Welcome to another Oscar season! You know you’ve missed it. Certainly the Carpetbagger — your mostly trusty guide to awards-race shenanigans — was champing to write in the third person again. And, lo, it is upon us, even if only as a glittery distraction from those other campaigns underway stateside. There was a time earlier this year when the Bagger thought, fleetingly, that perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should take a page from the Pulitzer Prize board and not award a best picture Oscar at all. This was after the bellwether Telluride and Toronto film festivals had come and gone, and, aside from a few jewels, had largely left Oscar watchers in a state of meh.
Eleven times, no fiction Pulitzer was doled out, the last in 2012, when none of the nominees — David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!” and Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” — received a majority of the votes. There was no prize, and people kind of freaked out.
Imagine if the Academy were to do the same. There would be much gnashing, if not smashing, of executive teeth. Between the advertisements — which help keep a sea of scribes, including yours truly, afloat — the screeners, the screenings, the “tastemaker” events, the primping and trotting out of talent, best-picture campaigns are estimated to cost $10 million apiece. Earlier this year, the actor Ed Norton let rip on Indiewire about the “metastasized” circus that the awards season had become, calling it “a game of monetization” caught in the “death grip of marketing.” Maybe a draw or no-win would reverse the madness.
Is the Bagger dreaming in Technicolor? Reader, she is. The Academy wouldn’t let this happen. Somebody will always win. After the 2014 Producers Guild vote resulted in a tie between “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity,” one statistician put the chances of a tie in the Academy, with its complex preferential voting process, at 0.52 percent. And the Academy said that if it were to come to that, the system would still determine a winner.
This year, there have been no heavyweight front-runners, no “Birdman” vs. “Boyhood” or “12 Years a Slave” vs. “Gravity.” The acting categories are also largely up for grabs — though “The Revenant” star Leonardo DiCaprio’s chances are looking increasingly rosy — causing most everyone involved to get a little tipsy over the alluring prospect of “what it?”
“Because it’s perceived as wide open, there’s even more aggressive campaigning,” said one studio executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because that’s what studio execs are wont to do, especially when it comes to the Oscars. “Because the race doesn’t feel locked up, a lot more films on the margins are trying to make the cut.”
Going by critics and bloggers, the top spot has been yielded, almost by default, to “Spotlight,” about The Boston Globe’s investigation into abuses by the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a smaller-budget, deeply satisfying film that can count among its strengths the absence of filmmakerly bombast that the Academy usually loves. “Spotlight” picked up steam this week with its best picture win at the Gothams, the ceremony that traditionally kicks off awards season, but we won’t know which way the industry is blowing until the guilds vote. The Bagger would like to note that beyond the merits of “Spotlight,” it’s easy to see why the film tickled that hard-to-reach sweet spot of writers, journalists in particular: It makes our beleaguered industry look good. But isn’t that what Oscarologists wryly accuse the Academy of doing by honoring films about Hollywood, among them “The Artist” and “Birdman”?
This year is also backloaded: Three big star-studded pictures with dreams of statuette glory — David O. Russell’s “Joy,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” — open on Christmas Day. Based on their pedigrees alone, and long before seeing any of them, Oscar watchistas put them near the top of their lists. Mind you, the same was done last year with Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” which made a ton of money at the box office but dropped off forecasters’ lists almost as soon as the credits rolled. Now that this year’s Final Three are being screened, the rankings have shifted: “The Revenant” is up, “Joy” is down and “The Hateful Eight” wobbling. (“Carol,” Todd Haynes’s midcentury tale of lesbian romance, is still holding strong, and on Wednesday it was selected best picture by the New York Film Critics Circle.)
Meanwhile, more swashbuckling commercial fare has nosed into the race: The National Board of Review (which defines itself as “a select group of film enthusiasts, filmmakers, professionals, academics and students”) chose “Mad Max: Fury Road” as the year’s best, and there’s growing momentum for Ryan Coogler’s “Creed.” Add these to the likelihood that “The Martian” will get a best picture Oscar nomination, and the prospect is raised that the Academy will become more relevant to broader swaths of the country.
There are two other crowd-rousing pictures that, if selected among this year’s nine or 10 best picture finalists could make the Academy more relevant still: “Straight Outta Compton,” the ribald blockbuster about the rise of the seminal ’80s gangsta rappers N.W.A., and “The Big Short,” the rollicking dramedy, riven with schadenfreude and Ryan Gosling, about the chicanery that led to the 2008 housing meltdown.
Both films hum with urgency and life, and it’s hard to name two other pictures in the Oscar conversation that spotlight America’s deepest issues so entertainingly. One delves into black culture and police violence, the other into the one percenters who plundered the economy, only to get off scot-free and grow ever more rich.
Yet both have Achilles’ heels when it comes to Academy tastes. “Compton” could be considered, to use a term Idris Elba was saddled with, “too street,” and “The Big Short” may prove too smart. A recent screening of that film for the Directors Guild of America left much of the audience giddy — it’s a ride that never lets up — but some older Academy members conceded confusion about the financial terms deployed (despite being explained in the film by, among others, Margot Robbie tippling Champagne in a bubble bath).
“Compton” and “Short” are also directed by men who aren’t in the “club”: that select group of prestige filmmakers whose work is deemed worthy of Oscar consideration. F. Gary Gray (“Compton”) is perhaps best known for his first feature, the buddy stoner comedy “Friday.” And “The Big Short” is directed by Adam McKay, who brought us both “Anchorman” movies and “Talladega Nights.” Yet if either of their latest films had instead been directed by, say, Mr. Tarantino, or Martin Scorsese, whose own exploration of Wall Street culture in “The Wolf of Wall Street” was just as lewd as anything in “Compton,” it’s not a stretch to say that Oscarologists, if not Academy members, would be giving them greater due.
That said, Universal is pushing hard for “Straight Outta Compton,” and Paramount has hustled to get screeners of “The Big Short” to industry guilds in time for voting deadlines. Both films also gained momentum on Tuesday from the National Board of Review, which named “Compton” one of the year’s best and “The Big Short” as best ensemble film.
So there you are: A season that started with a whimper might yet end with a bang.
Credit: Kerry Hayes Photo
By Cara Buckley