THE LONG SHOT: Bait, switch

Posted by · 8:39 pm · September 29th, 2010

Whether you choose to believe them or not – and speaking for myself, I don’t quite – the media powers that be have currently reduced the 2010 Best Picture race to just two titles: “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech.” That’s entirely (and hopefully, lest things get too dull too soon) subject to change over the next four months, but given what we’ve seen at this point, it’s difficult to devise a could-win theory for many of the films most fancied for the remaining eight slots, be it “Inception” or “Another Year.”

I don’t really blame those in the blogosphere who are narrowing things down to this pair of films: after a lackluster Toronto fest failed to turn up a hidden dragon along the lines of “Slumdog Millionaire,” the slate of contenders looks much as it did before the fall festival season began. With expectations for “Network” and “Speech” pegged high all along, meeting them was enough to seal frontrunner status.

Moreover, the temptation to pit David Fincher’s modish Facebook story and Tom Hooper’s tony royalty porn against each other is hard to resist, given how conveniently the films are opposed: both acclaimed biopics after a fashion, but one concerned with present-day American youth, the other with British aristocracy of yore. “It’s the time-capsule piece versus the time-warp piece,” snarked one friend of mine recently, anticipating a narrative that will likely run all season, even if other frontrunners enter the fray.

Having not seen either film yet, I have no horse in this race right now – though I’d be lying if I said “The Social Network” isn’t the one that has me really champing at the bit. With both films just theoretical entities to me at the moment, however, the thing that strikes me as most interesting about this potential either-or scenario is that the films represent two very different schools of Oscar bait, one of which seems to have lost its pulling power in recent years.

Ever since “The King’s Speech” was announced as Harvey Weinstein’s weapon of choice for this year’s awards season, accusations of calculated baitiness have trailed it with varying degrees of irony. Bill Maher, of course, made the point most piquantly, suggesting that “a historical epic full of British actors in period costumes about Queen Elizabeth II helping her father get over his speech impediment” ticks so many Academy boxes that the Oscar ceremony itself ought be a mere formality.

Maher’s jab was a funny one, and if we were looking ahead to the Best Picture race of, oh, 1996, it might have been quite on the money. But he, like many casual industry-watchers, is adhering to a definition of Oscar bait that the last decade has rendered quite passé. No “historical epic” has taken the Academy’s top prize since “Gladiator” in 2000, and nothing filled with Limey cut-glass vowels since “Shakespeare in Love” two years before that. Even the biopic, ostensibly the Academy’s pet genre, has been on hiatus since “A Beautiful Mind” in 2001.

What have we had since then? Well, among others, a cheerfully misanthropic musical, an extravagant literary fantasy, a pair of bleak, bloody thrillers and a low-budget action picture set in a still-unfinished war. Whatever patterns you might draw from that rum bunch of winners, a preference for cosseted, corseted heritage film is unlikely to be among them.

Some, like Tom O’Neil, have concluded from recent Academy history that the definition of Oscar bait has shifted away from period prestige toward a preoccupation with the now. Academy voters, they would argue, increasingly embrace films that hold a mirror to contemporary society, provoking discussion of such still-tender issues as racial tension (“Crash”), euthanasia (“Million Dollar Baby”) or the Iraq conflict (“The Hurt Locker”).

By that token, “The Social Network,” the topic menu of which includes class warfare, youth alienation and the foibles of modern-day communication, would appear to be this year’s de facto bait, with “The Kids Are All Right,” which gently challenges widespread social prejudices and family structures, nipping at its heels. Both films, it should be said, sell themselves as sparky entertainments rather than sermons: porridgey capital-I Importance in the “Gandhi” vein, another widely misattributed Academy weakness, isn’t on the agenda these days. (If it was, the awards potential of Julian Schnabel’s “Miral” wouldn’t have been shot down from its first Venice screening.)

But that definition, handy as it is, doesn’t quite stick either: if the word “zeitgeist” ever entered the script discussions for a balls-to-the-wall genre workout like “The Departed,” it certainly didn’t make it onto the screen, yet the film triumphed one year after voters were forced to choose between two noble studies of minority oppression.

Such mood swings have always been part of the Academy’s charm: just two years after being widely blasted for their milquetoast caution in crowning “Driving Miss Daisy” the best of 1989, they took a shine to a heady Gothic stew of cannibals, serial killers and sexual insecurity. (No, not that one: “Forrest Gump” was a few years later.)

Almost a year ago, I used this column space to ask what constitutes an “Oscar movie” now, and was no surer then than I am today. In those green months when the likes of “Invictus” and “Nine” were still Oscar frontrunners in many pundits’ eyes, I predicted that neither would win, concluding that “picking the obvious prestige picture [is] more of an aberration than anything else these days.”

The eventual outcome of the race bore out that projection, but if I follow that line of thinking this year, I’d have to scratch both “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” – “obvious prestige picture,” Mark I and Mark II – from the winners list. A win for either film would serve to reinforce widely-believed definitions of “bait” that may or may not even exist, which would make the start of a new decade a deliciously appropriate time for voters to wrongfoot us all by plucking something truly out of left field. “Black Swan,” anyone?

[Photos: Columbia Pictures, MGM, DreamWorks]

→ 15 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Long Shot

15 responses so far

  • 1 9-29-2010 at 9:34 pm

    Brian Whisenant said...

    I really love Sasha’s take (and not only because she is letting me write for her) that an Oscar movie is a good movie. Maybe that’s wishing too much. But maybe not.

    It does make good press to pit one and against another, right?

    I do like the idea that I might actually like both in the battle (haven’t seen King’s Speech) though.

    With the weighted voting system, it’s totally possible for a third film to sneak in, right? I thought (and I think Kris did too) that Basterds or Up might sneak in last year cause Avatar/THL lovers were putting the opponent in the bottom slot no matter the real opinion.

  • 2 9-29-2010 at 9:37 pm

    Ganonlink said...

    But.. the difference between The Social Network and The King’s Speech and Invictus and Nine is that the latter films were frontrunners when no one had seen any of those films..When the reviews came up the story changed quite quickly. It’s a different case with “Network and King’s”, both which had already been reviewed and raved.. So the most accurate comparison between these films and last year contenders would be with Up in the Air and Precious.

  • 3 9-29-2010 at 10:00 pm

    americanrequiem said...

    great piece, i havent seen any of the movies im most excited for so i dont really have a film to root for yet. for me its not about which is most progressive, or out of left field, its all about whatever is the best of a given year, my my own bias definition of best because thats really all we have

  • 4 9-30-2010 at 1:07 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Brian: I’d love to share Sasha’s belief, but the Academy overlooks far too many stunners, and nominates far too much dross, for me to do so. As for a third film, of course it’s possible — not least since it’s wildly premature to suggest that there are fewer than three films in it to win it. I’m not convinced that anything could have come between “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” last year, though — some of us theorised about it, and I once saw a chance for “Basterds” dependent on some pre-nom possibilities that didn’t pan out, but I’m now sure those two were just too far out in front for the voting system to make a difference. (I’d bet “Precious” came in third, though.)

    Ganonlink: I wasn’t comparing them. I was simply making the point that at this early stage in the race, we never know the lay of the land. So calling the race in September, even if you’ve seen the films, is rash.

  • 5 9-30-2010 at 4:21 am

    Graysmith said...

    It’s true that the period movies have fallen by the wayside, not just in terms of Oscar but in general too. Even though it isn’t completely true, it just feels like it’s been ages since there was a really great period drama, and I have to say that has made me really jonesing for The King’s Speech.

    As for the race becoming The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network, I think that’s just a lot to do with people wanting to sell headlines, wanting to be first with everything and so on. It can, and probably will, change later down the line. Right now you’ve got 127 Hours just sizzling beneath, waiting to strike. Then there’s True Grit which got everyone’s panties wet the other day.. So it’s still a long way to go. In a month and a half we might be looking at 127 Hours vs. True Grit headlines.

  • 6 9-30-2010 at 4:26 am

    Loyal said...

    An Oscar film has never been about being a good film. It’s more about timing and campaigning than anything else. Slumdog hit at the right time, the critics carried The Hurt Locker to the start of the Oscar season and it became the little film that could.

    In the off chance that Social Network strikes out financially, it will be the critics again that remind us all that Social Network has 18 100s on Metacritic, that it’s the Citizen Kane of our generation. It’s up to the PGA, DGA, WGA, SAG to follow suit.

    It’s all a dance. Right now Social Network vs King’s Speech is playing but we’ve seen how quick the tune can change.

  • 7 9-30-2010 at 6:19 am

    Derek 8-Track said...

    obviously too early to predict, but I wonder if “Speech” may get it BECAUSE a period brit pic drama hasn’t been picked in a while. Kind of the same reason I watched ‘Total Recall’ today… it’s been a while.

  • 8 9-30-2010 at 7:28 am

    JJ1 said...

    For me, I LOVE the well-executed period drama. Remains of the Day is one of my all-time favorites. And if The King’s Speech is anywhere in the same league, then I’d be ecstatic for it’s award chances. Of course, we haven’t seen so much yet.

  • 9 9-30-2010 at 8:04 am

    Graysmith said...

    The only thing that troubles me about The Social Network’s odds is just how I can imagine the older generations not wanting or caring to see it because they have no interest in seeing a “SpaceBook” movie. Even if the actual film isn’t as excluding as it may seem, just the very notion of a film “about the internet” may not entice so much interest in older voters.

    Maybe I’m making them seem dumber than they are, I sure hope I’m wrong, but I would have to assume it has that going against it.

  • 10 9-30-2010 at 8:07 am

    Drew said...

    The reasoning behind Invictus and Nine not going the distance in last years race is probably why part of me is skeptical about True Grit. It’s the one film that no one has seen yet that every prognosticator is certain will get in.

  • 11 9-30-2010 at 8:11 am

    Derek 8-Track said...

    @Graysmith, I see where you’re coming from. I doubt Ernest Borgnine or Maggie Smith will vote for Social Network.

  • 12 9-30-2010 at 10:05 am

    Ben said...

    One key difference between this years presumed front runners and many of the presumed frontrunners of other recent years (Nine, Invictus, Revolutionary Road, Dreamgirls, Memoirs of a Geisha) is that The Social Network and The King’s Speech have bbeen seen and highly praised by critics and journalists at this point in the year. Perhaps this is a reflection of how much the “race” for Best Picture has changed .

    While I myself consider them to be the frontrunners at this point (I currently give the edge to Fincher and Sorkin’ film), I agree that it’s still too early to narrow the field to just these two titles.

    (Toy Story 3 could still pull a “WILDCARD BITCHES, YEE HA!”)

  • 13 9-30-2010 at 11:29 am

    Patriotsfan said...

    I agree with you Guy that it is hard to prescribe a trend to the Academy’s recent Best Picture choices, but it does seem to me that their recent choices have been a bit “edgier” (for lack of a better word) than in in the past. This got me thinking about further back in the Academy’s history, and I wonder if we can not describe a cyclical pattern in the Academy’s choices between “traditional” and “edgy”.

    If we start in the late 50’s and early and mid 60’s, we see that the Academy’s choices are fairly traditional with films like Gigi, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music. In the late 60’s and 70’s, generally, there appears to be a shift towards edgier films such as Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, The Godfather Films, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Annie Hall. After a decade or so these edgier choices, in the 80’s and 90’s, the Academy seems to have gone back to its bread-and-butter traditional films like Gandhi, Amadeus, Out of Africa, The Last Emperor, Driving Miss Daisy, Dances with Wolves, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, The English Patient, and Titanic.

    Maybe I am trying way too hard to extrapolate a pattern in the Academy’s choices, but it has always seemed to me that the Academy is a reactionary body, which would explain this sort of pattern. As soon as they feel they are being pegged down as favoring too “traditional” films, they start picking edgier films. Once this becomes an obvious trend, they go back to rewarding the “Oscar bait” films. Again, I may be totally off base here, but the existentialist in me says that no one likes being predictably defined as absolutely one thing for too long, and I’m sure there are many in the academy who resent the idea of “Oscar bait”.

  • 14 9-30-2010 at 11:39 am

    Sean C. said...

    Yeah, as others have said here, there are far fewer wildcard pictures at this stage in the game. “True Grit” is really the only major contender that nobody has seen yet.

    Now, campaign momentum can still go any number of ways, but the potential for surprise contenders (or surprise failures) feels significantly diminished compared to last year.

  • 15 9-30-2010 at 4:30 pm

    Renaton said...

    Here’s the thing though:

    Even if “127 Hours” or “True Grit” become big awards contenders (they really are just about the only ones left), would the academy ever really want to award Boyle or the Coens so soon afert their wins?

    The reason why it’s coming down to this 2 films is also because if there was to be a big leftfield contender out of nowhere, it would probably from a left-field name also. It just seems like every big, obvious contender has already been seen, and there’s still no film to come out of nowhere that changed it all. Of course, I could be wrong, but I don’t really think there will be.