Academy voters try to adhere to the organization's myriad rules during Oscar season -- except for the one barring them from talking about their vote. A convivial lot, Academy members (I've been one for 30 years) habitually chat about their likes and dislikes, but this year the most frequent topic is the lack of zeal for any specific film.
Indeed, this year's Oscar race is among the most wide open in many years. I have a theory about why, but the critics won't like it.
Though film critics contend that 2013 brought forth some exceptional movies, Oscar voters aren't launching crusades in support of any specific picture -- there's no "Avatar" or even "Slumdog Millionaire."
The Golden Globes, an event that is usually both surreal and instructive, provides a case in point. Sure, there were winners and ovations from the audience, but there was also an absence of passion. Even inebriated passion.
And, as usual, the categories themselves were bizarre: The comedy list included Meryl Streep for "August: Osage County." Leonardo DiCaprio had to share a laugh about his supposed comedic talents in "The Wolf of Wall Street."
Of course, comedy per se always struggles during awards season, but so do "entertainments" in general. That's never been truer than 2013, particularly concerning some of the year's most discussed movies. "Inside Llewyn Davis," for instance, was effective in its own idiosyncratic way, but was not "entertaining" in the traditional sense of the word. Indeed, the words "entertaining" or "fun" never appeared in critics' quotes in the film's fusillade of ads; "exquisitely crafted" and "heartfelt" were more common. Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times termed the Coen brothers' movie "a downbeat picaresque adventure," which arguably was a better description. Though nominated for three Golden Globes, including one in the omnibus comedy or musical category, the film won bupkes for the evening. Like "All Is Lost," Robert Redford's demanding opus, "Llewyn Davis" also was snubbed in the major Oscar nominations.
In the same vein, many of the Oscar voters I talked to felt "Wolf of Wall Street" was a powerful film, but so dark and strung out that it represented more an assault than an entertainment. "American Hustle," too, was a brilliantly noirish exercise about bad people doing bad things and getting away with it. Too many voters may have seen the films in too close a proximity, triggering a noir overload.
Arguments about what is or is not entertaining have raged since the beginning of theater. To be sure, westerns constituted pure entertainment for previous filmgoing generations. So did musicals and even gangster films. For a reminder of the diverse menu offered by Hollywood, consider the Oscar nominees of 1939 -- "Stagecoach," "Wuthering Heights," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and, of course, "Gone with the Wind."
Several 20th century playwrights, like Pinter and Pirandello, saw to it that comedy became tragicomedy. In today's Hollywood, the only big laughs seem to come from animated fare like "Despicable Me 2" (though this year's rare exceptions include "The Heat" and "This Is the End").
I would argue that filmgoers by and large go to the movies to be entertained. The same applies to Academy voters. The big entertainment offerings today, however, tend to be franchise films aimed at young foreign audiences -- movies that don't get nominated, and probably never will. Indeed, "Gravity" is the only widely nominated film that is earning the kind of money that franchise hits generally do.
A good friend of mine who was a film critic once confided that critics see filmgoing as work, not entertainment. Their reviews (and nominations) seem to support that hypothesis. "12 Years a Slave" (around $40 million since opening Oct. 18) has been the top choice of most critics associations. The National Society of Film Critics picked the aforementioned "Inside Llewyn Davis" (less then $12 million since Dec. 6) as the year's best film. It's safe to say the films that critics respond to each year consistently rank higher on technique than on entertainment value. Ever try toget a critic to smile?
All of which helps explain why this year's awards race continues to be wide open.
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