LOS ANGELES — If you’ve been watching cable news much lately, you know the defining narrative of the 2012 campaign: Conservative activists and pundits are unenthusiastic about the Republican presidential aspirants on the campaign trail. Mitt Romney might be the front-runner, but his supporters seem more pragmatic than passionate.
And guess what? In conversations with members of the Motion Picture Academy in the past few weeks, they sound a lot like the GOP electorate. After surveying the probable Oscar best-picture nominees, they’re wondering: Is this the best we can do?
To hear them tell it, “The Artist” is the clear, Romney-like favorite to win best picture, especially after nabbing three Golden Globes. But like Romney, the film — a romantic fable about the silent-movie era that is itself mostly silent and in black and white — isn’t inspiring a wealth of accolades. “It’s stylish and original,” says one academy veteran. “But did it move me or haunt me or floor me? Not really. It’s delightful, but is delightful what you want in a best-picture winner?”
Voters aren’t that taken with the competition, either. “The Descendants” has earned some love for its well-observed look at a fractured family, but academy members aren’t persuaded that its story lines held together especially well. “War Horse” was dismissed as old-fashioned and overblown. “Midnight in Paris”: lightly likable. “Moneyball”: smart but unemotional. “The Help”: squishy and condescending. “Hugo”: gorgeous but lugubrious. “The Iron Lady”: a showcase for Meryl Streep, but a slight story. “The Tree of Life”: Yipes — what were critics thinking?
This grumbling isn’t unprecedented. Having endured a deluge of for-your-consideration ads, endless screenings and a steady stream of cocktail parties, academy members often have the Oscar blahs by mid-January.
Academy members also note that box-office-obsessed Hollywood studios are no longer in the business of making Oscar-worthy movies. “The Artist” is, for gosh sake, French. Try to imagine an unknown Gallic filmmaker squeezing in the door at a U.S. studio to pitch a film about the silent-movie era that would be in black and white. It’s the kind of movie that would never be bankrolled by a studio. (The Weinstein Co. is distributing it in the United States.)
Academy voters must share some responsibility. If there are so few inspiring best-picture candidates, isn’t it because the academy, without realizing it, has become insular and parochial about what it considers Oscar-worthy movies?
Many genres are almost entirely shut out of best picture consideration. Oscar voters seem to subconsciously disqualify films that aren’t weighty dramas, biopics or character-driven stories based on novels. In the 1930s and ’40s, the academy awarded best-picture statuettes to lighthearted crowd-pleasers such as “It Happened One Night” and “Going My Way,” which would be unthinkable today.
When historians look back at the run of sparklingly inventive Pixar films, from “Toy Story” through “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Wall-E,” they will find it difficult to believe that none came close to winning best picture. Scorsese is probably our greatest living filmmaker, but he didn’t win a best-picture Oscar until he was a senior citizen, largely because most of his films were gritty crime thrillers.
Worse, the academy routinely ignores the best work of filmmakers around the globe, relegating their movies to the best foreign-feature ghetto. “A Separation,” by Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, earned a 100 score from Rotten Tomatoes, but isn’t even a serious best-picture contender.
Academy members can complain about this year’s weak field. But perhaps it’s time they started broadening their creative horizons. When it comes to best picture, it should be open to all.
— Los Angeles Times