MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: It’s Gettin’ Hot In Here


We are 12 days away from the start of final voting for Oscar, and only 23 days from that vote closing.

All aboard who are coming aboard!

There are a lot of theories out there about how to read the tea leaves this season. But for me, the truth is that I have never seen anything quite like it.

PGA and SAG, Birdman. Globes, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel. LAFCA and NYFCC, Boyhood. Coming up in short order… DGA, BAFTA, WGA.

The closest in my 20 years of really paying attention to this stuff is the season where The Departed eventually won, 2007, in which it overcame Babel, Letters From Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Queen. But there was a big difference in that season. Martin Scorsese had been tapped as the 99%-sure winner of Best Director since early in the season. So not winning DGA (which Departed did) would have been a shock. It also won The Critics Choice Award. But Little Miss Sunshine won PGA and SAG. Babel won the Golden Globe for drama. Both Sunshine and Departed took home WGA wins. The Queen took home a BAFTA… but that seemed almost as much of a lock as Scorsese at DGA.

Alphabet soup.

This year, there is no surefire lock for Director. And PGA, which some see as a linchpin, gave awards in documentary and animation for films that didn’t get Academy nominations. Birdman won Ensemble at SAG… but only 5 of the 8 Best Picture nominees are nominated there and Boyhood sports only two known SAG members, there are two Brit-y films (one of which won over Michael Keaton), and Grand Budapest is loaded up the largest, best-known cast of great actors, but lost. Not be a reliable precursor of Oscar Best Picture voting.

But not only do we have the flattest Oscar race in memory, we also have some legitimate strife. Racism and Sexism are not new issues argued against The Academy. But we haven’t really seen the claims embraced and promoted by the creator of a Best Picture nominee before. And almost as though The Gods were making mock of we mere mortals, along comes American Sniper, which is not only a political hot potato, but embodies the target of claims against The Academy… White Men. White guys killing brown guys who have no voice in the film. White guys (and to be fair, women) embracing the film and making it one of the great box office stories of the year. White guys narrowcasting history into the story of one white guy, worrying about his emotional journey, not about the destruction he left behind in foreign lands.

Many of us saw the political lightening rod of American Sniper as an ultimate problem for the film if it got into the Oscar race. But it wasn’t even clear that it would arrive. One of the nights that will be talked about by Oscar geeks for decades to come was the unintended double feature of the premieres of Selma and American Sniper at the Egyptian Theater of The American Cinematheque in Hollywood this November 11. Both directors were in attendance. But the Selma crowd was chomping at the bit from the moment they entered the oversold theater. By the time American Sniper got started, the experience was rather quiet. But the consensus in the foyer was Selma up, American Sniper, not so much.

The politics of these two seemingly dichotomous films are odd, as they are both causing splits in The Left, which, coincidentally, in spite of all the accusations being hurled at it, is what the old, white, male, entitled, wealthy AMPAS primarily is. The passion around Selma combines color with both gender and newcomer status by way of its central creator. American Sniper starts with a giant split between Left and Right, but then, a step deeper, splits The Left at the principle of whether context is needed for a personal story of a life ravaged, ultimately, by war when the primary character in said story was self-described in real life as hateful, myopic, racist, violent, and cruel by the omission of basic human consideration.

The split between the films was exacerbated by expectations in the media since November 11 being low for American Sniper and high for Selma, followed by Oscar nominations in which Sniper got 6 nominations, including Best Actor, a presumed category for Selma, and Selma got “just” 2. Both films got Best Picture.

Putting aside the public battle over both of these films, look at how it is focused on The Academy. The group, which is primarily white men over 60, has been called too old to understand, racist, sexist, too white to care, short of memory, apologists for the Iraq War, pawns, and more.

Now… tell me. Would you, if you had a vote, place your vote for a film or people who either called you these things or caused others to call you these things?

How do you ride these things out? The guy who has been nominated by The Academy as director four times and won two, whose film has grossed almost $200 million in 10 days, has remained extremely quiet. (Standard Operating Clint.)

The director of the film seen as The Aggrieved, not the 800-pound gorilla that surprised so many on nominations morning, was remaining pretty silent for about a week. And then, the parade of articles by well-intended media, embracing/selling the victim status of Selma and its director as well as offering minimally considered/lazily broad attacks on Academy membership, seemed to get to Ava DuVernay to loosen up and embracing her pain in public. Endorsements of articles attacking The Academy ensued. Today, I saw that in interviews at Sundance, her position was more measured, saying that the film was not “snubbed.”

I don’t know how this will play out. Part of me feels that Ava DuVernay will make many films in the coming years that are, like Selma, completely worthy of Oscar consideration, but that it will be a long, long time before this embrace of attacks on The Academy will be forgotten.

I even have a concern that what has seemed a likely Oscar win for Selma, for Best Song, will now go elsewhere as a result of all of the anger aimed at Academy members. Of course, whether the song wins or loses, there will be media anger. If it wins, Selma will have been relegated to music, projected onto white Academy voters as someplace “they” are comfortable with black faces. If it loses, just more proof that after winning most Song awards out there, racism rules at The Academy and they would rather give an Oscar to plastic figures than people of color. Oy.

Maybe I am wrong. Actually, I hope I am. Perhaps others will not notice the couple days in which she seemed to be celebrating the most extreme media responses to the situation. Academy members are unlikely to be paying nearly as much attention to Ava D’s Twitter feed as I am. Hopefully, she skips between those raindrops.

There are reasons other than the industry politics that would cause many voters to not choose American Sniper or Selma. Amongst them are simply preferring a different one of the eight choices. Another is that these films are not to their taste or that they don’t feel the work is “that good.” (Don’t mention this to anyone pushing the Selma agenda or you will be accused of abuse.)

The politics of American Sniper will certainly push some voters away from seriously considering a vote for the film, with so many angry voices from The Left about the film’s content. And there is certainly a group, not nearly as large, who will discount Selma because of its apparent misrepresentation of President Johnson.

But the reason I think both of these films are now, effectively, out of the Best Picture race, is that voters, who are by-and-large decent, talented, mature people, would prefer at this point to wash themselves of all this controversy. They will tell you, as they often do, that it is not “good for The Academy.” If you talk to Academy voters about controversies and controversial films, the one thing you hear most consistently is that… “it is not good for The Academy.”

Personally, I am not enraged by American Sniper. I see the thinking on both sides of the argument and lean towards letting artists tell the stories they choose to tell. Comparing this film to the work of Leni Riefenstahl, as some have, strikes me as obscene and not well thought out. I don’t think it is a work of propaganda.

But I don’t think it would be “good for The Academy” to go that direction either. I do think that it will provide a major ratings boost, much as at the box office, with an audience often not reached by The Academy. (The demographic mix might suffer.)

I must admit, I started writing this piece before watching the SAG Awards and the advertising for Sniper, combined with the box office, kinda scares me. I still don’t think that giving American Sniper the Oscar serves The Academy well. But it is the only film right now whose message is absolutely on the mark and being supported by millions of dollars of national TV buys every day. Birdman is pretty on point, but there needs to be another gear besides, “It’s great.” Boyhood is doing okay with ads, but even in the SAG show, “12 years in the making” met a visual of 4 or 5 images of the star… not 12. Come on, gang! If 12 is the message, show 12.

I would like to believe that ads don’t make things happen at this late a date. But again, flat year. Who the hell knows?

Selma was more of a longshot from the start… though both films, without directing nods, were and are longshots. But there was a chance that enough Academy members would, under the circumstances of a soft season, come back around to Selma and vote for the win. But that has, I think, gone out the door with the name calling.

What does that leave?

Boyhood has felt like the frontrunner for months. It earned the second least of the eight nominees at the box office. The Hurt Locker was eighth of ten. Someone needs to tell us all, especially voters, why this is THE movie for which they need to vote.

Birdman is divisive. Lots of deep abiding love. And some serious headshaking. But with wins at PGA and SAG, you have to acknowledge that there is a legitimate opportunity there. On the other hand, the box office is a little embarrassing. I don’t think Academy voters are counting Searchlight’s pennies, but I do think it shows that even with a very, very strong commercial releasing company and some really beloved actors, getting it over the commercial hump has been harder than one (me, I guess) might expect. What gets the momentum going again? That is what Team Searchlight is no doubt trying to figure out to night, buoyed by back-to-back guild wins.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – I have felt that this is the film with which Searchlight had a better chance of winning Best Picture. It’s not divisive. Wes Anderson is a master who excites audiences and gives visual flair to spare. But Wes has not been out front. And the actors haven’t been much available. So maybe Searchlight’s decision not to focus on this one was the right call. Without being the prize pony at your studio, hard to have a real shot.

The Imitation Game – Critics, generally, do no love it. Many do not like it. But audiences… rarely do I hear from anyone who has seen it, in or out of The Academy, who saw the film and didn’t enjoy it. There are some. But mostly, I hear warmth and admiration. But it too lacks a reason why this needs to be The Movie.

I don’t think the others have a realistic shot at winning.

And maybe the ultimate answer is this… no one will make their case well enough to firm anything up and the voters will just vote for what they like. And it will be a mystery until the envelopes are opened.

There are worse things than that.

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4 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: It’s Gettin’ Hot In Here”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    And at what point do they finally decide that being a white good old boys club is bad for the Academy?

    “We’re not racist or sexist, we’re a meritocracy” is a line that has been used to justify racism, and sexism for millenia. It’s not a serious argument, it’s about helping people who benefit from institutional prejudice feel better about themselves.

    People have been calling out the Academy for a very long time. Selma, and this year generally, are just especially egregious examples….. fifty years after the civil rights movement.

    The problem, of course is the industry as a whole not just the almost all white man academy and its apologists. “The Academy isn’t racist, they just don’t like controversy” being the new line, apparently.

    Equating Selma with American Sniper is sad and stupid. It will work, but it’s not right.

    By all reports the Academy is made up of grown ups, but responsible adults don’t just pick what makes them feel good. Obviously, what makes them feel good are films about people like them. (And it looks like we are headed for an especially narcissistic choice.)

    Winning a rigged game that excludes most people is not an honor. This goes down as another asterisk year, but why should the boys club care when they have people to do that for them?

  2. YancySkancy says:

    Bob: Why should the “boys’ club” care when they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t?

    Black Oscar nominees in key categories since 2001:
    Best Actor: 10 nominated, 3 won
    Best Actress: 4 nominated, 1 won
    Best Sup. Actor: 6 nominated, 1 won
    Best Sup. Actress: 9 nominated, 4 won
    Best Director: 2 nominated (of only 3 total), 0 won

    Does this represent every worthy black actor or director in those years? Of course not, but it strikes me as a big stride over the previous decades and a clear effort by the Academy to broaden their horizons.

    As for the notion that “responsible adults don’t just pick what makes them feel good” — of course they do, assuming the whole idea behind the competition is to vote according to their opinions. If the idea were to vote what’s “fair,” it would violate the entire concept of giving awards, whether it’s the Academy, the critics, or the BET Image Awards. “Winning a rigged game that excludes most people is not an honor”: well, all awards, rigged or no, exclude most people. That’s how it works. Should the Academy start giving out participation ribbons?

    And I’m not being an “apologist” here. I’m sure there are racists and sexists in the Academy who withhold their votes from worthy non-whites and non-males. But the way the balloting is set up, no particular “snub” is proof of anything except that film or person didn’t get a large enough percentage of the vote to make their category. If Ava DuVernay got one less vote than Bennett Miller in the nomination stage, would that lessen the outcry? If we learned she got 100 votes more than the also overlooked Eastwood, would that help? For all we know, this happened. Of course it’s absurd to go down that road, but at this point no less absurd than a lot of other theories being bandied about. I don’t understand why people are so often willing to express such certainty about things they can’t possibly know.

  3. BrainyPirate says:

    >> “We’re not racist or sexist, we’re a meritocracy” is a line that has been used to justify racism, and sexism for millenia. It’s not a serious argument, it’s about helping people who benefit from institutional prejudice feel better about themselves.

    This. Also: the idea that aesthetics carry the day assumes that aesthetics are universal and neutral, when in fact they are just as political as many other approaches to determining merit.

  4. movielocke says:

    Jonathan chaits brilliant article and hodgeman’s great response go very well with this column.

    So by virtue of its clear omission and redmaynes momentum, dp thinks theory of everything is winning.

    So think of instant runoff rules, and instead of picking the winner, which of these eight films gets eliminated first?

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