Well, it’s that time of year again when we ask the question: Is this Oscar fever, or just late-winter flu?
Let’s start on a positive note by acknowledging the genius of the Academy Awards, now in its 86th incarnation. Decades before “gamification” became a marketing fad, the movie industry turned its winter movie marketing into a popular play-at-home contest called the Oscar pool. Will it be Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita Nyong’o for Best Supporting Actress? The Lone Ranger or Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa for Best Makeup? Talk about your nail-biters.
The consensus narrative that has emerged is that 12 Years a Slave is still the slight favourite for Best Picture, but American Hustle and Gravity are close, though the Academy voters are sworn to silence before Sunday night’s live television broadcast. According to a Los Angeles Times survey, the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AAMPAS) are 94 per cent Caucasian and 77 per cent male. Their median age is 62, with only 14 per cent below the age of 50 – definitely not the core movie-going audience.
In the past three years, the Academy has opted for sentimental entertainments – Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech – over more serious movies for the top honour. Could this year’s competition between 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle replicate the Lincoln versus Argo contest? Will the big-hair seventies caper movie knock out the important anti-slavery costume drama again?
Johanna Schneller: It’s in the Academy’s interest to create some head-to-head competitions to make things exciting, because despite their best efforts, several things are diminishing the Oscar brand. Upping the list of Best Picture nominees has not helped bring as many new viewers to the broadcast – a major source of revenue for AAMPAS – as they had hoped. Nor has it given most of the nominees an “Oscar bump” at the box office, as it once reliably did: Gravity went into the contest with huge numbers, but smaller films (Her, Philomena, Nebraska, even 12 Years a Slave) haven’t seen any real uptick. And finally, after the Golden Globes, the guild awards shows (which used to be private, but some are now broadcast), the critics prizes … audiences are feeling more awards fatigue then ever. They need something to care about on Oscar night.
Geoff Pevere: “Care.” Now there’s the magic word. Why “care” about the Oscars? This is a mystery I’ve struggled with for years, as my interest in and passion for the movies has only clarified just how little about the Oscars is worth caring about. … The Oscars are really little more than an outrageously glammed-up game show, of far more interest as an off-track betting opportunity or office-party pool splash than anything to do with merit or actual value, and this status as pure numbers, couch-spud bully pit has only intensified in the social media/Internet age. All you really need to know about the event’s fundamental irrelevance to anything meaningful movie-wise is in those stats: These are voted on by largely by old white guys who don’t go to movies. Johanna also nails it: it may be the granddaddy of awards shows, but now that’s like being the first condo flanking the Gardiner Expressway.
JS: It doesn’t help that many of the awards are practically already won. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Olympic coverage, but I liken the Oscar race to many of the Olympic events. There are only three best picture nominees in medal contention – Gravity, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. The rest are there simply to wear their colours and wave. The races for best actress, actor and supporting actor are even more locked up, kind of like the Canadian women in curling: Barring major slipups, the gold will certainly go to Cate Blanchett, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. So again, what’s needed is some head-to-head drama: ingenues Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o duking it out for best supporting actress; speed-talking Mexican Alfonso Cuaron versus speed-talking Italian-American Martin Scorsese for best director.
GP: I think the Olympic connection is especially apt … The only way the Oscars can sensibly be discussed is as a sporting event. We might argue up and down whether 12 Years a Slave is a worthier movie Oscar-wise than American Hustle – and, for what it’s worth, I suppose it is – or whether Gravity may be better than both but not sufficiently middlebrow-friendly to be a likely contender. As for The Wolf of Wall Street: It may be Martin Scorsese’s best movie in years, but it’s also about greed, excess and unbridled indulgence. A redundant Oscar movie if ever there was.