THE LONG SHOT: Popular mechanics

Posted by · 6:19 pm · November 25th, 2009

Chris Pine in Star Trek“My God, they’ve thrown in everything but the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Quoted by writer Anthony Holden in his gossipy history “The Oscars,” this was one publicist’s dismayed response to the 1990 Academy Award nominations, which included such unusual concessions to popular (as opposed to critical) opinion as a Best Picture nomination for “Ghost” and a Best Actress nod for Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.”

I remember this year well – I was eight years old, and it was the first Oscar race I followed in detail from burbling Christmas hype to the ceremony itself, digging up and scrapbooking all the press and TV coverage I could find.

And from what I recall of my fledgling research, the unnamed publicist above wasn’t alone in her discontent. In particular, the “Ghost” nomination attracted levels of critical scorn even higher than those usually reserved for the Oscars – the common line being that the Academy had sold out to commerce rather than art, and that the sky would be falling at any given moment.

Does this situation sound at all familiar?

It should do. Though it was a response to an outcome rather than a possibility, the kvetching over the 1990 nods more than slightly resembles the panic that set in among certain pundits and fans alike (including, admittedly, yours truly) when the switch to 10 Best Picture nominees was announced in June.

As those early ‘“The Hangover” for Best Picture’ claims spread across the internet, so did fear among more conservative and/or highbrow types that the change would usher in a “dumbing-down” of the Oscars, and the conversation hasn’t died over the months. Indeed, as the possibility of a top nod for “Star Trek” increases with every “Amelia” that implodes or “Lovely Bones” that confuses, heated debate still rages in comment threads about what studio films are or aren’t too generic to merit Best Picture consideration.

All the while, more and more commercial titles are being thrown into the Best Picture conversation, whether it’s the sci-fi triple-bill of “Avatar,” “Star Trek” and “District 9,” the probable Pixar breakthrough for “Up,” or even Meryl Streep’s comic double-header, “Julie & Julia” and “It’s Complicated.” Even an “Inglourious Basterds,” while artsier than most of these titles, is a less Academy-friendly genre effort given a boost by the widened goalposts.

Sandra Bullock in The Blind SideWhich (if any) of these titles make the final ten is another matter, but the fact is that the Academy’s mid-year bombshell has, for better or worse, shaken up the way people are evaluating Oscar potential – and it’s not limited to the Best Picture category.

That curious Best Actress buzz for Sandra Bullock in a critically dismissed (but surprisingly popular) Hallmark movie owes much to the renewed focus on commercialism in this year’s awards discussion, while some are wondering whether box-office muscle could power the chances of less prestigious contenders like “Ice Age 3” or “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” in the similarly widened Best Animated Feature race.

This newly populist tilt isn’t because doubling the Best Picture field automatically makes room for the big hits – in a year of five nominees, most of the aforementioned titles wouldn’t have entered the Best Picture discussion the way, say, “The Dark Knight” did last year.

Rather, it’s a narrative that has been somewhat forced upon this year’s race by an Academy that has been quite vocal about its desire for more crowdpleasers in the top category, in the hope that it’ll boost Oscarcast viewing figures. Should “Star Trek” find its way into The Ten, it’ll be less an indication of the sort of films that have just missed the cut in years past, and more a sign of voters feeling the pressure not to reveal the Academy’s new bid for diversity as a failure in its very first year.

The problem, in my view, is that the Academy couldn’t have chosen a worse year to take such action. The Ten may have obviously been a kneejerk mea culpa for this year’s “Dark Knight” snub, but 2009 simply hasn’t yet presented a crossover popular phenomenon on the scale of Christopher Nolan’s film.

This puts the Academy in the awkward position of having to consider lesser work as compensation. “Star Trek” may be a smart, well-crafted franchise reboot, but it doesn’t speak to cinema or to society the way Nolan’s blockbuster did. “Up” will probably get Pixar its long-awaited Best Picture nod, but might it not feel like a hollow victory when the film lacks the verve and invention of their best work? Should The Ten go the way of the ill-fated Best Comedy/Musical Score innovation of the 1990s, would nominations for such films look daring with hindsight … or simply anomalous?

Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in GhostMake no mistake: sidelining a “Dark Knight” for a “Frost/Nixon” was a tactical error for the Oscars, but the Academy’s inorganic corrective – and the media’s equally forced conversation about this year’s token populist contenders – doesn’t feel like a satisfying solution.

Still, a visit back to 1990 suggests it’s entirely too soon to panic — or get excited. Yes, “Ghost” got a nomination (and, astonishingly, a writing award), but acclaimed prestige fare (“Dances With Wolves”) still ruled the day, as it would for years to come. (However, the following year’s triumph of an edgy, atypical and wildly profitable horror film was either a fluke or a more positive manifestation of populist voting.)

The sky did not fall. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did not win. But the Academy did continue to balance its more elitist instincts with frequent popular triumphs, be it the sweeps of “Titanic” and “The Return of the King,” healthy hauls for “Gladiator” and “The Departed,” or a zany Best Actor nod (and near-win) for Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Contrary to popular opinion, the Academy hasn’t forgotten its public. So why the forced hand?




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32 responses so far

  • 1 11-25-2009 at 6:35 pm

    Alfie said...

    So do you seriously feel star trek could get a top ten spot? I just don’t see it myself.

  • 2 11-25-2009 at 6:42 pm

    Sir Andrew said...

    I thought Ghost was very deserving of a best picture nod (and I thought it deserved its writing award) but not a win.
    And I personally think that The Dark Knight was sidelined by The Reader, which was worse than Frost/Nixon.
    I suppose the Academy didn’t foresee a weak year in movies, and supposed the fare this year would be just as full of quality films as the last.
    And Star Trek for best picture scares me. But I am 100% behind The Hangover for a nomination.
    Interestingly, I wonder if “the press” pressured the Academy by criticizing the Dark Knight snub. But what was the Academy supposed to officially do to get its members to vote for culturally relevant and first-rate movies? They initiate a ten-nominee system, and suffer a back-lash for trying to do something about their flawed voters.

  • 3 11-25-2009 at 6:47 pm

    Nigel Bridgeman said...

    Hey, I loved Ghost. That said, I was surprised that it received so many nominations because, well, it’s the Oscars (it was a couple of years before I paid any attention to the Oscars so the only award love I knew about was for Whoopi Goldberg).

    I’m working on a piece for my yet-to-be-announced, soon-to-be-defunct film blog about a similar thing, namely the popular films that are being touted for a nomination and how popular, crowd-pleasing films have often been nominated – Star Wars, Jaws, ET, etc. I’m fine with that. Give me a quality piece of entertainment over a quality piece of boredom any day. Give me more Ghosts and The Fugitives, and fewer Out of Africas and A Beautiful Minds.

    One thing I’ve wondered about the expansion to ten nominees – will this change any of the other races? Will Joe Academy Member’s eyes be opened to wider possibilities in more popular films because there are more slots to fill in Best Picture, and therefore nominate the more popular films in the other categories? Everyone is wondering if Star Trek or The Hangover might squeeze into Best Picture, but could the Best Picture thing have any effect on the other categories such as writing or acting?

  • 4 11-25-2009 at 7:06 pm

    James D. said...

    I just saw Star Trek on Monday, and I think it was actually better than the Dark Knight. The Dark Knight’s greatness was interrupted by Bale’s silliness and the clusterfuck ending, while Star Trek was fun the whole way through. I hope it makes the Ten.

  • 5 11-25-2009 at 7:24 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Alfie: I’m not predicting it right now, but yes, I think it’s a distinct possibility.

    Sir Andrew: I think your last paragraph is a bit of an overreaction. They slipped up this year, but as I discuss in the article, the Academy frequently embraces “culturally relevant” movies, both first-rate and otherwise.

    Nigel: I didn’t mean to imply the Academy was wrong to nominate “Ghost” — I think there’s always a case for nominating well-conceived cultural phenomena on that scale. (And hey, I’m totally down with that Julia Roberts nod.)

    James: I know a couple of people who’d agree with you. (I don’t.) But either way, I don’t think “Star Trek” can boast the impact or cultural significance of “The Dark Knight.”

  • 6 11-25-2009 at 7:33 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    Who the heck would have objected to Julia Roberts’s nomination for “Pretty Woman”?

  • 7 11-25-2009 at 7:48 pm

    Loyal said...

    Let’s face it, if Up and Avatar fail to get nominations, the switch to 10 is a failure. Hurt Locker, An Education, A Serious Man, all underperformed at the box office and have gone largely unseen by the public.

  • 8 11-25-2009 at 7:56 pm

    aspect ratio said...

    The most interesting aspect of all this is whether or not the expansion (and change in vote counting to a lesser degree) will have an impact on the mindset and methods of the Academy voters.

    If I were a voter, regardless of what my ranked top ten films would be, with five to pick I could probably come up with five films that I thought were good enough and worthy to be considered a Best Picture nominee, even if those five weren’t necessarily the absolute top five on my own list. For example, I can imagine many voters really loved The Dark Knight but perhaps didn’t think it was “Best Picturesque” enough, and left it off the ballot in favor of more “important” films.

    But with ten films though, it’s just impossible to think voters will be able and willing to set aside the less traditional Best Picture candidates a la The Dark Knight in favor of just the “Best Picturesque” ones. Odd choices and films people feel really passionate about are likely to pop up on ballots.

    Inglourious Basterds for example doesn’t have the widespread support perhaps, but those who really liked it really did like it a lot, and with ten slots having a smaller but passionate fanbase could be more than enough to make it.

  • 9 11-25-2009 at 9:05 pm

    half full said...

    I’m less concerned about Star Trek sneaking in and more excited about the possibility of A Serious Man and Inglorious Basterds getting nominations that would have been impossible a year ago. Some of the artier critic’s faves have legitimate shots at a nomination now. Think of what would have probably been nominated for best picture in years past had there been ten nominees: Mulholland Dr, Talk to Her, Children of Men. The smaller films are still going to suffer while The Reader and Frost/Nixon coast to nods, but it will be a lot easier to bear when a few more interesting films are in the mix.

  • 10 11-25-2009 at 10:34 pm

    red_wine said...

    What causes a film to be a cultural phenomenon? Aren’t we equating cultural phenomenon with huge and repeated attendance. Admittedly, something in which a huge chunk of the population partakes in could be called a cultural phenomenon. Transformers 2 made 400 million dollars domestically(standing ovations and clapping in theaters across the country). Twilight 2 could also be termed a phenomenon breaking the opening day numbers of even The Dark Knight. For all practical purposes, Star Trek has better reviews than The Dark Knight, then its unworthy because it has only 250 million dollars compared to 500 million.

    I personally think both movies are unworthy of a nomination, The Dark Knight was better though than Star Trek but it sort of concerns me that 1 movie could have such huge sway as to force a long standing institution to change its ways. And it was The Dark Knight of all films to necessitate this expansion. Not Mulholland Dr or any other modern classic. Great movies have been snubbed throughout history. Whats the big deal if Dark Knight is not nominated. Of course this is all only if the conjecture that The Dark Knight caused this expansion is true.

    This has really turned out to be a weak year though. Instead of filling the 10 with drivel, I hope some foreign language film can merit consideration. And I’m sure after seeing all the eventual 10, when I’ll rank them in order, Up would be in top half.

  • 11 11-25-2009 at 11:48 pm

    SHAAAARK said...

    I can’t be the only one hoping they go out in a blaze of glory, nominating mostly smaller films.
    But really, I think everyone in the Academy needs to ignore the hype about box office, and focus on what they honestly think are the best films of the year. They shouldn’t feel the need to grant a slot to any film just from an obligation to represent the popular films. If they nominate Up, it should be because it deserves it (which it does) and not because they didn’t nominate WALL-E.
    Also, I think Oscar pundits have a responsiblity to promote obscure films they think the Academy would like if only they would see them. Blockbusters don’t need the help, really.

  • 12 11-26-2009 at 12:52 am

    Marvin said...

    Up is about as good as any Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles Toy Story 2 or Toy Story. It ranks just above Wall-e in my Pixar favorites list, or #6. It is an excellent fantasy adventure and yet another beauty to look at from Pixar’s folks.

    Although I agree that ’09 may not have been the best year for AMPAS to go on such a venture. The year is shaping up as worse than 2008, which in my opinion is saying a lot. The last 2 years have just been bad years for cinema in general.

  • 13 11-26-2009 at 1:15 am

    Loyal said...

    SHAAAARK, it would be amazing in an awful car crash sort of way if Precious or Up in the Air ended up as the highest grossing nominee. I dont want it to happen but it would be very interesting to see.

  • 14 11-26-2009 at 1:37 am

    BootS On Sale said...

    good shoes

  • 15 11-26-2009 at 4:16 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Loyal: Perhaps we should, you know, see “Avatar” before deciding that not nominating it would constitute any kind of failure?

    Aspect Ratio: This statement of yours baffles me:

    “with five to pick I could probably come up with five films that I thought were good enough and worthy to be considered a Best Picture nominee, even if those five weren’t necessarily the absolute top five on my own list.”

    You’re probably right that a lot of voters think this way. But why would you do that? It’s such a defeatist attitude. Can you explain?

  • 16 11-26-2009 at 4:23 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Red Wine: A phenomenon is about more than just the money it makes — even if sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is. Thanks to a combination of factors (principally the pre-election national mood and mourning/fascination over Heath Ledger), “The Dark Knight” entered the pop-culture lexicon in a way that “Transformers” and even “Star Trek” haven’t.

    For example, my parents saw “The Dark Knight,” despite the fact that they usually couldn’t be less interested in comic-book fare. I don’t think they’re even aware of “Star Trek.” That doesn’t make the latter a lesser film, but it does make it a less significant one.

  • 17 11-26-2009 at 5:00 am

    aspect ratio said...

    Guy,

    I know it sounds completely backwards from how you should vote (with your heart), but I enjoy a lot of movies that are mainly meant for entertainment and not much else. For example, on my top ten last year I had Iron Man, which is great fun but even though I love it, if I were an Academy member I’d probably offer up a slot in the top five to Revolutionary Road, a film that aimed to be more than just entertainment, even though I had it a few spots below Iron Man on my list.

    But now with ten slots, I really couldn’t be true to myself if I were to bump Iron Man so far down in favor of films that more fit the bill of a Best Picture nominee.

    Another example, imagine a voter has Up as their no.4 film. Had there been five slots, maybe they’d think that it’s going to get nominated for Animated Feature anyway and bump it down in favor of the no. 5 and 6 films on their list, because those two films are nearly just as good.. But with ten slots to fill, could you really bump it all the way down to no. 11 and without feeling like you’re not being honest? So maybe this year, they’ll keep it as their no. 4, and send in their list of ten films without as much strategic thinking as there would be in a year with five.

    I don’t know if I’m explaining very well, it’s mostly just a gut feeling I’m having, based on how I would react myself to a change from five to ten films.

  • 18 11-26-2009 at 6:19 am

    interstellar said...

    among the ‘popular’ movies: ghost, gladiator and titanic are truly awful; while LotR trilogy and Dances with wolves are masterworks.

    I think popularity is not the problem, actually.

    Correct me if I’m wrong: I read somewhere that in the ’90s producers could be more..’persuasive’ with the academy members, and the more aggressive campaigns led to a popularity contest of people, more than movies.

    Also, this led to the victory of ‘shakespeare in love’ as best pic., too.

    At the beginning of the ’00s the academy changed the rules concerning PR, screeners, etc.

    On the ampas site, I remeber, there are a lot of funny (at least to me) rules categorically and menacingly forbidding contacting members by phone, ‘stalking’ them via e.mail, and giving them ‘gifts’ related to the movies.. :)

  • 19 11-26-2009 at 6:19 am

    Benito Delicias said...

    don’t get why the problem is Frost/Nixon and not the horrible The Reader…

    And Ghost was an o.k choice for a Best Picture contender.

  • 20 11-26-2009 at 6:20 am

    interstellar said...

    –> (gh! sorry for all the errors in the comment: lack of sleep)

  • 21 11-26-2009 at 7:05 am

    red_wine said...

    Guy, here’s another great Best Of Decade poll. It was voted on by about 60 people. They list a top 30 (total 54 films on account of ties).
    http://www.cinemathequeontario.ca/newsrelease_detail.aspx?Id=678

  • 22 11-26-2009 at 7:20 am

    ninja said...

    If 10 nomnees is a compensation for TDK snub, than they are in trouble because only Twilight 2 fits the phenomenon-that-would-boost-ratings-if-it`s-nominated bill and it got abysmal reviews.

    District 9, while a breakout hit due to small budget and over $100 mio take, is still not the household reference. Star Trek is but although it exceeded boxoffice and critical expectations, it never reached the profit hights of TDK or made a similar cultural impact.

    Up did what Pixar movie is expected to do but it does not have the impact of Nemo.

    And there is the oft-forgotten in Best Picture talk that other franchise pehnomenon, Harry Potter. Strong reviews for the latest outing, biggest boxoffice worldwide of 2009 so far, yet no buzz. Perhaps Warners will try to get the series honored when the last movie comes out in 2011.

    That leaves Avatar to deliver or “sacrificing” TDK so that Top 10 could get some geek movies nominated will be pointless. Well, it already is since the movie was deserving, but it`ll be even more so if they nominate something for the sake of nominating something.

  • 23 11-26-2009 at 8:11 am

    John said...

    That was a funny comment from 1990. However, in the end, the Academy looked a lot smarter than the fool who wrote that. 20-some years later, GHOST is most definitely one of the 5 most enduring and beloved movies from that year. Attitudes like his are always threatening to topple the Oscars. The people have the Box Office (and the People’s Choice Awards), the cinematically elite have a bunch of critic’s awards,… but the Oscars represent the movies of the year. For them to do that, they obviously can’t be trumpeting TRANSFORMERS 2 as the best movie of the year, but they most definitely should laud a STAR TREK, a DISTRICT 9, or a HANGOVER as amongst the top 10! Is that really in doubt? Not at all. Will the Academy look stupid? In the short run, perhaps; there will always be the Anthony Holden’s of the world . But 20 years from now, those three movies will still be going strong.
    Over the last 10 years, the moviegoing public and the Academy have diverged in taste. The Oscars have retreated to year-end festival fare while the public will only go see Spider-Man, HArry Potter, or JAck Sparrow at the multiplex. Yet this year, we have three movies that were both critical and popular successes, and they achieved this because they were three damn good movies. Laud them Academy. Otherwise you’re as irrelevant as the masses already think you are.
    (And what’s with bagging on FROST/NIXON? Great movie!)

  • 24 11-26-2009 at 9:58 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Star Wars (1977) received a Best Picture nod. All of a sudden it’s wrong for Star Trek (2009) to do the same?

    There’s nothing wrong with Ghost. For a movie that should’ve never succeeded at any level it holds up surprisingly well. In fact Ghost is a better movie than some of this decade’s Best Picture recipients.

  • 25 11-26-2009 at 12:02 pm

    Silencio said...

    Regarding The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, after repeated viewings as a discerning adult, I consider it to be quite a good movie. It wouldn’t have been that horrifying a nod.

  • 26 11-26-2009 at 12:09 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Personally, I’m still upset that Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap” for the sequel was snubbed for Best Song in 1991.

  • 27 11-26-2009 at 12:45 pm

    Loyal said...

    Guy, I can only base my Avatar thoughts and feelings on the footage I saw in theatres. It was amazing, those 15 or 20 minutes. Could the other 2 hours, 10 minutes be shit? Maybe, but I dont think so.

  • 28 11-26-2009 at 10:18 pm

    Alfie said...

    for me its not so much that its wrong for star trek to get a nod I just don’t see it happening.

  • 29 11-27-2009 at 12:31 am

    Jesse said...

    The 1990 Oscars only matter for two reasons:

    1. Ray Liotta was not nominated for GoodFellas and…
    2. GoodFellas didn’t win best picture.

  • 30 11-27-2009 at 2:51 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Aren’t those reasons they DON’T matter?

  • 31 11-27-2009 at 10:08 pm

    SJG said...

    I’m a staunch supporter of the 10 nominees. The problem isn’t just that 5 Best Picture nominees has often excluded major contenders in favor of lesser fare (like last year’s – and I feel totally comfortable using this word – fiasco), the problem is that the Best Picture nominees just aren’t *representative* of a large subset of quality films.

    There’s this idea that “good movies” are all independent comedies or studio dramas… but who would seriously deny that films like “Star Wars” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or any of “The Lord of the Rings” pictures deserved their nominations? But there are people who really do claim just that!

    And the fact is, there probably were movies in 1977 or 1980 or 2001-2003 that got snubbed in favor of “popular” fare. I think the Academy is RIGHT to try and encourage excellence in all manners of the art of film-making, from small introspective works to “high-concept” blockbusters and everything in between. 10 nominees makes that a possibility.

    Some people act like having such a large field, with options as (potentially) diverse as “An Education” and “Star Trek”, is like comparing apples and oranges. But I think the problem is that too many people think the Oscars are for apples only and we’re all supposed to pretend like oranges don’t even exist.

    Why not reward excellence wherever we find it?

  • 32 11-28-2009 at 3:55 pm

    André said...

    Guy, stop giving the academy ideas about nominating “phenomenons”… if they agree to do that, we’re looking at “New Moon” up for Best Picture! =P