ReelThoughts: February 07, 2012

"Don't Worry, Be Happy"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Once upon a time, I too bristled with indignation when a film or performance I believed to be deserving was snubbed by those blind bastards who select the Oscar nominations. How dare they ignore the great and worthy performance of William Shatner in Star Trek V? The sublime way his jowls quiver, the brilliance of his pauses when uttering dialogue, the way he sucks in that gut to make it appear as if he's still in 1969 shape. Or Jar-Jar Binks of The Phantom Menace, whose work was so noteworthy that he inspired more discussion on-line than all of that year's acting and supporting acting nominees combined?

Then I realized I was looking at things from the wrong perspective.

For some, criticizing Oscar nominations is fun. Many critics believed they're obliged to do it. Really, though, they're just venting. In the cool light of the morning or the heat of the night, they dash off columns, blog posts, and even tweets about the injustice of it all. Saying someone "deserved" or "did not deserve" to be an Oscar nominee is like saying a movie is "good" or "bad." It's all subjective. The "worthiness" of an Oscar nominee is about as valueless as using the Tomatometer or the IMDb rating to assess the quality of a movie. But freedom of speech is the right of every American. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

For Oscar contenders (and the winner), the acid test comes through the passage of time. You can't make a legitimate assessment in the moment or even 10 years later. You have to go back 20, 30, 40, or more years to get a good perspective of how the movies and performances have stood up across the ages. Many will be forgotten - but so will the actors and actresses who were supposedly "snubbed." Movies don't stand up the way they used to. Most people, if pressed, couldn't name the last five Oscar winners. I'm not sure I could without cheating. One could argue that, because of exposure, the Oscars have never been bigger. But they have also never been more disposable. They're just another awards ceremony in a cavalcade of them. Their importance, little more than a trivia note way back at the sunrise of the Academy Awards' history, ballooned to titanic proportions during the '50s and '60s, before deflating again. Not exactly gone with the wind, but hard to remember after the event. Try asking a friend in August if they recall who took home the top spot in February. Someone living in an out-of-the-way hamlet in Tibet will have an equal chance of giving the right answer.

The nominations are the nominations. Take them as they are. Don't approach them with anger or recriminations. Surprise, perhaps, since most are preordained and when one of those anointed films fails to make the final cut, there can be a little sting. But anger? Leave that to the filmmakers, who can rage and crash and gnash their teeth, wailing about the rocky road to recognition before retiring to the mansion or the apartment to stew and hope for a reprieve same time, next year. For those who get in unexpectedly, the spotlight is as bright as it is sudden. The lost weekend of February 25-26 will then have given way to a night to remember. Let them have their moment of glory, no matter how "undeserved" it may be.

I no longer play the game of arguing that Nominee X shouldn't have made it and Person Y should have been included. I prognosticate but do so with as detached an eye as I can manage. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. I don't take it personally. Why do so many people seem offended if a title or person is nominated or fails to garner the necessary number of votes to get on the final ballot? 'Tis a mystery (unless you're a close friend or relative, then it's understandable why a snub could lead to a condemnation of an unforgiven, unrepentant Academy).

In 2012, the most widely criticized nomination in the Best Picture category is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which some feel was unfairly included at the expense of Bridesmaids. From my perspective, that's the right call. But I wouldn't have been up in arms if it had gone the other way. Let's be frank: neither is going to claim the biggest honor at the greatest show on earth. That race is down to a select few. Why Extremely Close was nominated is an interesting question, but to get the real answer, those who voted for it on their ballots have to be asked, and I lack the contacts to conduct those interviews.

Once again, it must be remembered that the nominees, like the winners, achieve their status for three reasons: quality, marketing, and politics. How often does the best film of the year win Best Picture? In 2012, scanning about 300 critics' Top 10 lists, I see more than two dozen #1s. On Oscar night, those who ranked The Artist (the current frontrunner, believe it or not) as their #1 of 2012 might think: "Things are going my way," but those who picked any of the other 23 will be of the opinion that the Academy got it wrong again.

As for Bridesmaids, one wonders whether its "snubbing" will lead to greater recognition that if it had been nominated. Righteous indignation can be a great marketing tool. Personally, I didn't think the movie was especially funny or clever, but comedy is subjective. Maybe my sense of humor had temporarily departed as I sat in the theater or perhaps I'm just out of synch with ordinary people. For the most part, however, the Academy doesn't acknowledge comedy, even when it's brilliant. There is one exception.

That's Woody Allen. From Annie Hall to Manhattan to Bullets over Broadway, he's the Oscar's best-loved East Coaster. He's back again with Midnight in Paris, a pleasant little romance/comedy/fantasy about an American in Paris who time travels. It happened one night while he was out walking and recurred every midnight thereafter. There's an irony at work here. When it comes to travel within the United States, Allen never heads to Hollywood - he never even gets as far west as Chicago - but he will go overseas to make a movie: London, Spain, Paris. He has spoken lovingly about shooting Midnight in Paris, possibly because of the French connection. Nowhere in the world is Woody more revered than in the land of de Gaulle and Bonaparte. Still, while the Academy has once again acknowledged Allen's brand of intellectual comedy this year, there's no way he will take home Oscar gold. But the Academy can at least refute the claim that they reject comedies, although it's hard to imagine two more dissimilar films than Midnight in Paris and Bridesmaids.

If someone had asked me to choose the best performance of 2011, I wouldn't have hesitated before saying "Michael Fassbender." Not nominated. But it's not a shock. His two most visible roles are not the kinds of work that get actors noticed by the Academy: a superhero movie about X-Men and an X-rated downer about a sex addict. People, most of whom haven't seen Shame, talk about the size of his penis but not the intensity of his performance. He was also in two films no one saw: Jane Eyre and A Dangerous Method. With movies coming out in spring, summer, fall, and winter, he truly was a man of all seasons. But it's not about giving the best performance; it's about giving it in the right film. Of the three Oscar nomination qualifications - quality, marketing, politics - Fassbender captured only the first one. In public comments, the actor has been gracious in neglect, but that's what we expect from the English. Patient and unflappable. Maybe the future key is for him to keep his clothing on - in the Oscarverse, disrobing only seems to work for women.

One of the reasons it can be fun to follow the Oscars (although not always watching the entire telecast - welcome back, Billy) is to observe the trends and see how accurately they play out. That's especially true when there's uncertainty as to what will win the big awards. When the curtain rises to the sound of music, there's anticipation instead of a weary sense of expectation. Some "success stories" may be able to trumpet, "These are the best years of our lives!" Others will smile and conceded defeat gracefully, philosophically noting that you can't take it with you.

The Academy will never get it right since no one can agree about what "right" is. But isn't it more fun this way?

Note: This year, I will be posting regularly through the telecast in the ReelViews forums (something I occasionally do). Billy Crystal's return has ensured that I'll sit through the whole thing. I will also run a "Beat Berardinelli" contest. More information will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.


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