The Right Film Always Wins
As usual, I didn’t watch the Oscars this year; I haven’t watched them since the penny dropped many years ago - I think it must have been when Titanic was sweeping all before it - that it really isn’t about the movies. I also got the distinct impression that I was intruding on something that I shouldn’t have been observing. It’s like gatecrashing a trade show - the East Midlands Insurance Brokers Associations annual award ceremony, say - and the Academy Awards really are just that with posher frocks, a few more familiar faces and more cocaine in the toilets. The Academy itself saw fit to keep it away from the glare of the public eye for its first 25 years, before it was first televised in 1953.
That’s not to say I’m uninterested in the Oscars. I can tell you who won pretty much every year for the past three decades, and make a fair stab at the winners before that; I can probably also tell you what films were the also-rans (The Color Purple in 1986 − 11 nominations and no awards; The Shawshank Redemption nine years later - 7 nominations and no awards) and what films did surprisingly well (you probably didn’t know that the original Star Wars won six Oscars, all in technical categories, did you?) One thing I don’t follow with interest however is the post-ceremony whining about the wrong film winning. The wrong film never wins - it is always the right film that prevails. There is a popular myth that Academy voters ignore far more interesting films in favour of safe, middlebrow fare, because the Academy is a largely conservative body of folk. Actually, this is not a myth at all - it’s true - but whither this expectation that the better, more interesting film be honoured? This year, there have been murmurs against The Artist winning, some of them coloured, inevitably, by anti-French sentiment, and some a great deal more measured. But whatever you may think of The Artist, its Oscar success makes perfect sense.
Just as pets are said to resemble their owners, so award ceremonies like their winners to resemble themselves. This goes for any awards show, the Booker Prize, the Cannes film festival, the Nobel Prize for literature (indeed the Nobel Prize is unique in that it comes clean on the wheeze - it purports to reward ‘idealism’ in writing, rather than excellence per se, hence it is often skewed towards left-leaning writers). The Artist is not a bad film but once you get over the initial jolt of surprise at its quaint old form, it’s not a very original one either. Its hoary old rehash of the plot of A Star is Born is just what Academy voters love; so persuasive is its tale of redemption that you almost get the feeling that it is Jean Dujardin himself rather than his onscreen avatar George Valentin that has come back from the brink to taste success once again. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and, to a lesser extent, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, are stronger films and more likely to live on in people’s memories but neither really stood a chance against a film that was so on-message for award season. Of course, twelve months ago, nobody, least of all Michel Hazanavicius and his team, would have expected it to even appear at the Oscars but once the groundswell of interest picked up in the US last autumn, The Artist’s victory was inevitable. Having the promotional force of Harvey Weinstein behind it - a man who likes, and gets, his Oscars - didn’t harm its chances either.
The Oscars is an opportunity for film professionals - and they are also, overwhelmingly Hollywood professionals - to be recompensed by their peers. Though the name of each award is ‘outstanding achievement in the field of’ we shouldn’t expect that to always be the case. Some of the award winners for acting, for example, have indeed been excellent - in recent years one can think of Daniel Day-Lewis, Javier Bardem, Helen Mirren and Charlize Theron. But Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock also won Oscars and Jude Law has been nominated twice; in footballing terms, you might as well be considering Stewart Downing for the Ballon d’Or. It’s hard to argue with Katharine Hepburn’s record four Oscars for best actress, but you can with good reason scratch your head as to why Barbara Stanwcyk, Deborah Kerr or Greta Garbo never got one between them despite multiple nominations (I'm not counting honorary awards, by the way). I’m pretty sure there was a good reason on the night, mind.
Many of the Best Picture winners from the past thirty years are now either scarcely remembered (Ordinary People, Driving Miss Daisy, Dances With Wolves) or thought of by few as all-time classics (Forrest Gump, Braveheart). Films from that same era that lost out or did not even get nominations have left a much stronger legacy (think of Blade Runner, The Shining, Short Cuts, Raging Bull, GoodFellas). Martin Scorsese, consistently overlooked for his brilliant early career, finally became an annual fixture at the Oscars when he settled into making plodding journeyman films, winning with the very average The Departed, an award which seemed like an apology for having so long ignored him. It’s quite fitting that now he has once again made a film of the standard of that earlier oeuvre, he should once again lose out to a lesser film. There is a consensual critical mass required to leave one’s mark at the Oscars and even resolutely mainstream directors such as Martin Scorsese, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman have, at different times, failed to attract that. But there’s no shame in being denied victory by the Academy Awards’ implacable logic. I’m sure there have been insurance brokers in the East Midlands region who have been similarly overlooked but are proud of what they have achieved, nonetheless.
Trailer for The Artist