Did Jennifer Lawrence's unfunny monologue on Saturday Night Live, in which she pretended to diss her fellow nominees, hurt her chances for winning a best actress Oscar? Did the Weinstein Company manage to yank their Django Unchained action figures in time to avoid Oscar's wrath? Will Ben Affleck's director and best picture awards for Argo help his Oscar chances? Will the new Twitter page devoted to Oscar trends predict the Academy Award results?
The answer to all of these questions is: Get real. The Oscars has less to do with known knowns than known unknowns, to quote the Donald Rumsfeld phrase repeated in the Oscar-contending script for Zero Dark Thirty. We have no polls of the 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who are admonished, every year, not to talk about it. They are a large sequestered jury, a black box, the hidden faces on the other side of the one-way mirror. Yet, for several months a year, in the build-up to the Oscars, the media dutifully pretends to mind-read the membership and insist that every celebrity butterfly-wing flap sends a tremor through the Academy.
What we do know about the makeup of the academy: According to an L.A. Times study, they're 94-per-cent Caucasian and 77-per-cent male, with a median age of 62. And some are pretty lazy. In spite of DVD screeners and members-only screenings, some of them have to be pushed to vote at all. In a press release, AMPAS chief operating officer Ric Robertson says that one of the academy's goals is to "increase member engagement and despite some challenges, more members voted for this year's nominations than they have in the past several years."
The rest is interpretation in a vacuum.
Take, for example the so-called shocking snubs in the directing category to Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck, Tom Hooper and Quentin Tarantino, which were really just about pundits guessing wrong. The truth is, the directors' nominations stack up well: a studio veteran in uncharacteristic restraint (Steven Spielberg), an international chameleon (Ang Lee), a European master (Michael Haneke), an American maverick (David O. Russell) and an inventive first-timer (Benh Zeitlin). All of these films were more favourably reviewed in The Globe than the more conventional films by Bigelow, Tarantino, Affleck and Hooper.
One explanation is that the academy's directors branch is more open to indie and foreign films than the pundits guessed. As Michael Cieply in The New York Times reports, out of 25 directors admitted to the Academy in the past three years, only one, Hairspray's Adam Shankman, has deep roots in the studio world.
Here are a few other known knowns: The academy makes a pile of money from the Oscars (the 2009 figures showed $74-million in revenues from the show, which cost $22-million to produce). The best picture and actor nominees get a box-office bump (less than $10-million a picture, according to two different studies). Another analyst has suggested the overall cost of the studio campaigns vs. earnings probably comes out about even. But for two months, we can talk about movies that don't involve superheroes and big explosions.
Another known known is that host Seth MacFarlane has unveiled his first promotional short, in which he plays an annoyed guest in the hotel room next to Janet Leigh's in Psycho, a soft Billy Crystal bit of schtick. We also know that a couple of characters from MacFarlane's directorial debut, Ted, will show up: Mark Wahlberg has confirmed that he and the talking teddy bear will be on the show.
Also confirmed is a Fifty Years of James Bond tribute. We also know that Adele will perform the Skyfall theme song, the first time she has sung it live and her first performance since last year's Grammys. Will there also be a Les Miz medley? Unknown. The Daily Mail reported that Samantha Banks, who played Eponine, is in talks to perform on the telecast, along with her co-stars from the film.
When it comes to predicting the Oscars, you're better off studying events coming in the next week, than believing any speculation to date. From Jan. 26 through Feb. 2, look for the winners of the Producers Guild Awards (Jan. 26), the Screen Actors Guild Awards (Jan. 27) and the Directors Guild Awards (Feb. 2). The Producers Guild is a good predictor of the best picture – they've got it right the past five years in a row. The Screen Actors has only missed picking the Oscar-winning director six times in 64 years, as has the Directors Guild.
And really, deciding what is "best" among various works of art is a flawed process from the start. As John Keats, a much better poet than Donald Rumsfeld, put it "Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all Ye know on Earth and all ye need to know."