Bringing Up Beltway at the Oscars

Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Although we shouldn’t stretch the point, Academy Award campaigns aren’t so entirely different from other kinds of campaigns. There are demographics and constituencies (actors are by far the academy’s largest faction), trends and backlashes, and the equivalent of caucuses and primaries that, in terms of the final outcome, range from the meaningless (the Golden Globes) to the barely meaningful (critics groups) to the incontestably significant (the guild awards). This political nature exists even when the nominees themselves have nothing to do with politics. It’s all the more apparent, then, when the movies contending for last night’s Oscars are distinguished by a political subtext so obvious even the broadcast’s producers couldn’t miss it among the “boob” songs and William Shatner beaming in from the future and Seth McFarlane’s contempt-laced humor; thus the First Lady of the United States was recruited to present the final prize. Fully two thirds of the nominees for this year’s best motion picture had themes or undercurrents that were topical or historical, touching on terrorism, torture, revolution, Iranian-held hostages, Katrina-styled disasters, and visions of emancipation from slavery as different as Steven Spielberg’s movies are from Quentin Tarantino’s.

I rarely watch the Emmys and I never watch the Tonys and I stopped paying attention to the Grammy Awards back around the time Glen Campbell’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix beat out the White AlbumElectric Ladyland, Beggars Banquet, Astral Weeks, Lady Soul, John Wesley Harding, White Light/White Heat, Village Green Preservation Society, and Music From Big Pink for best album of the year. But the Academy Awards I find irresistible for no reason rational enough to warrant arguing here, since Oscar history is as marked by folly as any of our other cultural sweepstakes; after all Kevin Costner has won more Best Director Oscars than Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, Luis Buñuel, and David Lynch combined, which is to say that awards high and low invariably represent consolidations of populist sentiment that coincide with immortality on a basis no less capricious than Russian dashcams recording falling meteors. Hollywood has a glamour that seeps into the Oscar enterprise inexorably enough that you feel it even if you never spend a single second watching the preceding red-carpet rituals and even if you don’t find the likes of Daniel Radcliffe and Kristen Stewart especially glamorous or—if that’s too cheap a shot—Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda. If you’ll forgive a third list in almost as many sentences, the dirty and unfashionable little secret of the Oscars recently, as my colleague Tom Carson mentioned here last week, is that they’ve gotten better. The Hurt Locker, The Departed, No Country For Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, Million Dollar Baby, The Artist, and even Crash are all, however you may feel about any one or even many or most of them, movies that not so long ago at all would have been too quirky or arty or dark to win the top prize, their triumphs the result of an ever younger and more cinematically savvy academy membership.

With the exception of 2010’s The King’s Speech, this year’s victor, Argo, is the most conventional best picture winner of the past decade and was the most conventional of the nine nominees this year. Into a ceremony that promised unpredictability in its opening moments with Christoph Waltz’s upset win for supporting actor over Robert De Niro and Tommy Lee Jones, before settling down and falling in line with consensus expectations (though I for one was predicting Emmanuelle Riva to take the best actress award from Jennifer Lawrence in another upset), Argo came buffeted by two highly reliable historical indicators that were completely at odds with each other. One was that a movie that failed to receive a best director nomination was out of the running for best picture: Ergo, Argo was a no go. The other was that a movie that swept the guild awards was a lock to win best picture. Not only did Argo prove the latter but in retrospect Ben Affleck’s omission from the directorial nominations was the best thing that happened to his movie; had he been nominated as was once expected, he would have lost both the director award and the picture award, because his own personal narrative (to employ the argot of modern politics) would not have wound up trumping the film’s narrative that flounders so badly in the last half hour. But that dominant actors demographic in the academy took Affleck’s snub personally and—as Affleck is smart enough to have suspected and as he alluded to in his acceptance speech as producer of the best picture, what with ominous murmurs about all the grudges he doesn’t hold—became intent on validating Affleck’s comeback from the shambles of his career as an actor. 

Moreover the other demographic groups agreed to an extent verging on mob rule, as evinced by the guild awards that declared Argo the best produced and best directed and best acted and best written and best edited movie of the year. The absurdity of this will become apparent soon, perhaps as soon as five minutes ago from whatever time you’re reading this. What lives by the backlash dies by it, and as Affleck rode the backlash to his inaugural moment Sunday, a movie that might have endured in film history as an expert little thriller with some wit about Hollywood in its first half now will be condemned to the ranks of films so overly regarded that nobody can see its virtues anymore. Can you believe—the question someday will be posed in the context of the fourth such list in as many paragraphs here—that Argo won the best picture winner in the same year as Lincoln and Amour and Zero Dark Thirty and Beasts of the Southern Wild (and for that matter Life of Pi and Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook)? And for some less seduced by the Oscars than I, which may be anyone under 40, that may be the point they stopped paying attention to the Oscars at all.

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