FILM JANUARY 9, 2014
Have faith. In just a few more weeks, we will be restored to humdrum, silly, disappointing movies. There will be no need to attend the multiplex with the chant drumming in our head—“We’re in Love with Inside Llewyn Davis.” Be calm: There is no more love in that dank film than there was a sense of reality in Argo, last year’s Best Picture. But bless it’s socks, Argo had twenty minutes or so of John Goodman and Alan Arkin telling us the facts of movie life. So we caved in. And we will again this year: the desperate myth will be honored, that there has been a “Best Picture,” worthy of the ads.
Since the darkness of Thanksgiving, there has been mounting noise on the internet about Best Picture. The din is now so great that any experienced skeptic might say, perhaps there isn’t really a Best Picture. Perhaps there’s just product? There is still a vague sentiment that the night of the Academy Awards will settle such issues, but that dream is actually as broken as the notion that the State of the Union address has anything to do with what is happening in that union.
So as December dawns, the accelerating number of movie blogs and websites begin to speculate about the awards. Not that they confine themselves to one set of predictions. No, they run a different forecast every week, or twice a week. They drag in critics and reviewers to make their lists. Every worthwhile city and craft union in filmmaking delivers a pronouncement on awards. You can make your own suggestions—perhaps you do. I suppose it can all be defended on the grounds of free speech, but sometimes free speech is a license for nonsense.
No institution has had more to do with this dilution of the water than the Golden Globes, set to pronounce on Sunday night. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association reaches back in history—they formed in 1943, and issued their first awards the following year—but it is only quite recently that they saw how their event could acquire enough substance as a television occasion to put the Oscars in jeopardy. The Golden Globes cottoned on to the idea (once the habit of the Academy Awards) that the prize-giving should be held in a hotel dining room, with tables for the leading pictures and more opportunity for intimate star-snooping than is offered by the awful imprisoning format of the theatre show at the Oscars. For decades, Hollywood had made fun of its Foreign Press, but in the last ten years the Globes have changed their meds. They realized they could be competitive, intimate, vulgar—and they could dare to have Ricky Gervais as a host. Hollywood no longer deserves the old Oscars and the respectable Academy. But the Globes have the right mixture of shamelessness and the lust for empty prizes.
More than that, the Golden Globes did television awards at the same time and they had the wit to make two categories of Best Picture—thus doubling the chance of having stars there, table-hopping and getting rowdy. So this year the Globes have a Drama category, with 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Philomena, and Rush as nominees. And I think we can see what they think they mean by “drama.” But then they add “Musical or Comedy” which enables them to offer: America Hustle, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, and The Wolf of Wall Street. I laughed a lot at The Wolf and American Hustle, but it’s stretching a point to call them comedies. I didn’t laugh much at Nebraska, or Inside Llewyn Davis and not at all at Her—in fact I thought they were meant to be downers.
It seemed to me early in the awards season that 12 Years a Slave was a lock for Best Picture, for these reasons: It was about time someone in America made a film like that (even if they were British); it was a picture that would let the Academy feel proud of its courage; plus it was an impressive, decent work—and quite good. It was an Oscar film, if you know what I mean, and it may still win. But the frenzy of polls, blogs, and spin is becoming very confusing. There’s a new winner every day: The National Board of Review said Her was the best picture of the year; the New York Film Critics Circle picked American Hustle; and then the National Society of Film Critics went for Inside Llewyn Davis.
None of this matters, unless you are a website courting hits, a critic looking to get your name around, or one of the remaining press sites (like The New York Times) still making money on the full-page ads that boost contending films. There used to be a theory that the Oscars added revenue to a film’s box office. That’s less and less true because everyone is now exhausted by talk of the pictures long before the awards are made. The time of awards has become an attempt to push a third season into the year, adding to summer and Christmas. I don’t think it works. The cost of the ads is in many cases beyond what any box-office surge can bring in: The ads for Inside Llewyn Davis (smart and ground-breaking) have done very little to alter the size of the audience for that mannered and wintry film where the Coens do chic gloom. It’s playing in about 150 theaters. American Hustle and The Wolf have had some benefit. But Her is so limited in appeal (under 50 theaters) that it has had very little advertising.
As I said, none of this matters beyond keeping The New York Times going. But, notice how government is at a loss in dealing with those topics with which it is historically associated—our economy, our justice, immigration, the problem spots in the world (and not just the ones we provoked), the warming … all the way to evolution, on which the Times just reported that a full 60 percent of citizens now believe in it. Honestly, if 40 percent are thumbs down on evolution (and I seem to recall the thumb meant a lot to Darwin), no amount of love for Llewyn Davis is significant. It’s because the Congress and the President are so flummoxed by those things that the habit of more polls, elections, and crossfire confrontations gains ground. Similarly, the fuss over the best pictures may be a ruse to conceal the absence of best pictures this year. There are several that are worth seeing, and several I like very much. But I have to remind you that in the history of the Academy, taking just American pictures, the following were not even nominated: His Girl Friday, Rear Window, The Shining, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Shop Around the Corner, Touch of Evil, The Searchers, The Lady Eve, Kiss Me Deadly … we could go on.
Let me end this cautionary piece on noisy award mania with the sadness that Saul Zaentz died last week. He was a man of many parts: He had done as much for jazz recordings as he did for movies; he was a rigorous business man and an amiable soul (he was a tough sweetheart). I don’t know how much it matters but let’s just note that in his time he carried away the best picture Oscar three times, for three movies that it’s easy to believe no one else would have dreamed of making. He was just a producer, but I think the artists involved would all have testified that without Saul we would never have had One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, or The English Patient.