This year’s Oscar nominations brought many surprises, and the one that has been heating up the airwaves is the absence of Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck, Tom Hooper and Quentin Tarantino from the Directors race (usually in that order).
Explanations and conspiracy theories immediately sprang up. Maybe the Academy -- and by extension the entire Hollywood establishment -- simply hates all of them, despite the fact that they all already have Oscars on their mantels at home. Maybe the new online voting system confused too many voters. Maybe the earlier deadlines meant that people didn’t get to see all the films. Maybe terrorism, torture, slavery, and (apparently) the French revolution were too politically charged for the overly sensitive elite. Maybe the director’s branch is actively trying to keep down women. And actors. And gunslingers. And musicals. If you pour through the 85 year history of the Academy Awards, you are certain to find enough data points to support any one of these hypotheses. I even take some of these trends into account when making my predictions.
But there are two other explanations that I’d like to explore. The first is the mathematical certainty that in a close race someone is going to be left out. After all, few people are arguing that the films of Spielberg, Lee, Russell, Haneke or Zeitlin were unworthy of recognition. It’s simply that it’s been a great year for film. Which suggests that the others weren’t “snubbed” -- a word whose definition includes disdain or uncordial intent -- so much as that they barely missed the cut off. For all we know, they may have composed a four-way tie for sixth place, with each of them receiving as little as one vote fewer than the fifth place nominee.
On Oscar night, when only one person can take home the statue, everyone says that it’s “an honor to be nominated.” In a season where there’s an embarrassment of riches, perhaps we should start approaching nomination morning with the understanding that “It’s an honor NOT to be nominated too”, as long as people keep talking about you afterward.
But there is a second theory that I’d like to explore. I know that it will be a painful one for many people, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s some truth to it. What if the directing nominations accurately reflect what the Academy’s best picture nominees would have been if there were only five? What if the accountants at Pricewaterhouse Coopers aren’t wringing their hands about the directors, but rather celebrating the fact that the expanded best picture field allowed for more popular films to make the cut? What if the post-analysis lesson isn’t that something new has broken, but rather that something has finally been fixed?
It sounds absurd at first to think that favorites like Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Les Miserables and (to a lesser extent) Django Unchained wouldn’t have made a five film lineup. But let’s remember why they expanded the field to begin with: They were worried that the public’s favorite films -- even those that had garnered significant critical support -- were getting shut out of the nominations. To make matters worse (from the crass perspective of tv ratings), they were losing those slots to films that were independent, artistic or even (gasp!) foreign.
Independent. Artistic. Foreign. Beasts Of The Southern Wild fits the first two criteria, and Amour fits all three. Combine that with Lincoln’s 12 nominations, Life Of Pi’s 11 nominations, and Silver Lining Playbook’s eight nominations -- including four acting nods -- and this scenario starts to resemble Oscar’s historical record. It suggests that the split between the Academy’s choices and the public’s is still just as alive as ever, only now that split is playing out in the director’s race instead of the Big Kahuna.
The criticism the Academy is getting for their directing picks is but a minor rumble compared to the howling that we might have seen under the old best picture rules. A howling, by the way, that might have cut into audience share and advertising dollars in a way that a directorial skirmish never will. Somewhere tonight there is an Academy official who knows the score. They aren’t complaining. They’re just glad there were nine.