What the Oscar nominations really say about Hollywood 2013
I do not cover the Oscars here at HitFix, something that was voluntary. For one thing, we've got Greg Ellwood doing a great job of it with his Awards Campaign blog, and Greg has actually worked on Oscar campaigns back when he was working in studio publicity. He understands the psychology of the campaigns, and he also knows the Academy members who are voting and he has a sense of what they feel as the season wears on. Then we added Kris Tapley and Guy Lodge to the HitFix family, bringing their In Contention site into the fold, and that means we've got a lot of really smart and committed awards-season writers doing a great job of covering the ins and outs of Oscar all year round.
Then there's my whole attitude about the Oscars, which I've been vocal about here in the past. One year, I did a live-tweet of "Vampire Circus" on Blu-ray during the Oscars, and then last year, I had a very strange experience when Greg had an experimental television delivered to my house and I ended up live-blogging a ceremony that was broadcast from an alternate dimension. But this year, instead of just bitching about the awards again on nomination day, I thought I'd try something a little different, something that treats the Oscars seriously, but from a different perspective.
One of the reasons I hear people most frequently complain about the Oscars is that they don't reward the films that are most popular during the year, the films that audiences love most. It's the same complaint I see sometimes about the sorts of films that critics like, and that started me thinking. I know enough Academy members and have had enough conversations with them during this time of year that I genuinely believe that most of them take the idea of the Oscars very, very seriously. I think that the Oscars represent the one moment each year where Hollywood gets to decide exactly what face they want to present to the world, and the Oscars serve as a snapshot of the year that has just concluded. While the town's machinery runs on the oil of near-constant remakes and sequels, franchises both successful and failed, found footage and family animation, Hollywood uses the Oscars to show you the industry that they wish they were all the time.
If you take a step back from the competition and the pageantry, there actually is something that you can learn from the nominations today. Look at the nine movies they nominated for Best Picture. "Amour," "Argo," "Beasts Of The Southern Wild," "Django Unchained," "Les Miserables," "Life of Pi," "Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook," and "Zero Dark Thirty." Even the most overtly entertaining of those films, which I'd argue is probably "Django," uses the tropes of pop entertainment to try to explore something which is almost too painful to consider, and nominating both that and "Lincoln" in the same year as "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" paints a picture of an industry that is trying to grapple with the difficult nature of race relations in America, both past and present. "Silver Linings Playbook" is a formula picture at heart, a fairly conventional romantic drama, but David O. Russell's contention that he made the film to help normalize people living with bi-polar disorder is a noble goal for any work of art, and people in this town respond to the goal as much as the execution.
Even with the nomination of "Les Miserables," there is an underlying message being sent, and the message is loud and clear. Hollywood loves the big epic musical, and they would love to see more of them. If the film continues to be a commercial hit and if it can rack up a number of awards, then every studio in town has at least one big musical that they could push into production, and they'd all love to have a model they can point at to prove that it's a good bet.
Denzel Washington has had rules for what he was willing to do onscreen for years now, part of an agreement he had with his wife, and it feels like all of those rules are broken by about the ninth minute of "Flight." His nomination is as much about Hollywood saying, "See what happens when you forget about the rules and dive all the way into a role?" as it is about rewarding "Flight." The nomination for Quvenzhane Wallis for "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" coming on the same day and in the same category as Emmanuelle Riva's nomination for "Amour" is a statement about just how much variety there are in the voices that stood out this year, a clear message that anyone can be nominated for the right performance.
"Life Of Pi" is that rarest of beasts, a major big-budget Hollywood movie that grapples with notions of spirituality and faith, but in a way that is almost designed to make sure no one feels excluded. Hollywood wants everyone to feel like they are represented by the films that they make, and it doesn't take much legwork to establish that simply isn't true. I get tired of hearing about the "liberal media," in part because it's a self-evident truth. Most people who are involved in the making of art are people who live less conservative lifestyles, and their art reflects that world view. It's not a conspiracy so much as it's just the nature of who we are as people. The most conservative voices are often drawn to conservative fields, and that's fine. It just means that certain voices are deeply under-represented in art, and so any attempt to reach out to those audiences becomes important to reward for Hollywood. I think the spiritual message of "Life Of Pi" is both simplistic and muddled in execution, but even raising the question is enough for Hollywood to celebrate, especially when the film in question also helps perpetuate the idea that 3D is an artistic choice and not just a commercial one.
I think the nominations are the big moment for the Oscars. The actual ceremony and the choosing of the winners are almost beside the point. Hollywood has made its annual statement, issued this year's report card, and as always, they've presented a picture of a business that is very very different from the one I observe on a daily basis. I wish we spent the entire year having serious conversations about film with real intellectual and moral weight, but that's not the reality of it.
Then again, this is Hollywood. Reality is overrated. Long live the Oscars.
The 85th Academy Awards will be held on February 24 and broadcast beginning at 8:00 PM ET, 5:00 PM PT on ABC.