Monday, March 8, 2010

The Day After: Some (More) Thoughts On Oscar

Sometimes, there is indeed justice in the world. Watching The Hurt Locker beat out Avatar for the Best Picture Academy award last night was gratifying, not only because Kathryn Bigelow’s war movie is by far the superior film but also because James Cameron’s dopey science-fiction epic Avatar never deserved anything more than special effects awards and that is just what it got. Interestingly enough, The Hurt Locker’s unlikely win seems to be a direct result of the one of the major changes that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made with this year’s edition of the show, which was increasing the field of Best Picture nominees from five to ten movies. That wasn’t an innovation exactly but a return to the early days of the awards, when eight to twelve nominees were the norm. But the motives for doing it again were slightly different. Stung by complaints that the Best Picture award wasn’t being given out to popular Hollywood movies, going instead to independent or relatively unpopular films like Crash and No Country for Old Men, and strongly criticized last year for omitting the top grossing movie of the year, The Dark Knight, from the Best Picture category, the Oscar folk decided to broaden the field. They allowed box office hits such as The Blind Side and Avatar to compete alongside the artistic likes of The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, as well as lesser known movies like An Education and A Serious Man. The hope was that more viewers, especially younger ones, would start watching the Oscars, which had been declining in the ratings in recent years, and thus make the show more relevant to ordinary moviegoers, instead of appealing solely to cineastes. Early indications are that ratings for the Oscar telecast were up significantly, but I suspect the results, i.e.: The Hurt Locker’s triumph, were not the result the Academy would have wanted them to be.

Initially, I felt that ten Best Picture nominees were too many but upon reflection, it made sense. Much as the annual Toronto International Film Festival showcases everything from experimental movies to low budget independent foreign language films to expensive Hollywood blockbusters, the Oscars could now boast of a slate of films that also ran the gamut from big to small, American to foreign. Of course, the critics jumped down the Academy’s throat for daring to pick the formulaic The Blind Side as one of the ten nominees, as if the critically acclaimed Precious was also not a feel-good movie, albeit a more lurid and exploitative one. What the critics didn’t seem to pick up on, until very recently, was that the new system (which allowed Academy voters to pick second and third choices and so on in the ten Best Film list) could give a small movie like The Hurt Locker the edge over Avatar because it would get more cumulative votes when runner up choices were factored in. Otherwise, with the old system, Avatar would have been the likely Best Picture winner. It’s been remarked, ad nauseum, that The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing movie to ever win the Academy’s top award (and Avatar, the highest ever grossing movie), which is a meaningless point to make as popularity bears no relation to quality. More significant, I think, is the fact, as the film’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal pointed out, that the movie was made without any artistic compromises whatsoever, including bypassing the preview screening and test marketing route, which often results in movies being changed, diluted and censored. Congrats then to the Academy voters' bravura choice.

Other aspects of the Oscar show were more problematic in the end, and they, too rose out of the Academy’s pandering to younger viewers and those critics who keep pointing out each year that the Oscar show is too long. So the decision was made to jettison all the Best Song performances, which was not really fair to the nominees, and more egregiously to force everyone to keep their speeches short, limited to a mere 45 seconds! That led to such situations as one of the German winners of the Best Live Action short, The New Tenants, being cut off just as he started to speak his words of thanks, musician / producer T Bone Burnett, co – winner for Best Song for Crazy Heart, not getting to say anything at all and, most painful of all, Juan José Campanella, the Argentinean director of the Best Foreign Language film winner The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos), who asked not to be rushed because his English was not great, being pressured anyway and forced to garble his speech as he hurried to finish it. That’s an unfortunate way to treat anyone but especially a foreigner. In case the Academy hasn’t noticed, European and Asian Oscar winners, unlike some American ones (like the Coen brothers) are always tremendously grateful and touched by their wins, probably because they’re formed and inspired by American cinema. So to impose this equivalent of a gong show rule on keeping their speeches short was rude and disrespectful. And unlike last year, when host John Stewart graciously brought back Markéta Irglová, the co – winner of the Best Song for Once, to the stage to finish the speech she began to give before being drowned out by the orchestra, no one had the courtesy to do the same to the slighted winners this year.

The whole first half of the Oscar show, in fact, was rushed, with everyone from Sandra Bullock on down feeling harassed by the backstage rumblings as they started to talk. The Academy even decided, again to save time, to eliminate the film clips usually shown for the editing and cinematography nominations, which made no sense, as those are some of the key components of what makes a movie work. Yes, the show settled down in its second half – though as colleague Kevin Courrier pointed out, no one would dare rush beloved Best Actor winner Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) off the stage until he was good and ready to go – but the bad taste of the Academy’s precipitous hasty actions still lingered. (I could also have done without James Taylor’s singing to the clips in the In Memoriam section; it was an unnecessary distraction for a part of the show that needed to be kept simple. Oh and why was Farrah Fawcett not acknowledged there last night? She’s had more to do with the movies than Michael Jackson, who was showcased.) It helped that most of rest of the show, especially the tributes to the late director John Hughes and to the horror movie, were classy and tasteful, and the choices for best performances generally good ones, even the one for Sandra Bullock, who gave a decent if not great performance in The Blind Side.

However, I’d like to suggest something to the Academy. Accept that the show, which must cover a lot of ground, featuring two dozen awards, various tributes, production numbers etc., will invariably run between 3 1 / 2 and four hours (it ran 3 hours, 37 minutes last night), and thus let everyone, unless they’re really long-winded, finish their speeches, and stop trying to cut corners by dropping or shortening sections of the program. (You could try having two presenters each present two awards, which could save some time and still showcase a large group of stars.) And about those new viewers you were hoping for. You may have gotten them but since they didn’t get the satisfaction of seeing their favourite movie, Avatar, win the big awards, I’m betting they won’t be back next year. With that in mind, cool it on the draconian time rules and if ABC doesn’t like that decision on your part, shop the show to another network. I’m betting one of them will be interested in picking it up since the Oscars, whatever their faults, are still one of the things television does best.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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