I 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.
Contrast 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.
A 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.