"The Artist" has been the Oscar race's presumed frontrunner for so long that it seems only one thing could doom its chances for an Academy Awards sweep this Sunday. No, not the fact that it's silent or shot in black-and-white; rather, it's a hidden bias that has marked the Oscars for its entire 84-year history, a bias against the very town where most Academy members live and work.
In its eight and a half decades, the Academy has never awarded Best Picture to a movie about Hollywood. There have been only a handful of Best Picture nominees set in the movie industry (1937's "A Star Is Born," 1950's "Sunset Boulevard," and 2004's "The Aviator"), but no winners. In fact, it's not just their own industry that Academy voters have snubbed, but their own town. Only two Best Picture winners out of 83 so far have been set in Los Angeles. (Can you guess which ones they are? Answers at the bottom of the article.) That bias doesn't bode well for "The Artist," which is set in the Hollywood film industry and which, despite its French pedigree, was shot on location in Los Angeles with a largely American supporting cast.
Why do Academy voters avoid giving the top prize to movies about their own hometown and workplace? Film historian Neal Gabler suggested, in an essay published earlier this week in the Los Angeles Times, that there's a streak of self-loathing at work here, the ambivalence of people who make a living producing lowest-common-denominator blockbusters but who wish (every February, at least) to be thought of as artists.
To Gabler, this year's crop of nostalgia-minded Best Picture nominees -- of the nine choices, "The Descendants" is the only one set completely in the present -- are Hollywood's way of criticizing the modern day, especially the present state of the movie business. That critique is most explicit in "The Artist" and "Hugo," both portraits of a film world that (like the increasingly digital movie industry of today) has abandoned some of its most talented creative people in the rush to embrace new technologies. The nominees "may be a demonstration of the self-contempt of an industry that is finally tired of itself and of the movies that have defined it for two decades," Gabler writes.
But by presenting an unflattering depiction of the movie industry, "The Artist" and "Hugo" both may have doomed their chances at a Best Picture win. Indeed, the few movies about moviemaking that have been nominated over the years paint a jaundiced or at least skeptical view of Hollywood as a place that eats its own and that doesn't place the highest value on talent and vision. These movies were nominated because their artistry couldn't be denied, but they failed to win, perhaps because they didn't ultimately put forth the face that Hollywood wants the world to see.
After all, that's what the Best Picture Winner is each year, not just a reflection of the industry's highest achievements, but also of its highest aspirations. To the extent that "The Artist" is a film of modest aspirations (albeit great craftsmanship) that tacitly rebukes Hollywood's recent achievements, its Oscar hopes may be whistling in the dark.
(Oh, and the two Best Picture winners set in Los Angeles? 2004's "Million Dollar Baby" and 2005's "Crash." So the Academy managed to avoid paying homage to its hometown for its first 76 years.)
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