February 14, 2009

Some new ways of considering the Oscars

So the Oscars are soon...but if you're reading this blog, you probably know that. There's been a lot of grumbling about this year's nominees, and I agree that there were some major snubs. But here's a few things to take into consideration. The first is a fact, and the second is an opinion.

1. (fact) The way that Oscar voting works is convoluted, but surprisingly democratic. Everyone's vote counts (as evidenced by a 1967 tie for Best Actress between Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn). Initially, all the voters in a certain category compile a ranked list of their top five choices for nominees. They can write in anyone. When you consider that in Grammy voting, the organization can overrule the popular vote, the Oscars suddenly seem like the voice of the people. Then it gets into a lot of math I don't understand. But here's an important factor that I think somewhat lessens the democracy: a person or film cannot be nominated if it isn't at least one person's first choice.


So if every single person voting for Best Picture put The Dark Knight as their #2 choice, it would not be nominated, but if a healthy smattering of people put The Reader in the lower ranks of their lists but ONE PERSON put it at #1, it would be nominated. I kind of see what they're going for with that rule, but not really. If my number 2 choice ended up on the final ballot but my number 1 choice didn't, I'd still feel pretty good about voting for #2.

Bottom line: it's easy to blame the Academy for a snub, as if they got in a room and conspired all night, but it's really the decision of thousands of people who may not even know each other. Plus, there's a stupid rule involved.

2. (opinion) Allow me to propose a theory I have that might explain some surprising nominees or winners.

Elements (be it actors or cinematography) from mediocre films stand out more than elements from uniformly solid films.

Only two Best Actress winners of the last 10 years have been from the film that won Best Picture, and only three Best Actor winners. Think of performances like Helen Mirren for The Queen, Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland, Jaime Foxx for Ray, Charlize Theron for Monster, Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote. The movies themselves were okay, but they were really performance vehicles. The performances stood out because the rest of the elements were eh.

I think maybe being too solid can hurt a film. Look at Zodiac. Incredible cinematography, flawless special effects, inspired directing, great performances, great script. Too perfect. Nothing stood out. There were no weak links that would emphasize the strong parts. This may also have been why Revolutionary Road was almost completely ignored (save for a Best Supporting Actor nom). Doubt did get a lot of nominations, but isn't really predicted to win any. That movie is so rock solid from top to bottom that if you gave it one award, you'd have to give it all of them.

Think of it this way. If you walk out of a film and can't immediately put a finger on what you liked best about it, it may not jump into a voter's head when they're assembling the best five whatever of the year. If an Academy member walks out of The Wrestler and his first thought is "Mickey Rourke was amazing!" then he's probably going to conjure up Rourke when he's voting. If he walks out of Revolutionary Road and thinks "That movie was amazing!" he's less likely to think of Leonardo DiCaprio when he's voting. (As an aside, I think the people behind the marketing of The Wrestler shot themselves in the foot by promoting it solely as a performance vehicle - it's completely solid in all areas.)

What do you think?

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