I have tried with as much might as I can muster to avoid the proliferating web sites that offer their breathless evaluation of Jason Reitman’s Oscar chances, or anyone else’s for that matter. The prognosticating over not even the actual winners, but now simply who will be among the nominees, has been a hot topic for those who give a damn for months, with sites like the Los Angeles Times’ Gold Derby leading the way. (Of course, peripheral Hollywood industry blogs like the ones run by David Poland, Jeffrey Wells and Nikki Finke have been obsessing over the same topic too, and they’re not the only three.) I have to admit, I am curious as to what will result from the institution of 10 nominees for Best Picture this year in replacement of the traditional five. But Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein may have killed whatever interest I have in that development too, with his Big Picture column appearing in the paper today titled "The Oscar Race: Are Those 10 Nominations Going to Waste?” (You can almost hear the writer fretting as you read the title in your mind.)
It’s Goldstein’s contention, after the announcement of the winners of the Producer’s Guild awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the all important Golden Globes a week ago, that it’s essentially a four-picture race between Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds and Up in the Air, and that this reflects badly on the Academy’s revolutionizing of the Best Picture category because those four nominees would have been sure things for nominations even under the old five-picture categorization. Deeming the inclusion of the other six nominees “a Pyrrhic victory at best,” Goldstein admits that it’ll be nice to see whatever other pictures are named get their moment, “but it will all be for show -- none of the films outside of the Fab Four is going anywhere.”
Down for the 10-count?
Why this should be a matter of concern to anyone except the Oscar show producers, whose job it is to ensure that the show’s ratings go up, isn’t entirely clear, but Goldstein reassures us that this year even the ratings aren’t much of a concern if Avatar continues to muscle through the box-office records on a pace to pistol-whip Titanic into second-best status. He talks briefly to Academy president Tom Sherak, who offers some verbiage along the lines of “no publicity is bad publicity” and reiterates the adoption of the 10-nominee category as a way of opening up Oscar to more mainstream hits that Middle America might actually have heard of. Then Goldstein sends Sherak on his way, leaving the writer to proceed in perpetuating all the same hoary observations about how snoozy and “ve-r-r-r-ry long” the Oscar telecast seems to be on his way to his main point (boldface mine):
“But if you're looking for an intriguing tip-off as to whether the strategy could have worked this year, take a close peek at how many Hollywood blockbusters end up making the Academy's top 10 best picture list next week. I can pretty much guarantee that Up will be there, but I'm not sure it counts as an additional blockbuster contender, since the film would still have enjoyed substantial face time on the broadcast as the odds-on favorite in the animated feature race. But what about The Hangover? What about The Blind Side? What about Star Trek? Will any of those $100-million-plus hits be among the best picture finalists?
If more than one of them makes the list, then I'd say the expansion scheme is off to a promising start, as long as we acknowledge that its main reason for existing is to bring more mainstream pictures into the Oscar mix. If only one of those pictures -- or God forbid, none of 'em -- makes the final cut, then we'll have to throw up our hands and admit that the academy is as elitist as ever: Even when given 10 chances, the voters still insisted on picking tiny gems over well-crafted behemoths.
It could institute a new round of hand-wringing. Or it could force everyone to acknowledge the obvious: When it comes to the Oscars, what counts most with voters is artistic aspiration, not the loud applause of moviegoers in multiplexes across America.”
It’s a fine mess indeed, Stan, when public hand-wringing about whether or not The Hangover will get a Best Picture Oscar nomination (with the implication clearly being that it should) takes up precious column inches and pixels as a serious matter of concern for a major newspaper. Goldstein seems to want to reassure us that at least one of the movies he listed will be included, for reasons having more to do with how much money they’ve made—I’m sorry, how popular they are—being the primary reason. But what if, God forbid, none of ‘em squeaks in there? Wouldn’t that be evidence that the Academy body— a group that one such as Goldstein shouldn’t have to be reminded is made up of not-entirely-predictable, intractable individuals and does not vote in an group-think bloc as if guided by an omnipotent sentient force, like Oz or Barbara Streisand— is more interested in recognizing art and achievement over technical glitz and filthy lucre?
Why, yes, it just might, and that’s Goldstein’s problem. This writer is very worried than the Academy is going to pick a bunch of movies that nobody outside of major urban areas has seen or is interested in seeing, therefore crippling the chances for big ratings and… whatever else it is we should care about that comes along with such a windfall. Man of the People Goldstein is ready to have to “throw up (his) hands and admit that the Academy is elitist as ever” and acknowledge that “what counts most with voters is artistic aspiration, not the loud applause of moviegoers in multiplexes across America.” Is there some snarky, double-edged sarcasm buried in here that I’m missing? Where are the other reasons Goldstein delineates besides lining the pockets of ABC and the Academy as to why moviegoers and those who take film seriously as an art form should be the least bit concerned over what 10 movies are nominated or even which one of them actually wins? It would matter, I guess, if you see four movies a year and are heavily swayed by a picture’s newly minted status as an Oscar winner. Otherwise, why is it a bad thing that the Academy should value artistic aspiration over the loud applause of multiplex ticket-buyers? Is it not the Academy’s own claim that the institution’s primary aim is one that “encourages excellence in filmmaking”? Nowhere on the Academy’s official site is there any mention of bowing down before Mammon, ogling box office receipts or anything else. So why doesn’t Goldstein just dump all this Oscar prognostication and coverage of Hollywood Eating Itself and focus on the kind of ceremony that truly seems to have its laser pointed right where he thinks it should be: the People’s Choice Awards?
I’m not sure what Goldstein’s all twisted up about anyway—of the four pictures he cites, three are bona fide hits (Avatar, Basterds and Up in the Air) and one broke the commercial curse hovering over films depicting the Iraq war and is on its way to a more than solid showing in the Blu-ray and DVD market. What other titles are likely to fill that slot that aren’t also high-profile smashes or well-performing low-budget indies that have been validated at the box office as well? Up? Precious? The Blind Side? The Hangover? Star Trek? Twilight: New Moon? For heaven’s sake, don’t go looking for nominations for Fantastic Mr. Fox or A Serious Man or Drag Me to Hell-- even Oscar isn’t so esoteric and elitist as to recognize these movies by Academy and industry-friendly filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, Sam Raimi and Wes Anderson—they were flops! Nobody cares about them! If the Best Picture nominees shake out anything like that tidy 10 speculated upon above, and they just might, it’ll be me (and I’m sure I won’t be alone) throwing up my hands and admitting that, all pretensions to the contrary, it’s business as usual with the Academy, expanded 10-movie roster or not.