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)