MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

6 Days To Oscar: You Might Be An Asshole If…

YOU MIGHT BE AN OSCAR ASSHOLE IF… you write about how this filmmaker or that filmmaker was too busy chasing Oscar to make the movie they should have made.

As someone who actually has fairly lengthy conversations with almost every filmmaker who has made an Oscar nominated picture in the last five years or more, I am particularly conscious how stupid and self-serving this notion is. This is not to say that studios, marketers, and even filmmakers are aware that a certain project may be award bait when the chips are down. But I can’t remember ever walking away from any filmmaker thinking, “That person’s first, second, or fifth thought in the process of making this movie was winning an Oscar.” (At least, not amongst any of the films that ended up getting nominated.)

Clint Eastwood could have made a winning Oscar movie with J Edgar this year… all he had to do was to let Dustin Lance Black loose with the lube and all of a sudden the movie is a can’t miss awards shocker. Get Leo in that dress at a lunch meeting. Have Lea Thompson end up with a handful of molding clay. And BOOM! Oscar nominee and possible frontrunner.

Thing is, Clint Eastwood can’t be completely unconscious that there is an Oscar race and that anything he does will be expected to be in it. Nor Spielberg. Not Scorsese. Nor Reitman. Nor Payne. Nor Woody. Nor Malick. Nor Pitt. They must be aware. But they also must focus on their work.

(On one movie this year, We Bought A Zoo, the studio finally had to lead us all away from the notion that it would be an awards movie, as opposed to being a well-made family comedy with drama from a filmmaker who almost always seems to be in the awards race.)

If you really believe that Alexander Payne, who seems to be very much in his head in many ways, came back to directing after 6 years and pulled his punches to try to make The Descendants more of an Oscar bait movie, you’re living inside a fantasy of your own creation. Maybe you are still thinking that he was chasing Oscar because Giamatti and Haden-Church MEAN Oscar wins.

There is a big difference between someone thinking or saying out loud, “You/I could win an Oscar for this” and adjusting a film or a performance to that end. And to sit here, after films have been released, awarded, discussed, and nominated and deciding from whatever desk you sit at, “Well… you blew your chance because your aesthetic choices were insincere,” is a load of manure.

In my experience, the work doesn’t get to this place if it has been restrained by those limited goals. Is anyone really stupid enough to suggest that Michel Hazanavicius thought, “If only I make a black and white silent film, set in Hollywood, with my wife and France’s top comedy star, it’s an Oscar winner for sure!”?

Hazanavicius’ first film, OSS 117, only got a courtesy theatrical in the US on the way to DVD more than a year after the film launched, was a wonderful satire on the rear projection exotic spy drama built, not unlike The Artist, for people who love movies. I don’t think the film’s sequel – as the first was a big hit overseas – even got that. So was Hazanavicius thinking Oscar gold when he made his movie? Or was he hoping against hope that this time his film would at least get a decent release in the United States?

If Scorsese (and Graham King, for that matter) was after Oscar first, the running time on Hugo could have been cut by 40 minutes (and the budget by $50m) and more famous actors would have been living in that train station.

However you personally feel about War Horse, can you argue for a second that Spielberg was not right in the pocket with the material from the first to last frame?

What Tate Taylor started writing the script for the unreleased book, The Help, and his bff, the novelist, insisted that he be retained to direct, do we think this first-timer was thinking, “Well, I have to make an Oscar movie sometime?!”

Did Woody Allen… well, I can stop there, no?

And Mali… yeah.

There’s not question that Brad Pitt was 100% committed to the material that made Moneyball and was willing to burn some bridges to get where he felt compelled to go. Anyone want to opine that he threw Soderbergh under the bus so Rudin could come in and help turn it into an Oscar nominee? Did anyone notice the non-Oscar-nominee release date in September?

And making a 9/11 movie that isn’t a 9/11 movie but is centered around a young, unknown actor playing a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome, killing off Tom Hanks in the opening credits and bringing in Max von Sydow as a man who refuses to speak… yeah… pure Oscar bait… that’s SO what everyone wants to see and revel in for months of the Oscar season.

All nine nominees connected with people, whether they connected with each of us individually or not. That connection is driven by a feeling of sincerity. Unless you are a fetishist, you don’t connect with cold plastic. And when film critics or others start thinking that the reason they didn’t connect with a film – in the case of seriously intended films – is the filmmaker’s insincerity, they just aren’t working or thinking very hard.

Scrolling down to Best Actor and Actress… can anyone really believe that Michelle Williams thought, “I have an Oscar nomination and I’m about to get one for having angry painful sex with Ryan Gosling…. you know what I need… to play a mysterious dead superstar… I am going to get my Oscar NOW!”? If so, you have never spent 2 minutes with Ms. Williams.

George Clooney can barely fart without someone wanting to give him an award for it. So let’s see… an unproduced play called Farragut North that he would not be the lead of and an uptight, seemingly sociable man who was so disconnected from his family that he barely knew his wife and kids, even though he had unlimited resources to live as he liked. OSCAR BAIT!

If you heard from Streep or Phyllida Lloyd, you know that they are two adult women with strong minds who love working together… and made a movie in which Streep’s best, most complex work in the film is in a confused daze and old-age make-up that Harvey Weinstein will barely let anyone see in film clips. OSCAR BAIT!

Oldman, a living legend, got to do a lead in a real movie for the first time in a decade. Yeah… he was thinking, “OSCAR BAIT!!” (And I can tell you, he doesn’t like being snubbed much. He’s thrilled to be back at the party and would love to win because he knows what it means to a career. But the idea that his work and choices are about that… is insane.)

As Rooney Mara was having her bits pierced and Demian Bichir was putting on 30 pounds for his role, they were thinking, “This is what I want to do because I will come out of it with an award.” Uh-huh.

Look. This is a circus. And it is often ridiculous. But there is a micro view and a macro view. Once people are in a race, they start to behave like they are in a race. No matter how blase’ they may seem, competitive juices flow and after being winnowed down to a very short list, the dream of winning, however hopeless, engulfs hearts.

But the work that got people into the race… you can’t do it with the cynical angle that critics so often lazily slap on films and filmmakers. Not if it’s good at all. Flawed is the nature of art. When we, as writers about film, can see those flaws only through the prism of our own limited perspective, you’re not really doing your job…

… and you certainly might be an asshole.

(Mon, 3:34p – edited for an apparently confusing turn of phrase)

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22 Responses to “6 Days To Oscar: You Might Be An Asshole If…”

  1. “killing off Tom Hanks in the opening credits”

    Slow down. You know that’s disingenuous, since it’s not like that’s the character’s exit. And really, while I agree entirely that no one sets out to make “an Oscar film,” I nevertheless think the entire Extremely Loud graph reads like Oscar bait more than you seem to. Max von Sydow in a silent performance? Yeah, that actually DOES sound like something someone might want to watch out for. And the whole 10 years later thing? It had a narrative working for it.

    Also: Farragut North “unproduced?”

    But anyway, like I said, I’m on board for the central point you’re making.

  2. David Poland says:

    When Farragut North went into active development with Clooney, it had not been produced on stage.

    And the point about Extremely – in which the opening credits feature Hanks’ death – is that those are very daring elements, not some sort of slam dunk. And though it did get nominated, very few people thought it would before it did. And most would say that it is the #8 or #9 film on the list of the nominees. It is despised by many people, especially New Yorkers, for the very reasons you and others see it as baiting.

    And regardless of all of that, I don’t think Scott Rudin is some Oscar machine, driven by a lust for the award… which is not to say he doesn’t like winning. But what he does and what Harvey does are not analogous. Scott is part of the pitch, but he starts with making the actual movie, from the ground up. Harvey is a genius salesman, usually coming into films after they are well into production or already finished (before his re-cuts). Sometimes, he is there at the start, as with Chicago. But Scott is pretty much always there at the start… certainly before the green light. And as I noted in the piece… once he is in the arena, he is an incredibly fierce fighter. But did he make Dragon Tattoo with the first goal being Oscar? I don’t believe so. Nor Moneyball, which he was a late add on compared to other projects, but again, before the second green light. And Extremely? Does this strike you as cynical material? Not me.

    No one wants to be in a knife fight against Scott Rudin. But I don’t think he could do the work he does unless his passion was real. And the sometimes corrosive behavior in awards seasons, I feel, is an expression of that same passion.

  3. Robert Hamer says:

    “Phyllida Lloyd…made a movie in which Streep’s best, most complex work is in a confused daze and old-age make-up”

    Oh, the hyperbole of Oscar pundits can be so amusing sometimes…

  4. That’s what I figured on Farragut.

    Agreed on the other stuff, mostly. I don’t the the NY mindset is at all the typical Academy mindset, though. I’m just saying those elements are probably more fetching than you seem to think.

    And I’m not even talking about Rudin. But I agree with everything you say about him.

  5. I missed that Streep line.

    You really think The Iron Lady is her best work?

  6. Hey, Robert, since you’re pitched up at that Awards Circuit site now, do you really get to talk about “Oscar pundits” as if they’re “the other?”

  7. yancyskancy says:

    Pretty sure he means her best work in that film specifically is the old-age, in-a-daze stuff.

  8. David Poland says:

    Wow… I guess I should rewrite that line since it was so intensely misunderstood.

    Streep’s best work in the movie.


  9. David Poland says:

    Thing is, Kris – and I am not accusing you of this – but if one thinks it of the movie, one must be thinking it of the individuals involved. If Von Sydow is bait, he’s Rudin’s bait, not just Daldry’s.

    People tend to make these big leaps of generalism that are not thought out in specific.

    This is also true of the LAT Survey thing. If they concluded, arrogantly or not, that 20% of The Academy was made up of deadbeats… okay… that may be a real issue. .2%? Fuck them. Especially as they fill the paper with pictures from The Golden Globes and The DIY Carloses.

  10. I hear you.

    And whew, re: Streep.

  11. movielocke says:

    Nice article. The Accusation of Baitiness never has any merit because it can always be turned around on the contenders that are mysteriously not being accused of Baitiness, despite being every bit as guilty as the accused simply by being nominated alongside it.

    The Accusation of Baitiness is a hammer used by pundits, critics and players to attack certain films–usually to benefit another film, their personal preference.

    Rather than criticizing a film on the merits–on its substance–they avoid engaging the film directly and instead cast aspersions. It’s like taking the Bush route of suggesting that John McCain had an illegimate black child in South Carolina. It doesn’t need to have an iota of truth to stick and cause damage.

  12. cadavra says:

    One point about THE ARTIST I don’t think anyone’s mentioned: Of the nine BP nominees, it’s the only one that does not have a big star, name director or both. So, yeah, its ascension is all the more remarkable given that it didn’t have the safety net of a brand name.

  13. Danella Isaacs says:

    “all [Eastwood] had to do was to let Dustin Lance Black loose with the lube…” That’s borderline homophobic, David. Maybe you have Black confused with Bruce LaBruce, because there’s nothing in his script for MILK to deserve that kind of jab.

  14. David Poland says:

    It’s also the only film made in LA. (a couple titles had some interiors or pick-ups shot here)

  15. David Poland says:

    It isn’t meant as a jab.

    There is a much broader take on Hoover that’s one or two clicks away… which many feel is the real story, and that Eastwood’s film is muted.

    And if you saw Black’s directorial debut, you’d know that he’s capable of high camp.

  16. cadavra says:

    David @ 5:48: An excellent point. And assuming it wins, it will be only the third BP winner in history set entirely or at least mostly in L.A.

  17. Tom says:

    I don’t think that directors and actors have Oscar at the front of their minds when they set out to make a film. I think a lot of producers do. I’m sure that when Rudin was getting money together and people onboard for ELIC, he was talking up the film’s Oscar potential.

    As for Payne, no, I don’t think an Oscar is his first or last thought when he is writing a script. But do you think people would be as quick to invest in his films if they weren’t likely to see return on investment in the form of Oscar gold? When movies get Best Picture nominations they get a box-office boost. A lot of films would have a lot more difficulty getting made if the people investing in them didn’t think about that.

    J. Edgar, The Iron Lady, My Week with Marilyn, are all movies that looked like they would be guaranteed at least acting nominations from day one, which made them much safer investments. No, I don’t think for a second that the thought of an Oscar affects a single second of how Eastwood or Lloyd or any other director shoots or cuts their film. But for the producers and the investors it matters a lot.

  18. Bob Burns says:

    Agree entirely with this essay.

    No one has the power to read minds. period. Assholes think they do.

    But… throw out all the red herrings you like, the demographics of the Academy are heinous. That’s the story.

  19. Doctor says:

    Oscars are overrated. this is only money there and not art at all

  20. Robert Hamer says:

    @ Kris: Never implied that they were “the other,” just a general observation about some of the habits “we” get caught up in. Though I suppose it doesn’t apply in this context anymore since Poland clarified that statement.

  21. movielocke says:

    The demographics of the academy may be heinous, but they are reflective of the history of this industry. The member I know best is a sound mixer in his sixties. I can assure everyone there are VERY few female sound mixers in their sixties, in the academy or outside it. That’s a historical problem, one that is changing, slowly but surely. Howling that the great, heroic, mythic, godly, untouchable film industry of the 60s and 70s was incredibly sexist, and virtually all male in most aspects of filmmaking does nothing to really help matters. In forty years, the Academy should be better. will it be equal? Nope. But it will be helped by there being more female producers, directors, cinematographers, sound mixers/editors, visual effects artists, art directors etc etc etc.

    Right now, women still struggle to get hired in positions of title and authority on films because the prevailing wisdom is that women can’t hack it. This isn’t the military, and folks should stop bitching about the academy–whose demographics were set decades ago, based on the makeup of the workforce of those eras–and should instead target the barriers in place of women and people of color today.

    There has NEVER been a female nominated for best cinematography, that’s going to change within the next decade, just as there never having been a female winning best director changed in the last decade.

    as an aside, the best thing about Anonymous was the incredible natural light photography, which I think was on par with Tree of Life. It’s a shame Anna Foerster received no recognition from anyone this year for her exceptional work. But that’s not because of sexism, but just the bad luck of her film and work not being seen or discussed.

    This is an incredibly sexist industry, both in terms of working in it, and in terms of reacting to it (cinephiles and cineastes tend to be almost as white and male as the academy demographics, if not quite as old), it is absolutely changing every year, and television is changing faster, imo (and may even be the reason why film has not changed as fast, if the film industry refuses to recognize and advance female talent, but the television industry does then most of the talent is going to break towards TV). If people have patience, they’ll see the academy evolve over the next few decades. But you can’t change the employment realities of the past, and punishing the present for the MadMen past is foolish.

  22. Streep’s best work in the movie.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon