By the time this article is published, the 86th Academy Awards will have already aired, celebrating the best films of the past year and allowing dozens of filmmakers to bask in the glory of artistic accomplishment and financial success – and if they happen to be James “King of the World” Cameron, experience a noticeable bloating effect around the head region. I treat Hollywood’s biggest annual event with certain trepidation, feeling that it usually promotes only a handful of vaguely interesting titles to watch. Once in a blue moon, however, the Oscars manage to hit serious celluloid pay dirt. The last such year for me was 2007, during which two of the decade’s greatest American films, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, battled for the coveted Best Picture award. After a long dry spell, the nominees for Best Picture 2013 have finally rejuvenated my sense of Oscar-optimism. The nine films provide an invigorating mix of styles and genres, including an oceanic hostage drama (Captain Phillips), an extreme case of technophilia (Her), altruistic drug trafficking (Dallas Buyers Club), family drama in the Midwest (Nebraska), a mother’s attempt to reunite with her lost son (Philomena) and 3 hours of Wall Street goodwill, Scorcese-style (Wolf of Wall Street). The Best Picture is almost certainly decided between the three frontrunners of the Oscar race: Alfonso Cuarón’s breathtaking space thriller, Gravity, David O. Russell’s con artist period piece, American Hustle, and Steve McQueen’s uncompromising depiction of humanity’s uglier side, 12 Years a Slave. You will know the winners by the time you are reading this, so we should rather focus on a more underlying question regarding the Best Picture category: how are the best films of the year actually selected? Let us first take a look at the official explanation from the host site, www.oscars.org:
The Oscars reward the previous year's greatest cinema achievements as determined by some of the world's most accomplished motion picture artists and professionals...
I have underlined the bits which the late comedian George Carlin would have instantaneously dubbed as major BS. Right off the bat, the Academy claims that the films it picks for Oscar consideration represent the very best world cinema had to offer that year – conveniently enough, most of these films just happen to be American. The second bit about the actual voters is equally flawed: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) hosts the Oscars, and while it does comprise of nearly 6000 motion picture professionals (most of whom are, you guessed it, American), describing them as the “world’s most accomplished” is a statement loaded with geographical bias of the umpteenth degree. Since this official account offers us zero insight to the realities of the nomination process, let us instead turn to a more valid Oscar theory proposed by English film critic Mark Kermode, who argues that the Academy Awards are essentially a combination of math, geography and psychology. We will next take a look at some of Kermode’s key points, which ultimately determine a filmmaker’s chances of embracing the golden statuette that, according to Dustin Hoffman, ‘has no genitalia and is holding a sword’.
The Golden Globe Award, a.k.a. Hacks Hanging Out with Celebrities The official story is that the voting members of AMPAS rummage through all of the US films released in the past year (any time between January 1st and December 31st), and then apply their film expertise to select the Best Picture candidates. The official story is balderdash. What actually takes place is an intricate screening process known as Not That Bothered (NTB). Kermode reckons that the more senile Academy voters find most films too boring to wade through, so in order to compensate for the subsequent employment of NTB, the Best Picture selection is instead based on a prior film accolade, The Golden Globe Award. If you have not seen a broadcast of the Golden Globes show, just imagine an expensive cocktail event packed with unimportant people handing out and receiving unimportant awards to boost their collective sense of self-importance. What you really need to know about the Golden Globe Award is that it is run by an organization called the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), a conglomerate of journalists and photographers who report on US entertainment activities to non-US information outlets – or as Kermode puts it, ‘a bunch of unaccountable drunken bozos whose reputation for corruptibility is second to none’. The HFPA is known to have nominated poorly rated films for the off-chance of partying with particular movie stars – a recent controversy regarding the critically panned The Tourist was accurately summarized by comedian Ricky Gervais during the 2011 Golden Globe Awards:
“I’d like to quash the rumors that the only reason The Tourist was nominated was so that the Hollywood Foreign Press can hang out with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. That is rubbish, that is not the only reason. They also accepted bribes.”
Kermode notes that the early placement of the Golden Globes in the “awards calendar” provides the lazier AMPAS voters a handy shortlist from which to pick eligible Oscar movies. A quick look at this year’s Golden Globe nominees confirms the HFPA’s preposterous influence over the Academy Awards: apart from the Coen brothers’ musician biopic Inside Llewyn Davis, the titles in the Best Motion Picture (Golden Globes) and Best Picture categories are identical.
Release dates, or the ‘Memento’ factor The integrity of the Best Picture category is further muddled by the Academy voters’ short-term memory loss. When it comes to assessing a movie’s chances for Best Picture nomination, Kermode suggests that a well-timed theatrical release may sometimes be more crucial than its actual quality: if you release a great film too early in the year, the chances of AMPAS members recalling it come awards season are relatively slim. The midyear is devoted to movies that are set out to make money; last summer, moviegoers were graced with instant classics such as Grown Ups 2, Iron Man 3, The Hangover Part III and Fast & Furious 6. Once Hollywood has churned out an adequate amount of cleverly titled summer sequels, the more serious Oscar contenders begin to emerge. While certain summer films have managed to garner moderate Oscar success (e.g. Moulin Rouge! and Inception, both Best Picture nominees), most films in the Best Picture category are released around late fall/early winter – out of the nine nominees this year, Gravity had the earliest US release date, October 4th.
Recognizing the world’s best films…in English The Best Picture category is also known for its virtually non-existent inclusion of foreign language films. In context of the Academy Awards, the term “foreign language” describes any movie which has a primarily non-English dialogue track. Only nine non-English films have managed to nab a Best Picture nomination, which underscores the category’s Anglophonic bias, only further accentuated by the existence of a separate Best Foreign Language Film category. Come to think of it, even at its intercultural best, the Best Picture award is merely a one-on-one showdown between US and British films.
The past Oscar success of Britain reveals a peculiar trend in film award behavior across the Atlantic: American voters love to nominate and award UK films which depict British monarchs forging an unprecedented relationship with a commoner. Kermode describes the hugely successful The King’s Speech as a mathematically sound textbook case of ‘Oscar bait’, in which the king (played by Colin Firth) becomes good friends with an unorthodox speech therapist (played by Geoffrey Rush). Previous award years have also seen Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren win numerous awards for their various roles as the Queen of England. However, the three UK entries in this year’s Best Picture category (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Philomena) do imply that Americans are also able enjoy the occasional, crown-free British feature film!
I believe in Harvey Weinstein A final point of interest in the formulation of Best Picture is the way in which individual personas are able to influence the Academy’s decision-making through an aggressively executed film campaign. Kermode compares a successful Oscar campaign to a ‘military undertaking, with occupation, subversion and surrender being the key words’, and the Hollywood head honcho for such modus operandi would be none other than movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. While many would argue that Weinstein efforts to back his own movies are deplorable (he allegedly spearheaded a nasty smear campaign against the Best Picture rival film A Beautiful Mind in 2002), he was nevertheless one of the first to discover the importance of influencing the so-called ‘somnambulant’ majority of the Academy: the retired filmmakers who live boring, uneventful lives in the more remote areas of the US, yet who are susceptible enough to watch and vote for the newest Weinstein-produced film, as long as it is mailed to them at home. Many other people would eventually follow Weinstein’s example of home-delivered bribery, which adds yet another dubious dimension to the entire nomination/award process.
Let us end with a quick recap of the factors that make up a Best Picture nominee:
- 1. Get a Golden Globe nomination.
- 2. Release your film late in the year.
- 3. Make an English-language film, preferably as intelligible for an American audience as possible. If you are making a British film, throw in some royalty and commoners.
- 4. Make sure that Harvey Weinstein is passionately backing your film/Make sure that Harvey Weinstein is not passionately bashing your film.
The proposed points suggest that the Academy Awards promotes a very specific strand of world cinema, and the fact that it enjoys a disproportionately huge international attention speaks of a phenomena that might little to do with actual ‘cinema achievements’. Yet, even after all the potential for corruption, distortion and foul play, the Academy Awards does occasionally award truly exceptional works of art – sometimes it’s worth taking a leap of faith and believing the hype.