(Not-quite-final predictions here.)
176 days from the unofficial opening of my Oscar season — a breakfast-hour press screening of “Black Swan” on the first day of the Venice Film Festival — it’s fair to say I’m ready for the endgame.
Aren’t we all? Whether you’re delighted or disappointed by where the awards trail has led us thus far, it’s fair to say it offers little further room for discovery. Back in the golden days of September, pundits whittled the race down to “The King’s Speech” versus “The Social Network,” past versus present, comfort versus cred, That Was Then versus This Is My Now. And as much as I clung to the idea that it couldn’t be that simple, they were right.
The axis may have swung in this narrative across the season, and the side-taking may have become more heated in the post-nomination phase, but the fact remains that the increasingly small world of Oscar blogging has largely revolved around two films for the better part of six months. If you want to know what this looped conversation has done to our collective brains, look no further than the fact that I just quoted Jordin Sparks lyrics in the paragraph above.
Oscar season may be where a lot of us cut our teeth as movie buffs, but this year’s conversation has travelled so far from the films themselves — trading merely in constructs of what they represent — that a new blogger could quite easily hold his own in the fracas without having seen a single nominee. The great joy of attending last week’s admittedly uneven Berlin Film Festival was not just seeing a spate of fresh international films unburdened by Oscar buzz, but conversing and arguing about them with other critics — not as contenders, not in opposition to fellow contenders, but as self-standing works.
If “The King’s Speech” has reached the frontrunner’s position without many critics bothering to discuss it individually on these terms, that could speak to the relative blandness of both its form and content — the reason so many have seized on its rigidly stylized off-center compositions as either a virtue or a sticking point is because they amount to the film’s single assertive cinematic element. For my part, I found the film phony and irrelevant long before I thought of it as a threat for the Best Picture Oscar, but my arguments against it have so long condensed into all-purpose soundbites that I find myself wanting (if somehow never committing) to revisit the film to rediscover what specifics so irked me.
I’d venture that it’s been several years since a Best Picture frontrunner split Oscar-watchers quite so neatly into “for” and “against” camps; certainly, it’s rare that such a milquetoast film has prompted such strong reactions across the blogosphere. But if fans of the film’s opponents — be it “The Social Network,” “The Fighter” or “Winter’s Bone” — seem more protective than usual, that could be a sentiment tied into the narratives of the films themselves.
As I glance across other major players in the race, I’m struck by how many of them center on characters who could be described at best as outsiders, and at worst as losers: the socially autistic outcasts of “The Social Network,” of course, but also the cripplingly self-serving working-class family of “The Fighter,” the insecure homosexual partners (and their equally unmoored children) of “The Kids Are All Right,” the rejected, purposeless playthings of “Toy Story 3,” or the disenfranchised, warily regarded teen protagonist of “Winter’s Bone.”
The trail of loserdom extends far past the Best Picture category: the corrupt, redemption-seeking cop of “Biutiful,” the knowingly helpless lovers of “Blue Valentine,” the cruelly outmoded entertainer of “The Illusionist,” the variously self-aware loners of “Another Year,” even the pettily destructive, control-mongering parents of “Dogtooth.” Something in all these films invites a measure of unhappy identification on the part of the viewer — but does “The King’s Speech,” with its own disadvantaged protagonist, tap into the same vein of empathy, or does its privileged milieu and wholly positive outcome make it the most rousingly escapist film of the lot?
If “The King’s Speech” emerges triumphant on Sunday, as it probably will, the result will reveal little of the Academy beyond a preference for minimal moral conflict. This, after all, is how the idiot-savant-made-good of “Forrest Gump” beat the damned lowlifes of “Pulp Fiction,” or how the noble cultural tourist of “Dances With Wolves” defeated the pitiless criminals of “GoodFellas.”
Something similar applies to the performance awards: if Geoffrey Rush’s loyal, lovable Lionel Logue pips Christian Bale’s bolshy, deluded Dicky Eklund in the Best Supporting Actor race, or if a trio of scarred, stroppy women, led by Jacki Weaver’s sociopathic matriarch, falls to Helena Bonham Carter’s sweetly bland Queen Mother in the corresponding female category, we’ll know it’s one of those years when voters, despite giving themselves a host of prickly options, are seeking the softest place to fall.
Perhaps overwhelmed by their own boldness last year — when they defied public approval to reward a terse, bleak story of social and psychological damage in warfare — the Academy may well be feeling the familiar mantra, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”
There’s ultimately little to complain about if voters feel closest to the film that makes them feel warmest inside; we claim every year that we want them to vote sincerely, and a “King’s Speech” vote is nothing if not a heart vote. Before the inevitable fallout, however, it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate the challenging, even profound, cross-section of human failure the Academy has conjured, as if by way of accidental compensation, among the nominees.
With its widely presumed loss neatly befitting its narrative of non-acceptance, one can sense the “Social Network” fanclub already reclaiming the film as their own, as if the Academy had never endorsed it in the first place. It’s this kind of pretzel logic that has me eager for Monday morning, when the movies once more become the property of individual imaginations and not ideological parties.
[Photos: Paramount Pictures, The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Classics]