John Wayne. NOT Clint Eastwood.)(So - a rather new theme - not a “hero” through guts skill etc.)
The REASON for the immensely expensive and technically incredible Normandy Beach scene - was not to show “look what we can do!” (See Avatar for that) - the reason was to make it real. He puts YOU - first person - those bullets go by YOUR head. When Capt Miller is defeaned by the concussion of an explosion - YOU can’t hear sound correctly. etc. Tell me - after that scene - did you think “those guys had 10X the guts I do!” - well - that was the point.
Other stuff happens - blah blah, horror of war, moms on the homefront getting terrible telegrams, (just as terrifying/great a sacrifice for the moms in the audience as the Normandy scene for the guys). The guys - again referencing - what used to be - normal American commitment - do NOT retreat - and attempt to defend the bridge - all (except Ryan) getting killed in the process.
In case you missed it - the last words of Capt Miller to Ryan are “Earn this - Earn it!”