Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Oscar Bait Fading?

Michael C here from Serious Film enjoying one more post before I hand the reins back to Nathaniel. It's been a blast guest-blogging but if you're like me you want Nat back pronto. If for no other reason than I've nothing of interest to say about Burlesque, and I'm betting he's going to have some sharp commentary on the subject.

It has been noted in just about every piece on this year's Oscar race that The King's Speech is as Oscar-friendly a film as has ever hit the holiday movie season. If The Weinstein Company had a secret laboratory under the studio filled with film scientists working round the clock to produce the most irresistible Oscar bait known to man, their finished product would look a lot like The King's Speech. World War II, true story, disabilities, royalty, pretty period detail, just the right touch of comedy and romance, and Geoffrey Rush making a series of funny faces. I half-expected the trailer to end with Colin Firth running out to the middle of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to hug Robin Wright.

Conventional wisdom is that Tom Hooper's film should coast to Oscar glory with relative ease, but is The King's Speech out of step with the times? Looking back over the last decade of Best Picture winners one sees a shift in what we normally associate with an Oscar film. Is there a chance voters will resist it sheerly for being such a painfully obvious choice?  Especially when it appears voters have become increasingly daring in their voting over the last few years.

Of course the last decade started out perfectly par for the course with winners Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, and Chicago. After that the template started to stretch in subtle ways. Lord of the Rings, Million Dollar Baby, and Crash might look traditional on the surface - epic, sports film, social message movie - but they each broadened the concept of what a Best Picture looks like. Lord of the Rings was the first fantasy winner. Baby may be a prestige drama by a name director but it's also a dark and unsparing downer. Crash was a low budget surprise winner employing a no lead, multi-character style that hasn't produced a winner since Grand Hotel.  

So far so interesting, but hardly conclusive. The Oscars have a tradition of throwing in the occasional curveball - The Silence of the Lambs or Midnight Cowboy. But in the last four years the winners have thoroughly shattered the idea of what can take the top prize. Unorthodox choices have been the rule, not the exception. The Departed is a profane, violent crime flick that would likely have lost to The Queen in the 80's. The Hurt Locker is a ultra-low grossing war thriller without uplift or an easy message. Slumdog Millionaire seems like the usual crowd-pleaser, but it's also a borderline foreign film, completely lacking in stars, that clobbered four traditionally award-friendly films. As for No Country For Old Men, do I need me to point out what a stark, almost nihilistic, choice this is? Would voters fifteen years earlier have had the stomach for it or would they have fled to the more familiar vibes of Atonement (which is itself a more subversive movie than it's surface would suggest)?

It gets increasingly difficult to deny a major shift in taste has occurred. Pundits can no longer declare with confidence what type of movie isn't an "Oscar film." Would last year's showdown between Avatar and Hurt Locker been thinkable twenty years ago? Would Precious and Inglorious Basterds been conceivable as nominees? 

So what is responsible for this trend away from comfortable run-of-the-mill winners? A large part of it is undoubtedly because studios have basically removed themselves from the Oscar game so they can adapt every comic book to ever give a kid ink-smudged fingers. Academy members can't vote for wide appeal Oscar-type films if they aren't being made. 

But more to the point is the fact that somewhere in the last ten years the Academy members who cut their teeth watching the golden age of 70's filmmaking started to outnumber the traditional fuddy-duddies we usually think of as Oscar voters. Major studios may not be turning out the daring wide-release films like they did when movies like Five Easy Pieces were getting nominated, but this more adventurous breed of Oscar voters is still looking for them. Today's voters have shown they will sooner nominate a slate of challenging films before they except the watered-down likes of Dreamgirls or American Gangster even if they might be more popular with Oscar viewers. 

Of course, even if a shift has occurred daring voters could still go for The King's Speech simply because it is a fine piece of filmmaking. Let's not forget that Oscar bait and quality often coincide (see: Quiz Show, Milk and many more). Still current trends favor a Social Network or - gasp - Inception grabbing the top prize. It could happen. Even if a good chunk of the Academy digs in their heels and votes the safe choice, with the nominee pool expanded to ten the need for consensus has been drastically reduced. If King's Speech ends up checking every box on the Oscar wish list and still loses then this will go from being a trend to being a new reality. 



It's an interesting question. But it seems to me like if the change can't happen THAT quick. i.e. it's about time for something traditional. As much as I am rooting for THE SOCIAL NETWORK as of now (i haven't seen The King's Speech yet)

Robert Hamer said...

I had a similar discussion on Awards Circuit about this very topic, and I'm glad others are noticing this. When people think of "Oscar-bait," they get this very outdated view of what that entails. In fact, that term, and what is commonly associated with it, has become such a backhanded insult to a film that it's now a hinderance rather than an advantage. I still maintain that that's exactly what happened to Atonement when it missed out on a Best Director nomination.

Now it looks like critical darlings are becoming more of a factor, as well as films that reflect a certain...zeigeist of the mood of that year (the pessimism of the writer's strike and state of American affairs in 2007, the joy and alleviated liberal white guilt over Obama's election in 2008, etc.). That's why The Social Network is actually the one to beat, methinks.


robert -- i hope you're right but as i was saying in my tribeca film piece it does seem like The Social Network is fading. I'm assuming it's a momentary lull and it'll rise again (you know there's always ebb and flow)

but i like it when there's a real race so far now i'm glad that it's a little fuzzy as to where the votes are going. it'll all clear up and get boring before we want it to ;)

Andrew R. said...

I have noticed this too. (Using Dreamgirls as an example doesn't really work for me, since I would've stuck it in my 10-wide slate.) From 2003 on, who's who would've won several years ago.

2003: Master and Commander. Oh, I am so grateful that didn't happen.
2004: Ray or Finding Neverland...NO!
2005: Capote or Good Night and Good Luck. I'd be good with those.
2006: The Queen. Also good with that.
2007: I am so proud of the Academy for this year, because all those movies made my slate. Atonement is the more realistic choice for them, but they made the right one.
2008: Frost/Nixon, eek.

Now for 2009, which deserves a long discussion. I agreed with 9/10 nominees, and NONE of those movies truly screamed Oscar outside of quality. 2 sci-fi movies, an animation, 5 movies that have something not very Oscar about them, a Tarantino, and a film that would've gotten the Academy lynched had it won.

This year also looks pretty daring. King's Speech is pretty Oscar bait, but look at some of the other contenders.

FaceBook, lesbians, 127 hours in one place, animation, sci-fi, O'Russell, an indie, a trippy ballet movie, a crime movie from Affleck...could go on and on.

No Eastwood, no musicals, only one epic, one Western, and not a whole lot of biopics.

But let's be honest: is anyone complaining? Of the 03-09 winners, the only one worth complaining about is Crash, and that's only because of the Brokeback loss.

Michael said...

I agree it is not a cut a dry situation where we walk outside and we're blinking into the sunlight at the new day that has dawned. But I think it's pretty clear that the Academy has definitely moving in an interesting direction. At what speed remains an open question.

And as I said, King's Speech may turn out to be just plain good.

@Andrew R - I mention Dreamgirls not to say it wouldn't be nominated under today's circumstances - it most certainly would - but to point at this most conventional of Oscar movies was passed over. I'm not sure that would have happened ten years prior

Rick said...

A very good piece ... I totally agree with the speculations.

Rob T. said...

I've been harping on roughly this point for the last year or so. In particular I've been fascinated with how traditional Oscar bait--either adaptations of "prestige" novels or plays, or biopic/"based on a true story" movies, usually with beautiful photography and set dressing--has been shunted aside in most recent "best picture" contests in favor of sharply and intelligently edited modern stories.

However, traditional Oscar bait still triumphs with some frequency in Oscar's acting categories, especially with roles based on real people. (By my reckoning half the actors who won Oscars between 1999 and 2006 did so with portrayals of real people, and there has been at least one such acting Oscar winner in each of the three years following.)

As far as the "best picture" Oscar goes, are the last few years part of a trend or will they ultimately be seen as a blip? I wonder in particular if The Social Network--based on a true story, and one of general importance to most of the audience at that--could be considered as a new type of "prestige" picture, reinvented for an audience more savvy about how cinema and other media work than the audience of a generation ago.

Kokolo said...

It is not "gasp Inception" it's gag Inception. P

Volvagia said...

Inception: Where exposition trumps story. Sorry, but, a clue to filmmakers: If you have to beat the audience over the head with reams and reams of unending exposition...don't make the movie. Whether an indie or mainstream movie, the audience still has to be willing to make the leap.

Anonymous said...

Inception is a good film, and yes, it CAN win.

Poppy said...


Audiences are willing to make the Leap for Inception.

AmaliaPorAmor said...

I'm sorry... I know this doesn't belong here, but I love your blog so much... I just saw Streisand & Redford together on Oprah! They sat down for an interview for the first time... it just makes me wanna see the movie all over again!

Guess what, it's #27 in Amazon and #1 on the Drama section.

Have you seen it? It would be awesome if you could review it, it's been almost 40 years since the movie premiered.

Take care :)


amalia -- i have not reviewed THE WAY WE WERE but i am super fond of it. so i should.

Sheila Kind said...

Loved The Social Network so why do I have a feeling that The King's Speech will edge it out for the win, along with Firth as Best Actor and probably Rush as Best Supporting Actor? I think because the latter seems to be more touchy feely. Fincher may win for Best Director but like Ang Lee for Brokeback, may have to settle for that along with screenplay for Sorkin. Bale could edge out Rush, but it'll be close. Just a feeling here.

Volvagia said...

The leap means: Understand what's going on in the movie and just let it play out. They lept into the theatre, but they weren't allowed to take "the leap."