On 10.1 L.A. Times columnist Patrick Goldstein ran his annual piece about how the Oscar handicapping racket is, as he put it yesterday, “wreaking havoc on high-end movies.” He also said that “the film industry’s obsession with chasing Oscar glory has created an insupportable financial model for quality films and quality filmmakers.”

Maybe, maybe not. Half of me agrees but the other half recognizes that Oscar season is gravy time for sites like mine so why should I bite the hand? Why, now that you mention it, is Patrick biting the hand after a fashion? He goes through this weirdness every year. “I write about the politics of Hollywood filmmaking, its key players and, yes, Oscar contenders for a living,” he’s more or less saying, “but I hate the ‘game’ of it — it’s unfair to the less well-funded contenders — so I’m going to call the whole system into question, even though I don’t really want it to change in terms of less studio spending because I need to pay the mortgage.”
I realize my position — it’s not a good system but leave well enough alone — makes me sound like a Bear Sterns executive defending sub-prime loans in 2006, but the getting is good so why pee in the lake? Because the lake — the indie lake — has been drained by too much Oscar-season spending, Goldstein is partly saying. He also seems to be saying that Oscar handicappers speculating now about possible or likely winners and losers are con artists.
He mentions at one point a “Hollywood Elsewhere post where blogger Jeff Wells said ‘a guy’ he knew had heard that Gus Van Sant‘s Milk was a solid contender.” Goldstein was clearly saying this sounded a little thin, and where is the merit or credibility in quoting a “guy” who’s says he knows something? Okay, let’s break it down and review what was actually written and why.
One, I know quite well and trust the taste buds of the guy (an exhibition exec) who passed along the tip about Milk. He knows what he’s talking about, he’s always talking to a very savvy and attuned industry crowd, and I don’t care if this satisfies Goldstein or not. Two, I only brought up the Milk opinion to dispute a passed-along publicist claim in Michael Cieply‘s Oscar-race piece in the 9.28 N.Y. Times that “some publicists who specialize in Oscar campaigns are privately predicting a year-end shootout between Bemjamin Button and Frost/Nixon.” And three, my dispute was (and still is) based upon my not hearing from anyone at all that Frost/Nixon is a “favored Best Picture contender.”

I’m not putting down Frost/Nixon here. I’m just trying to be upfront about what people have been saying about it. It’s said to be a smart, gripping, well-written film with a remarkable lead performance from Frank Langella. I just haven’t heard “definite Best Picture contender,” and certainly not “one of the top two contenders” a la Cieply.
Let’s remember also that the joys of Oscar season aren’t about predictions but convictions. For me it’s not about who wins as much as the impassioned arguments that happen from October through February about who should and shouldn’t be nominated, and then about who should or shouldn’t win. As David Poland said last year , “Each Oscar-season movie is its own little war.” What I love about this game is that they’re not just movie wars — debates about cinematic achievement, values, chops — but sword fights about culture, ethics, moral values, politics. I love these arguments. I live for them.
At the end of the piece, Goldstein asks “what would happen if someone Hollywood holds in high esteem — for example, Clint Eastwood, who has Changeling due later this month — threw his hat out of the ring? What if Clint told Universal to save its money and skip the Oscar campaigning, parties, gushy trade ads and all the other silliness?
“Imagine the hand-wringing if Changeling got just as many award nominations as it would have if it had spent all those millions? That would definitely let all the hot air out of the Oscar balloon. It might also give more quality films an opportunity to compete on a level playing field and actually make some money. It might even push the back the onset of Oscar mania a few months. Come on, Clint, make my day.”
One, I’m told that Universal isn’t spending very much (if anything) this year on online Oscar ads. (What are they going to put their money into, Variety print ads? Is Bill Clinton running against George H.W. Bush?) And two, if Eastwood is as astute as Goldstein and others believe him to be, he’ll be telling Universal to put their efforts behind Angelina Jolie‘s shot at a Best Actress nomination, and leave the Best Picture action to his other film, Gran Torino, which Warner Bros. is releasing in late December. Maybe. If it pans out.
My Gran Torino enthusiasm is obviously blind and meaningless (except for my general faith in Eastwood’s taste and chops), but I’ve seen Changeling and it’s a solid B plus or, if you want to be gracious, A-minus effort. But it’s not an A — not in my view — and it sure isn’t an A-plus, and you really do need to be A-plus to get into the Best Picture game.