THE LONG SHOT: What are precursors for, anyway?

Posted by · 11:00 am · September 30th, 2009

Anne Hathaway at the 2009 Critics Choice AwardsI didn’t time my holiday to coincide with the sleepiest week of awards season, but that’s how it panned out anyway. While I spent 10 days drinking my way along the canals of France’s Burgundy region, divorced from my computer screen and, I admit, any thoughts of Oscar whatsoever, the industry, too, took a collective siesta.

As people assimilated the minimal revelations of this year’s festival run (Gosh, people like “Precious?” Who knew?) and steeled themselves for the annual madness ahead, the Producers Guild of America clearly aimed to take advantage of the lull by announcing the expansion of its feature film nominees to 10. The blogosphere stirred briefly, dutifully posted the press release, and went back to sleep.

The PGA was probably hoping for more of a reaction than it got, but that’s what happens when you ape a larger organization’s move three months after the fact…as everyone suspected you would, anyway.

The truth, however, is that the news was as dispiriting as it was unsurprising. Because for all the organization’s feeble claims that the copycat move was made purely in the interests of artistic diversity, all it does is expose a serious identity crisis that afflicts many of the season’s precursors.

A generally safe-playing award that nonetheless occasionally exhibited flashes of genuine individuality and inspiration – the off-the-wall choices of “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Crying Game,” for example – the PGA has now explicitly aligned itself with the drearily homogenous lot of precursors (the Guilds, the Broadcast Film Critics, even the BAFTAs) whose self-admitted raison d’être is not to express their own conception of the year’s best, but simply to anticipate that of the Academy.

What’s wrong with this? Call me old-fashioned, but any artistic award should be a sincere statement of preferential opinion, however misguided. It should not be reduced to simply another heat (or semi-final, if you prefer) in advance of the “official” race that is Oscar night, which is precisely what so many precursors (even that term is needlessly reductive) have voluntarily done.

The test of a precursor’s credibility is how much it means in isolation. If an actor – Anne Hathaway, say — wins the BFCA award but misses out on the Oscar, how rewarded does she really feel? Of course she’d say otherwise, but my guess is not very — because the award has established so little identity or stature of its own.

(from left) Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of CairoContrast that with awards bodies that by and large disregard the Oscar race: the higher-end critics’ awards, major festival trophies and, to a lesser extent, the Independent Spirits. Hell, even the Golden Globe comedy prizes in a good year. A win from such organizations ranks as a credible achievement in and of itself, even if it does little for a contender’s Oscar chances.

A critics’ circle like the National Society of Film Critics, for example, knows full well when it declares a film like “Yi Yi” or “Waltz With Bashir” as the year’s best, the Academy isn’t going to take any notice, but they take a certain pride in venturing off the beaten track. (Quite the opposite of the self-demeaning pride of groups like the BFCA, that formally boast in their own ceremony of their Oscar-bellwether strength.)

Some pundits get strangely irritated by organizations like the NSFC, accusing them of being perverse or even snobbish in their reluctance to play within the field of Oscar frontrunners. I think the opposite: the idiosyncratic nature of such awards makes them the most exciting, and most prestigious, of all precursors.

To the PGA and other awards bodies considering following the Academy’s every move, ‘Simon Says’-style, I offer the BAFTAs as a cautionary tale against doing so. Up until 10 years ago, the BAFTAs were one of the quirkiest and most endearing of all film awards. Taking place a month after the Academy Awards, they had free rein to do what they like, and did so most of the time: their Best Picture winners included international Oscar non-starters like “Jean de Florette” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” while openly celebrating worthy local cinema from “The Commitments” to “Nil by Mouth.” They weren’t always right, but the BAFTAs were nothing if not distinctive.

In 2000, the BAFTAs made the decision to precede the Oscars for the first time, upped their tally of nominees per category from four to five, and surprised by picking the (then) BAFTA-atypical “Gladiator” as Best Picture.

Waltz with BashirA decade on, BAFTA members are ignoring smaller homegrown fare and nominating locally unpopular Oscar-bait (“American Gangster,” “Changeling”) in an inconsistent attempt to be prime Oscar forecasters. They may have a bigger audience than ever before, but their personality – and credibility – is slowly being sanded away. Call that a success if you will.

So my advice to the precursor awards – those that shouldn’t be disbanded altogether, at any rate – is similar to that I gave Academy voters in last week’s column: think for yourselves. Use the platform you’ve built to shove less celebrated contenders into the spotlight. Relish the chance to stun viewers with a curveball. And if you truly love the unanimously lauded frontrunner most, that’s fine too. Just do it for the right reasons – not the spineless ones that powered the PGA’s recent decision.

In closing, I’m reminded of an exchange I had with “Happy-Go-Lucky” star Sally Hawkins, some weeks after she was snubbed by both Oscar and BAFTA, despite sweeping the top U.S. critics’ awards and landing a Golden Globe into the bargain. Was she disappointed?

“Not really,” she answered. “It would be pretty bad manners to be disappointed after so many lovely people gave me their own awards. They all mean something different. The Oscars, much as I’d have loved to go, are just a different award.”

If only more awards bodies felt the same way.

→ 13 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Long Shot

13 responses so far

  • 1 9-30-2009 at 11:37 am

    red_wine said...

    The Baftas will always have a point in their favor for me and that is they gave Best picture to Woody Allen’s glorious Manhattan. But off late, they have really lost credibility(save for chance miracles like the Best picture nomination for The Lives Of others).

    But yeah, what do the precursors do? They bore the hell out of us and repeat the same things over and over again so many times that they deaden even the slightest element of surprise come oscar night. This year, it went 100% on cue, even beginners got all major categories correct.

    The worst part is the repetition. Last year was painful in that regard. How can the same 5-6 films be the best films of the year, best directed, best written, best shot, best edited, best acted. The individual guilds instead of nominating the best in their field seek to predict the Oscars with the SAG pulling the ultimate cop-out last year when they nominated and then awarded Best Ensemble to Slumdog!!!

    But Guy I agree, LAFCA, NYFCC & NSFC mean so much more than any of these awards. I completely agree that any disregard for Oscars really props up their credibility. Even according to the law of averages, overwhelming single-mindedness scares me and that’s why critics polls and these 3 critics awards seem like the last bastion of contrarian opinion. Hawkins swept these 3 and it still hurts today that Oscars(and worse Baftas) couldn’t care less.

  • 2 9-30-2009 at 11:52 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    Ya your right, but thats just not how it is anymore, but I have to disagree to some extent. Most award bodies celbrated Wall-E as the best of the year as well as the dark knight and the wrestler but none of them saw the infamous best picture nod, they were just truely good movies. But wehn it comes to movies like forst/nixon, the reader, american gangster, cider house rule, etc.. and filoms of that nature theres no way everyone thinks that their the best of the year

  • 3 9-30-2009 at 11:53 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    also kris or guy, the reviews for a serious man are really throwing me off, anyone care to comment?

  • 4 9-30-2009 at 12:08 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    One important point you might have explored is the direct impact these “copy cat” precursors ultimately have on actual interest in the Oscars. By the time late-February rolls around, the same people have been honored at ceremony after ceremony. With no real delineation, the Oscars are indeed “just another award” to the masses, which has to play a hand in ratings.

  • 5 9-30-2009 at 12:12 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Very true. I’ve always been in favor of curbing the number of televised ceremonies. When some actors even begin recycling their speeches on Oscar night, you know it’s a problem.

  • 6 9-30-2009 at 12:24 pm

    j said...

    A Serious Man has 87 on BFCA (smack dab between Zombieland’s 85 & Inglourious’s 91), but 65 on MC from 8 reviews, and 70’s on RT for both % of good reviews and average rating.

    Might this open up room for, say, Bright Star and/or the like-titled A Single Man? Or perhaps better reviews are to come. I know their two Oscar successes both got all-around great reviews, unlike their other 11 movies on Metacritic…Interesting, though, given that most pundits have Serious Man on their shortlists.

  • 7 9-30-2009 at 12:25 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    This is an op-ed that I have been dying to read ever since last year and I am so glad you brought this to light, Guy. These critics awards serve not only to recognize (hopefully) great work, but to raise the profile of the winners in question and effectively “lobby” for their inclusion at the Academy Awards.

    But when they just slap on the front-runners and call it a day, they surrender what little power they have among AMPAS and film fanatics like us. Plus, when they go off the beaten path there’s a chance that their choice ends up aging better than the Oscar awardees. Just look at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and how smart they seem now after choosing Brazil as its Best Picture, or the Boston Society of Film Critics for being virtually alone in deeming Frank Langella the Best Actor of 2007. Even when I disagree with them, unique picks always catch my eye better than organizations that go, “Look, we predicted the Oscar winners!”

    So now when we scratch out heads over Hawkins losing the Oscar that was rightfully hers last year, we can say, “Well, at least the National Society of Film Critics, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, The New York Film Critics Circle and the Golden Globes didn’t have their heads up their asses.”

  • 8 9-30-2009 at 3:26 pm

    billybil said...

    Even as a young kid in high school I quickly learned to look to the LAFC and NYFC for unique and exciting insights into what was really top quality film work in a given year. I never considered an Oscar actor the best unless they also got at least one of those awards too. And after a few initial years of frustration about the lack of “truth” in the Oscar selections, I settled in to accepting the glamour of the Oscars walked hand in hand with the glamour of the choices. As the damn Oscars became so important in some circles it was inevitable that they would become compromised by factors outside of the work itself. Besides, most any person who has ever written about film critcism for any length of time admits that selecting the BEST each year is ridiculous anyway because it inherently is subject to individual tastes.

    I absolutely AGREE WITH YOU – God how I wish each group that hands out awards each year took a strong stance and clearly declared their intention to make choices based on their own unique and uniquely qualified perspectives. I do enjoy the Golden Globes partly for this reason – everyone, including their PR people, label it a big party and it’s fun to just see what happens – especially in those unique Comedy performance awards. I sort of wish they still were as out there as they were in 1982 when the awarded Pia Zadora New Star of the Year! I mean, what a hoot that must have been!!

    And I do get tired of knowing everything long before the Oscars. I do miss when I was young and didn’t know about all these early harbingers(although, then, I really LONGED to know more than I did) but it was nice when many winners were, for the most part, surprises. And yes, I know it’s worse now, now that some of us spend so much time online reading each other’s award comments, but how much more fun we’d all have if we got to discuss what various UNIQUE organizations were going to select as winners rather than, as you say, most of them just trying to match the AMPAS inevitabilities.

  • 9 9-30-2009 at 9:45 pm

    James D. said...

    Last year was my first time following the awards season in it’s entirety. It all seemed so silly when everyone kept winning (I wish the Rourke streak had gone one further, though). If you talk to the random cinephile, the scattered praise and scorn for Slumdog Millionaire does not matter the complete adoration that every single awards show gave it.

    While the New York and Los Angeles selections do not match my own at all, they feel much more personal because you aren’t told every day that their films are the best of the year.

    Hopefully ten nominees will keep things interesting.

  • 10 10-01-2009 at 12:09 am

    Glenn said...

    We say this every year, but the groups themselves don’t care at all. The BFCA – my prime target each and every year – is the worst. Not only do they change their nominees to refrect that Oscar will prefer (“Inglourious Basterds” won’t make their BP list despite being better reviewed than at least five of their eventual nominees), but then they go and gloat during the awards ceremony that they have the best prediction rate.

    Whenever we criticise the Globes, let us remember that they nominated “Mulholland Drive” in 2002 and didn’t nominate “Crash” in 2007.

  • 11 10-01-2009 at 12:24 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I avoid criticizing the Globes if I possibly can. In recent years, they also nominated Bjork, “A History of Violence,” “Breaking the Waves,” Mario Bello in lead, Kidman in “Birth” … they’re an odd organization, but they have moments of genuine inspiration, which is more than I can say for a lot of precursors.

    And they’ll forever have my back for giving Sally Hawkins her one TV moment in January. (Actually, they were SO on it this year.)

  • 12 10-01-2009 at 8:44 pm

    David Giancarlo said...

    For me, the Golden Globes get a pass for life based on the strength of the Musical/Comedy winners (Kidman, Streep, Cotillard, and Hawkins) and certain nominees (Bjork, Bello, Scott Thomas, Jolie in “A Mighty Heart”, Kidman in “Birth”) this decade. But even more, I’m grateful that performances like Gena Rowlands and Joan Blondell in “Opening Night” were nominated by HFPA, especially seeing that no other body recognized them.

  • 13 1-03-2010 at 12:57 am

    Andrew2 said...

    I have to admit I’ve agreed with alot of the Globe BP winners such as Babel and The Hours. As to all the other precursors, they usually predict who WONT win the Oscar excepting the Slumdog sweep last year