Hooray for Hollywood

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

Finally, we have an unpredictable Oscar night. This is the year to stay up to see who wins

There’s every reason to dismiss the Oscars as so much hooey. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences almost never gives the big award to the real best film of the year. The ceremony is an eight-hour orgy of brown-nosing and vulgar schmaltz. Acting prizes too often go the way of “life achievement”.

For all that, no other awards ceremony creates such tasty buzz. Not many punters know what the Nobel Prize in Literature looks like. (Isn’t it a big gold coin?) Everybody recognises an Oscar.

But even those of us who maintain an unjustifiable obsession with the jamboree have been forced to admit that it has all become a bit predictable. As early as mid November the field has narrowed to one or two pictures. It’s The Social Network versus The King’s Speech. It’s Avatar versus The Hurt Locker. It’s Schindler’s List versus nothing else. Increased online coverage makes it harder to remain blissfully uninformed. We all know the score.

This year has been very different. Could this be the weirdest Oscar season in living memory? Here’s the skinny. In early September, after an ecstatic reception at Venice Film Festival, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master briefly became the film to beat. A week or so later, Silver Linings Playbook, David O Russell’s serious comedy, won the audience prize at Toronto (taken by previous Oscar champs such as The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire) and became the bookie’s new favourite.

Russell had barely absorbed the news when Ben Affleck’s Argo opened to breathless reviews and decent box-office returns. This looked like an Oscar picture: it celebrated Hollywood; it focused on a real event; it appealed to both buffs and the public. The film nudged aside Silver Linings and nestled in for the long march to February.

Then something peculiar happened. A group of Hollywood insiders and Oscar pundits was invited to a sneak screening of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables. Seasoned professionals were reportedly whooping and weeping in the aisles. How could we have been so stupid? Hooper had Oscar form with The King’s Speech. The musical was a worthy, middlebrow crowd-pleaser. Suddenly, it looked unbeatable.

Let’s pause before moving on and consider Anne Hathaway. That actor’s occupation of the favourite’s spot for best supporting actress began with the release of the trailer for Les Misérables. Such things have happened before. But no other performer went on to win over the bookies so convincingly. The last time we checked, she was available at an unbackable 1/50.

Can you hear the people sing? Les Misérables need only turn up to win best picture.

Directors cut

But hang on. It was now early December, and the initial reviews of Les Mis were looking very ropy. Maybe Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was the real favourite. That director’s study of the hunt for Osama bin Laden triumphed with the New York Film Critics Circle and a clutch of other reviewers’ organisations. (That furore about torture had yet to build.) Against the odds, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi was also going down well with punters and pundits. Was that beautiful fable our man? Then, finally, the Oscar nominations emerged, and, after we had absorbed shocking omissions, a genuinely unstoppable favourite appeared to settle into pole position. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the model of an upstanding Oscar winner, topped the charts, with 12 nods.

More significantly still, predicted by virtually nobody, neither Ben Affleck nor Kathryn Bigelow was nominated for best director. As we soon tired of hearing, no film had won best picture without a directing nod since Driving Miss Daisy, in 1989.

Let’s take another breath. A few wiser heads made some worthwhile observations about those staggering best-director nominations. Though everyone votes on the eventual shortlist, only the director’s branch is consulted on the nominations. The men with the megaphones may not have been keen on seeing an actor like Affleck succeed over the specialists.

It was also worth noting that, to frustrate upstart awards such as the Golden Globes, the academy had moved nominations forwards to early January. Voters no longer had tip sheets from the professional guild awards to consult. They were flying blind.

The irony was that the “secondary awards” gained more significance (and coverage) than ever. Affleck’s film then won virtually every prize available. Argo picked up best film at the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America and Bafta, plus the ensemble prize – the best-film equivalent – at the Screen Actors Guild. If The Great British Bake Off were still running, Affleck would surely have won a prize for his Argo shortbread.

Whatever about wee Steven Spielberg, one has to feel slightly sorry for Behn Zeitlin and Michael Haneke. When the young director of Beasts of the Southern Wild and the aged genius behind Amour received their best-director nominations, most serious film buffs applauded recognition for a young tyro and a venerable master. Now the press was full of stories about the academy’s outrageous “snub” of Affleck. “Hey, Mike, what are we? Chopped liver?” Zeitlin probably hasn’t tweeted Haneke.

It’s hardly worth worrying about the relative quality of the films. If that were a concern we’d have dismissed the Oscars when they gave best picture to The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952 (over High Noon and The Quiet Man).

Let us just celebrate the fact that, for once, we are presented with a range of fascinating possibilities.

Rewriting record books

Most importantly, though Argo is now the strong favourite, we probably won’t have any clear idea what has won best film until the envelope is opened. Of course, if somebody other than Spielberg wins best director, then Affleck’s picture is probably home and dry. But the nearest challengers – Ang Lee and David O Russell – seem too distant.

The winning film is bound to rewrite the record books. The most likely scenario sees only the second film in modern times triumphing without a nod for best director. If anything else takes the prize, Argo will be the first film to lose having taken the Bafta, the Golden Globe and all the big guild awards.

Here’s something else worth watching. It is entirely possible that Lincoln will grab best actor (Daniel Day-Lewis runaway favourite), best cinematography (Janusz Kaminski slight favourite), best supporting actor (Tommy Lee Jones favourite), best adapted screenplay (Tony Kushner favourite) and best director (Spielberg favourite) but lose out in the best-film race. That’s to say the academy could well decide that Lincoln is the best directed, acted, written and photographed film but is still not quite as good as Affleck’s zippy entertainment.

We can, perhaps, attribute Affleck’s omission from the best-director race to that decision to drag forwards the nomination date. Everything else is down to the meaningless weirdness of awards season.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, if you are ever going to stay up for the Oscars, then this is the year. And we haven’t even mentioned the weird events over at the best-actress corral.

Runners and riders Who will – and should – win the top Academy Awards


NOMINEESAmour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty.

WILL WINArgo. It’s won virtually everything. The only serious rival, Lincoln, has won virtually nothing.

SHOULD WINAmour. Michael Haneke’s tale of an elderly lady declining after a stroke confirms the Austrian as among the greatest directors of the age. It hasn’t a hope.


NOMINEESMichael Haneke (Amour), Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Ang Lee (Life of Pi), David O Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), Steven Spielberg (Lincoln).

WILL WINSteven Spielberg. Likely to join Frank Capra and William Wyler as a three-time winner. John Ford sits alone at the top, with four.

SHOULD WINMichael Haneke. He won the Palme d’Or. Surely he’ll win an Oscar. Yeah, right. Lucky to be on the starting grid.


NOMINEES Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), Denzel Washington (Flight).

WILL WINDaniel Day-Lewis. No real complaints here. His delicate performance confounded those used to hearty screen versions of Lincoln.

SHOULD WINJoaquin Phoenix. One of the most startling performances in recent cinema. Unfortunately, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film has bewildered too many voters.


NOMINEESJessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Naomi Watts (The Impossible).

WILL WINEmmanuelle Riva. Lawrence is the bookies’ favourite. But the oldest ever nominee turns 86 on the night of the 85th awards. They are almost twins. Too good a story to ignore, surely.

SHOULD WINEmmanuelle Riva. It may seem obvious to pick an actor playing somebody with an infirmity. But Riva tackles the role with awful, harrowing compassion. Won a Bafta.


NOMINEESAlan Arkin (Argo), Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master), Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained).

WILL WINTommy Lee Jones. He’s just about ahead.

SHOULD WINPhilip Seymour Hoffman. Essentially a dual lead with Phoenix, Hoffman brilliantly balances charm with psychosis.


NOMINEESAmy Adams (The Master), Sally Field (Lincoln), Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables), Helen Hunt (The Sessions), Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook).

WILL WINAnne Hathaway. Unbeatable. As Jennifer Hudson showed in Dreamgirls, if you eat just one song alive the prize is yours.

SHOULD WINAmy Adams. The least showy part in the film, but it reveals the cold heart of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s guru.


NOMINEESAmour, Kon-Tiki, No, A Royal Affair, War Witch.

WILL WINAmour. Its unexpected nominations elsewhere should make it a sure thing. But this race has an odd past.

SHOULD WINAmour. No is very fine. But the rest are not in the same league as Haneke’s film.


NOMINEESBrave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Wreck-It Ralph.

WILL WINWreck-it Ralph. Tim Burton could get his first Oscar for Frankenweenie. But Wreck-It Ralph has a little more momentum.

SHOULD WINParaNorman. A gorgeous, very funny tribute to mid-century horror.

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