The Academy Awards spectacular is only a few nights away, and the big question on everyone’s mind is: Who am I wearing? (That’s a secret between me and my wardrobe dude, Rodney.) What I can tell you is how to make a few jermajesties off the gala event.
Most of the categories are already decided. The Artist for Best Picture (-900). Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) for Best Director (-600). Christopher Plummer for Best Supporting Actor (-4000). Octavia Spencer (-2000) for Best Supporting Actress. All are cost-prohibitive locks. But luckily I was able to find a handful of profitable opportunities that will fill your pockets with loot you can lose in a few weeks on the play-in game of the NCAA tournament. Have I ever steered you wrong? Nevermind. I miss football.
It’s been almost six months since I wrote my first column on the 2012 Oscar race, and we’re finally at predictions week. The ballots are in (or will be by tomorrow); the votes are soon to be tabulated; the hopes and dreams of 80 percent of the nominees are currently being ground into a fine powder. And it’s time to put your money where my mouth is. All this week, I’ll be announcing my guesses and doing my best to simulate an actual Oscar telecast, meaning that I will be starting with the stuff you don’t care about, taking immensely long pauses, and making you wait forever for the whole ugly business to end. Join me, won’t you? Imagine that Billy Crystal has already done his shout-outs to Brad and George in the front row, made a Harvey Weinstein reference (cut to reaction shot of Harvey looking amused/anticipatory/terrifying), and made one really funny joke I can’t think of that will end, “ or, as they’re known in Hollywood, The Help!” Hooting! Approving applause!
Voice-over! “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome to the stage two of our brightest stars, Cynthia Nixon and Sean Hayes!” No, wait, that’s the Tonys. “Please welcome to the stage ” Hmmm. Who’s big enough for an Oscar presentation but new enough so that you can stick them with the awards nobody else wants to give? Oh, my God, it’s CHANNING TATUM AND EMMA STONE!
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 most sentimental and manipulative movie of 2011 stars a great, stoic beast that is something of an enigma to those around him. Lacking words, he seems to have an almost human sense of what people need and expect from him — although they often underestimate his strength and endurance. Some audience members may be irritated by the self-consciously mythic way he’s presented, or by his uncanny, not particularly believable ability to survive despite the carnage that surrounds him. And it’s easy to feel jerked around by a score that seems to oversell his heroism at every turn, or by a visual style that overtly evokes movies from decades earlier. But by the climax, your heart may swell when you realize that he’s come through, the hard times are over, and he’s going to be okay. Don’t you hate sappy clichés like that? I do too. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed Ryan Gosling in Drive.
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.
What a frenetically busy weekend it was in the handing out of shinies and sparklies and mantel-trinkets to chronically underappreciated movie people, who at other times of the year often have to survive for weeks without winning anything. Critics’ groups in Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco announced their honorees, as did online critics in New York; conclaves in Detroit and Houston revealed their lists; and the American Film Institute named its 10 best movies. That’s a lot of noise! All of these simultaneously live-tweeted prizelets are microtwitches in the Oscar race, and it’s true that come ballot time, no Oscar voter is going to find himself frozen in indecision, his pen hovering above his ballot as he frets, “But dare I go against Detroit?” However, it’s still possible to pull some larger trendlines from this surge of hyperbolic over-celebration of film achievement. And if it’s not, let’s pretend it is.
In thinking about the race for Best Picture this week I found myself drifting unhappily back to the 1980s, specifically to a stretch during which the Oscars reacted to an uncertain (i.e., post-Raging Bull) period in high-end American moviemaking by retreating to a safer, more virtuous and conservative definition of "prestige" films. In a period of just seven years, Best Picture Oscars were won by Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Amadeus, Out of Africa, and The Last Emperor. Some of those movies were good, and all of them had their virtues. But collectively, all they told us about the world and times in which they were made is that apparently nobody in 1980s Hollywood wanted to think about 1980s America.
This year’s Best Picture contest is starting to feel afflicted by a similar sense of what I would call belligerent nostalgia. The two movies to win high-profile prizes so far, The Artist and Hugo, are both being hailed as odes to the early days of cinema. But really, they’re not. The Artist tells you everything it knows about the painful transition from silents to talkies in its first 10 minutes: It’s an undeniably charming but extremely slight comedy-drama that mimics the most basic elements of silents (They were black-and-white! The screen wasn’t wide!), but seems more engaged by their poignant quaintness than by the visual language, wit, beauty, complexity, or psychological richness of the movies it purports to honor. And as enchanting as it can be to enter the glittering, hermetically sealed but vividly three-dimensional toy chest/train station universe that Martin Scorsese has created in Hugo, there is something slightly self-adoring about the story it tells. Hugo is not a valentine to the dawn of movies — it’s a valentine to people who send those valentines, a halo placed lovingly atop the heads of cinephiles and film preservationists. (And, not incidentally, film critics and Oscar voters.)
In covering the Oscar race so far, I’ve tried to focus on movies that have already opened. But this week, I’m tossing that approach, because effective immediately, the attention of the Oscar-punditry universe swivels decisively forward. The last eight weekends of 2011 will bring more than two dozen movies with aspirations as modest as a single acting nomination and as grandiose as sweeping the slate from Best Picture to Best Makeup.
So from now until year’s end, the goal of every contender that opened before November 1 is simply survival. Think of the next two months as a tidal wave, and of early hopefuls like Midnight in Paris, The Help, and Moneyball as trees along the shore line. Some of those trees will topple — and a couple of months from now, those still standing may look that much taller. Same goes for the movies in the big wave; some will arrive with obliterating force while others will weaken the closer they get. (Please take the above tortured analogy as my tribute to Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter.) With that in mind, this Oscarmetrics installment is a cheat sheet — a map of the parallel tracks of reality and hype along which the race will now proceed.
Quiet down, everyone! Professor Spielberg wants us to get serious. War Horsebegan life as a children’s book and was then transformed into a highly successful play that drew raves more for its brilliant puppetry than its compelling drama. And now Steven Spielberg has put on his “mature” beard and adapted it for the screen with all traces of children’s entertainment and, sadly, puppetry, removed. It’s not hard to see why the material drew the master’s eye as it’s pure box-office — and Oscar — bait: the classic story of a boy who loves a horse (but not, you know, in that way, loses horse to World War I, and then embarks on an epic quest to reunite with said horse.