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.
Liam Lacey: I'd probably watch a show called Greed, Excess and Unbridled Indulgence, but frankly, I think the Oscars indulgence is a bit too bridled. The broadcast often seems like a deliberate succession of forced awkward moments, and I don't think this year's special presentation of Judy Garland's middle-aged children, for a 75th anniversary in a Wizard of Oz tribute, is going to change that. But the Academy itself is successful. The profits from the show still exceed $50-million (U.S.) a year, last year's viewership was up 11 per cent, and 40 million viewers in the United States alone still makes it the biggest annual television draw outside of a sporting event.
And to be fair, some of those old white guys in the Academy – this year's nominees Martin Scorsese and Bruce Dern, for two – hail from a much more anti-establishment era in American movie-making, when the Oscars were most ridiculed. Now the Oscar formula is films with liberal messages that are conservatively made. If you look at this year's nine best picture choices, there are two science fiction outliers – Gravity and Her – two scammers, in American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, and a focus on victims: 12 Years a Slave, Philomena, The Dallas Buyers Club, and Nebraska. Yet, the Academy's official theme this year is "movie heroes" which, while it provides the studios with a chance to promote franchises such as The Hunger Games and Iron Man, seems typically out of-step.
JS: I'm not sure how the Academy will handle this heroes thing, but I think Liam's right, I think it's just going to be a long trailer for all the blockbusters that never get nominated for Best Picture, even after opening the field to 10. Which is too bad, because I think the subject of heroes in popular entertainment is a really interesting one. In the mulitiplex, a hero is a person in spandex who ends up killing a lot of people to save the world. In the art house, a hero is likely an underdog – a word I'd use to replace Liam's "victim." The main characters in all nine of the Best Picture nominees could be construed as underdogs: Sandra Bullock's inexperienced astronaut; Joaquin Phoenix's Mr. Lonelyhearts, who expresses other people's feelings for a living; the two-bit hustlers taking on – and trumping– the Feds in American Hustle; Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan in Wolf, who built an empire from crappy penny stocks; a kidnapped slave who hangs onto his dignity; a Catholic who hangs onto her faith; a cowboy who bests the U.S. medical-industrial complex, and a slowly dying Midwesterner who just wants a little attention.
But then you look at television – which every year seems to be stealing more and more mojo from the movies – and the most sizzling heroes there are antiheroes, from Tony Soprano to Don Draper, and Walter White to Francis Underwood. That's why the brouhaha accusing Wolf of Wall Street of glorifying its antiheroes really puzzled me. We cackle with delight over bad guys on TV, but cluck our tongues at them in a movie?
GP: Johanna touches on an elephant in the room that definitely won't go acknowledged, and that's TV. Initially demonized by an extinction-challenged Hollywood as the symbol of idiocy, artlessness and conformity, TV has once again emerged as the movies' greatest threat, but this time because it's hijacked everything the movies' once claimed as their eminent domain: creative storytelling, depth of character, engagement with pertinent issues, even boldness of style.
I'd call Breaking Bad as beautifully rendered a cinematic experience as just about anything American I've seen on screen this year, ditto for Mad Men, American Horror Story and True Detective. That the last show also features the recently vitalized Matthew McConaughey demonstrating even more range and subtlety than he does in Dallas Buyers Club only stresses the point. If the Academy is hoisting the "hero" banner this year as a coy way of acknowledging the bread-and-butter, blockbustering of the medium, it's also an acknowledgment that the base for what was once a reliable Hollywood staple – the serious drama made for adults – is probably now at home watching TV. I'll wager this to even most of that boomer-aged voting block, which will probably be flicking back and forth between the awards and True Detective on Oscar night.
LL: I don't entirely subscribe to that particular elephant but maybe I'm not keeping up with the Kardashians. As The Globe's Kate Taylor recently noted, television's so-called new golden age comprises " a handful of shows that act as loss leaders on a handful of cable networks in one country, the United States."
GP: Maybe so, but I think there might be a few British, Scandanavian, French, German and Japanese couch spuds who'd disagree; the fact remains the best TV shows are better than most movies.
JS: I think the ratings for cable series are better than the numbers for most art films, though. I have to believe the rise of intelligent TV is hurting films such as Nebraska and Her, that otherwise would fill our need for thought-provoking entertainment.
LL: Back in 2012, James Wolcott in Vanity Fair declared that television had surpassed movies, but after last year's bumper crop of movies, he said he thought he might have been wrong. Wolcott's larger point, which I think is right, is that the distinction no longer holds. We're already entering into a post-television, post-cinema world, where consumers don't particularly care what size screens they're watching the content on. Netflix, for example, isn't television, though it managed both a prime-time Emmy in 2013, for director David Fincher for House of Cards, and is up for an Oscar nomination with the documentary, The Square.
Serial television can't entirely escape the architecture of the assembly line with its rotation of directors, Dickensian cliffhangers and endless recaps. And there's something special about the two-hour, director-driven, big screen epiphany of a movie. Part of that may be convention and nostalgia, which brings us back to the Oscars show. I've wondered that when the Oscars tried to skew young – adding live tweets or pop stars, or hip hosts such as James Franco or Seth Macfarlane – the broadcast seems particularly cynical and inane. Does a celebration of movie-going now have to recognize that it's about a historical phenomenon and accept its status as a kind of living museum?
JS: It is what it's always been: a popularity contest. The Oscar goes to whomever the Academy members, in their annual mind meld, deem worthy; people get rewarded because it's their turn. The fact that the scandal in Woody Allen's personal life is even mentioned as having a possible impact on Cate Blanchett's chance to win best actress for Blue Jasmine is nutty proof of this. Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar last year, and her Hunger Games franchise broke box office records this year; Lupita Nyong'o is an attractive, talented newcomer in a film whose subject is woefully under-told. So Lupita will win because Jennifer has enough already – though, in pure acting impact, Jennifer stole every scene in American Hustle right out from under the hustlers. We've always tuned in to the Oscars to see the exotic Hollywood animals in their natural habitat. So it's not that the Oscar has diminished. It's that other opportunities to gaze upon the wildlife have multiplied.
GP: Whether it's a popularity contest, a super-sized game show or a graveside requiem for a dead art, it all comes down to TV, doesn't it? This is ultimately a TV spectacle in form, content, structure and delivery. Where this becomes particularly fascinating is when one considers the role TV has recently taken as the mass medium of daring and quality, even considering the blurring of the consumption lines between the big and small screens. … Not even the star power of the Oscars is exclusive to the ceremony any more; these mugs are everywhere, and mostly on TV. So what we have is a verging-in-redudant annual ritual of a TV show that provides awards to a medium that is itself losing mucho thunder to TV. Which gets me back to that word Johanna used earlier: Who cares? Who can?
LL: But it's a television show that the Academy, very determinedly, has never handed over to the networks or television producers, but has insisted on producing itself. And the Oscars' celebrity reality-show format is hugely imitated by television. Perhaps the problem isn't that the Oscars are outdated, it's that the whole world has become Oscar-ized. And now, thank you Geoff and Johanna, and agent and my Creator, because I believe the music is beginning to play us off. Last words?
JS: This just shows how last-century I am, but the races I'll be watching most closely are those for original and adapted screenplay. The races are close, and I love the writers' speeches. And no one cares what they wear.
GP: I'll be watching True Detective. But I do have to say that, when it comes to slowing down time, there's nothing like a week-long evening watching the Oscars.