By now everyone knows that—as my colleague Tom Carson pointed out last week—Oscar history is strewn with verdicts so absurd as to legitimately raise the question of why anyone cares, unless you find the Academy Awards irresistible for the way they’ve become part of Hollywood lore. You don’t have to go back as far as the notorious examples that Tom cited of Oliver or Around the World in Eighty Days upending the not-even-nominated 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Searchers in 1968 and 1956 respectively; there are examples more recent—2012, for instance. That was the year when sense gave way to vigilante justice and the actors’ bloc of the Oscar electorate, a Mercedes McCambridge glint in its eye, led the Academy in stringing up any nominee they could find who wasn’t Ben Affleck, rewarding Argo for Affleck’s omission from the Best Director cut in what turned out to be the snub of his dreams.
Unhip as it is to point out, the Oscars were getting sharper and more daring for awhile, honoring the likes of The Hurt Locker, The Departed, and No Country For Old Men. Easy enough now to dismiss The Artist as an empty crowd-pleaser, but if you had predicted in 2010 that the Best Picture of 2011 would be a silent French film, people would have thought you were in an alternate universe. Then came last year when not only the most conventional movie with its shameless shambles of a third act beat out Zero Dark Thirty and Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild and Lincoln but there was the frantic spectacle of the Oscar show itself, and Seth MacFarlane’s futile attempt to convince my 16-year-old that any of it matters. I promise you kids don’t care about awards of any stripe—perhaps one of the last truly healthy points of view they’ll ever hold—even when Daft Punk is buried in Grammys.
That being the case, and given that the Academy has business to take care of and there’s no way some or most (or all) of that business can be anything but boring, somebody might have figured out that the Oscars should just get on with it and hope for the best, and stop trying to pander. They did this last night with help from Ellen DeGeneres, who was a grown-up without being tedious, irreverent without being crass or cruel, although a joke about Liza Minnelli skirted the line, which DeGeneres may have realized by trying to make it up to Liza later. DeGeneres is winning and grounded enough that even a bit where she delivered pizza to those in the front rows was funny when it could as easily have seemed desperate. This year’s production will be dumped on like all the other productions get dumped on, and there certainly were times when the proceedings felt a little lethargic until Darlene Love woke things up with a singing acceptance or Bill Murray paid an off-the-cuff tribute to his Groundhog Day collaborator Harold Ramis or Pink jarringly juxtaposed an altogether creditable performance of “Over the Rainbow” against a plunging neckline that ordinarily I’m disinclined to complain about. And while I generally favor the movie montages that the Oscars put together—this being an event about movies, after all—last night’s “hero” theme finally trivialized itself as its examples of heroes devolved from Abraham Lincoln to Thor. But when all was said and done, this year was the prototype of what’s probably the best that can be expected of the Academy Awards, if one discounts the lack of suspense as favorites went on to win everything with only a single surprise in sight (and a nice one at that)—the best screenplay award to Spike Jonze’s Her.
The academy that convened this year was dedicated to two propositions, as the poor man’s Thor might put it. The first was that the otherwise exceptional Cate Blanchett could indeed fool all the people all the time and win for the most overrated performance since Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful. The Blanchett juggernaut looked wobbly on its rails in recent weeks as child-molestation accusations broke against Blue Jasmine writer-director Woody Allen, with subsequent suggestions by various Farrows, Mia and otherwise, that Cate somehow was complicit; but even her naysayers—or perhaps, more precisely, her naysayer (singular), which is to say me—didn’t see the justice in Cate losing for something Allen may or may not have done. Any backlash against the actress was overwhelmed by a backlash against the backlash, and Blanchett almost earned the award with an acceptance speech miles better than the performance itself: eloquent, witty, sincere, and on point about Hollywood’s miserable regard for women (“The world is round, people”). The second proposition was that the Academy could finally wrap its head around a view of slavery slightly more malevolent than the trilling, happy-darkies bondage of 1939’s Oscarpalooza, Gone With the Wind. Following Lincoln’s loss to Argo, a Best Picture defeat by 12 Years a Slave would have made this the second year running that once-presumed frontrunners with slavery as their central subject were overtaken by fare more palatable, presumably either American Hustle, which emerged as the leading contender around New Year’s until the collective realization that it’s not very good, with characters you don’t care about in the least, settled on the awards like a pall, or Gravity, with the Academy still deciding up to this past week whether the most technically extraordinary movie of all time, made with a script so inconsequential it wasn’t even nominated, had the heft to be acknowledged, especially when a Best Director Oscar for Alfonso Cuarón was in the bag.
The Heft Factor is timeless in Oscar deliberations, its most notorious manifestation in recent times being a little more than 30 years ago when Gandhi, which not a single human being has watched since, browbeat the Academy into an accolade that posterity has since bestowed on Tootsie or E.T. But while the Heft Factor favored 12 Years a Slave, lately smart Oscar-watchers (not an oxymoron) speculated as to how many Academy members would, in the privacy of their homes, choose to not watch it. The most relentless and intense portrayal of slavery ever, making last year’s Lincoln look like a Steven Spielberg movie (wait…), the Steve McQueen film has sounded to many white audiences like an endurance test; on the other hand, by all reports most who finally compelled themselves to see it were knocked out and wondered how the award could go to anything else, especially when the Gandhi comparison doesn’t hold and 12 Years made the competition look slight both thematically and cinematically. The prospect of even a small fraction of the Academy going AWOL on one of the three major challengers in a crapshoot year would have a significant bearing on 12 Years’ chances for picture, actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor, an underdog to favorite Matthew McConaughey) and supporting actress (Lupita N’yongo).
Unlike past mega-winners such as The English Patient, Titanic, and Return of the King—the coattails of their top-prize inevitability sweeping in everything behind them—Gravity seemed poised halfway through the awards last night to do exactly the reverse: win so many so-called “below the line” awards that the momentum to take the big one became inexorable. When Gravity won best musical score, of all things, you could nearly imagine Sandra Bullock pulling off one of Oscar history’s great upsets. Due to the Heft Factor we’ll never be entirely sure if some Academy members went AWOL on 12 Years a Slave and voted for it anyway, just to prove DeGeneres’s joke about racism was a joke. More indicative than the Best Picture award of how genuine the Academy’s devotion to 12 Years was may have been N’yongo’s supporting-actress victory over American Hustle’s Jennifer Lawrence, who’s not only scary-good beyond her years but Hollywood’s current love object, adored by women because she’s strong and men because she’s hot and musicologists of all genders because her version of “Live and Let Die” is better than Paul McCartney’s. N’yongo’s “Your dreams are valid” acceptance may have been the night’s most tweeted; it may have had somewhat more resonance, at any rate, than McConaughey’s, which said nothing about the AIDS that Dallas Buyers’ Club concerns itself with. Rather McConaughey’s inspirational message for us all, if you didn’t hear, is that his hero is the McConaughey of ten years to come, whose hero will be the McConaughey of ten years after that. By that time my 16-year-old will be 36, and he won’t be any more impressed then than he is now.