The most depressing season of the year officially begins in late November and carries over into the early part of the new year, during which the Hollywood studios bait the public with Oscar pabulum, appealing to critics and journalists with screeners and other promotional junk, hoping we’ll become complicit in their obscene corruption of film culture. For some, though, the Oscar season begins as soon as another one ends, and this disturbing trend to predict nominations before films have even finished filming illuminates how most pundits work, almost unconsciously, to empower the soul-sucking Oscar process.
Journalists like Tom O’Neil and Dave Karger accept without question that the studios will release Oscar’s brightest prospects in December, and as such make their nomination predictions around a studio’s winter-release schedule. Everyone knows that getting an Oscar nomination is largely a matter of Power of Suggestion, and every time someone like O’Neil or Karger makes a prediction for a film sight-unseen, they essentially perform pro bono publicity work for Hollywood studios. Which is to say, they’re shills. Fox doesn’t need to launch a for-your-consideration campaign for Judi Dench because Gold Derby and Entertainment Weekly have already done so.
Oscar history tells us that an actress like Sandra Huller, who gives the best female performance of the year in the film Requiem, cannot score an Oscar nomination against heavyweights like Dench and Helen Mirren whose prospects are bankrolled by big studios. This is the sad reality of the Oscars, which doesn’t reward the biggest talent so much as the biggest campaign—a reality that has become especially apparent ever since the Weinstein brothers stopped making films that mattered and started making films only to win awards. (This is not unlike our political system, which does not have room for a poor third-party candidate.) But Oscar pundits could change things around by turning the system against itself, only pushing films that have opened, bringing great performances to the attention of the public even if they don’t stand a realistic chance of getting an Oscar nomination, thus restoring a sense of legitimacy to our ever-crumbling popular film culture.
How easy it was for some people to scoff at the sight of David Lynch parking himself all over Hollywood, promoting Laura Dern’s great performance from Inland Empire using a cow and a sign that read “Without Cheese There Would Be No Inland Empire.” But this stunt was profound—a performance piece that not only commented on Inland Empire’s distribution model but one that held a two-way mirror between the director and the Hollywood system that boosted his career. It also illuminated the disadvantage of Inland Empire, a visionary but intimidating juggernaut of ideas and feelings, in a market that prefers the trite, condescending banalities of films like Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. This may be the best for-your-consideration campaign anyone has ever mounted for an actor, because it’s the only one that has come to us live (for most, via YouTube) and with a heart.
A white elephant might be an appropriate animal to advertise Dreamgirls, which, if it had been released in August, would have already been forgotten. Instead it opens in December, when it’s still every bit of a failure but for some reason has more Oscar value because the industry and people like Karger tell us it does. Notice how Karger, in the November 17 issue of Entertainment Weekly, states that Eddie Murphy is “said to be nothing short of stunning” in Dreamgirls, implying he hasn’t seen the film, only to then say that Bill Condon is the “creative force behind the eye-popping musical” and that Jennifer Hudson scene-steals her way through the movie. (Fact: I say Murphy is nothing short of unwatchable, the film doesn’t pop, and the only reason Hudson steals the movie is because the terrible actors around her are incapable of stopping her from doing so.) These bold, presumptuous statements coming from a person who hasn’t seen the film confirms Karger’s already transparent agenda to be in bed with Oscar (it’s as if he were performing for one), and his preferences (no mention of Gong Li for her fierce performance in the so-so Curse of the Golden Flower; a glowering recommendation for Rinko Kikuchi’s victim from Babel) reveals even more.
I won’t lie and say that Slant Magazine doesn’t care about the Oscars, but we certainly don’t take them seriously as a barometer of good taste; those who do would appear to be holding their breath or probably don’t care about movies very much as vehicles for truth (probably the same people who think the writers at Slant Magazine deliberately give negative reviews to movies in order to curb their enthusiasm; if that were true, then we nominate ourselves for an Academy Award!). Call us bullies, but we can’t think of another group that matters less and deserves to be called out more for the dangerous precedents it sets. (For us, the Oscars are just an excuse to have a party and possibly win some money.) In October, we should be hearing that actresses like Huller are the frontrunners—not Hudson, whose performance may as well not exist since the film hasn’t even come out yet. So, to any pundit with good taste who may be reading this: Why not hijack the process by predicting seemingly un-nominatable films and performances? Give it a try. After all, a guerilla for-your-consideration campaign, if it picks up enough traction, can create a ripple-like effect and benefit legit underdogs like Fiona Shaw (The Black Dahlia), Jessica Lange (Don’t Come Knocking), Daniel Craig (Infamous), and Jesse Garcia (Quinceañera).
This harangue is my way of venting for what has been an especially brutal Oscar season where the best films (The Queen, Venus, The Painted Veil) have been, at best, mediocre ones and the worst ones (Blood Diamond, Little Children, The Last King of Scotland) reach for condescending lows unseen since Crash seemingly hit rock bottom last year. And the month isn’t over yet! In Notes on a Scandal, which could have been a camp classic if Richard Eyre had regarded his material with a smidgen of patience, we are asked to buy a Sister George lesbian in 2006. Worse, though, is Chris Noonan’s sequel to Babe, Miss Potter, in which Renée Zellwegger, as Beatrix Potter, makes a fortune after inventing Peter Rabbit and buys the entire English-fucking-countryside. Academy voters at the screening I attended embraced this crass real-estate porn with disturbing gusto.
I didn’t think it could get worse after The Dead Girl, but The Good German, a soulless pastiche that props George Clooney, an unspeakably irritating Tobey Maguire, and Cate Blanchett against WWII-era newsreels, is as embarrassing a failure as Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. Also set during the same time period is the colossally banal The Good Shepherd, which is every bit as insignificant as its trailer promised, and though it’s been a little over a month since I’ve seen Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, I’m almost tempted to give the Tom Tykwer film an upgrade simply for being the sort of catastrophe that refuses to go down without a fight.
Which brings me to the National Board of Review, whose winners were announced on Wednesday. The victory for Forrest Whitaker was a given (I pretty much called it in my Last King of Scotland write-up), as was Djimon Hounsou’s, Helen Mirren’s, and Martin Scorsese’s, and after seeing Letters from Iwo Jima earlier in the week, I could see why they rewarded the Clint Eastwood film over The Departed: For one thing, the film is better, but Eastwood had confirmed that Flags of Our Fathers was just a fluke disappointment. There was one surprise though: Catherine O’Hara, whose performance in For Your Consideration seems to go against everything that a middlebrow award group like NBR represents.
I finally caught up with For Your Consideration last week and I was surprised by how critical it is of the Road to Oscar. It doesn’t make a lick of sense why a studio would bankroll a Jewish-themed comedy, but Christopher Guest and company carefully trace how an Oscar campaign is born, from unsubstantiated hype on the Internet to an actor’s disappointment over not getting a nomination and what the entire process can do to a person. In-between we see how trashy TV magazines like Entertainment Tonight feed on the hype that gutter-level shills bring to their attention, lavishing actors with effusive praise only to turn their back to them as soon as AMPAS does. O’Hara’s transformation from a serious, doddery thesp to a Jocelyn Wildenstein-like media-monger is an alternately funny and devastating commentary on how Hollywood and elitists like O’Neil and Karger conspire to dictate (bad) taste without any semblance of fair play or regard for how it makes casualties of people like Marilyn Hack. Though some of the National Board of Review’s winners illuminate the group’s problems with race, the award for O’Hara feels like an acknowledgement of blame for partaking in the business practice anyone who writes about the Oscars and is serious about the movies should be actively working to defeat.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.