If I were feeling less generous and more cynical on this holiest of all Oscar-calendar mornings, I might say that to decipher this year’s Academy Awards contest, we need only look for inspiration to the GOP presidential race. The Artist is Mitt Romney — desperate to please, doesn’t stand for anything in particular, not especially popular with the general public, will eventually keep most of its money offshore, and, though dinged up and trash-talked, will probably cross the finish line first by default. The Descendants is Newt Gingrich (emotionally unsteady, hard on wives, doing better than expected, but probably can’t go all the way). Hugo is Rick Santorum (a little slow, doesn’t really like anything that changed in the culture in the last 80 years). And The Tree of Life is Jon Huntsman (believes in evolution, probably a little too classy for this field).
Oh, how lonely it is to be in the minority of viewers who hate an acclaimed movie. It’s like watching your friends throw their hands up on Space Mountain and go “Wheeee!” when you’re just claustrophobic and nauseated in outer space, or deciding to leave the slumber party early just as someone pulls out a bottle of cooking wine to get crunk. You have failed at enjoying something that will win Oscars. You failed to be moved. Your heart is faulty. Your ears are the only set of ears that don’t want to hear more ukulele music. When you sigh at The Descendants, expecting your sigh to settle among other disaffected exhalations of stale air, somebody claps a hand over your mouth and insists that “this mature, well-acted dramatic comedy is deeply satisfying, maybe even cathartic." Wheee! Look at those glittering planets zipping by! Who’s that curmudgeon throwing up on her own shoes?!
I’m going to begin this edition of Oscarmetrics with a cautionary tale about overreaction, backlash, and misbehavior. Appropriately, it comes from one Best Picture nominee, and it’s about another. In the 2005 film Capote, we watch our brilliant, narcissistic protagonist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) experience a friend’s success the only way he can — as a staggering personal humiliation. He attends the premiere of the movie version of his loyal pal Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Afterward, Lee finds him at the bar, magnificently self-absorbed, and, of course, choked with jealousy.
“How’d you like the movie, Truman?” she asks patiently. He can’t even rouse himself to look at her. She finally walks away — at which point he murmurs sourly, to himself, “I, frankly, don’t see what all the fuss is about.” And nobody cares.
As we enter a season that’s defined by a great deal of fuss, of hyperbolic praise, and of hyperbolic dissent, it bears remembering that at some point in the next few months, we’re all going to find ourselves on the losing side of at least one movie argument. And when a film that everybody seems to love leaves us cold, we all, to some extent, risk sounding like Truman Capote — pissy, superior, bitter, bored. This is the time of year when the ridiculous word “overrated” gets tossed around as if it were an actual qualitative property of a movie rather than a silly side argument about what other people thought of it. So my current resolution is to try to be arrogant about movies that I love, but humble about movies that work for everybody else but not for me.
Last week, while seeking evidence of how quickly Academy Awards campaign rhetoric can hit bottom, I came across the following Huffington Post headline. I know it’s still early, but we may have already found, in five words, the perfect storm of hysteria, prematurity, and inaccuracy. Here’s the headline:
“Madonna Bombs; Oscar Hopes Dead?”
Let me offer a word-by-word translation, since unless you are dangerously fluent in awards hyperbole, this announcement should be completely incomprehensible to you. “Madonna” is Madonna. She has made — meaning directed, but not starred in — a movie called W.E. “W” stands for Wallis Simpson; “E” stands for King Edward VIII, so in historical terms, this is a movie about the romance that caused the British abdication crisis in 1936; in movie terms, this is a spinoff of The King’s Speech that’s all about Colin Firth’s sneering Nazi-symp asshole brother, except now he’s a good guy. Even though Madonna has enough psychic power to have successfully mind-wiped the world’s population 10 years ago into believing that she is the descendant of a lovely old-money family from Sussex instead of a crabby Italian lady from Michigan, this particular piece of image alteration may be too tall an order.