I realize it may have occured to some that Oscar-chasing season (mid-July through late February) is about power and prestige and so on. There’s also the satisfaction of winners knowing that the term “Oscar” is certain to appear one day in their New York Times obituary. There’s also the underlying current about wanting to affirm certain emotions, values and viewpoints by celebrating movies that express these things, but let’s put that one aside for now. What I’m about to say is nothing remotely new, but I’d just like to reiterate it for the record.
There are two prime motivations driving Oscar handicappers in the picking of likely nominees for the major categories. The dominant impulse is to show obeisance before established power — an inescapable impulse due to genetic coding. 90% of all hyped would-be nominees are validated names who’ve performed in or worked on films that (a) have performed respectably with the ticket-buying public and (b) have moderately well-bankrolled distributors backing their films.
There is no substantial cultural /behavioral difference between most of the Envelope and Gurus of Gold hotshots picking their likely contenders and spear-carrying Bemba warriors in Zambia bowing down before the local chief during a village feast.
The secondary impulse is to show generosity of spirit — a helping-hand instinct (never driven by merit alone, but merit plus “likability”) that may bring a promising newcomer into the fold, or congratulate an aging, Oscar-less veteran for decades of solid, first-rate work.
Of course, all promising newcomers have to be amply supported by established, well-funded distributors, and they need to appear to be headed for some kind of connected/powerful future, which theoretically allows for a possible return-the- favor gesture down the road to handicappers (and their publications) who supported the actor/artist when they needed it. And of course they need to self-promote and schmooze their asses off during the run-up weeks to make it all kick in.
In part, the previous graph explains the Best Actor nomination given 45 years ago to total newcomer Peter O’Toole due to very ample support by Columbia Pictures, and the lack of any handicapper momentum at all for Control‘s riveting Sam Riley, who has only the slight support of the Weinstein Co. — a distributor with the nagging rep of suffering from diminished industry power — and guys like myself and Peter Howell behind him.
I was complaining again last night at the WGA There Will be Blood after-party that Benicio del Toro gives a Marlon Brando-level performance (make that early 1950s Brando -level) in Susanne Bier’s Things We Lost in the Fire. A journalist pal smiled and said, “Fight for it!” but she and I know it’s a lost cause. Hell, it’s not even a cause.
Nobody’s standing up for Benicio because (a) Fire was panned by a good portion of the critics and lost money besides, (b) there doesn’t seem to be any interest on Paramount’s part to finance a Benicio campaign, (c) Benicio is apparently saving himself for a Best Actor campaign next year for his Che Guevara performance in The Argentine and Guerilla , and (d) a Things We Lost in the Fire Benicio campaign wouldn’t work anyway because critics, handicappers and Academy members don’t like (or at least are cool to) junkies.
There’s no “obesiance before power” satisfaction in talking up Fox Searchlight’s Once, even though it feels to me like the most emotionally complete and fully self-realized film released this year, and one of the most affecting love stories in many a moon. Not because Fox Searchlight isn’t powerful, but because no one has decided if director John Carney will be around the long haul, and because the two stars, Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova, are musicians, not actors, so what are they going to for “us” down the road? Nothing. So the industry consensus is “great movie, loved it…bye!”