Counting Down to Oscar Time

Those Hollywood liberals are SO darn conservative

by Brannavan Gnanalingham

On 7 March, the biggest show in town will be ithe Academy Awards, in which considerable attention will be paid by the media to Hollywood and its “best films”. At least, that’s how the awards are self-billed and self-promoted. The Best Picture Award of course, is he most important and prestigious gong, which studios spend millions of dollars trying to win – purely because of the artistic and commercial implications of winning. Yet given that it is considering art, what do the Academy’s choices about the “best art” say about Hollywood, the institution that makes and judges the films – not to mention the history and prejudices that dictate so many of Oscar’s final outcomes.

The Academy Awards have been awarded since 1927-8, and were designed to commemorate film excellence (n.b. Hollywood excellence). The Awards have taken place alongside many of cinema’s key technical, social and critical changes.Its birth happened on the cusp of the shift from silent to sound film – and it and has spanned the rise in the late 1960s of auteurism as a concept for judging film (whereby consideration of the director is paramount in ‘reading’ a film) to this year’s consideration of digital 3-D technology.

Many of the ‘Best Picture” winning films have co-incided with particular social contexts, starting with the Production Code morality that commenced in the 1930s (which meant that award-winning films like Rebecca, The Lost Weekend, From Here to Eternity or The Apartment had to tone things down. The Awards continued through the Communist witch-hunt of the late 1940s and 1950s; the breakdown of the Production Code towards more adult filmmaking – at least a decade after everyone from the French to the Brazilians were doing it. Still, a neo-Puritanism has meant no Best Picture’Award winning films have explored homosexuality or graphic sex in any sort of interesting way. (The paedophilia of American Beauty or the petrified-to-acknowledge-homosexuality Midnight Cowboy are as far as Hollywood has gone) The feminism and minority politics which gathered pace from the 1970s onwards have not been reflected in Hollywood’s top honour – again, none of the winning films have treated these social movements with any respect.

This year is the first time since 1943 when ten films have been nominated for Best Picture. Yet the increase in nominations hasn’t seen the Awards become more adventurous, or seen more acknowledgement of filmic diversity – nearly all the films were made by Americans (An Education which is British the sole exception, unless ultra-patriotic New Zealanders also try to claim Avatar) and nearly all have a big name or two behind or in front of the camera. (At least the Best Foreign Film awards have nominated Michael Haneke’s disturbing The White Ribbon, which is a big difference from the usually unremarkable foreign film nominees).

The biggest film in terms of box office receipts this year, James Cameron’s Avatar, is predictably one of the leading contenders. The Academy Awards have traditionally favoured the “big films” (or the event films), throughout its history, starting with the original winner Wings which was a huge box office success and starred the original “It Girl” Clara Bow – though pedants will add that in the original year, an award was handed to the Best Artistic Film as well – F.W.Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise.

Other winners Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, Titanic, and Return of the King were some of the biggest films of all-time and won truckloads of awards (e.g. Ben Hur, Titanic and Return of the King each won 11 Oscars, and share the record). Other huge successes like Star Wars and Jurassic Park won a number of technical awards. The obvious reason is that the Academy Awards depend on ratings to justify their exulted status, and the highest rating shows of the last decade involved Titanic and Return of the King sweeping the awards. However, the Best Picture films require some sort of contemporaneous critical acclaim to be considered worthy enough – something which Avatar for all its simplicity and obvious politics has. Despite any sort of critical reservations, the film is also hugely enjoyable, which undoubtedly make it the favourite to take out the big award.

However, Avatar’s biggest rival is a film made by Kathryn Bigelow. The fact that Bigelow and Cameron were once married hasn’t escaped those looking for an angle to promote the Awards. A further hook is the fact that no woman has ever won Best Director before, and certainly no female-directed film has won Best Picture. Hollywood, which arguably has one of the worst glass ceilings in any professional environment, has only ever nominated three women before Bigelow for Best Director.

The fact that is has been so rare for women directors to even be considered, creates a vicious circle – Bigelow is trapped by being considered a female director, above simply being a director, and all talk of her before the ceremony has highlighted her “woman-ness”. However, her film is very highly regarded critically, politically topical but not too controversial, all of which should be in its favour.

Further adding to its chances of success is that the Academy often reward films/directors/actors/actresses in a token kind of way – a result from enough pressure criticising the Academy for its tardiness towards “minorities” (for example Best Actor wins for Sidney Poitier and Roberto Benigni were seen as “about-time” wins).

Precious, this year’s ‘indie’ nominee, is also notable as the first film directed by a “black” director to be nominated for Best Picture. This is a feat that even Spike Lee never managed, despite directing arguably the best American film of the 1980s in Do the Right Thing. (Ironically, the Best Picture that year went to Driving Miss Daisy, a film all about the dutiful and fiercely platonic service of a “black” man to a “white” woman).

However, the film is too much of a dark-horse to be considered likely to win – it’s far too downbeat, and it hasn’t had any sort of commercial momentum like Slumdog Millionaire (to date, the only film which has featured more than a few minutes of sub-titles to have ever won Best Picture – despite the film being utterly terrible) or Crash (a film that is even worse) to become an upset winner. Best Pictures have hardly gone to films which are politically adventurous. Crash for example won over heavy favourite Brokeback Mountain, a win which has been read as purely driven by homophobia against Brokeback Mountain rather than an acknowledgement of Crash’s merits. Further, Crash benefited from the fact the Awards have frequently gone to films which have a semblance of liberalness, but aren’t as radical like some of the nominees.

But even when one considers past winners, liberal themes are hardly at the forefront – despite Hollywood being criticised by conservatives for its ‘overwhelming’ liberalness. Whether it’s Gone With the Wind’s depiction of a utopian antebellum South, or director Elia Kazan casting himself as a martyr for ratting out his peers in the Communist witch-hunts with On the Waterfront, to the unashamed misogyny in The Sound of Music or Kramer vs Kramer, or Forrest Gump’s conclusion that if you love your Momma and unthinkingly fight for your country you’ll win fame, money and the girl of your dreams, but if you’re a hippie and take drugs, you’ll die of AIDS.

Many of the winning films have also involved “white” protagonists interacting with “others” and learning something profound from the process (it’s a shame that such profundity hasn’t extended to the films themselves), Films such as Rain Man, Dances With Wolves, In the Heat of the Night, or Gentleman’s Agreement. All of this makes The Blind Side a possible sleeper victor – the Sandra Bullock helping out a “black” man vehicle is essentially that patronising plot told over again. And given its sleeper box office success (and Bullock’s favouritism for the Best Actress Award) it could well be a popular, if totally undeserved, winner.

The Academy have mostly ignored films which are too radical or anarchic. Hollywood was about a decade late in reacting to the French New Wave, a movement in film which shifted filmmaking towards more adult-content, and concepts such as homages, auteurs, and narrative-trickery. And in the mid-1960s, when the world’s cinema was re-writing the language of cinema, the Oscar Best Picture went to films like My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music. When films like Bonnie and Clyde (pictured left) do come along, they tend to lose to much safer films (Bonnie and Clyde lost to the much more safe In the Heat of the Night).

Avant-garde films certainly do not get considered, and directors/provocateurs like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, or Nicholas Ray never won Best Director awards. (Hitchcock’s Rebecca did win Best Picture, but Hitchcock lost to John Ford, director of the more simplistic Grapes of Wrath). That said, there are rare occasions when Academy Awards have gone to more unique films (for example The Best Years of Our Lives, Annie Hall or No Country for Old Men). This could lead to a film like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds sneaking a victory – especially because he conveys a love and knowledge of film like few filmmakers have shown since the French New Wave – and especially as it is perhaps the only film to have ever been nominated which is named after a film made by obscure Italian spaghetti western director Enzo G. Castellari.

Of further New Zealand interest is the nomination of the Peter Jackson produced District 9, an unexpected box office hit. A few things aren’t in that film’s favour – one is the film was released mid-last year, and with the rare exception of a big blockbuster like Gladiator, many early released films don’t have the momentum to win at what is the final major awards ceremony for the year. Another important factor is that District 9 is sci-fi: the Academy has displayed a snobbish bias towards ‘serious’ cinema, which has meant very few comedies (e.g. Shakespeare in Love, Annie Hall, The Apartment, or Frank Capra’s films in the 1930s) or sci-fi/fantasy films (Return of the King) have won.

The one genre exception to this blackout are musicals – surprising considering some of the winners Going My Way, Chicago, Broadway Melody, and My Fair Lady are egregious pieces of cinema (the one exception to the anti-masterpiece rule is West Side Story). This also means animation won’t win – and Up despite considerable critical acclaim is a token nominee to add more commercial appeal.

The remaining three nominees are perhaps too hard to place for them to be taken too seriously. British films have proven the rare exception for the Academy Awards never really considering “foreign films”. Only eight foreign language films have been nominated before – and only three of those are notable (Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). British films (or co-British productions) like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi and Slumdog Millionaire were rare exceptions of winners defeating Hollywood productions. This year though, it’s hard to see An Education, the token British film, being seen as worthy or popular enough to win. Up In the Air despite its name cast, and A Serious Man despite being directed by Oscar-winning directors the Coen Brothers, haven’t had any momentum behind their films to be considered likely to win.

All of this points to a remarkably open Best Picture race. The winner (and nominees) whichever film it is, would speak a lot about the Academy’s melange of politics, art, and insularity. And this isn’t even considering the intersection of race, politics, age, artists’ histories, sexuality or ‘foreignness’ which will affect the individual awards like Best Actor/Actress or Best Director. But it is this curious blend of it all, this unashamed subjective awarding system, which is what makes the Awards so fascinating to watch.