Adam's Riblets: Oscars Edition
Usually this time of year I deliver a thorough analysis of the major Oscar nominations. This year a hectic work schedule combined with a blissful vacation limited my time. So I decided to bring back “Adam’s Riblets” -- some random thoughts that will hopefully make sense together:
The Academy’s snubbing of Selma dominated the post-Oscar conversation. Like many, I was disappointed that Ava DuVernay did not receive a nomination for her direction and that David Oyelowo’s layered performance as Dr. Martin Luther King was also ignored. That aside, a Best Picture nomination is not nothing. The Academy voters expressed their view that, out of the hundreds of films released in 2014, Selma was, at the very least, in the top eight. I’m sure many filmmakers would love to be snubbed that way.
Still, the Oscar nominations were a sharp reminder that the Academy, for all of its recent efforts at diversity, is still predominantly older, male and white. We have a black President, we are about to have our second black Attorney General. We have had two black Secretaries of State. Russell Wilson may be the first black quarterback to win two Super Bowls. Yet all 20 Oscar acting nominees are white. In Variety's "Broken Hollywood" series producer Nina Jacobson noted that “If people are going to give opportunities to those who remind them of themselves, and the majority who work in Hollywood are white men, then the majority of opportunities go to white men.” I believe Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a black woman, that the Academy is trying to broaden its membership. But if the Hollywood talent pool is so limited demographically, the Academy’s task becomes much more difficult.
All those complaining that Selma defamed Lyndon Johnson must have seen a different film than I did. The film shows MLK and LBJ differing on timing and tactics, not goals. LBJ’s last scene is him proposing the Voting Rights Act to Congress and him saying, “We shall overcome.” But Selma is much less about LBJ than it is about Dr. King and his colleagues who marched that summer. Selma does not demonize LBJ, but it doesn’t lionize him either. As film critic Sam Adams wrote, “the only way to come out of Selma seeing LBJ as the movie’s villain is if you expected him to be its hero.” (Two must-reads: a The New Yorker article by Amy Davidson called “Why ‘Selma’ Is More Than Fair to L.B.J.”" and a piece in Grantland by Mark Harris, “How Selma Got Smeared.”.
Speaking of Harris, last year he wrote of the Oscar nominations, “In theaters, 2013 may have been, in some ways, ‘the year of the black movie,’ but in the Academy, it turned out to be the year of a black movie,” namely 12 Years a Slave. The Academy in recent years has focused on one particular film with largely black characters and/or black filmmakers: Precious in 2010, The Help in 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2013, and 12 Years a Slave last year. However you feel about Selma, doesn’t it seem as if that was the one “black” film that the Academy even considered this year? Everyone seemed to forget about Chadwick Boseman’s spot-on channeling of James Brown in Get on Up. The Good Lie also seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers marketed that film as a “mighty whitey” movie about Reese Witherspoon’s character. Margaret Nagle’s screenplay kept the focus where it belonged, on the four Sudanese refugees who escape their war-torn land and then need to adjust to life in America. Director Philippe Falardeau took his time with the film, treasuring small moments more than grand gestures. Arnold Oceng led a standout cast, many of whom were acting on screen for the first time. But nothing from Oscar. It was Selma or bust.
The Oscar nominations also featured non-Selma craziness. Foxcatcher garnered nods for its director, screenplay and two of its actors, but not Best Picture. For Best Actor, not only were Oyelowo and Boseman overlooked, so was Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler. I’ve made this argument before, but it’s worth repeating – Expand the nominees in the acting categories.
I’m a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, but his Adapted Screenplay nomination for Inherent Vice is jaw dropping. The film was all over the map, careening wildly from one crazy scene to the other without anything approaching cohesion or a strong narrative. The Academy should have given this slot to Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl. She adapted her own novel into a crafty thriller and incisive cultural commentary.
I don’t know what Academy voters have against Steve James. Twenty years ago he redefined what a documentary could be with Hoop Dreams. That film won documentary prizes from the Directors Guild of America, Sundance, and many critics groups, but no Best Documentary nomination from the Academy. In 2011, James made another powerful documentary, The Interrupters, with no acknowledgement from the Academy.
Finally, this year James made Life Itself, about film critic Roger Ebert. It was both an even-handed account of Ebert’s life and a heartfelt look at Ebert’s final days. Again, James’s film won many critics’ awards, along with the Producers Guild of America award for best documentary. Surely this would be the year James finally won his Oscar. How fitting that a filmmaker whom Ebert championed would win for a film about Ebert. It would be one of those genuine Oscar moments, or it might have been if the Academy did not, once again, overlook James. Ebert once wrote that “Every once in a while, matters of opinion stray over into errors of fact.” That’s certainly true here.
I’ll end with a plea that studios stop releasing Oscar contending films right before the December 31st deadline. Technically, a film can be eligible with an Oscar qualifying run, which can be just one week in a couple of New York and Los Angeles theaters. So studios will do the bare minimum to get their films eligible even though most people will not be able to see the films until the following year. The studios will compensate by sending screeners to Academy voters. Of course filmgoers like you and me don’t get the screeners. It’s one thing for the Oscar discussion to have films that we haven’t seen. It’s another matter to have the discussion about films we cannot see. This can create a disconnect with audiences and lose the chance for any word-of-mouth momentum.
Now we also see evidence that the late Oscar campaign doesn’t even work by its own standards. Of the eight Best Picture nominees six were released in November or earlier. The same for 16 out of the 20 acting nominees. By many accounts one of the factors hurting Selma was that the studio did not get its screeners out on time. That’s a disservice to everyone who worked on the film and everyone that cared about its success. It’s repugnant that an institution that is supposed to reward film excellence can make its choices based on who got DVDs and who did not.
Films need some time to percolate with audiences. The fans can’t vote for the Oscars, but that doesn’t mean they should not be a part of the process. The voters should see how the films resonate with critics and audiences. So if a film is running behind, release it the following year. Don’t rush films to beat the deadline. These are movies, not tax returns.
February 1, 2015