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Courtesy of The New York Times

February 26, 2016

Guest Room | Oscar Bait Doesn’t Stick

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In 2006, a film called Crash took the Oscar for Best Picture home, prompting a surge of outrage. It is now best remembered as the punch line of jokes about unwarranted Oscar-winners and is perhaps more reviled than is necessary. Is it a bad film? No. But while it is only somewhat clunky and rough around the edges, it is not — in my humble opinion — superior to Capote, Brokeback Mountain, A History of Violence and even Cinderella Man.

The Academy has been making these types of “mistakes” for years — Kings Speech won out over Social Network, Artist won out over Tree of Life, Argo beat Zero Dark Thirty — and it makes them in every category from Supporting Actress to Screenplay to Makeup. By “mistakes,” I am referring to what we film buffs call snubs and timid voting — not just on a level of racial politics, but with film as an art form. There is, of course, no objective or correct choice for what should win on Oscar night, but there is a sense that many of the films the Academy chooses during the heat of the moment are not the ones the public reveres years later. They are not the films that remain firmly etched in the zeitgeist of that decade. Sometimes these films are forgotten as rapidly as two years after their release. More often than not, the Oscars are a better barometer for ephemeral popularity than for cinematic quality.

Last year, Best Director winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu graciously took the stage after embracing fellow nominees: Bennett Miller and Richard Linklater. He declared, “Ego loves competition, right? Because in order to win, somebody has to lose. But the paradox is that true individual artistic expression cannot be labeled … Our work will be judged, as always, by time.” Yes, time and time again, studios churn out an awards-season product meant to capture the hearts of critics and promote Hollywood as an industry of quality, but when the dust settles, the films are often viewed as mere pale shadows. That’s not to say that Birdman was such a film, but as enthralling and enjoyable as it was, a more maverick choice might have been Boyhood. That said, at least Birdman was a much more radical and deserving choice on the part of the Academy than such serviceable period pieces as The Imitation Game or Theory of Everything.

The point is, the Academy tends to go with “comfort food choices” — not films that change the game or those that are innovative, but those that are soothing, reassuring and in some ways, formulaic. They do not choose the film most likely to make a lasting cultural impact, but the one that seems to have the broadest appeal for the moment. This has been especially true over the past 10 years when the Academy switched to a method of runoff voting. (For more on that, watch the Vox video.)

Let’s take a look at 2008, a year whose nominations were so contested that the next year the Academy decided to expand its Best Picture category to 10 nominees. Which films do you remember from that year? I cannot judge for the public, but I would hazard a guess that WALL-E, the ground-breaking, revolutionary animated film from Pixar, is one of them. The film is unique in that its first 40 minutes are silent and that despite being a children’s movie, it garnered more love from critics than any serious drama that year made for adults.  While I’m not even a big fan of the movie, I am sure that it would be high atop many people’s lists when they think about 2008 in film.

Another choice would almost certainly be The Dark Knight, a film I believe people give excessive credit. Due to Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing performance, that film blasted an impact crater in the zeitgeist so large that the Joker has become one of the most memorable cinematic characters in recent history. The film itself revolutionized the tone and style which superhero movies and summer blockbusters have tried to mimic since that time. A good movie, for sure, although it is not my favorite superhero film — but again, I feel confident in wagering that it is a top choice for many people when they reminisce about 2008 films.

What about Slumdog Millionaire, which swept the Oscars that year with eight wins? When people talk about Danny Boyle, who this year helmed Steve Jobs, the consensus seems to be that his early British films — the cult classics he made early in his career — are better. It might be that I’m a poor judge of popular opinion, but it just seems to me that people like Trainspotting better — they certainly talk about it more — and I am in agreement. It is a vastly entertaining, grungy ride of a film that tackles the tough subject matter of heroin addiction and consequently, one the Academy would not want to be associated with casting their vote.

When all is said and done, it appears that the Oscars do not reward innovation. They prefer the tried-and-true to the experimental; the safe to the risky. Occasionally, there are exceptions; 12 Years a Slave is a notable one — especially because of its primarily black cast and crew. Why did it take so long for Scorsese to win? Why did he win for a milder film and not for Raging Bull or Goodfellas (overshadowed by Ordinary People and Dances with Wolves, respectively)?  At first slights like this are perplexing, but when you think about the consistently milquetoast voting record of the Academy, they do not seem completely outlandish.

So in this season, where many have taken issue with the snubs and the narrow-mindedness of the Academy, we have to remember that unfortunately, this is a longstanding tradition in Hollywood. Remember when Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture over Do The Right Thing, which wasn’t even nominated in 1989? Or when Kramer vs. Kramer won over Apocalypse Now in 1979? It is evident that in many cases, the Academy does not represent the preferences of the moviegoer.

Mark DiStefano is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mdistefano@cornellsun.com.

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