Academy Awards: And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to reward . . . just what?

Nominees and presenters made waves at the Academy Awards in glittering sheers, bold reds, asymmetrical details and yards of tulle.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 12:13 AM

There are a few things Oscar fans will be able to count on when they tune in Sunday night. At least one starlet will wear an oh-no-she-didn't frock. One production number will appall. And at the very end of the night, a few beaming producers will be clutching the Oscar for Best Picture and surprisingly few people - onstage, in the audience or watching at home - will be able to say precisely why they've won.

Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began conferring awards in 1929, the Best Picture category has remained something of a mystery. Is it meant to reward technical excellence? Artistic vision? Commercial success? Cultural resonance?

Just what makes a movie the very best of its year is still a conundrum, even to the more than 6,000 industry professionals who vote on it. To some, it's a popularity contest; to others, it's a snapshot of the zeitgeist. Some voters see it as a measure of which little-film-that-could had the most inspiring back story that year.

"I don't think there is a definition of what a Best Picture is, and that's why there are surprises at the Oscars," said producer Hawk Koch, the academy's treasurer. "Best Picture is a movie that moves them. Best Picture is a movie that teaches them something they had no idea they didn't know. Best Picture is a movie that they . . . talk about incessantly. Best Picture can be a movie that you walk out of feeling like you're walking on air and you're singing the songs."

Although directors nominate other directors for the Best Director Oscar and editors nominate other editors for Best Editor, every academy member can nominate Best Picture candidates, listing titles in descending order from 1 to 10. The voters receive no explicit criteria before voting in that category, which the academy defines tautologically as "the best motion picture of the year." Inevitably, the choice comes down simply to which movie each voter liked best.

The result is that the most coveted recognition in Hollywood - the pinnacle of professional achievement, the talisman that will confer pride, prestige and profitable afterglow - will be awarded largely on intangibles that even seasoned veterans can't quantify.

"For the Best Picture, you take account of the overall," said producer and academy governor Mark Johnson. "???'How good is the movie?' - as opposed to [saying], 'His performance was extraordinary, but the movie didn't match it, somehow.' Just because a movie has the best cinematography or the best performance by an actor doesn't mean that they're necessarily in the best movie."

Clearly, Best Picture isn't simply a function of budget or far-reaching themes or an aesthetic sensibility. Tom Rothman, chairman and chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment, noted that his studio has earned 11 Best Picture Oscars over the years, "for movies as big as 'Titanic' and as small as 'Slumdog Millionaire.' "

His studio also released "Avatar," which lost the Best Picture Oscar to "The Hurt Locker" last year.

"Will we look back in 50 years and think that 'The Hurt Locker' was a more significant movie than 'Avatar'? I don't know. . . . I think the reality of it is, [the Best Picture award] recognizes a feeling from industry insiders about a particular point in time."

Hollywood disconnect

To author and University of Texas film professor Tom Schatz, the fact that so many Best Picture Oscars have gone to smaller films in recent years reveals a disconnect between the tent-pole pictures Hollywood makes to stay solvent and the specialty films that, though artistically worthy, don't turn huge profits.

"In my view, the voting members of the academy are not only in denial but increasingly delusional in terms of the nominations for Best Picture," Schatz said. Although he said he's cautiously optimistic in light of such box-office successes as "Black Swan" and "The Fighter," both nominated for Best Picture this year, "they're representative of a sector of the industry that's increasingly marginalized, to the point where it's about to fall off the map."

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