Sunday, December 19, 2010


Michael C here trying to piece together some conclusions from this first wave of precursors.

One thing we can say for certain. With all the support materializing for Black Swan this past week the message is unequivocal: no discussion of the year’s best work will be complete without Aronofsky’s dance phantasmagoria in the mix. Yet Swan’s place in the lineup isn't the sure thing it should be. Due to the film’s extreme nature it is widely assumed that for every one Academy member who has the stomach for it, there will be ten others who are fleeing the screening with their hands over their ears, humming the score from Driving Miss Daisy to blot out the horrible sounds coming from the screen.

Are Oscar voters wimps?

One could be forgiven for getting that impression reading the conventional wisdom bandied back and forth about films like 127 Hours or Black Swan. The standard issue reaction for any film that has more than a sprinkling of realistic violence, sex, or stylistic daring is, "Oh, this is too much for the Academy." The average academy voter is, according to this view, a stodgy old fogey whose taste in movies calcified sometime around the release of My Fair Lady and is horrified that a movie might stray outside the bland Oscar template. They thought Inception was too confusing, Rabbit Hole was too depressing, and a lot of them avoided 127 Hours altogether. While there is undoubtedly some truth to this (we all remember the reports of some voters flat-out refusing to so much as watch Brokeback Mountain) I think it misses the larger story.

There is, of course, the simple fact that more outre the film is the less of a consensus it's going to build, but it still doesn’t add up. How could all these Academy members reach prominence while being artistic scaredy-cats who dive under their seat when things get too intense? To succeed in creative professions one needs some open-mindedness, some adventurousness of taste. After all, a lot of the current voting body is made up of people who cut their teeth during the golden age of 70’s filmmaking, people who worship at the altar of Scorsese and Altman. Yet, these are the folks who somehow mistake The Blind Side for an artistic milestone?

The Average Oscar Screening?
While there is surely bad taste and timidity around the margins, I believe the larger shortcoming of the voting pool is not that their taste is so tame but that they assume yours is. The Academy prizes its own relevance above all else, and they know marking ballots for Fish Tank and Dogtooth isn’t going to secure it for them. They can't be throwing Mulholland Drive in the lineup if it going to lead to three months worth of perplexed movie-goers promising to never trust the Academy again as long as the live.

The fact that the Academy in the past has honored films as adult as the Silence of the Lambs, Midnight Cowboy, or The Departed proves that they’re not necessarily as timid as their reputation suggests. It’s just that if they’re going to risk upsetting the blue hairs of the world than those films are going to have to arrive stamped as pre-approved hits.

I think it is fair to say Black Swan's status as an Oscar lock is going to have less to do with the intestinal fortitude of the Oscar voter and more to do with how well it performs in this, its first weekend of wide release.

(Here are the current figures)


Robert Hamer said...

Okay, can I just chime in with the (hopefully obvious) factor that maybe some Oscar voters may genuinely dislike this film? I was not a fan of Black Swan, aside from its admittedly impressive visual flair, and I certainly wouldn't consider myself a "wimp" when it comes to cinema.

I understand the larger point of your argument, but I'd rather not have to preemptively defend my intestinal fortitude whenever this film comes up among discussions of the year's best.

Michael said...

Of course. If someone doesn't go for it they don't go for it. I just fear there are voters out there who love it, but who would be tempted to vote for a more accessible choice to put a better face on the Oscars.

Unknown said...

Are Oscar voters wimps? - yes :)

Rob T. said...

As I understand it, the Academy's nominating process (at least for "best picture") favors films with substantial number of voters willing to name them their favorite of the year, regardless of how many voters might dislike them. This is surely how such unlikely choices as A Serious Man and District 9 were nominated last time, and maybe even The Blind Side as well, old-fashioned feel-good movies being just another niche market these days.

Because of this, I had few doubts last month and even fewer now that Black Swan will ultimately be nominated for the "best picture" Oscar, even though I still haven't seen it (but hope to do so in the next couple of days). The people who like this picture at all mostly seem to like it a lot, and I'm sure a fair number of Academy voters will place it at the top of their nominating ballots.

Obviously that doesn't mean Black Swan will win. If the nominating process favors pockets of idiosyncratic enthusiasm, the preference voting for the Oscar itself favors consensus. A winning film, if not an overwhelming favorite (i.e. it has more than 50% 1st-place votes to begin with), should be able to make up the difference with the 2nd-place votes of films eliminated early on. I imagine that's where Black Swan will fall short, because it'll probably get lots of 1st-place votes but few 2nd- or 3rd- place ones.

Erich Kuersten said...

the mere fact that I never saw the Blind Side but was outraged it was nominated is proof that guys like me may be just as party line-towing as the blue hairs. Maybe it's an awesome film? I did however see Chicago and thought it was god awful, and am still mad Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan. The main factor I think is death. When films take brave crazy looks into the eyes of the reaper, it's going to spook the elderly, and thus they like it if there's an elderly face doing the mortality-facing (Tommy Lee in NO Country, Nicholson in the Departed, Eastwood in whatever) vs. young whipper snappers (Aronofsky), wherein its like your children trying to convert you to Buddhism on your deathbed... a lot of parents would rather die alone and broke than take counsel from their own children. In the words of Nicolas Cage, they're what's wrong with this country.

Poppy said...

I seriously doubt Black Swan is the most intense film the academy has ever encountered to be in BP contention. I honestly think it's obviously gonna be nominated for best picture.

adam k. said...

While I largely agree with you - especially the point about how successful artists can't all possibly be as vanilla as it sometimes seems - I don't think Black Swan will have any trouble getting nominated, regardless of its commercial appeal.

You don't get a record number of BFCA noms, a GG drama best pic nom, and a SAG ensemble nom and then miss best picture in a field of ten. It's not possible.

I do think it needs to do well, though, in order to really rack up a strong tally and maintain the "top 5" status it seems to have now. If it really takes off, then screenplay, supporting actress, and lots of tech noms could be in store, and a double digit haul could be in store. That would just make me giddy...

Janice said...

//the mere fact that I never saw the Blind Side but was outraged it was nominated is proof that guys like me may be just as party line-towing as the blue hairs. Maybe it's an awesome film?//

@Erich - No, it's definitely not.

Reynolds said...

I've been wondering in the back of my mind something like this too. How do you go from honoring Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side" to Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" in the span of 12 months? These voters' sensibilities have not changed in that amount of time (even though they've let in some new people, the effect isn't that great at this point) to go from one extreme to another. I know, different years, different competitions, but I could see them going in the conservative route easily this year in lead actress, especially if the field becomes divided. This doesn't feel like a slam dunk year to me. But that's jumping the gun with wins. At the nominating stage, they're not going to exclude "Black Swan" from the party, not with preferential voting in play.