Welcome to For Your Consideration, an unapologetically obsessive weekly conversation about the Oscar race. Between now and March 2, 2014, Vanity Fair digital director Michael Hogan and Huffington Post senior entertainment editor Christopher Rosen will survey the landscape in advance of the 86th annual Academy Awards.
Rosen: Hello, Mike! Here we are once again, one last time for 2013. Oscar voting is underway, and over at Vanity Fair, with passion befitting Melissa Leo, you, Katey Rich and Richard Lawson laid out which films and performances Academy members should consider. Good list, but what really interested me was a tweet from Katey on Friday:
Is it the lack of a Blind SIde/The Artist fuzzy Oscar frontrunner that has critics tearing each other apart this year instead?
— kateyrich (@kateyrich) December 27, 2013
Indeed, that's what has made this awards season so bizarre. None of the so-called contenders are positioned as traditional Oscar movies, at least with regard to how recent history has defined traditional Oscar movies. Even "12 Years A Slave" and "American Hustle" don't fit those norms. The former is too artful and detached to pluck at the heartstrings, the latter too bizarre and aggressive. Add in "Gravity," "Her" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," and you've got an Oscar ceremony fit for a film nerd. Which is the problem: rare is the Academy Awards that rewards the people who love movies the most.
Which brings me to the point of all this: "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and "Saving Mr. Banks." Those are Oscar movies, at least according to the unwritten rules of Oscar movies: older-skewing features about something important to Hollywood. In the case of "The Butler," it's racism; in the case of "Saving Mr. Banks," it's Hollywood itself. Indeed, these are the movies that would win Best Picture most years -- and each still has a shot. Here's why: the "arty" movies are going to divide forward-thinking Oscar voters something fierce, leaving the schmaltzers with only one or two options to rally behind. And since the SAG Awards snubbed "Saving Mr. Banks" in the Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture category -- a comparable to Best Picture -- there's really only "The Butler." Don't laugh: If things stay so divided on the front lines of the awards race, does anyone really think Harvey Weinstein won't figure out a way to sneak in?
Am I insane, Mike? Is this just me trying to create a race when "12 Years" already has this locked up?
Hogan: I don't think you're insane, Chris. As I wrote in that post to which you kindly linked, it's my opinion that "12 Years a Slave" deserves to win the Oscar, but I remain skeptical that it actually will. It's hard to talk about why without sounding like you're rooting it to fail (a distinction that seems to have been lost on at least one reader of this column), but in the end there's probably just one overarching issue: people are scared to watch it. Or, if not scared, at least disinclined to put themselves through what is admittedly a pretty devastating experience.
On Saturday, I found myself encouraging a Writer's Guild member friend and his wife to put the damn disc in the machine with the argument that it's really not that excruciating. Director Steve McQueen steadfastly resists the call of sentimentality, so you don't have to worry about having your feelings manipulated by slow-motion sequences set to swelling strings or anything like that.
But then, this morning, I talked to an art-world friend who saw the film--and promptly fell into a three-day funk. Her husband, sounding like a Fox Searchlight press representative, tried to reassure her that the main character escaped in the end, but that was small comfort given how many others did not.
None of which subtracts in any way from the power of the film. In fact, it's a testament to the film that it hits people so hard. But we are dealing with a set of awards doled out by all-too-human individuals, many of them schmaltzers, as you so succinctly put it. And if my 30-something friends are cowering at the thought of subjecting themselves to "12 Years," you can imagine how the sexagenarians who dominate AMPAS feel.
Meanwhile, I think you're right that "Saving Mr. Banks" has missed its window. It's good, but it's too lightweight to win in a year this stacked.
So maybe that does leave us with "Lee Daniels' The Butler." A plugged-in West Coaster I know thinks "The Butler" is a very legitimate threat because the Academy can't afford to give Best Picture to "Gravity," with its tiny, mostly white cast, in a year when there are so many important films about race and civil rights. That sounds to me like the kind of opportunity Harvey Weinstein lives to seize. And if you haven't seen it in a while, you might forget that the movie also features a mighty lineup of big stars, including Jane Fonda, Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, John Cusack, and Mariah Carey. Oprah, too, as you may recall. I'm thinking each of these folks has to be good for a few dozen votes, at least.
Speaking of big stars lining up, what did you make of the critical and popular reception for another Weinstein film, "August: Osage County"? I was surprised by A.O. Scott's review in The New York Times, which felt almost gratuitously cruel, but not by the SAG nomination for Best Ensemble. Actors, who make up the bulk of the Academy's voting membership, tend to be a lot more forgiving of rampant scenery-chewing than certain New York critics.
Meryl and Julia seem like locks for nominations, but do you think "August" can sneak into the Best Picture column, too?
Rosen: You mention screeners, and that's why I think "August: Osage County" could still make hay in the Best Picture race -- though if it gets in, it'll be the ninth movie out of nine. (Don't expect to see 10 nominees this year, no matter how beefy the lineup of features eligible.) It's a small-scale family drama, directed by John Wells, a guy known for making good television. Maybe "August: Osage County" is a disappointment for many -- I liked it a lot, and found it darkly hilarious -- but the guess here is that it plays well at home. It's like prestige "Parenthood"!
That written: I'm not so sure Meryl Streep gets her Best Actress nomination. If "American Hustle" is the consensus pick we think it is, then doesn't it go to reason that Amy Adams has a real shot at being the film's second acting nominee? (Jennifer Lawrence has her Supporting Actress nod locked down.) Adams is on an all-time run here, in case you haven't noticed: "The Fighter," "The Master," "Man of Steel," "Her" and "American Hustle." It's a diverse body of work, and Adams seems to get better and better with each film. On Facebook, Grantland EIC Bill Simmons compared Lawrence's stretch of performances to Tiger Woods during his 1997 to 2000 ascension, but it's Adams who might be better at the moment than even Queen J.Law. If Adams is a Best Actress nominee, who will she bump? Well, not Cate Blanchett, Emma Thompson and Sandra Bullock, the three presumed sure things of this race, and probably not Judi Dench, who does her best work in years in "Philomena" (this after we almost watched her get a nomination for "Skyfall" last year). So it's Streep, the old awards stalwart, who could get left out, simply because she's always finding herself in.
The other big question of the moment: "The Wolf of Wall Street." Some of the brightest minds writing about film have disagreed about Martin Scorsese's new film. I wrote about it here, and Leonardo DiCaprio himself echoed many of those points in an interview with HitFix, but what's your take? Do we agree that this film faces a steep climb into the Oscar race, simply because it's so polarizing? This is "Zero Dark Thirty" all over again.
Hogan: I love your optimism about Amy Adams, and I'm pleased to say that it's shared by my Vanity Fair compatriot James Wolcott. Since you two are plenty smarter than me, I hereby retire my skepticism concerning her chances at scoring a Best Actress nod. And if she does get in, I may find myself pulling for her to win, no matter what I wrote last week about Cate Blanchett being "due," nor what former HuffPoster Alex Leo thinks about Adams' fear of showing her ugly. Right now, I'm picturing Adams looking at her publicist and saying, "We gotta over on all of these gals. That's what we need to be thinking about right now."
But if she is gonna win, it's gotta be the best she's ever done, Chris! (Sorry.)
As for "Wolf of Wall Street," let me start by stipulating that Scorsese is undoubtedly one of our greatest filmmakers, and that there are moments in this movie that deserve to live forever in our memories (starting with the three-martini lunch shared by Belfort and his first Wall Street boss, played by Matthew McConaughey).
That said, I don't think it succeeds as a whole, as the Cinema Score suggests. If "Wolf of Wall Street" had been a 90-minute uproarious indictment of humanity's greed and stupidity, centered on a rapaciously selfish d-bag with no redeeming qualities, I think I'd have enjoyed that ride. But this thing is a half hour longer than "Apocalypse Now." At that length, I think most moviegoers feel entitled to root for somebody. Unless you are a sociopath, and plenty of people are, Jordan Belfort is impossible to root for. He has no conscience, he has no taste, he has no honor, he has no excuse. People say, "Well, you rooted for Henry Hill!" I guess, but Henry Hill was a mobster, and mobsters are underdogs. Stock brokers are never underdogs, even when they ply their trade out of a warehouse in Long Island.
Your argument is that Belfort is the monster, not the hero -- kind of like Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County." That's an interesting idea, but, with Leo flashing that seductive smile, I don't think it's the way 99 percent of moviegoers are going to see things. And even if that's the joke, I think Scorsese and a few devoted fanboys are the only ones laughing.
Rosen: Mike, what's that old H.L. Mencken quote about nobody going broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public? Jordan Belfort knew that all too well. If only Scorsese did too. Till 2014!