ReelThoughts: February 26, 2011

"Superbowl for Women"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


The first time I watched an Oscar telecast was during the mid-1970s. I don't remember much about it since it started around my bedtime and finished long after I had drifted off. 35 years ago, the Academy Awards were a different sort of program. To begin with, they were shorter. Following an hour-long prime time Barbara Walters special, they came on at 9 pm EST. The TV Guide showed them ending at 11:00, but they never made that deadline. Most of the time, they would stray into the time slot of the local bedtime news, sometimes ending as late as 11:30! Now, they begin a half hour earlier and end a half hour later, and they are all the poorer for the extra hour. (Actually, in order to have the same amount of content, it is necessary to stretch out the show. Commercial breaks, which averaged about two and one-half minutes in the '70s, or 12 minutes per hour, have nearly doubled in length to 20 minutes per hour. To achieve the same 120 minutes of "content" in today's Oscar telecast as there was during a 150-minute slot in 1975, the program would need to run about three hours. So the additional "padding" represents only an additional 20-25 minutes.)

At some point in the '90s, the Oscars lost their traditional Monday night slot in favor of a Sunday telecast, although rumor has it that the potential lengthening of the football season and an associated push-back of the date of the Superbowl could siwtch the Oscars back to Monday night to avoid the dire possibility of a conflict between the two biggest television events of the year. In fact, it has been said that the Academy Awards show is the "Superbowl for Women," although the accuracy of that remark is questionable. The audience for the Superbowl is no longer male-dominated and the audience for the Oscars only skews slightly female. The biggest difference may be that viewers are more apt to watch commercials during the football game and take bathroom breaks during the Academy Awards.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the Oscar telecasts during the '70s and early '80s and those of today relates to star power. During that era, most of the icons from the '30s, '40s, and '50s were still alive and going strong. Awards presentations were like a parade of cinematic giants, with living icons emerging to bask in the glow of the spotlight. Today, most of the Golden Age stars have died, leaving behind contemporary equivalents who don't shine as brightly. Tom Hanks is a good actor (perhaps even a great actor) and, by all accounts, a really nice guy, but compare the impact of his coming on stage to that of James Stewart, Gregory Peck, or John Wayne. It's not Hanks' fault - movie stars today don't possess the power and mystique they once had. As the old greats die, they aren't being replaced, and this turns the Red Carpet into more of a curiosity than an opportunity for star gazing.

During the last two years, I tried to enhance my waning enthusiasm for the Oscars by hosting live events on the ReelViews forums. If nothing else, these running commentaries helped to focus my attention. (Last year's was so popular that it caused my site to crash during the 11:00 p.m. hour.) This year, I won't be doing anything live. My thoughts about the Oscars won't be available until the day after. The reason has little to do with the ceremony or the picks; it's a reflection of mundane changes in my life. My son's bedtime is around 8:30, which makes it impractical for me to start watching the ceremony before about 9:00. Additionally, I have lately been having trouble staying awake past 11 p.m., so there's a possibility I may not see the final few awards handed out until I turn on the DVR Monday morning.

With or without me, the Oscars will go on and one of the most enjoyable aspects about watching them is predicting winners. There are fewer slam-dunks than in recent years, so those who score high (above 70%) earn their scores. There's a degree of uncertainty surrounding at least four of the six major awards, and two could be considered toss-ups.

Best Picture: Six weeks ago, everyone agreed that David Fincher's The Social Network was the film to beat and, at the time, it was. The King's Speech has since surpassed it, moving from dark-horse status to frontrunner as a result of three factors: (1) Strong word-of-mouth, (2) impressive box office numbers, and (3) wide distribution. At the end of December, The King's Speech was still playing art houses and did not have strong mainstream recognition. That has changed. And, as recognition of the film has grown, so has its revenue stream. It's not a blockbuster but it is displaying a consistency and longevity that few movies show in this era of big first weekends followed by colossal drop-offs. The King's Speech has become such a strong pick that it would take a brave soul to select something else.

Lead Actor: If you're going to bet your mortgage on any Oscar candidate, choose Colin Firth, although he is such a prohibitive favorite that return on your bet will be paltry. There is no dark horse. If Firth doesn't win, this will be the biggest Oscar upset in the last 25 years (if not longer).

Lead Actress: Natalie Portman was the early favorite and remains the frontrunner, so I will pick her. But it is worth noting that there has been a little erosion in recent days - not enough to knock her off and let Annette Bening in through the back door, but enough to give her a few jitters. It will be surprising if Portman doesn't win, but not a complete shock.

Supporting Actor: Christian Bale is the frontrunner and my pick for the winner, but there is room for him to lose. Lately, Geoffrey Rush has captured this award a few times in "smaller" ceremonies and there's no doubt that The King's Speech has a ton of momentum. Could Rush ride The King's coattails? Another thing to keep in mind is that, while Bale is respected in Hollywood circles, he's not necessarily well-liked. Still, his buzz is strong and, unlike Portman's, it isn't crumbling around the edges.

Supporting Actress: I guess the frontrunner is still Melissa Leo, but my pick is Hailee Steinfeld. Leo has a couple of big negatives that could prevent her from standing on stage and reading off a list of thank-yous. Her first problem is the nomination of Amy Adams in the same category. While talk of "splitting the vote" is overrated, there's no doubt that Adams will siphon off some votes that might otherwise have gone to Leo. The bigger problem relates to Leo's ill-advised self-promotion efforts (the "Consider..." ads she paid for), which is a no-no in Hollywood circles. A studio can promote an actor but the actor is not supposed to promote himself/herself. Leo's violation of this unwritten code may cost her an Oscar. As for Steinfeld, the Academy has shown a penchant for choosing unlikely winners in this category (Anna Paquin, Marisa Tomei, Jennifer Hudson, etc.), and Steinfeld fits the mold. Not only do I predict she'll win, but I hope she will because her speech will likely be one of the most engaging and heartfelt of the evening.

Director: If the DGA had not picked Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), I would have gone with David Fincher here. 2011 seems like the perfect year for a director/picture split. But there's an 80% synergy between the winner of the DGA and the Best Director Oscar winner, and I'm not going to bet against that. If Hooper doesn't win, it doesn't dim the film's chances at the big prize. Instead, it merely indicates that AMPAS wants to honor both The Social Network and The King's Speech. But don't count on that happening.

For the rest, I'm relying on tidal wave of support for The KIng's Speech. If that doesn't occur, I'm going to miss on several of these...

Animated Feature: Toy Story 3 [no contest]
Art Direction: The King's Speech
Cinematography: The King's Speech
Costume Design: Alice in Wonderland
Documentary: Exit through the Gift Shop
Editing: The Social Network
Foreign Language Film: Biutiful
Makeup: Barney's Version
Original Score: The King's Speech
Original Song: "We Belong Together", Toy Story 3
Sound Editing: Inception
Sound Mixing: The King's Speech
Visual Effects: Inception
Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network
Original Screenplay: The King's Speech

Final Score: 13/21 (62%)


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