If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Jeez, there sure an awful lot of overblown, self-important snooze-fests in the cinema at the moment — in fact, it seems like this happens around this time every year”, then you must have found yourself in the month of February, for awards season is upon you. Now is when studios drop their powerful biopics about washed-up musicians, poor-kids-overcoming-adversity melodramas, and films starring Meryl Streep on the public, because if there’s one thing that makes a studio executive extra-special, it’s the motivation they can draw from the delusion that what their picture needs to succeed isn’t, y’know, better acting, but more exposure.
But before I begin with this year’s trophy-bait, I feel that it is incumbent upon me to cite what is now being referred to in every appropriately cynical discussion of the Academy Awards as The Dargis Stipulation, so-named after its progenitor, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis: “Let’s acknowledge that the Oscars are bullshit and we hate them.” At least half of that sentence is definitely true. The Oscars are bullshit; of that there is no question, but I’m not sure about hate. Either way, they do at least manage to provoke something more than mild indifference, which is all the Golden Globes ever seem to manage. And on that note, to the movies!
The two pieces of Academy Awards shenanigans that have garnered the most column inches this year have been the announcement that there will be ten pictures shortlisted in the Best Picture category (a move made in the hope that it will provide a desperately needed television ratings boost), and latterly, that amongst those ten are Avatar and The Hurt Locker, whose directors, James Cameron and Katherine Bigelow respectively, are ex-husband and wife. Cameron and Bigelow will also be competing for the Best Director award, and my money is on a break with tradition and the two prizes being divided between them: Picture for Avatar, Director for The Hurt Locker.
This is not, I hasten to add, because Avatar is the better film. On the contrary, it is probably the worst film nominated (maybe apart from District 9). But critical respect falls far short of money as a measure of power in Hollywood, and whilst The Hurt Locker may have plenty of the former, Avatar is now the highest grossing film of all time, which, unfortunately, counts for far too much.
Sid Ganis, president of the Academy, will want Avatar to win because this will also encourage good ratings: the public are only interested in watching films collect statues if they’ve actually seen them in the first place, and the intersection on the Venn diagram of “All people” and “People who have seen Avatar” is now extremely large.
Nonetheless, Bigelow should win for Best Director, and not just because she deserves it, but because the time is right. It is shocking, even for an industry more sexist than the selection criteria for the Playboy Mansion, that there has never been a female recipient of the Director award at the Oscars. If they don’t give one out this year, they never will: The Hurt Locker was the most tightly controlled piece of film-making, bar none, last year — an achievement made even more remarkable by the fact that is an action movie, a genre which is generally produced with the guiding principles that lots of explosions will suffice in lieu of anything else, and that characterisation or plot development are for sissies.
This split may upset the usual rule of handing the Best Picture and Director trophies to the same film, but it would also honour a rather less orthodox tradition, last evidenced in 2006, of giving the Picture prize to the lesser film with the inexorable momentum behind it, and then awarding Best Director to the superior film as a consolation. Four years ago it was a case of Hollywood patting itself on the back for producing what it saw as a genuinely intelligent examination of race in America, but was in fact two hours of mindless platitude (the lamentable Crash), at the expense of an infintely better film (Brokeback Mountain) which, ironically, actually did confront controversial “issues”. This time around, Cameron’s CGI and 3D wizardry (not to mention all that money) seem likely to earn Avatar the top prize, thereby necessitating that voters ameliorate their liberal consciences by handing Bigelow the silver medal.
As for the acting awards, they appear to be haven been practically pre-ordained for months, and much as the Academy doesn’t seem to like being dictated to, it would almost take an act of God to prevent Jeff Bridges going home with a (much deserved) Best Actor statue for Crazy Heart (one of those washed-up musician biopics) or stop Sandra Bullock winning for The Blind Side (impoverished children again). Equally, why anyone even bothers including a Best Animation shortlist is completely beyond me: the prize should just be given, automatically, to whatever Pixar released in the last year (the outstanding Up, in this case).
Still — and at the risk of completely invalidating every prediction I have just made — who can really say? To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, Oscars voters are different from you and me; a notoriously fickle bunch, prone to all kinds of whims and fancies to which we common folk are not privy. Maybe Inglourious Basterds will surprise us all and sweep the board (I sincerely hope that it doesn’t). Even though I know it cannot be; that the prize belongs to Jason Reitman, I want more than anything else for Armando Iannucci and his cohort of funnymen to win the Adapted Screenplay prize for In the Loop. I’ll leave you with this. For fans of conspiracy theories, take note: in the categories of Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress, my frontrunners (Cameron, Bigelow, Bridges, Bullock) are all alphabetically first in their respective shortlists. Make of that what you will.