Is ‘Australia’ really in the Academy’s wheelhouse?

Posted by · 5:55 pm · November 10th, 2008

I haven’t hidden the fact that I’m in the tank for Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” or at least I hope to be — when we’re eventually allowed to see it. It is, bar none, my personal most-anticipated title of the next two months, sink or swim.

I am, however, beginning to get nervous about its Oscar chances, as troublesome buzz circulates about its down-to-the-wire editing and last-minute narrative changes. The Academy tends to shy away from anything that might be perceived — deservedly or not — as a grand folly, preferring works that play the publicity game a little safer.

A part of me has thought for some time that, should “Australia” overcome the naysayers, it could be welcomed by voters as a return to the more “traditional” model of Best Picture winner — sweeping, romantic, period-set and controversy-free — after four consecutive years of honouring bleak, un-pretty and (relatively) modern-day works. It’s argument that can also be made in favour of another unseen film widely presumed to be the one to beat: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

However, over at The Film Experience, Nat Rogers makes an excellent point to the contrary, suggesting that the romantic epic is less of an Oscar ‘gimme’ genre than we tend to presume:

My initial instinct, minus any research, was that Oscar loves to be romanced by beautiful people in period finery, their love story intertwined with famed world events. But is that really true? Perhaps it’s just that early Oscar champion “Gone With the Wind” casts a really long shadow …

Oscar isn’t always in the mood for retro loving. But even when they aren’t, the films can quite often emerge with Best Actress and Costume Design nominations and a stray nomination of some other sort. “Australia”‘s chances in a wide array of categories clearly hinge on how deep audiences fall into reciprocal love with Kidman’s aristocrat and Jackman’s cattle driver.

It’s a smart, entertaining piece, and you can read the rest here. Rogers supplements his argument with a list of romantic epics that were at least nominated for Best Picture, and even with a number of iffy inclusions like “My Fair Lady” (hmm) and “Bonnie and Clyde” (nice thought, but no), it’s a surprisingly short one. Of course, the Academy swooned to the genre for three consecutive years a decade ago, feting “The English Patient,” “Titanic” and (stretching a little here) “Shakespeare in Love,” but since then, the strike rate has been markedly lower.

“Atonement” may have (barely) scored a nod earlier this year, but it seemed a rather grudging one. Meanwhile, 2003’s frozen-out “Cold Mountain” stands as the clearest cautionary tale for a film like “Australia.” A beautifully mounted, starrily cast epic from with weightily prestigious source material and an Oscar-winning director at the helm, that film’s Academy credentials seemed almost too impeccable, and voters possibly resented the widespread assumption that this was catnip to them.

Not so much a bad film (I think it deserved a place over at least two of the nominees that year) as a deeply unfashionable one, the exclusion of “Cold Mountain” from the race could be read as one indication of an Academy entering a new, less romantic phase. With what appears to be a playfully kitsch aesthetic, “Australia”‘s evident auteur-led eccentricity might put it at more of an advantage with the Academy these days, but it remains a risky proposition.

I used the word “phase” earlier, and it’s a important one when discussing the Academy — it’s hard to accurately define true Oscar-bait when the voters’ mood swings so violently over the years. The 60’s for the Academy was an era of overstuffed spectacle (frequently musical, at that), before their daring choice “Midnight Cowboy” ushered in a considerably more intimate, downbeat decade of winners — not entirely unlike what we’ve been seeing in recent years.

They tired of that phase then, just as I’m sure they will now. Whether it happens this year or a little further down the line is something I’m interested to see. No doubt the powers behind “Australia” and “Benjamin Button” are too.

→ 13 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

13 responses so far

  • 1 11-10-2008 at 8:38 pm

    Dan said...

    Did you watch Oprah today? The episode was devoted to ‘Australia’ (guests were Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman), and Oprah freakin loved it. LOVED it. The audience ate it up, too. After seeing their reaction, I’m quite convinced that the film will do well at the box office and with the Academy.

  • 2 11-10-2008 at 9:34 pm

    Drew said...

    I agree. This film is an Oscar contender. It should pass the $100 million mark with Oprah’s approval. She helped our President- Elect win the White House. The little boy in the film might just earn a nomination as well.

  • 3 11-11-2008 at 2:59 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    It could be huge. Saw the trailer on the big screen for the first time last night and it was very impressive. It’s a risky film, but also one that could combine popularity with big box office leading to succes.

  • 4 11-11-2008 at 6:39 am

    Kokushi said...

    I cant trust oprah, she could say the movie was great and it may be but im sure benjamin button and The Wrestler are better.

  • 5 11-11-2008 at 8:24 am

    Ivan said...

    I think Australia will play well at GG not so sure at the Oscars

    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
    The Reader
    Revolutionary Road

    Leonardo DiCaprio/RR
    Frank Langella/Frost-Nixon
    Sean Penn/Milk
    Brad Pitt/TCCOBB
    Mickey Rourke/The Wrestler

    Angelina Jolie/Changeling
    Nicole Kidman/Australia
    Kristin Scott Thomas/I´ve Loved You So Long
    Meryl Streep/Doubt
    Kate Winslet/RR

    Happy Go Lucky
    Mamma Mia!
    Rachel Getting Married
    Sex and the City: The Movie
    Slumdog Millionaire

    Josh Brolin/W
    Pierce Brosnan/Mamma Mia!
    Robert Downey Jr./Iron Man
    Dustin Hoffman/Last Chance Harvey
    Dev Patel/Slumdog Millionaire

    Anne Hathaway/Rachel Getting Married
    Sally Hawkins/Happy-Go-Lucky
    Sarah Jessica Parker/Sex and the City
    Meryl Streep/Mamma Mia!
    Emma Thompson/Last Chance Harvey

    Danny Boyle/Slumdog Millionaire
    Stephen Daldry/The Reader
    Baz Luhrman/Australia
    Christopher Nolan/The Dark Knight
    Gus Van Sant/Milk

    Josh Brolin/Milk
    Ralph Fiennes/The Reader
    Philip Seymour Hoffman/Doubt
    Heath Ledger/The Dark Knight
    Michael Shannon/RR

    Penelope Cruz/Vicky Cristina Barcelona
    Viola Davis/Doubt
    Rosemarie Dewitt/Rachel Getting Married
    Marisa Tomei/The Wrestler
    Kate Winslet/The Reader

    Slumdog Millionaire
    The Reader
    Revolutionary Road

    The Reader
    Revolutionary Road

    Nothing But the Truth
    Sex and the City: The Movie
    The Wrestler

  • 6 11-11-2008 at 8:28 am

    Drew said...

    Oh yea, Australia will have many Globe nods. Maybe even for Hugh Jackman. Though the Best Actor/Drama category is stiff.

  • 7 11-11-2008 at 12:19 pm

    Patrick F. said...

    “The Academy tends to shy away from anything that might be perceived — deservedly or not — as a grand folly, preferring works that play the publicity game a little safer.”

    What about “The Hours”? That had disaster written all over it before it opened, and it turned out to be one of the best films of the decade.

    I think you’re right though. Australia’s visual style will be unignorable, but with such safe bet “Nothing-Ventured-Nothing-Gained” picks like Doubt and Frost/Nixon, its hard to imagine them going for Australia.

  • 8 11-11-2008 at 12:31 pm

    Chad said...

    Australia will win Best Picture. End of story.

  • 9 11-11-2008 at 4:45 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “What about “The Hours”? That had disaster written all over it before it opened.”

    Really? I never saw how that one could miss. I don’t think it was vast or risky enough to qualify as a potential folly — but then I don’t really remember what the buzz around it was at the time.

    For now, I still think “Australia” will be nominated. I think it may even be a potential winner. But as I said, I’m nervous.

  • 10 11-11-2008 at 10:26 pm

    Drew said...

    I hope it gets a AA nod for Best Picture. I do think Baz will get a directing nod even if the film does not. We will have to see in a couple of weeks about the critics. There are many people out there that want this film to fail on every level.

  • 11 11-13-2008 at 12:06 am

    Jackson said...

    Everybody thinks this is just a romance story.
    This is true but it is obviously also about Australia the country.
    Stop holding it back just because it ‘revolves’ around a love story.

    Slumdog Milionare is a love story.
    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a love story.
    Revolutionary Road is a love story.

    Get over it “In Contention”. It looks like a brilliant film.
    Who knows it could be just as good as “Gone With The Wind”.

  • 12 11-13-2008 at 3:26 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Wow, someone didn’t read the article very carefully. Nobody’s “holding it back” — I’ve mentioned several times on the site how excited I am about the film.

    I was posing a theory about the Academy’s shifting tastes, that is all.

    And I’m not sure “a love story” is precisely what I’d call “Revolutionary Road.” A “falling out of love story,” perhaps.

  • 13 11-13-2008 at 5:40 am

    Drew said...

    Well for the moment, this is the film that every Oscar pundit has on their #1 movie radar. Most of them to see if this film is another ” Cold Mountain” or yet worse, ” Far and Away”. I hope it is much better than those two films. It worries me that Oprah didn’t mention Oscars on her show earlier this week. Maybe she didn’t want to go that far with her praises. The Oscars can be very tricky even with good films. Remember, Hairspray received stellar reviews but was shut out come Oscar nomination day.