THE LONG SHOT: It was always you

Posted by · 5:52 pm · February 3rd, 2011

“Let me get this straight. The one’s about a precocious computer geek who’s also a bit of an asshole.”

“Yeah.”

“And the other’s about King George VI.”

“Yeah.”

“And King George VI has a disability.”

“Well, he has a stutter. I mean, it’s not crippling or anything — ”

“But it’s an obstacle that needs to be overcome.”

“Yeah.”

“And I assume, at the end, he does. And becomes King.”

“Got it.”

“While Zuckerberg ends up rich and alone and still an asshole.”

“That’s about the size of it, yeah.”

“And you thought the computer-geek movie was winning because… ?”

I can’t tell a lie — it was annoying having the Best Picture race so neatly explained to me by a friend whose interest in the Oscars extends as far as whether or not Mila Kunis is presenting an award, and who hadn’t even seen either of the films in question. It was annoying not so much because his argument was glib and reductive and sketchily informed, but because it was also absolutely right.

In the wake of a remarkably good week for “The King’s Speech” — starting with that eyebrow-raising Producers’ Guild win and ending with another pair of key Guild victories, taking in a cool dozen Oscar nominations in between — a lot has been written about reversals and returns, both on the course of this year’s awards race and the Academy’s own recent history. The seasonal shift in momentum from “The Social Network” to “The King’s Speech,” some will have you believe, represents a pushback against critical opinion, as well as a return to older definitions of “Oscar bait” that the last few years of Best Picture winners had called into question. Out with the new and in with the old, we’re being told, in more or less melodramatic terms.

Some of this may be true. I certainly don’t think American critics helped David Fincher’s film by hailing it with such oppressive unanimity — perhaps they thought they could exert the same pressure on the Academy that they did with “The Hurt Locker” last year, ignoring the fact that they’d picked a chilly vehicle without the appealing built-in “story” that Kathryn Bigelow’s history-making win gave last year’s atypical champ. Oscar voters can be encouraged by critics, but they can’t be strongarmed in the face of something they like better — as “L.A. Confidential,” a similar critics’ award sweeper, learned in 1997 when put up against “Titanic.” To paraphrase Bonnie Raitt, you can’t make the heart feel something it won’t.

And yes, that “The King’s Speech” is the first outright period piece (the oddly stateless 1980 setting of “No Country for Old Men” notwithstanding) to lead the Best Picture race since 2002 does give it the appearance of a throwback — especially when you consider that “Chicago” capped a period when only one contemporary picture eked out a win in 11 years.

But all this is to assume a) that “The Social Network” was ever the film to beat in the first place, and b) that Academy members lost their taste for comfortable, classy period drama in the last five-odd years. There’s much cause to doubt the first statement: that Toronto audience award was an early indication of how broadly appealing “The King’s Speech” is, and it was only the raft of precursor awards in December that overrode my initial assertion that Fincher’s film skewed too far from the average awards voter’s age and interests.

The second assumption, however, is more ambiguous: one that seems borne out by the last few Best Picture winners until you step back and take a long view of each year’s competition. The truth is that recent mainstream cinema has not been generous with the kind of lacquered, literate romantic canvases traditionally classified as “bait” in this game — at least, not ones that spoke to an audience as compellingly as Tom Hooper’s film has managed to do. “The King’s Speech” isn’t too different from, or appreciably better than, 2009’s well-appointed royalty soap “The Young Victoria,” but its alchemical reaction with viewers — happily, if coincidentally, coming at a time when Prince William’s engagement has amplified public interest in the royal family — lends lustre to a traditional format.

If you examine the last few Best Picture fields, you’ll see that the Academy wasn’t consciously rejecting the “King’s Speech” in each pack — just that there wasn’t such an option in the first place. Faced with a less familiar menu, voters still gravitated as far as they could towards tradition. “The Departed,” cool, kickass genre exercise that it is, seems an odd choice of winner until you consider that it was the most comfortably old-Hollywood title in contention, with the added sentimental draw of rewarding a beloved old master.

“No Country for Old Men” may be one of the grimmest, most oblique films ever to take the gold — but consider that voters’ only credible alternative was “There Will Be Blood,” a similarly bleak and rather more unhinged bit of Americana from a less storied filmmaker, and their vote for the Coen Brothers still reads like one for the establishment. (Cut-glass period romance “Atonement” had all the set-dressing of a frontrunner, but its tricksy literary switchbacks could never have had the Academy’s heart — as good a case study as any to prove that it’s not enough merely to look like bait.)

“Slumdog Millionaire?” Exotic international trappings swept to one side, its rags-to-riches, against-all-odds love story is a hybrid of multiple well-worn Hollywood storytelling structures — the more immediately accessible alternative to the fussy formal fantasy of once-presumed frontrunner “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Finally, the interior narrative of “The Hurt Locker” may not have contained too many Oscar-friendly hooks, but the exterior narrative of its unlikely battle with the behemoth that was “Avatar” did — enough to convince warier voters to give the small, difficult picture a look. The film was its own underdog story.

It’d be silly to suggest that these external factors are chiefly responsible for the win in each case: they’re all highly effective films that, as with any Best Picture winner, got to the podium because a sizeable proportion of voters responded to what they saw (and yes, to nod to Harvey Weinstein’s savvy new campaign line, felt) in the movie theater. “The King’s Speech,” assuming it follows suit, is no different: a number of writers who follow the race (myself included) may think it a less thoughtful or adventurous choice than in years past, but to the voter, their decision-making process remains consistent.

Neither should we encourage them to approach their ballots differently: the voices pre-emptively scolding voters for picking the less “significant” nominee aren’t too far removed from those who might have suggested, back in 1943, that “Watch on the Rhine” was a more “relevant” choice than “Casablanca.” We all want the Academy to think as we do — hell, if I had my way, this whole tedious contest would be scrapped in favor of a boxers-‘n’-ballerinas showdown between “Black Swan” and “The Fighter” — but we shouldn’t panic, much less assume a change in the guard, when they don’t.

There’s as much throughline between “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Hurt Locker” and “The King’s Speech” as there was 20 years ago between “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Dances With Wolves” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” so talk of the Academy’s return to old habits is tenuous at best. Despite appearances to the contrary, as my disinterested friend sussed out, voter preferences don’t change much from one year to the next; the films to which they are applied, on the other hand, do.

[Photos: The Weinstein Company, Columbia Pictures, Miramax Films]




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59 responses so far

  • 1 3-07-2011 at 9:47 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    A lot of people dislike Benjamin Button, but it had some pretty impressive effects and rightly won the VFX Oscar, as well as Make-Up and Art Direction. Also, Jeff Cronenworth was high on the American Cinematographer “Best of the Decade, 1998-2008” list for “Fight Club.”

    Plus, bringing in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for “Social Network”, having a cinematographer who did it digitally, the work of Wall and Baxter is all amazing. Having a process with all of that stuff definitely signifies substantial ambitions on that front.

  • 2 3-08-2011 at 4:17 am

    JJ1 said...

    I wonder if/when it’ll happen for Fincher.

    He should have had a nom or two before Benjamin Button. You’d think the Academy would have eaten up what he did for Benjamin Button (which I thought was technically superb). And then this past year, until Hooper came out of the blocks late, I thought Fincher was a no-brainer.

    Is he that much of a cold figure to not warrant the win? I thought his Globe speech was very nice and humble. I’m sure the race this year was amazingly close.

  • 3 3-08-2011 at 7:36 am

    sckofrtwngcrp said...

    I just want to add, that I don’t think Fincher is a technically inept Director, in fact I think the opposite. I think his technical work and complexity and talent were on incredible display in “Benjamin Button”. I was just saying that I thought Hooper had been unfairly labelled green and not a “Movie” director, I just wanted to point to his astounding technical work in the acclaimed, most Emmy nominated mini-Series “John Adam” and “Elizabeth I” both for HBO and of superb technical quality.
    Also I think the comment about his technical ability, with CGI in previous films may have been so seamless as to not to even be noticed, is an excellent point, often CGI is used and good directors/cinematographers do make it totally blend, and just feel totally organic, but isn’t that what all parts of a great movie do? The best movies, in my opinion, are often the movies where the whole is greater than the parts, where no certain piece stands out but all serve the whole to create a unified vision, that transcends basic movies, and becomes Art.
    I believe Fincher is a good director and I personally would have given him Director and movie over “Slumdog Millionaire”, for the fact that it was so original and ambitious, and stunningly well directed and beautiful. “Slumdog” had excellent technical aspects, especially the editing, which I thought was amazing, but the story was so cliche and tired, I had trouble feeling it was THE Best Picture. I think Benjamin Button could have been tightened up a bit and was a bit flawed,however it aimed so high and succeeded at so much, I would have chosen it as The Best.
    Back to TSN, that is a movie, that I did not see great technical crafting, and though it is a rather simple movie, about a people, not a historical or CGI kind of movie, but I still thought it was lacking,
    I thought the screenplay by Sorkin, was too talky and sounded like TV writing. I think in a feature film the images and the use of editing and the director could have eliminated much of that endless, blizzard, of a 100 words per minute dialogue, and told a more powerful story.
    The dialogue actually distracted me, with everyone talking so fast and all the same, I never thought anyone had the chance to create much of a character and nothing they said ever stood out as particularly stunning.
    I do wonder why the Critics didn’t think this screenplay, which was universally lauded, didn’t think editing would have helped this film. I wonder if they watch too many movies on DVDs and forget the power of a feature film which fills up the big screen and , the face and images in the hands of a great director, tell us so much than just words.
    That is my biggest issue with TSN, I see very talky TV movie, and not even a great one. Sorkin has done stunning work in shows like “The West Wing” , however that type of dialogue, of talking at lighting speed, isn’t always appropriate for Feature film writing, where silence, and images have so much more power than TV does.
    I think Fincher is a really distinct Director with a really unique voice. I just didn’t think TSN showed him at his best and the Great Director he really is.
    I felt TSN was Sorkin’s movie, and Fincher should have edited him, streamlined that screenplay to better affect. I also wonder if that screenplay would have gotten so much attention, had it been an unknown writer as opposed to a big star like Sorkin?
    I do wonder if critics at times with the talent and subject matter involved, sometimes over praise a movie or screenplay, because of their respect for the individual or individuals?
    I really do not know why all the critics were in such lock step on this movie, it truly puzzles me.
    I often hear people say they don’t pay attention to movie critics, I say one can be off, but if you look at the consensus of several, usually they are right.
    This is one time, like KIng Kong, where I think the critics just went way overboard, and should have stepped back and looked at the movie, from a feature film standard, and really dissect this movie on how it succeeded as a Feature Film..
    Instead of, in my opinion, over hyping a basically really talky TV movie.

  • 4 3-08-2011 at 8:42 am

    DarkLayers said...

    To above, you mentioned how SAG, PGA, and DGA opted for “The King’s Speech.” What you say above may have been a factor, because one of the posters in SAG, and someone who works in movies talked about that stuff. Also, Kris said he’s heard this quite a bit from people in the industry he spoke to. You are not alone, and that judgment played a role.

  • 5 3-08-2011 at 8:55 am

    DarkLayers said...

    JJ1, I think you brought the issue that recent “Oscar” bait had critical or commercial issues that precluded the Awards Season success that King’s Speech enjoyed. It’s interesting to see where that goes from here. If the tentpole/Indiewood divide continues, there may not be the resources needed to pull together “Awards Season Bait” movies, which needed a public grant.

    I bring this up because you know Scorsece won when there wasn’t a movie they really loved. And honestly, I have an easier time envisioning Fincher pulling it off when there isn’t strong Oscar bait around.

    I agree Fincher should have gotten nods much earlier, but I guess it’s the “Oscar movie” tastes issue.

  • 6 3-08-2011 at 9:08 am

    Maxim said...

    “also wonder if that screenplay would have gotten so much attention, had it been an unknown writer as opposed to a big star like Sorkin?”

    Hold the horses! Did you just call Sorkin a big star (in relation to Fincher)? I think it’s one of those cases where hindsight is not only 20/20 but is actually wrong.

    Just because Sorkin’s cript got made into a movie the way it was made and because the movie won those awards doesn’t mean the guy was that big when the project started.

    He obviously has clout, but it’s been aplified with his win and just doesn’t work retroactively like that.

  • 7 3-08-2011 at 10:38 am

    JJ1 said...

    Yes it was I, DarkLayers. And wow, great memory! :)

    I agree with your entire comment. Fincher needs a year where a classically ‘Oscar!’ film gets tripped up (reviews, box office).

    I guess you can say that about any nominee in any big category, though (if only so-and-so was in a year when so-in-so wasn’t competing).

    All that said, I enjoyed TKS greatly and am fine with all 4 of it’s wins. Here’s hoping Fincher gets his due eventually.

  • 8 3-08-2011 at 1:26 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    I do wonder how Fincher’s personality and the campaigning stuff would go. With Scorsese, he apparently campaigned hard in 04/05 but much less in 06/07 when he won.

    Kris mentioned on the final oscartalk before the show that as much as people in the industry knew and respected Fincher, the lack of personal warmth may have hindered him from getting the most out of that. Sasha Stone also argued that people didn’t love Fincher, and cited Peter Bart on the SBIFF panel. Fincher was largely absent from the trail.

    People mention Sandra Bullock, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and Alan Arkin as cases when campaigning might have made a meaningful difference, and they’re thought of as charming/nice. On the Wells/Stone podcast, they also mentioned how Fincher saying “Social Network” wasn’t his best movie might have rubbed some guild and AMPAS voters the wrong way.

    And as far as deserved nominations, it will be interesting to see if “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” garners “Fincher” one. It doesn’t have the period/prestige literary adaptation considerations that “Curious Case” did. Guy argued against “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” as being Fincher’s Oscar moment, because its character was young and female, whereas say the Departed was older and male. I can see that, but I don’t think the case is as clear cut against a Fincher nomination.

  • 9 3-08-2011 at 8:38 pm

    sckofrtwngcrp said...

    I don’t think Fincher has peaked in his work personally, I think he has done some really distinct work, that has certainly defined him as a director to watch.
    I know with Benjamin Button, I thought he grew tremendously, into a more complex, fascinating, original Director, capable of extraordinarily complex work. I know he wowed me and surprised me at his range of styles, and genres, which is always, in my opinion the sign of a great director.

    I think Fincher has great work ahead of him, I hope he wins an Oscar for his best work, unlike Scorsese, who ended up winning for a lesser quality film, than he had directed in the past.

    I hope Fincher, has a Coen Brothers year, and wins for a masterpiece, like”No Country for Old Men” , which I think is stunning work and one of the best choices int the past years by the Academy also.

    So let’s hope Fincher does a superb film, and takes home an Oscar for something truly deserving. I think Fincher, has so much more to show us as a director, I hope he creates a masterpiece.