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Oscars: The Best of… Everything?

When it comes to Oscar prognostication, the noms and awards from all the various guilds and organizations can either act as indicators of what's to come—or make no sense at all.


If you’re an inveterate Oscarologist and film enthusiast like me, you may have found yourself following not just the Oscar nominations themselves, but the precursor awards too. Each decade more and more organizations try to muscle in on Oscar’s territory, with varying degrees of success. None of these organizations can quite claim Oscar’s 82 years’ worth of longevity, but subsets of them are actual movie industry institutions in their own right. I’m speaking of movie guilds, the trade organizations and labor unions that account for the people that every movie requires: directors, producers, writers, actors, cinematographers, editors, etc.  Most of these organizations cropped up out of necessity and opportunity in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, coinciding with the breakdown of the Golden Age studio system, which used to keep creative personnel under long-term contracts.
Movies begin with a script (unless they’re a blockbuster franchise, in which case they begin with a release date, but that’s another story!) and most subsequent steps require the guiding hand of a director. It’s appropriate, then, that the writers and directors got in on the “best” act early, almost as soon as their organizations formed. Despite their 50-plus year histories, most of the other guilds didn’t start giving out their own laurels until the Oscar race became the modern campaign-friendly circus to which we’re now accustomed. This began, roughly speaking in the early 1990s. Somewhere along the timeline everyone decided they wanted a piece of Oscar’s pie… or wanted to be the one serving it up.


Whip It


You’d think that costume designers would be the best judge of costumes, art directors the best judge of art direction, and so on. But one of the curiosities of awards season is that if a movie is well loved it becomes “The Best of Everything” and it starts popping up in places you wouldn’t necessarily think of seeing it. This year The Hangover won a comedy editing nomination from its guild. It’s obviously a well loved picture and, yes, it’s funny but… Best Editing? Really? Over the intricacies of Duplicity, the exuberance of Whip It, and the dark jagged comedy of Observe and Report?
Last year Slumdog Millionaire, wildly loved by its constituency, was nominated by virtually every guild, even costume design! You’ll see this enthusiasm-override continue into each Oscar race, where the Best Picture nominees will generally dominate all fields. They even take the lion’s share of the trophies in technical categories whether or not the work feels special there. Take the sound of Slumdog Millionaire. Was it really a more stunning achievement than the robot and sci-fi soundscapes of WALL•E or the thundering ominous Batman triumph The Dark Knight? If you’re rewarding the sound for Slumdog, aren’t you really rewarding its lively intoxicating score? And yet, the sleeper hit won the sound prize and both music categories, too.
It’s not only excessive “I love this movie!” sentiment that drives the Guild prizes and then the more elite Academy branches into questionable decisions, but also politics. This year (and in previous years) policies and membership criteria regularly thwart a careful consideration of the year’s best work. For reasons I’ve personally never understood, animated films, for example, are not eligible at the Writers Guild Awards. Oscar voters often correct this oversight (especially if the movie is a Pixar effort) but it’s still a problem: being disqualified during precursor awards doesn’t help your awards season profile, which can in turn damage your Oscar nomination prospects. This year, the Writers Guild in particular made so many disqualifications—everything from Inglourious Basterds to A Single Man to An Education and beyond—that it’s no wonder that James Cameron’s Avatar, won a writing nomination. This honor came despite the general consensus that the screenplay isn’t exactly the wind beneath its (dragon) wings.
Slumdog Millionaire Jai Ho


If you visit Oscar’s official website you’re currently greeted by Academy members talking on loop about voting on their ballots. Jeannine Oppewall, a four-time nominee for art direction says, “I honestly feel that if you’re going to vote on something you need to be as informed as you can. You need to understand what the field is and what all the options could be. And not just vote on one that you like because you’ve seen it.” John Travolta, a two-time nominee for acting (Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction), warns, “You have to push aside all your special affinities and affections for people you know, people you like.”


But these are idealistic views of what happens in voting, and usually “favorites” tend to win out, regardless of merit. This makes sense from a human standpoint. You don’t look at your loved one and think, “They have the best eyes… too bad about those elbows!” but from a movie-loving craft perspective it can be aggravating. Here’s hoping that Academy voters in all of the branches take a hard look at their nomination ballots this year (which includes the fields in which they work and Best Picture only) and vote on that singular achievement itself. There’s always the Best Picture portion of the ballot to vote on the whole movie you happen to love the best. It doesn’t need to show up in both places unless that category is exactly where it happens to shine.
Oscar nomination ballots are due a week from Saturday. The official nominations will be announced on February 2, 2010. Here’s hoping they spread the wealth. For if a film has glorious character-revealing costumes and nothing much else to recommend it, shouldn’t it still bask in the glow of a Costume Design Oscar nomination when all is said and done?


More in this series:
The Oscar Combination

The Peoples' Globes
Sundance: The Oscar Connection


Nathaniel Rogers blogs on The Film Experience. He is also a bit of an Oscar savant.



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