Nick Davis is a professor of film, English and gender studies at Northwestern University and reviews movies at www.nicksflickpicks.com.
Over the three decades I have watched the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ status as an elite tastemaker has vaporized, and awards season has become a long, politicized hunger games among exhausted contestants. With the mystique of Hollywood’s signature event so eroded, it’s sad to dispel the myths that survive — but these legends deserve to be played off the stage by the orchestra.
1. The academy and the public never agree.
In 2009, when the best-picture roster controversially expanded to include as many as 10 films, academy President Sid Ganis told reporters, “I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words ‘Dark Knight’ did not come up” in the discussion. That film’s omission in 2008, when oatmealy dramas such as “Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader” nabbed top nominations, furnishes convenient “proof” of the academy’s alleged anti-commercialism.
Actually, 18 of the past 25 best-picture winners, and six of last year’s nine nominees, grossed more than $100 million in the United States alone, still the industry-standard metric for major hits. Eleven winners ranked among the biggest draws in the years they were released. The only low-grossing winner during this period was “The Hurt Locker,” which barely eclipsed the box-office supernova “Avatar,” if their split of major pre-Oscar prizes is any indication.
2. Winning an Oscar boosts an actor’s career.
Marcia Gay Harden described her best-supporting-actress win to Premiere magazine as “disastrous on a professional level,” because “suddenly the parts you’re offered become smaller and the money less.” Promising careers often wobble or worse after the big night: Mira Sorvino, Cuba Gooding Jr., Roberto Benigni , Mercedes Ruehl and Adrien Brody have never gotten film roles equal to those for which they won. Perennial also-rans Susan Sarandon and Renée Zellweger finally reached the podium, only to earn no further nominations and wave goodbye to box-office clout and leading roles.
Notice the gender bias: Women tend to win at earlier, shakier moments in their careers than men, and Hollywood sexism denies them the salary increases or creative empowerment an Oscar should bring. They also recover less readily from major flops, as Kim Basinger (“I Dreamed of Africa”), Halle Berry (“Catwoman”) and Jennifer Connelly (“Hulk” and “Dark Water”) discovered.
Women who thrive post-Oscar are usually character actresses with more experience and eclectic tastes in roles. Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Helen Mirren, Marion Cotillard and Melissa Leo have all moved between big and small parts in commercial and arthouse films, avoiding the temptation of big follow-up projects that could sink them if they failed. Still, even masters of this strategy, such as Kathy Bates, warn that “sometimes after you win an Oscar, you don’t work for forever.”
3. Never bet against disability or the Holocaust.
Oscar has long appreciated actorly renditions of physical and mental incapacities, ranging widely from Jon Voight’s paralysis in “Coming Home” to Dustin Hoffman’s autism in “Rain Man.” Even “I Am Sam,” spurned by audiences and critics, reaped a nomination for Sean Penn’s portrayal of a developmentally disabled man.
Yet both Penn and Russell Crowe, as schizophrenic economist John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” lost to Denzel Washington’s diabolical cop in “Training Day.” John Hawkes’s admired turn as a polio victim in 2012’s “The Sessions” missed Oscar’s ballot, though co-star Helen Hunt appeared. Voters seem to take this bait less often than they once did — especially from actresses, as Cotillard learned last year despite her acclaimed work as an amputee in “Rust and Bone.”
Similarly, while several Holocaust-themed pictures have been recognized over the years, including “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist,” many pass unnoticed. In 1985, Claude Lanzmann’s nonfiction epic “Shoah”— for many, the definitive cinematic treatment of the Final Solution — was not even nominated for best documentary, nor was his staggering, just-released addendum, “The Last of the Unjust.” That category, perceived as a stronghold for Holocaust stories, has shortlisted none since 2002.
There is no sure-fire route to Oscar approval.
4. If a movie is nominated for best picture, its director should be nominated, too.
“Seven nominations on the shelf. Did this film direct itself?” Billy Crystal sang to Barbra Streisand at the 1992 awards ceremony, when “The Prince of Tides” was nominated but her direction was not. He reprised the joke for Rob Reiner, overlooked the following year as director of “A Few Good Men.”
Yet, for the 65 years there were five nominees in the best-picture and best-director categories, the lineup matched only five times. Though people presume otherwise, this actually makes sense: Best-director nominees are chosen by fellow directors, whereas only the best-picture field is determined by the academy’s whole membership. Unsurprisingly, auteurs often admire the technique or stylistic daring of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Blue Velvet,” “City of God” or “United 93” — all nominated for director but not picture — more than the moist dramatics or zippy accessibility of “Funny Girl,” “Children of a Lesser God,” “Seabiscuit” or “Little Miss Sunshine,” all nominated for picture but passed over for director. The criteria don’t match. So why should the winners, much less the nominees?
5. Comedies need not apply.
The Golden Globes , unlike the Oscars, split movies into the categories of “drama” and “comedy or musical.” Strangely, this January’s Globes billed the post-suicide, post-funeral recriminations of “August: Osage County” and the wintry dolor of “Nebraska” as comedies, while the chuckle-filled “Philomena” and the lite-brite Disney divertissement “Saving Mr. Banks” became dramas.
Truth be told, these borders are porous. Sure, Oscar’s hall of fame admits few out-and-out laugh riots, such as best-picture winners “It Happened One Night,” “All About Eve” and “Annie Hall.” Still, many best pictures, including recent victors “Argo” and “The Artist,” have comic foundations.
In fact, no genre is categorically excluded or beloved over time. More Westerns — think “Unforgiven” and “There Will Be Blood” — have been nominated or have won in top races recently than in their ostensible heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. Biopics fall in and out of fashion — six men and six women have won lead-acting Oscars for playing real people in the past decade, but only two men and three women did so in the 1960s and 1970s. Recent best pictures include a musical (“Chicago”), a fantasy epic (“Lord of the Rings”), a remade police thriller (“The Departed”), a riff on Bollywood (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and a wordless, French, black-and-white romance (“The Artist”).
If “Gravity” beats “12 Years a Slave” for best picture — and I think it could — it will become the first science-fiction film to win. Or both might be felled by “American Hustle,” a comedy with 10 nominations. In any case, “Oscar bait” is an incoherent concept.