Liam: The 85th Academy Awards show is on Sunday night, more than six weeks after the nominations. There’s been the Zero Dark Thirty controversy, and the “director snubs” controversy, and the Argo sweep of almost every pre-Academy awards.
But another significant story is how popular the nominated films are at the box office. Six out of the nine in the best-picture category – Life of Pi, Lincoln, Argo, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Silver Linings Playbook, and perhaps even seven depending how Zero Dark Thirty does this weekend – will have topped $100-million (U.S.). Has the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally found the formula for matching quality and audience appeal?
Johanna: I certainly think the studios are relieved. The strategy to expand the best-picture nominee roster from five to “up to 10” took a couple years to settle in, but it really seems to be working for them here. There’s room for a scrappy indie (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and for a worthy foreign entry (Amour), but the bulk of the list is made up of the archetypal, shiny Hollywood hit. What’s interesting to me is how the directors of those seven nominees Liam mentioned – with the exception of Lincoln’s Steven Spielberg, who’s always been a mainstream darling – have also been brought into the Hollywood fold over the years. Ang Lee (Life of Pi) came in via the foreign-film route, Ben Affleck (Argo) grew into directing from acting and writing, Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) is the latest of a storied string of Brits, Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) started with action films, and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) and David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) are bad-boy auteurs made good. The themes and styles differ, but what they all have in common is a polish, a sheen and a mastery of form.
Geoff: I think the danger here is interpreting any annual voting inclination by the academy as anything like a formula. Every year presents its own pocket-lint surprises, but for the most part the same thing prevails: It’s well-reviewed middle-brow movies of literary, prestige, costume or liberal-tolerant or high-humanist quirkiness that tend to dominate the noms, and even the most offside entries – Amour, let’s say – are only really offside on the very narrow playing field that Oscar mows. Otherwise, there really isn’t anything here that’s in any way trailblazing. Oscar has always loved actors turned directors, self-congratulating racial dramas, aging movie-star turns, cute accounts of cuddly craziness, movies based on bedside reading, illustrated versions of literary classics and anything that makes the world’s most overcompensated and unreasonably famous community on the planet go to bed at night feeling great about what it does.
Johanna: True, but “quality” and “box office” have been strangers to one another for the last few years. For example, I think The Help was the only nominee in 2011 that had cracked $100-million by Oscar night.
Geoff: It’s interesting that easily the most challenging and slyly unconventional movie of this year’s bunch – Zero Dark Thirty – found itself slipping out of the running for major awards almost as fast as you could say “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Liam: Yes, Oscars from their inception have been about putting a respectable face on the movie business, though it surprises me what respectable means. Zero Dark Thirty bothers me, in a not good way. I find it kind of conventional in spite of its emotional ambiguity and gender twist. What troubles me about both Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained is their flirtation with fascism, the validation of a skill for violence. They’re both part of what the critic Jim Hoberman called the cinema of ordeal as a phenomenon of the new millennium. Amour would be a candidate as well. I know some people found Les Misérables another kind of ordeal, but I think you know what I mean.