"Flowers, but with garbage."
Has there ever been a better metaphor for the Academy Awards? Granted, that line comes from Jennifer Lawrence in "American Hustle" (nominated for 10 Oscars, Lawrence included), and she wasn't talking about the Academy Awards per se. She says it midway through the film, squeezing up her face and trying to describe the compellingly elusive stench of her nail polish. Lawrence loves this top coat, she explains, because it's "perfumy" with a hint of "rotten."
Sweet, sour, flowers, garbage.
Chances are, if you've made it this far into Oscar season and still have a sliver of interest left in the show Sunday night, you're anticipating the pomp, the pageant and the garbage that lies beneath — the flubs, poor fashion choices, tactless red-carpet moments, awkward speeches and deeply undeserving winners. It's probably that opulent odor that's pulling you forward, that perversely fragrant tickle in your nose, the one telling you: You sit through months of Oscar speculation (which, unlike government-election prognostication, doesn't come with polling data), and you listen to the back and forth about who should win versus who will win, and you witness the entertainment industrial complex give itself over completely to a gaudy, self-congratulatory extravaganza.
And in the end:
None of it matters.
The flora's always covering up something rotten. You could argue that awarding Oscars is drafting history; but if so, that's an easily scrapped draft, considering how the litany of Oscar losers (Hitchcock, Kubrick, Marilyn Monroe, "His Girl Friday," "Do the Right Thing," ad infinitum) is as monumental as the winners. Come Monday morning you always understand, to paraphrase Matthew Broderick in Alexander Payne's 1999 masterpiece "Election" (another Oscar loser), we're not electing the pope here.
If it's all so unsatisfying, that's because the problem with Oscar season is that we lie to ourselves and talk about the wrong things. We spend months gauging Oscar-caliber work, then months more reasoning out Oscar-caliber winners. But we leave little room to explain that reasoning — and no time to ask questions that resonate after the awards. What follows, then, are four meaningful conversations you can have about this year's nominees. But make it worthwhile: Admit you like the stink.
Q: Is "Gravity" the future of entertainment, or too much of an effects showcase to win an Oscar?
A: More than likely, a bit of both. It's not just a pretty, hollow promise, nor is it easily replicated enough to be a blueprint. Still, it is the future of the theatrical experience. I watched "Gravity" on television, and though the visuals were no less engrossing — this may be the only movie in years that actually makes you wonder how they did that — the context was utterly missing, the pitch of the theater seat was absent, the enveloping 3-D was gone. Here was art torn from its context; subsequently, it didn't make as much sense. Particularly missing was the weak-kneed physical reaction that "Gravity" director Alfonso Cuaron solicited in the right circumstances; more importantly, the rootlessness of the camera — the film's ability to make up, down, right and left look old-fashioned — seemed too showy outside a theater.
Which is one hint at why this is not just empty showbiz: Cuaron's big-screen "Gravity" so seamlessly connects that zero-gravity disorientation and deep-space alienation in its characters with the visceral, upended feeling it installs in theatrical audiences that, as technologically upfront as it is, the result becomes less digital than human. Not unlike the Lumiere brothers' 1895 footage of a train arriving at a station, which sent audiences scurrying from the path of the locomotive. Without the technology and the theater, the emotion doesn't land in the same way. Like Sandra Bullock, only when we stand to exit do we recognize how much of the experience, and the narrative itself, was actually about the desire for hard, firm Earth beneath our feet. The effect was so powerful and convincing I almost didn't notice the film is also a warning, about how trapped we can be by technology.
Q: If the hedonism of "Wolf of Wall Street" contained a moral center, would it be a contender?
A: To rephrase that slightly: If Leonardo DiCaprio's financial hustler, Jordan Belfort, after hours of material excess, models, cocaine and cocaine on models, recognized the problem was himself — if he started out humble but greedy, suffered, was knocked down a notch, recognized the hole in his soul, bought a collie and lived on a ranch next door to Kevin Costner, eventually reaching that Hollywood nirvana, redemption — would "Wolf of Wall Street" be "meaningful"? Would the film then be seen as more than a case study in late-career solipsism from Martin Scorsese (a.k.a., "minor Scorsese")? As a film, it's the least filmlike of the best picture nominees, much closer to an art installation than a traditional narrative — an endless loop of seemingly provocative images and meaninglessness, indulgently stretched past the point of your patience.
But as a social mirror, the movie displays an unwillingness to pass judgment that is as unsettling as intended. Unlike DiCaprio's Gatsby from last spring, this less conflicted face of prosperity is not motivated by love, carries no obvious chip on his shoulder and sees no absence of confidence to fill. Belfort is also not tortured by the world he comes from (Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine") or dismissible (the scheming brothers in "Nebraska"). He is self-regarding, tireless, assured — and, as Scorsese hints, in possession of such an amorally frictionless ambition — doesn't a sliver of you see the appeal? Supporters of "Wolf" argue that the film is satire, an ironic glorification; those who have condemned it seem to agree but can't see the irony. I think they're both wrong.
Scorsese is not sure how he feels about Belfort because, though the film is set in the recent past, and shades of a lovably familiar, Scorsese-esque mobster pop up, DiCaprio's wolf is a species of amorality still unknowable, unclassifiable, the grinning beast in a monster flick about inequality. Should Scorsese have understood Belfort before making a three-hour film about him? I suppose so, but then the horror would have a remedy.
Q: Why is "American Hustle" not considered "important" enough to win Best Picture?
A: I love this question, and love hearing it, because, like a smug 15-year-old who catches an adult in a hypocrisy, all I see are answers that are ugly, messy; respondents can't reply without tarnishing themselves. See, if there's conventional wisdom on this year's best picture race, the line goes: It's a three-way heat among "12 Years a Slave" (serious, artful, important), "Gravity" (heady, beautiful, more of a technical achievement) and, in distant third place, "American Hustle" (bright, entertaining, vintage Hollywood, just Not Best Picture Material). Which, as I listen to these arguments, makes me defensive: What is The Kind of Movie That Should Win Best Picture?
That, of course, has an old sawhorse of an answer: based on a true story, not American, charming (though not hugely fun), stuffed with emoting.
Nobody quite says it so bluntly. They imply it, year after year, Day-Lewis after Day-Lewis. Still, when you're watching the Oscars, ask yourself: Are my tears more valid than my joy? Is deep filmmaking less valuable than deep storytelling? Would you think of a Rembrandt as more significant because it's more austere than an airy, colorful Mondrian?
Look closely at the inevitable clip reels in which Hollywood celebrates Hollywood, a familiar flood of Fred Astaire gliding, Gene Kelly splashing in puddles, Harrison Ford whooping it up in the Millennium Falcon, Charlie Chaplin dining on a shoe and Marilyn pushing down her dress as steam rises: The prevailing emotion will be the very movie-ness of our most beloved movies.
And yet, at the end of the night, in the final minutes, despite all that, despite months of Oscar campaigns and the goofy grandeur of the season itself, we expect this new best picture to be the apotheosis of contemporary film? It's like a five-month pizza party, and at the end everyone has to put on robes and carve history into a stone block.
We want to believe we take ourselves seriously, and, therefore, "American Hustle," alive and effortless and arguably a monument to the thrill of a good movie, is less significant than "12 Years a Slave," less substantial than forward-thinking "Gravity." Basically, that is that.
The people who vote for Oscars understand as well as anyone that a smart delight, with Hollywood in its veins, is no less a miracle than a demanding epic. And yet, American filmmaking dazzle, verve and skill, what the French call "pure cinema," rarely trumps that other American trait of feeling self-consciously lightweight, overly plastic. Which is to say, too American.
Q: Do the ambitions of good actors fade once they win an Oscar — i.e., if Matthew McConaughey wins a best actor Academy Award, will the thrilling McConaissance continue?
A: Yes, it will. Because I want it to, and because the McConaissance has made even the most cynical moviegoers (which perhaps once included McConaughey himself) question their own presumptions. One of the most joyful parts of going to movies the past few years has been watching McConaughey, newly energized but with the same look of lazy eccentricity he showed in his breakthrough role in "Dazed and Confused." To paraphrase him in that film, the audience has gotten older but he is staying the same age.
The fear — and there's 86 years of Academy Awards precedent to keep us up at night — is that a freshly crowned McConaughey, officially recognized as rehabilitated after years of squandering his talent, would be drained of drive, or, paradoxically, that opportunities would dry up. It's an affliction better known for unfairly striking more actresses than actors — for every Cuba Gooding Jr., there's a Hilary Swank (two Oscars) and Mercedes Ruehl.
But this feels different. McConaughey's second act seems more organic than coldly calculated, cleverly playing off of his nude-bongo-playing period ("Magic Mike"), his image as the drawling oddball (HBO's "True Detective"). Even his Oscar-nominated role in "Dallas Buyers Club," for which he lost 45 pounds, does not fully erase his movie-star appeal on screen in the way that dramatic, Oscar-baiting transformations tend to swallow the actor.
He's playing a longer game.
Which reminds me: The penultimate episode of "True Detective," starring McConaughey, is on Sunday night too, and if we're living in the new golden age of TV, why should we still care about the Oscars? But you'll have to answer that one.