MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: 3 Days To Go


There’s no real sport to making Oscar picks.

The star athletes have, in most cases, completed their work over a year ago. The others, including the director, have been done with the work of creation for at least four months. Nothing will change between this last Tuesday and Sunday evening.

The game of pushing movies into (and out of) the Oscar season has a lot less structure, a lot fewer rules, and requires a lot less talent. It helps to be as middlebrow as 6,000 Academy voters. Many mistake The Academy Voters You’ve Spoken To for The Academy Voter. I guess that is the nature of this beast.

I am often reminded that most of the people enchanted by what Nate Silver does, which is admirable, don’t really understand what it is that he actually does. If the presidential race, for instance, stopped all polling 2.5 months before the election, Nate Silver trying to estimate the election night results in close races would be closer to what Oscar predictors do.

What’s remarkable, really, is how the whole ecosystem interacts to lead to anything close to consensus and that the consensus is right in a high percentage of cases. With 24 categories coming on Sunday night, the odds are very, very good that The Gurus o’ Gold will be correct in at least 16 categories. So is that because The Gurus are so smart (or so dumb, if you think that 2/3 isn’t a very good outcome) or is it because of a cultural event in a very small bubble in which perception evolves into reality and reality evolves into perception?

The answer is the latter… even though The Gurus are both very smart and occasionally pretty dumb. And as smart as the marketers who drive this game are, they don’t really know how the mixture of chemicals will react. Will Lupita Nyong’o float in on a gold cloud of a great performance and new status as a fashion icon? Will it turn out that Jennifer Lawrence was well served by being absent for much of the season, therefore not causing people to overdose on her earthy goodness? Will either actress win the award primarily because of the movie… or in spite of the movie? Would Bruce Dern have beaten Jared Leto if he decided to run in Supporting or would he have felt like he sold out and still lost?

If The Academy released all the voting data, we could do a lot better job of analyzing… perhaps even coming close to some truths. But they don’t. So what you get is a lot of half-baked opinion desperately trying to find some good lighting.

In other words, my job is done here. I watched the season from seed to harvest, commented along the way, pointed at the changing color of the tea leaves, and tried, much of the time, to stay out of the way of what matters… the movies.

With all due respect to your chance of winning your local Oscar pool, I could not care much less if my picks turn out to be right. I care about how I guided readers through the journey. Will Kyle Buchanan’s proclamation, 3 days into TIFF, that 12 Years A Slave was a lock, be any smarter if the film actually does win? No. Will he be any more dumb (journalistically) if it loses? No. That piece was stupid and it will always be stupid and when someone does the same thing next year, seeking attention, it will be equally as stupid. Unless you’re a carny. In that case, glad you guessed that lady’s weight, but you make money because the prizes are cheap, not because you know anything about weight.

This season, I was right about Inside Llewyn Davis on first blush, wrong about Nebraska on first blush, right about Redford, wrong about Dern, right to not assume the season ended with 12 Years A Slave & Gravity in Toronto, wrong about the nomination strength of Captain Phillips, right to scream about everyone jumping ship on the two December movies prematurely… etc, etc, etc.

Of course I could pad my stats to look better (and I would say I am more right than wrong each season), but that’s not the point. The point is, it doesn’t really matter what my personal stats are. Context matters. And in the end, as we approach the envelopes being opened, it all flattens out to “doesn’t matter” because we will hear the will of 6.000 or so voters expressed. That golden bald dude is the astronaut stepping on the moon… and the rest is all ticker tape.

In this season, more than any season before, I am sure of only one thing… that I really have no idea what the shape of the show, in terms of who wins awards, will turn out to be.

There could be an exact duplication of what Gurus o’ Gold is predicting… lots of wins for Gravity, but the big prize to 12 Years A Slave. Maybe.

There could be a wider-than-expected lean to 12 Years A Slave. Or it could be a Gravity party night.

There could be an American Hustle explosion, as what seems to be a lot of voters’ #2 film contends more aggressively in more categories than people expect.

Philomena, which is beloved of many members even if most media never took it seriously this season, could shock the world… or would it be a shock at all?

Or, again… we could get exactly what is expected by consensus.

I am ambivalent. 12 Years A Slave is an important movie. But Gravity is a great movie-movie. And I love the twisted love story of American Hustle and the loathe story of The Wolf of Wall Street and the not-quite-how-it-happened story of Philomena. And I don’t mean to leave out Dallas Buyers Club or Nebraska or Her or Captain Phillips.

Does it Matter if Alfonso Cuarón or Steve McQueen wins Best Director this year? Not to me. Both are great artists. Both will keep moving forward. Both have already won some freedom for their next film(s). Does it matter more for a Black director who made a film about the Black experience in America (and human cruelty across the globe)? To some it might. But I don’t think that winning the Oscar is a culture changer in some profound way. Has a Mexican who now lives in England won a directing Oscar before? Don’t know. Don’t care.

And for that matter, I would be thrilled for David O. Russell or Martin Scorsese or Alexander Payne if they won.

I wonder about whether there is a tipping point at which the amount of histrionic attention being paid to the Oscars becomes noticeable as “the argument is so loud because the stakes are so low.”

Of course, in reality… (shhh) the stakes are that low… they’ve always been that low… they will always be that low.

Not to the individuals who are nominated or win, of course. For them the stakes are personal and intense. But like reading tabloid stories about the love lives of the famous, I don’t actually have a personal stake in it and neither do 99.9999% of the rest of the population. (Less really.) And if I’m not the one sneaking into the hotel room with Starlet Z for a tryst or the significant other at home being cheated on, any skin I think I have in the game is a delusion.

Every now and again, one gets close to the flame in this business. And that can be a lovely experience. But when you actually connect in that way, it is a personal experience, not a professional one, suitable for memoirs and obituaries. But even the obituary has recently become a place where people are oversharing because they can’t differentiate between professional experiences and personal ones. (This is not to say that every journo that shares a story when someone passes is doing something distasteful… but taste is the key word here.)

Perhaps the best thing to do would be to sit back and appreciate what we have in front of us.

Nine very good movies.

A Black man whose freedom is stolen, a straight guy who gets HIV and partners up with a woman he doesn’t sleep with and a transsexual he respects, love with a device and the heartbreak that doesn’t know who or what is at fault, con people coming of age, a guy getting lost in space with Quaaludes & cocaine, a woman getting lost (and found, by herself) in space with George Clooney, the tale of Somali pirates in which the “foreigners” are not cardboard cut-outs, and two road trips with old people, both leading to bittersweet truth.

I feel great about all of that.

Sadly, the Oscars will likely be so busy chasing people under 35 that they will forget to embrace what is right in front of us all. But that’s another column. See you Monday.

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5 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: 3 Days To Go”

  1. Bill Monahan says:

    Jesus Christ, you are a blowhard

  2. Bob Burns says:

    Nine very good movies is right. this year there were so many excellent contenders they could easily have nominated twelve and still have one or two to spare.

    it does matter, a lot, that we discuss, and argue, about quality – art. films for the ages.

    thanks for doing so much to lift the discussion.

  3. Sam says:

    Well, David, you got “Chicago” and I think that it was hard for you to come down from that!

    By the way, has anyone noticed that none of the “minority” nominees for acting or directing are American?!?

  4. David Poland says:

    Completely unclear on what that means, Sam.

  5. David Poland says:

    Perhaps, surely fake-named Bill Monahan.

    If that’s all you have to add to the conversation, you are no better.

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