Oscar Mania: Is Hollywood “The Master” of its Own Domain?

Ah, the Oscars — Hollywood’s annual self-congratulatory extravaganza.  Although I love movies far too much to simply dismiss the Oscars, this year I’m more skeptical of the Academy’s motivations than ever.  As always, this charade is all about  money.  The golden statue  too often fails to be bestowed upon the year’s “best” achievements, but rather the achievements that promote and expand the profitability of the Hollywood Industrial Complex.

Fortunately, the viewing public is not as naive as it once was.  There’s a reason so many Oscar prediction articles this time of the year are broken up by what “should win” and what “will win”.  We know that there are other factors in play and we accept that these films are not judged in an artistic vacuum, purely on the merits of their creative, artistic, and cinematographic endeavors.

I’ve been happy to overlook the shortcomings of the Academy Awards for years.  But this placative approach came to a screeching halt when Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was left out of the Best Picture nominees list, with only nine out of a maximum of ten films being nominated.  This was a blatant and purposeful snub.

The Best Picture list is crowded, but they could have fit in one more

I have a close friend living in L.A. who has helped clue me in as to just how much the Academy Awards depend on the phony politics of the Hollywood elite.  For films to garner Oscar “momentum” studios have to campaign and promote the films they think have the best chance of winning.  Meanwhile, producers, directors, executives, and actors orchestrate heavy doses of well-rehearsed schmoozing.  They buy billboards, send out DVDs, and host galas for members of the Academy to come eat, drink, and be merry in an effort to sway their votes.

I’m upset by this because I believe that The Master was one of the best films of the year, if not the best — and the main reason it wasn’t even nominated for best film, director, or original screenplay, is because P.T. Anderson notoriously doesn’t give a rat’s ass about throwing parties to support his films or dropping off DVDs at the doorstep of every member of the Academy.  He just doesn’t bother, which, it appears, pisses everyone off.  It’s not outrageous to suggest that the Academy is intimated by, even fearful of, P.T’s talent — we’re talking about a guy who wrote and directed Boogie Nights at 27.

P.T. needs more golden statues for me to accept the legitimacy of the Academy (more silver bears are also welcome)

Now I’ll certainly concede that The Master is not easy to watch.  It can be frustratingly opaque and uncomfortably challenging.  It’s also beautiful and scintillating and wholly original.  It ignites, then escapes.  It is a film unlike any we’ve seen before.  It asks more questions than it answers. It forces its viewers to examine themselves in a way that movies rarely do.  It is an experience that transcends the cinema, leaving you befuddled over the mercurial possibilities of the future of filmic art.

The Academy purports to be the great guardians of cinema.  The Oscars take place once a year, and with the whole world watching, they serve to remind us just how important films are in all of our lives — just how magical the movie-going experience can be.  Movies, they practically shout, represent more than a popcorn fest over jousting robots.  At their finest, they reflects who we are and where we’ve been, as well as where we’re going.

The Academy has deemed this obsessive ego-stroking as a necessary part of the show, however, it’s starting to ring hollow.  After Argo wins best picture, that will be two meta-movies (movies that self-reflexively examine film or the filmmaking process) in a row that have taken home the grand prize, with The Artist and its affectionate celebration of film winning best picture last year.  At some point Hollywood needs to put its golden statues where its mouth is.  They cannot continue to celebrate the importance of film while snubbing perhaps their greatest auteur.  It’s counter-intuitive and conservative and, over time, may prove to be unsustainable.  If audiences continue to demand more from their films, I pray that Anderson’s next project, Inherent Vice, carries with it the opportunity to shake up the status quo.

As for the films that have been nominated for best picture, let me cut to the chase.  It’s going to come down to Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, or Lincoln.  I loved Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook but they are unlikely to contend with the aforementioned heavy weights.  I think you can eliminate Lincoln because with all the set pieces and monologues, it could have been done as a play.  Those voters who put film (not theater) on a pedestal won’t vote for Lincoln, in part, because of this.  I do think Spielberg will get Best Director and obviously my boy Daniel Day-Lewis is taking home Best Actor yet again.

And then there were two.  If Zero Dark Thirty wins, we might call Kathryn Bigelow the New Englad Patriots of cinema.  She’d be in the midst of a dynasty after taking home two best picture awards in the span of three years.  The perplexing wrench in all of this is that Zero Dark Thirty is clearly a better, more important film than The Hurt Locker.  I suspect that the liberal Academy will not like the idea of torture still existing under the Obama Administration thrown in their face. The United States committed grave human rights violations during the eight, terrible years of the Bush Administration and Zero Dark Thirty importantly but uncomfortably reminds us that those practices have not magically disappeared under Obama.

I do think that Jessica Chastain will take home the Best Actress award.  While I love Jennifer Lawrence and Emmanuelle Riva is my dark horse, Chastain is a young, relatively unknown actress.  It’s in Hollywood’s interest to give her this award, announcing her as yet another up-and-coming A-list actress that people will want to pay to see for years to come.  I also think that Zero Dark Thirty will win best editing, as the amount of cuts in a movie that long must have been a tireless effort, yet one that was done so well that those 2 hours and 40 minutes seem to fly by.

Argo will win because it presents the great double whammy:  a tense political thriller period piece that touches on still-sensitive international relations AND a Hollywood satire that reflexively shows love for the very industry we’re all gathered here to applaud.   While I do think Argo was fantastically well done, it’s still a safe choice.  Over time, I can only hope that we collectively demand more from Hollywood.  If film is to continue to grow as one of the great art forms in modern society, Hollywood will need to expand their willingness to embrace innovation and stick to the values they purport to represent.  They also have to start caring a little bit less about money, which unfortunately tempers my expectations quite a bit.  For now, I’ll bide my time until Inherent Vice, due out sometime in 2014.


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