Oscar History

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Months of Meryl: THE RIVER WILD

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Oscar's Losing Game

Andrew here, to talk about the Oscar nominations. It’s been one week since they were announced and are we all talked out? Of course not. The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences can't catch a break from its loudest critics each year. People often view the Oscars as some kind of monolothic entity and not as a group of individual persons with specific tastes, which grants them the aura of sinister agenda like a Bond villain. And given the weight of the crown -- Oscar remains the most significant film award -- they're subject to the sort of ardent scrutiny that would reveal flaws in even the most ostensibly immaculate of things. 

Whether you're a lover or agnostic on AMPAS, there is no denying that they provide fodder for movie conversation the way few other things do. But there's one frustratingly circular and inescapable bit of criticism which comes each year that I find particular exasperating. I'm referring to the complaints which always follow a critically maligned film earning Oscar laurels, specifically for technical proficiency. “Did you hear The Lone Ranger earned as many nominations as Inside llewyn Davis.” or “The Transformers trilogy has earned more collective Oscar nominations than the Before trilogy.” or “The Wolfman has an Oscar, Peter O’Toole does not.” And so on. I almost always think it’s meant facetiously, until I realise these lazy claims are used as legitimate attempts to illegitimatise the worth of the AMPAS (an entirely different topic altogether). It’s all part of a yearly unchanging cry from movie lovers, “How can X (Terrible Film)  be an Oscar winner/nominee when Y (Great Film) is not?" [more...]

Ignoring the most obvious folly in this argument, which is, the Oscars are no bellwether of general taste but the subjective opinion of a specialized group in the first place, the more pervasive issue is the insular concept of awards such a claim reveals about the moviegoer. At its best, AMPAS hopes to recognise excellence in film and in film crafts. One, sometimes fair, criticism lodged against the Academy is the blinkered way that they sometimes focus – with impunity – on only best picture contenders. A picture frontrunner gets a possibly suspect citation in sound mixing, or production design as a presumed coattails nod. But, despite the complaints, the technical branches are often doing great work when they focus on craft work they find impressive regardless of pedigree. Like, the 2000 costume design ballot which had the critically reviled 102 Dalmatians and the hardly prestigious The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The latter received a second nomination and win for its makeup. Receiving a single nomination the same year, the critically lauded Requiem for a Dream

Typical criticisms imply that AMPAS should be embarrassed at putting those two films of varying qualities on "equal" footing - judging just by the number of their nominations. But when we cry, bad films should not get Oscar nominations what are we arguing for, or against? Is the argument that, by right, good quality only comes from "good films". Or, good individual work in a bad film should be penalised for the film it appears in? What of the alternative if the Academy chooses 25 films worthy of Oscars overall and only allows those to contend for technical prizes. Has the validity of the ceremony grown by ignoring proficient sound teams of Lone Survivor for a legitimate film like Twelve Years a Slave? Regardless of your thoughts on the film could you honestly deny the work of the visual team in The Lone Ranger or the complicated makeup work on Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa. Isn't it more commendable, not less, when voters look outside of the usual suspects of "contenders" films when choosing nominees for prizes which are not called "Best Picture"?

If we aren't willing to recognise inspired craft work in films which are not excellent on the whole what does it say about our dogmatic ideas of what aspects of films deserve praise. This blinkered disavowal of the "good" within "bad" movies every year only reveals the same stolid narrowness of thought that critics suggest that monolithic sinister AMPAS is guilty of.

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Reader Comments (13)

"“Did you hear The Lone Ranger earned as many nominations as Inside llewyn Davis.” or “The Transformers trilogy has earned more collective Oscar nominations than the Before trilogy.”... I realise these lazy claims are used as legitimate attempts to illegitimatise the worth of the AMPAS"

Yeah, look, good effort but you defeated your entire argument with other people's arguments. There is no way to get around those two basic facts you cite, or to look at them from a perspective that renders them rational, or to defend them. They are indefensible.

Nothing wrong with Bad Grandpa scoring a single prospective nomination for makeup. Plenty wrong with Before Midnight/Llewyn Davis scoring just the one miserable nomination. (How many less than Philomena?)

I agree that AMPASS shouldn't be approached as some sort of single-minded monolith. But I will jump at every chance to point out the extent to which their collective awards are an entertaining but sad, sad joke that comes with unwarranted prestige.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I totally agree with this, and the reasons that bad movies are able to win Oscars are so clear, that if people were willing to think about the why, it would put the Oscars in so much perspective that we'd probably cut the number of irate bloggers and commenters in half.
The Oscars have a bunch of categories (vis effects, sound #2, makeup, song...) that bad movies are able to do just as well or better than arty movies. Movies like Transformers *should* be winning sound and vis. effects categories, but it doesn't mean their Oscar totals are equivalent to movies that get to compete in direction and writing. They're meaningful, since craft categories reward hard work and they're not worth less than other Oscars, but comparing those categories are comparing Oscar-shaped apples to Oscar-shaped oranges.

I also find it weird that people get irate about a movie like Inside Llewyn Davis (which I adored) missing out in big categories, too. Mostly because I can never rationalize the kind of person who falls for Inside Llewyn Davis ALSO being the kind of person who needs that love to be vindicated with Oscar nominations.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I think the total tally of nominations shouldn't take from the fact that there are movies that should have their crafts recognized. For example: I thought 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' had some of the most inspiring costumes and makeup-hair of the year. Had it been nominated in both categories, would it be fair to say. F*ck me, The Hunger Games has more nominatios than 'Inside Llewyn Davis'? Well, not from my point of view. I think Oscars should recognize the best from an open field of contenders, not narrow its nominations to the best from the prestige little group.
Like last year. 'Cloud Atlas' was pretty blasted by critics, yet I think it has the best score of the year. Was it even nominated? No. Why? Because it the movie wasn't considered good enough (I suposse)
I'm ranting here...I just think it is unfair to say this or that movie (bad ones most of the times) has more nominations than others. They may very well deserve those nominatios.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJavier

But Goran the comparison is a fallacy. The Lone Ranger didn't 'beat out' Before Midnight in those specific categories for example it's been nominated in,and I think the 'craft' awards should reward the specific work not the overall film that they are in. Yes Before Midnight did deserve more nods, but that doesn't mean that the Bad Grandpa didn't deserve its nomination either.

I totally agree with this article, and actually you can extend it to acting nominations too. Last year people were moaning on how can Nicole Kidman be nominated for a 'bad' film like The Paperboy (it didn't come to fruition sadly). Shouldn't it be about the performance itself regardless of the quality of the film that it is in ?

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRami

I don't view those nominations as for the film but for the work and the artist. No one seems upset about Gatsby's nods even though people really weren't big on the film. But we only seem to allow that respect for the person getting the award to certain films (read: prestige films). It's also something we don't often allow in the acting categories. Few people will disagree that Christian Bale is great in Out of the Furnace or that Tom Hiddleston was spectacular in Thor: The Dark World, but because the films didn't meet BP "quality" those performances were written off.

Aside from Picture, Animated, Documentary, Short Animated, Short Documentary, Short Live Action, and Foreign Language, the Oscars are at their heart industrial awards. That's why this year it's likely that Cuaron will win Director even if 12 Years wins picture. The direction of one film can be better than that of another even if the sun of all the other films parts are better. The same can be said of all the technical awards.

This is why I think we should think about the Oscars in tiers (how I think of them). The top 8 (Picture, Director, Screenplays, and Acting), alternate pictures (Animated, Documentary, Foreign and Shorts), and Tech. A nomination for visual effects doesn't mean the same thing as one for best director, nor should it. I'm with Nathaniel on all of this.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterQueermyntcritic

I have no issue with tech/craft awards going to great tech/craft work. My complaint is how the acting awards (and sometimes doc and music) seem to follow politics and consensus. Actors (rarely bad, but not always the best) will find themselves nominated on the coat tails of a great performance or because the film they are in is considered a top contender. Jackie Weaver made a silk purse out of a sow's ear last year in SLP but there were more deserving perfs. Same with the AH crowd this year,.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Oddly enough, something like Bad Grandpa or The Lone Ranger are not the things that sitck out to me, but when the acting or tech branches get lazy. Silver Linings Playbook and Dallas Buyers Club for Editing-what is that about? Over Lone Survivor or The Conjuring or Rush or even The Wolf of Wall Street? Come on!

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Rami, you make a great point about the acting awards. It's very rare for great performances to come in a bad movie, but it does happen. It happened last year with Nicole. I think Jessica Lange gave a brave, devastating performance in the execrable A Thousand Acres. I believe she should have gotten an Oscar nomination for that...but I recognize the film itself is simply indefensible. This situation rarely happens, but it does.

I agree that the craft awards should be specifically aimed at the technical achievements in the film. I remember the outrage over Norbit being nommed for makeup...but the cited work in question was phenomenal.

The Oscars are constantly being criticized for being overly stuffy. But there is a populist bent to honorees in the Best Song category that is totally fitting, snubs of Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles notwithstanding. I mean, can we say that Last Dance wasn't the Best Song just because it came from a shitty movie? I don't think so. That undeniable urge to shake your moneymaker is the great equalizer.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I pretty much agree with everyone here. I think it's a moot point. The Academy is, by all accounts, an organization in which people vote for what they think it's best. I. Its vote is the vote of thousands of people and people have preconceived notions, preferences and favored themes, subjects, performances, artists, etc.

I love the Oscars but I can separate the waters, so to speak. My main problem is when the Academy makes bad judgement calls giving nominations to something which (be it a bad or a good movie) should have no business being nominated in that specific category.

One example would be Stanley Tucci's performance in Lovely Bones. It's a bad performance be it on a good or bad movie. Another example: Burton's Alice in Wonderland's nominations. Or one that didn't happen in the Oscars but: Slumdog Millionaire winner for Costume Design in Costume Design Guild Awards or winning Best Ensemble at SAG.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

@brookesboy: Simon and Garfunkel weren't snubbed. They just didn't fill out the right forms, making Mrs. Robinson ineligible.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDieter

Thanks, Dieter, I never knew that! I just googled it, and it says Simon wasn't paying attention: "It was the 60s." Guess I can fill in the blanks LOL.

At least Mrs. Robinson went on to win Grammys' Record of the Year. Ahh, an ode to Anne Bancroft's gorgeous ferocity.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

"But Goran the comparison is a fallacy. The Lone Ranger didn't 'beat out' Before Midnight in those specific categories for example it's been nominated in,"

I wasn't arguing Before Midnight should be nominated for Best Makeup - only that it should have more than one nomination if these awards actually reflected quality to the extend that a lot of people believe they do.

And no, my love for Llewyn Davis doesn't need AMPASS' validation, just like my love of Bringing Up Baby never did - I'm just pointing out the taste vacuum that thrives within the voting body.

The only reason I get angry when films/performances miss out on Oscar nominations is that they also miss out the commercial boost which then helps future similarly high quality 'niche' films get financed.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I don't get it. The Lone Ranger got the nods they fully deserved. So did Bad Grandpa. Ideally so would Before Midnight and Inside Llewyn Davis but so many of those nominations were above the line, major nominations while BG and TLR were below the line. Not similar.

Heck, I'll stick up for the Transformers franchise getting all those sound nods over the years. The people behind those films are definitely at the top of their industry. The franchise is a polish turd (though oh lord help me, I kind of liked the third one) but in its design beyond just aesthetic is pretty accomplished Grade-A stuff.

As somebody noted, Dallas Buyer's Club over Rush, The Grandmaster, or The Wolf of Wall Street in Editing was more ridiculous than a world where those other films getting highlighted for their strengths win.

Rick Baker is an absolute genius but I am sure lots of members of the Academy find his work too schlocky and he probably won awards in years when film classics did not.

This reminds me of Nathaniel's comment that the Costume Branch seems to go out of its way to look into contenders that are talked about in their category as having something good in it, quality of film be damned. The above the line stuff seems to have more vanity and pretense. There are members in the acting branch that barely watch enough of anything and can never actually prove they saw something to say they found a performance great. They seem more tied to the PR machines and campaigns than anything else to tell them where the winds blow. Like even if Kristen Scott Thomas was vampy, campy goodness in Only God Forgives, the mindset of the acting branch would have to be turned on its head for anyone to see it after the reviews came out at Cannes.

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

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