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).
I’d like to thank the Academy for throwing an extra mystery at those of us who treat predicting the Oscars as something between a hobby and a blood sport: This year, we have to figure out not only which movies will be nominated, but how many. After concluding that the appropriate number of Best Picture contenders was five for 65 consecutive years, and then 10 for two consecutive years, what the Academy’s board of governors has now settled on is “from five to ten.” How can we narrow that down? Well, the Academy did offer one clue by revealing that when it experimentally retabulated the ballots from 2001 through 2008, the results yielded, in different years, five, six, seven, eight, and nine nominees — but never ten.
You know that Oscar season has probably gone on long enough when it calls to mind the war in Iraq, but, in surveying the terrain this week, I was reminded of perhaps the only useful thing that Donald Rumsfeld ever said: his distinction between “known unknowns — that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know” and “unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.”
The next month of the Oscar campaign — from today until January 13, when nomination balloting closes — is in some ways the most interesting phase of the process. There are no more tea leaves to read, no more wild cards, no more embargoes on the expression of opinion, no more “precursor” awards that could seriously reshape the race. As Hollywood shuts down for a vacation, thousands of Academy voters will watch the contenders — or, more importantly, decide which contenders they feel like watching. And the tectonic shifts that result can be so gradual that you won’t know anything has changed until you realize a couple of weeks from now that a particular movie has somehow lost momentum or pushed forward in the pack.
Very soon, we’ll get down to some hard-core category-crunching in Oscarmetrics — the last two months of 2011 will bring a wealth of serious contenders. And by serious, I mean movies not directed by Roland Emmerich. I know some people are excited by Anonymous, but honestly, if I want to see a director try to take credit away from a writer, my options are hardly limited to specious, unsupportedfringe-lunacy. Begone, thou dissembling idle-headed gudgeon! (If you want to banish this movie, by the way, I highly recommend the Elizabethan Curse Generator.) Meanwhile, let us hasten to the Twitter mailbag and catch up with some queries before the onslaught. Anon!
There may be no Oscar category more maddening to try to handicap than writing. When it comes to editing or sound, at least we all know that we’re clueless — film editing, after all, is called “the invisible art” by the very people who do it, and if you’re aurally sophisticated enough to judge the difference between sound mixing and sound editing, you’re probably either a sound mixer or a sound editor. Good screenwriting, by contrast, is supposed to be self-evident. But everything that can make a screenplay praiseworthy — dialogue, character development, story structure, gracefulness of adaptation, or originality of concept — can play as shoddy or hackneyed when a filmmaker mishandles it. And if you think the blame is always fairly apportioned, consider how many reviews make the claim, “The talented cast and director do their best with a weak script,” and how few say, “A fine piece of writing has been undermined by haphazard directing and tepid performances.” Critics never go there, because they don’t have access to the material — the script itself — that would support that argument.
The truth is, it’s virtually impossible to separate your judgment of a screenplay from your judgment of a completed movie — even if you’re one of the screenwriters who does the nominating. During campaign season, many studios send voters printed copies or flash drives of screenplays they want considered. But those versions have been retrofitted to match the finished films; they don’t contain any scenes or constructions that you didn’t see on screen. Unless you’re a big fan of stage directions and character descriptions, they’re not exactly essential reading.
So let’s start from the premise that Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay should probably be called Movie That Suggests Most Strongly That It Was Based On A Really Good Piece Of Writing. What do we know about the predilections of the Academy’s writers’ branch?