By Nathaniel Rogers
Remember last year when Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire swept the Oscars, becoming the first... oh, no, wait, that didn't happen at all. That was the Film Independent Spirit Awards. They take place the day before the Oscars each year.
And they take place in a tent. We don't know the square footage, but it’s safe to say that it’s got nothing on the Kodak Theater.
Generally speaking, the Spirit Awards are a looser, rowdier event. You can even wear jeans. As a group, they’re much more likely to honor African-American abuse dramas (Precious) or intimate character studies of "broken down pieces of meat" (The Wrestler) or teen pregnancy comedies (Juno) than the mainstream Academy is. In fact, in their entire 25-year shared history with the Oscars, the “Best Feature” and “Best Picture” prizes have only gone to the same film once. That was back in March of 1987, when Oliver Stone’s Platoon destroyed its competition at both ceremonies. The only other near-correlation was in the spring of 2006 when the Spirit Awards honored both Crash (Best Feature) and Brokeback Mountain (Best Feature), and, unfortunately we know what happened on Oscar’s darkest night.
Returning to 2010, what can the newly announced Spirit Award nominations tell us about the upcoming Oscar race? Perhaps we should start with what they can’t tell us. Comparing any two awards groups is, to at least a small degree, an exercise in futility. Different organizations have different rules when it comes to eligibility. They're drawing from a different pool of films, and even if they weren't, they use a different process to get to their shortlisted honorees. The Spirit Awards, for example, use a nominating committee rather than a wide balloting system to come up with their nominees. Some of the high profile exclusions and the weird omissions are easier to understand once you've come to grips with the way they operate.
Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right, Oscar hopefuls ever since their successful Sundance debuts, lead the Spirit nominations with 7 and 5 nominations, respectively. They’re both looking good for Oscar Best Picture nominations—though, in true Spirit Award form, even if they win “Best Feature” in the tent, they’ll lose “Best Picture” in the Kodak.
Black Swan is getting such a big promotional push and is led by such a big star that it doesn’t seem like an indie film at all, does it? That combination of mainstream appeal and independent spirit and the timing of its release (today, in fact) could help it to peak at just the right time for major awards season attention here and elsewhere. But the Spirit snubs for its supporting cast and screenplay reconfirm what we suspected all along: this psychological ballet thriller is strictly seen as a pas de deux between director Darren Aronofsky and actress Natalie Portman. Portman will surely win an Oscar nomination, but Aronofsky may have a tougher battle ahead with the Academy. They’ve been slow to vouch for his potent gifts, preferring directors who are less aggressively visionary.
Rabbit Hole, which has yet to open, was shut out of the Best Feature Field, but the four-nomination tally probably speaks to a level of love for the film that should help Nicole Kidman to her third Oscar nomination.
The Kids Are All Right was hoping for a Thelma & Louise-style two-fer, with Julianne Moore and Annette Bening both seeking Best Actress nominations. That would be a real possibility in a weaker film year, but Moore, snubbed by the Spirit Awards despite a six-wide field, may find it difficult to join her co-star in the Oscar lineup. The final test will likely be the Golden Globes. If both are nominated for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, Moore’s campaign could get a second wind… or a first wind, since traction has been hard to come by thus far.
Blue Valentine began wowing critics and festival-goers in January at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s an electric duet between two of the best actors of the new headlining generation: Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. But the Gosling snub in Best Actor at the Spirits may well be another bad omen for the film’s release and awards prospects. The first crushing blow was the inexplicable NC-17 rating with which the MPAA slapped the film (which the filmmakers are protesting). If the film was too brutal an emotional experience for both the timid MPAA crowd and the decidedly wilder Film Independent crowd, it might well take a miracle to get Academy voters to watch it, let alone vote for it.
You can’t win them all.
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More in our 2010 Oscars series: