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

By Ann Hornaday
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."

This year, Oscar handicappers favor two front-runners for Best Picture: the historical drama "The King's Speech" and the Facebook-creation drama "The Social Network." Both were highly regarded films that drew mass audiences, with "The Social Network" earning the most plaudits among critics. "The King's Speech," in turn, snagged guild awards that often signal how the academy will swing. (Both have earned more than $200 million at the box office.)

Throughout Oscar season, the contest has been cast as a fight between cineastes who worship the taut writing, directorial style and cultural insight of "The Social Network" and fans of a more middlebrow story that bears little directorial flair but provides just the right measure of struggle, reassurance and triumph. (The shorthand version of that assessment is that "The King's Speech" could just as easily have existed as a "Masterpiece Theatre" installment.)

Sasha Stone, who blogs about the Oscar race on her Web site Awards Daily, predicts that if "The King's Speech" wins Best Picture, it bodes ill for the category down the road.

"I think it's setting an incredibly dangerous precedent," she said, "because people will be able to say that a film can win every single critics award there is and not win Best Picture. So when a film starts to win critics awards, they'll say it doesn't matter. And I think the Best Picture has to factor in critical acclaim."

But to the professionals who compose the academy, the Oscars are valuable precisely because they're not bestowed by critics - nor are they beholden to popular tastes. (If they were, they could hand the Best Picture Oscar right now to "Toy Story 3," the highest-grossing movie of 2010.)

Instead, Oscars are given by one's peers, said Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who produced Best Picture nominee "The Kids Are All Right." And fellow professionals "understand what it means to make a movie, how all the parts function and fit together, and what it takes," he said.

It's no accident that the Best Picture Oscar is accepted not by a film's director but by its producer, who in all likelihood tenaciously shepherded the project from the idea stage through the production and into the marketing campaign.

Variety show

Best Picture winners have run the gamut of genre and tone over the years, from historical epics such as "Gone With the Wind" to lean, no-frills dramas such as "Marty." Comedies have won Best Picture (most recently "Shakespeare in Love"). So have musicals ("Chicago"). So has a horror film ("Silence of the Lambs"), a fantasy film ("The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King") and myriad biopics ("The Life of Emile Zola," "A Beautiful Mind").

"If you look at the first couple of decades of the Oscars, the Best Pictures were generally A-class star vehicles, with a couple of dark horses like 'It Happened One Night,'???" Schatz said. "It's not until the post-war era and the 1950s - with 'The Greatest Show on Earth,' 'Around the World in 80 Days,' 'Ben-Hur' - that we increasingly see the box-office and market thrust of the studios come into play, [where] they're spending money on the films in terms of trying to gain those nominations and the Oscar itself."

By the 1980s, Schatz said, the notion of an Oscar-bait picture had fully fledged: a movie showcasing big stars, reflecting Hollywood's liberal ideals and love of uplift, and "designed to appeal to critics and the moviegoing public, but without the taint we associate with 'popcorn movies.'???"

Citing "Gandhi," "Out of Africa" and "Rain Man" as examples, he said, "It's hard for me not to look at these as the emergence of a somewhat more pragmatic and cynical attitude about manufacturing prestige."

What makes a Best Picture was further complicated last year when the academy expanded the list of nominees from five to 10, a development some bemoan as diluting the award's value. Others hope the bigger tent will allow historically neglected genres such as documentaries, comedies and animated films to be recognized.

A glance at this year's slate of Best Picture nominees reveals a wide variety of visual styles, tonal values, budgets and scales. If the $200 million special-effects spectacle "Inception" represents the kind of ambition and scope that often earns the year's top honors, the modestly budgeted productions "The Fighter" and art-horror film "Black Swan" epitomize the kind of pluck and resourcefulness that regularly earn nominations. "The Social Network" recalls the sophisticated, unsentimental dramas of the 1970s. Most, not surprisingly, turn on a character overcoming adversity, which is always catnip to academy voters: "The Fighter," "127 Hours," "The King's Speech," "True Grit" and "Winter's Bone" all feature sympathetic protagonists struggling to overcome tough circumstances.

Then there are the millions of heartstrings plucked by both "The Kids Are All Right" and "Toy Story 3," both achingly affecting portraits of the bittersweet moment when the first child leaves home for college.

The ultimate victor will win because "it gave 6,000 members of a very elite group a better experience than the other nine," said Koch, the academy treasurer.

It's just that wisdom of the crowd - voting on the efforts of smaller crowds of artists, technicians, executives and craftspeople - that makes Best Picture so enduringly enigmatic, the product of the insular world of the business of show but also responsive to and reflective of the wider culture. Everybody's a critic when they're sitting in the dark. And no one - not the vainest actor or toughest Hollywood mogul - is immune to watching a flickering screen and being astonished.

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