Reasons to thank the academy

Whenever awards season rolls around, you inevitably hear the same discussion about whether awards shows, the Oscars in particular, really matter. When it comes to the Oscars, the naysayers are often the Joaquin Phoenixes of the world, the surly hipsters trying to ruin everyone’s good time.

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Whenever awards season rolls around, you inevitably hear the same discussion about whether awards shows, the Oscars in particular, really matter. When it comes to the Oscars, the naysayers are often the Joaquin Phoenixes of the world, the surly hipsters trying to ruin everyone’s good time.

But it’s hard not to concede that the haters may have a point.

I romanticized the Oscars growing up, and to some extent I still do. But it’s harder when you find out that 77 percent of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members are male, and that the majority are over 60. Depressing, right?

Even if you look beyond the increasingly politicized awards, there’s also the fact that the race for Best Picture was expanded in 2011 to include up to 10 nominees. This year, we have nine nominees, all wildly different from each other.

I really liked Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty, for example, but I would be hard-pressed to say one was better than the other, because they’re such radically different specimens of filmmaking.

But that diversity is also a strong argument for why, despite their faults, the Academy Awards do matter.

I remember that before the 2003 Oscars, which were held right after the United States invaded Iraq, there was talk of canceling them altogether. Why should movie stars in designer clothes get gold statues when we’re at war?

That was the year Nicole Kidman won Best Actress for The Hours, and she spoke directly to the so-called controversy. She said that art matters. She spoke about believing in what she does and upholding the tradition of honoring that.

In part, that’s why I think everyone should watch Seth MacFarlane host the 85th annual Academy Awards: because films matter. And the wildly diverse list of nine Best Picture
nominees, as well as all the films that weren’t nominated, deserve to be celebrated.

So it’s fitting, perhaps, that Best Actress is the most up-in-the-air of the major races this year. Most critics believe it comes down to Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty and Jennifer Lawrence’s young widow in Silver Linings Playbook.

At the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Awards, the category is divided between comedy and drama, which means both Chastain and Lawrence won. Neither of these awards shows can really be used to predict the Oscars anyway because they have completely different voting bodies.

The more compelling case is the Screen Actors Guild Awards, usually thought to be the best predictor. Lawrence won, causing many pundits to give her the edge for winning the Oscar, but that wasn’t the whole story.

Zero Dark Thirty was released so late in the awards season that they never had time to get screeners out to SAG members. Virtually nobody in the guild actually saw Chastain’s performance.

Supposedly, the Zero Dark Thirty people were emailing people the day of the awards to say that they wouldn’t win anything. And yet Chastain was nominated without anyone seeing the film, which is an interesting example of both the politics of awards and, apparently, just how much the Hollywood community really likes Chastain.

I’m still expecting Chastain to win, although there’s been some backlash against her film because of scenes depicting the CIA torturing al-Qaida terrorists. Some are now predicting they will cancel each other out and the winner will be 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva, for Amour.

That’s exactly what happened at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards ceremony in England on Feb. 10, but I’m not sure if I can really see the academy repeating that decision. Still, it’s one of the races that makes the 2013 edition so much more exciting and unpredictable than the Oscars have been in recent years.

Two of the major acting categories remain totally predictable, though.

Daniel Day-Lewis is virtually guaranteed another Best Actor award for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln. And if you’re tuning in on Oscar night, you’ll get to see another insipid speech from Anne Hathaway when she accepts her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Les Miserables. These are the easiest calls of the night.

The campaign for Hathaway’s Oscar began long before the film was released, which almost undermines how great director Tom Hooper’s imagining of the story really was, but it’s also fascinating. I wish there was a college course on how actors campaign for Oscars.

Best Supporting Actor is another toss-up. This is a category the academy typically uses to reward an aging actor who hasn’t yet been recognized, such as Christopher Plummer, who won last year for Beginners.

This year, all five nominees are already Oscar winners, and the other awards shows have been split between Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln, Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master and Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained.

Hoffman undoubtedly had the most to do, and many argued his performance had him leading, but I lean slightly toward Jones because of his SAG win and the ample amount of love for Spielberg’s biopic.

Then again, he didn’t show up to collect the SAG, so Robert De Niro could sneak in for Silver Linings Playbook, another movie the academy seems to love. De Niro hasn’t won an Oscar since 1981, and I could definitely see him being the surprise winner.

Then it comes down to Best Director and Best Picture. When the nominations were announced and Lincoln had the most, everyone was predicting it would easily sweep the awards. The lengthy historical drama seemed like quality Oscar bait—it’s a Spielberg film—but then a funny thing happened.

The academy failed to nominate Ben Affleck for Best Director for his work on the much-loved CIA thriller Argo. People were up in arms over the snub, which I doubt was personal or conspiratorial—probably more of a fluke in a year in which the category was very crowded.

After all, neither Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty nor Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained made the director list either, and those are Best Picture nominees.

But somehow Affleck’s snub was the beginning of a massive wave of goodwill for Argo. The film went on to win Best Picture and Best Director at the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, the Critics’ Choice and the BAFTAs, as well as the top prizes from the Directors Guild of America.

At this point, if it doesn’t get the Best Picture Oscar, things will look a little strange. So Best Director becomes an odd consolation prize for Spielberg, who might be having Saving Private Ryan flashbacks.

The dynamics of the Academy Awards seem to be changing, and I don’t think the old 20th-century rules apply. Too political? Yes. Too safe? Always.

But if you really love film, it’s still exciting to see how the whole extravagant night plays out.