OP-ED: The Awards Race: Who’s Legit, Who’s a Poser and Why

January 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

AND-THE-WINNER-IS-OSCAR-37748Jack Nicholson, recipient of three Academy Awards and twelve-time nominee, is notorious for not mincing his words and for having a rather large ego that he thankfully takes credit for, whether it’s justified or gets him in trouble. As such, he’s put a ton of quotes out into the media explaining her personal opinions and motivations. One of the common topics of his quotes regards his opinions on awards. If anybody is an expert on the subject, it’s Jack, as he’s affectionately known. One of his quotes is perhaps the most honest bit of fodder for Hollywood glory as they come: “When I read the part, I knew I’d win the Oscar for it.”- In regards to Terms of Endearment (1983). There are many more Nicholson quotes covering his over-under odds making on award winning movie-to-movie, nomination-to-nomination.

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I appreciate Nicholson’s candor. Nowadays celebrities are required to downplay their desire for money or awards. Baseball players, the greatest benefactors of free agency, love to tell the media “This was just the most comfortable situation for my family” when they take the largest contract they can find. Or they say a lesser offer made them feel “disrespected”. Those quotes can’t be attributed to any one person. They’re habitual within the sport. Likewise, in Hollywood, when someone tries to talk to a star about their reported payday, such as Depp’s $55 million upfront guarantee for ‘Pirates 4’ or Downey, Jr.’s $50 million payday from the ‘Avengers’ they either claim the money gives them peace of mind to buy their privacy or they play entirely coy about it. They rarely come out and say “The economics dictate that that is what I am worth. Period.”

Awards are no different. Awards are part of the Hollywood power machine. They’re either symbolically confirming that your body of work is important, such as Alan Arkin’s best supporting actor Oscar in 2007 for “Little Miss Sunshine” regardless of that actual performance’s merit, or it’s the result of calculated campaigning out of the Weinstein Brothers’ playbook. It’s why the generally unremarkable “Shakespeare in Love” swept the best actress and best picture categories against “Saving Private Ryan”, which is generally regarded as the better film that was nominated that year. Other examples might come down to generational bias such as the bland and un-offensive “Forrest Gump” (a good but schmaltzy film) winning over the game-changing “Pulp Fiction” in 1995.

What is perhaps most fascinating about this concept is when a film is green-lit, production-designed, cast, advertised and pushed on all fronts that it should be pre-ordained to win awards, only to collapse under the weight of its own hubris. There are many examples of this such as the 2006 Steve Zaillian re-make of 1949’s “All the King’s Men”. It starred Sean Penn taking over for the role that won Broderick Crawford an Oscar. For the remake, Sean Penn was supported by Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins Kate Winslet: the list goes on for a while. All of them are either Oscar winners or perennial Oscar nominees.

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In the run up to a new year of film releases and the awards season, a plethora of articles are written highlighting the potential heavy hitters for those coveted statues. As with any sport (make no mistake: awards are most definitely a sport) it’s all mostly hype, with only a few true blue chips panning out. Past years have seen films like 1998’s Oprah Winfrey-starring “Beloved” get tons of costly publicity (to the tune of $80 million shelled out between production, advertising and distribution) only to fizzle at the box office with less than $23 million in total.

Sometimes films are so clearly designed to have praise heaped upon them that the public and the industry itself turns their back on the product out of a sense of being insulted by the pandering, by the shameless begging of the ad campaigns and the actors transparently ham-fisted, scenery chewing performances.

I was not reviewing movies again when The Butler was released. Had I been reviewing at the time, I would have immediately called the film on its overt political aspirations. Not the politics depicted in the film, nor the statements the film’s shifting time periods make upon United States history. No, I am speaking of the politics within Hollywood itself, in the here and now, in the real world. It’s widely known amongst Hollywood professionals, entertainment journalists and film geeks that handing out statues in Hollywood is as much a pay-off for one thing or another as it is a genuine recognition for being The Best of that year. The Butler managed a respectable slow-burn box office of $116 million domestic on a modest $30 million production budget and $27 million advertising campaign. Released August 16th of 2013, the film is still a noticeable theatrical presence on the eve of its VOD release. The film, written and director by Oprah Winfrey’s favorite butt buddy Lee Daniels, starring previous “career-achievement” best actor Oscar winner Forrest Whittaker as the titular butler, follows said butler through a series of U.S. presidencies as he works as an a-political but U.S. policy-privy white house butler. Winfrey plays Whittaker’s wife in a performance that is bombastic at times, quiet at others and thoroughly preening for awards-consideration. Now that said-awards season is underway, with Oscar nominations to be announced this Thursday, the Butler has been utterly forgotten for statue-consideration. Perhaps it’ll achieve its main goal of Oscar nominations, but that is highly doubtful given the already over-crowded field.

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Looking at this year’s contenders, there are other obvious Oscar-bait movies such as “American Hustle” and “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Twelve Years A Slave” (also about African-American history). Why, then, are those three aforementioned films garnering awards-attention even if they, too, seem designed and pre-destined for end of year “best of” recognition? What is the dividing line between wanna-be’s and the genuine article?
In this writer’s humble opinion, it’s the difference between Kanye West releasing quote after quote declaring himself the best there ever was, versus a magazine like Rolling Stone declaring Dr. Dre to be the highest ranking hip-hop impresario on their list of 100 greatest musical acts of all time. Nobody told the Rolling Stone magazine staff to declare things that way. Nobody leaned on them or espoused the opinion of the best while including him or herself in the debate.

When independent arbitrators with no ties or stakes in the final tabulations declare someone the best, that declaration is arguably of an objective pseudo-scientific nature, as opposed to the favoritism and pandering that is either inherently assumed or undeniable when an award is bestowed to individuals who have outright demanded their own anointing.

It’s the difference between despots like Kim Jong-Il or Saddam Hussein winning a ‘democratic election’ versus the relatively honest political process we experience stateside. It’s not a terrible thing for someone to acknowledge they’re the best, but perhaps it is only advisable to do so as a post-script to objective analysis, rather than expressing a predisposition in regards to one’s own worth to their industry.

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