“12 Years a Slave” rallied, Meryl Streep talked trash and the Producers Guild mucked things up
After six months of craziness, the 2013-2014 awards season is over. “12 Years a Slave” has come out on top, the way a lot of people suspected it would back in Telluride and Toronto. “Gravity” and Alfonso Cuaron cleaned up, to the surprise of nobody. David O. Russell set a record with four more acting nominations from one film, and then nearly tied a record for Oscar-night futility.
It was a long season and sometimes a confusing season, with a glut of good movies, one juicy campaign scandal and a final race that seemed to be up in the air until the final envelope was opened on Oscar night.
Before it ended with some pizza boxes, a leaping Steve McQueen and the new star Adele Dazeem, the season's highlights for me included seeing “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” at their Toronto Film Festival premieres … having an hour-long tea with the remarkable editor Thelma Schoonmaker, as she casually told stories about editing “Raging Bull” and working on “Woodstock” … sitting down with U2's Bono and the Edge in Palm Springs, 25 years and one day since I'd done the same thing in Dublin … moderating screening Q&As with the delightfully verbal Teller, the feisty Stephen Frears and many more ….
Here are 10 more moments to remember:
1. The Coen Brothers Folk It Up
Joel and Ethan Coen‘s “Inside Llewyn Davis” was a dark delight, simultaneously a grim character study and a beautiful depiction of winners and losers (mostly the latter) in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s.
One of the best things about the film was the music masterminded by T Bone Burnett – and also, the way that music was used to promote the movie. A concert in New York City, featuring star Oscar Isaac along with Joan Baez, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Patti Smith, the Punch Brothers, Rhiannon Giddens, the Milk Carton Kids and others, was filmed for a delightful Showtime special, “Another Day, Another Time.”
And then in Los Angeles, Burnett, the Coens and CBS Films organized a smaller event, at which many of the same performers turned Santa Monica's Buffalo Club into a hoot nite par excellence. It ended with Isaac and Willie Watson leading everybody in a wonderfully spirited romp through Bob Dylan's “You Ain't Goin’ Nowhere,” in front of a delighted audience that included Barbra Streisand, Norman Lear, Steve levitan, Steve Martin and Patricia Arquette, among others.
2. The Bruce ‘n’ June Show
Alexander Payne's “Nebraska” didn't just showcase some of the best acting of the year, it gave us two of the most entertaining presences on the awards circuit. Refusing to be put in the Supporting Actor category and hitting the circuit with an energy that belied his 77 years, Bruce Dern seized the moment and served up five decades’ worth of stories to any audience that would listen.
His appearance at TheWrap Screening Series on Nov. 14 was typical, with Dern holding court about his subtle, heartbreaking work in “Nebraska,” but also telling stories about Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg … and a priceless tale of walking Marilyn Monroe home after an Actors Studio rehearsal in New York.
But while Dern may have been awards season's pre-eminent raconteur, his 84-year-old costar June Squibb held her own, too. Constantly on the town to remind people that she's nothing at all like her bawdy, bitter, tart-tongued character, she finished the season with what had to be the best campaign moment of all, a video she made for the Jimmy Kimmel show.
3. Trash-Talkin’ Meryl
When Meryl Streep agreed to give the New York Film Critics Circle's Best Actress award to Emma Thompson for “Saving Mr. Banks,” it seemed a magnanimous gesture from an actress who was above the pettiness of campaigning. Streep, after all, had a performance in “August: Osage County” that sat alongside Thompson's on many voters’ radar.
Streep gave what was by all reports a showstopping speech that was wildly complimentary to Thompson, about whom she said, “Emma makes you want to kill yourself because she's a beautiful artist, she's a writer, she's a thinker, she's a living, acting conscience.”
But in the middle of her paeans to Thompson, Streep also managed to slip in some digs at Walt Disney, whose battles with “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers were chronicled in “Saving Mr. Banks.”
“Disney, who brought joy, arguably, to billions of people … perhaps … had some racist proclivities,” she said. “He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group. And he was certainly, on the evidence of his company's policies, a gender bigot.”
While the remarks seemed to be a case of Streep taking the side of Thompson's “Saving Mr. Banks” character, the attacks on the film's subject and the founder of the company that released it took people by surprise – and a few even looked for the ulterior motive of weakening support for “Saving Mr. Banks.” (The conspiracy theorists also loved the fact that “August: Osage County” was released by Harvey Weinstein, who is routinely blamed for any questionable campaign tactic from anyone.)
The allegations seemed ridiculous, since the speech came less than 24 hours before the end of Oscar nomination voting. And then, eight days later, the nominations were announced. Streep, who was considered on the bubble, received a Best Actress nomination. Thompson, who was thought to be almost a lock, did not.
4. The Comeback Kid
Things didn't look good for “12 Years a Slave” going into the final award of the night at the Golden Globes ceremony on Jan. 12. Steve McQueen's harrowing drama had been up for seven awards – but with only the Best Motion Picture, Drama category remaining, it was a disheartening 0-for-6, including losses for McQueen, lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, supporting actors Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o and screenwriter John Ridley.
But “12 Years a Slave” finally won its first Globe at the very end of the night, in the category that really mattered.
And it did almost the same thing a month later at BAFTA's awards in London. It went into that ceremony with 10 nominations, second only to “Gravity,” but it lost in its first eight categories while its chief competitor was winning six times. But at the end of the show, Ejiofor was named Best Actor, and once again the film was named Best Picture.
In a year that was hard to predict to the end, “12 Years a Slave” never won the most awards, and at show after show it rarely won the early awards. But more often than not, it rallied to win the final award, the one that counted most.
5. The Tie
“This is pretty cool,” said Ben Affleck on the stage of the Producers Guild Awards at the Beverly Hilton on Jan. 19. “It's a tie.”
And with that, a Best Picture race that was supposed to receive some clarity courtesy of the PGA became hopelessly, thoroughly, tightly knotted between the two films that tied, “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity.”
The Producers Guild Award is the one major guild honor that is tabulated using the Academy-style preferential system, making it an invaluable tipoff as to what film might prevail with the Academy. But while the PGA in past years made it clear that “The Hurt Locker,” “The King's Speech,” “The Artist” and “Argo” were going to win the top Oscar, this time all it did was narrow the field to two.
Incidentally, I'm still amazed that there could even be a tie under the preferential system, which asks voters to rank every nominee. The system doesn't just count No. 1 votes, but looks at other rankings, too – and it couldn't have produced an actual tie unless “Gravity” was ranked higher than “Slave” on exactly half the ballots, and “Slave” ranked higher than “Gravity” on the other half.
The Academy and PricewaterhouseCoopers, by the way, responded to a question from TheWrap by saying that they would indeed use the built-in tiebreakers in the preferential system, and that the Oscars would not end in a tie.
6. Those Damn Writers
Writers can be a contentious bunch, but the Writers Guild of America takes things to extremes. The guild is actually made up of two affiliated guilds, the WGA, West and the WGA, East, each of which holds its own awards show. While the shows take place simultaneously and hand out the same awards, they don't give them out in the same order – and the WGA, East has, according to numerous sources, has declined to cooperate and change things to satisfy its colleagues out west.
For the last three years, the WGA, East has announced the feature-film winners before the WGA, West gets to those categories, even though virtually all the film nominees are present in Los Angeles. With winners announced in New York as much as an hour earlier, social media and email can take away much of the suspense from the L.A. ceremony.
It did so last year, when Mark Boal learned he'd won for “Zero Dark Thirty” from congratulatory text messages sent to director Kathryn Bigelow an hour before the category was announced in L.A. (Adapted-screenplay winner Chris Terrio, meanwhile, somehow remained oblivious, despite the fact that N.Y. had jumped the gun in his category, too.)
And this year, much of the audience in Los Angeles knew that Spike Jonze was going to win for “Her” and Billy Ray for “Captain Phillips” long before those categories were announced.
A couple of weeks after the ceremony, I met Ray at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon, and he laughed. “”I found out that I won WGA from you,” he said. “I was sitting at my table, I looked at my phone and there was a Wrap alert saying I'd won. And then I had to wait 45 minutes before they announced my category.”
The unfortunate timing, he added, would not happen again. “I'm on the awards committee,” he said, “and I promise we're going to fix this.”
7. Sci-Tech Looks Back
The Academy's Scientific and Technical Awards are designed to reward innovation, to showcase the most forward-looking wizards on the tech side of the movie business. But at this year's Sci-Tech Awards on Feb. 15, AMPAS took the unprecedented step of looking back, and awarding a special Oscar to “all those who built and operated film laboratories, for over a century of service to the motion picture industry.”
Coming at the point where film is being replaced by digital – in other words, during the death throes of the medium on which Hollywood was founded – the award was an unexpectedly moving acknowledgment of a fading era. It was also, Sci-Tech committee chair Richard Edlund told TheWrap, the first “generic and symbolic” award they'd ever handed out.
The “generic and symbolic” tag meant the Academy didn't try to compile a list of the names who would share in the honor – as Edlund admitted, it would have been impossible to accurately come up with an accurate list of the century of owners and workers at labs around the world.
At the ceremony, the award was accepted by director Christopher Nolan on behalf of all the “alchemists” who “turn silver and plastic into dreams,” and said the statuette would be permanently displayed at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
See photos: 26 Best & Worst Moments of Oscars 2014
8. The Sound of Music
The Academy's Oscar-week events have been the same for years: There's an evening devoted to animation, and another to documentaries, and makeup and foreign-language symposiums and a handful of other events.
This year, though, the Academy added a new one, and it was a winner. The inaugural Oscar Concert, at UCLA's Royce Hall, allowed the composers of the five nominated scores to put together 10-minute suites from their work, and conduct orchestral performances of the suites. (Few people who heard Steven Price's “Gravity” suite could be disappointed when it won.)
The event had its rough spots – performances of the nominated songs didn't work as well as the scores – but it's clearly a keeper. Not only did the audience give standing ovations to legends like John Williams and Richard Sherman, but the composers themselves seemed thrilled to present their work in a concert setting with top-notch musicians and pristine sound.
And the Music Branch, which had been suffering through a rocky couple of weeks following the Board of Governors’ decision to rescind a best-song nomination due to improper campaigning by former branch governor Bruce Broughton, had a reason to celebrate.
9. A Little Bit of Indie
Once upon a time, as the Film Independent Spirit Awards gave its top award to films like “Pulp Fiction,” “Fargo,” “Gods and Monsters,” “Memento” and “Lost in Translation,” the adage “Win on Saturday, lose on Sunday” began kicking around movie-business circles. The idea was that if you won a Spirit Award on the day before the Oscars, you were probably too small, too daring or too weird to get the top Academy Award.
It hasn't been like that lately: While only three Spirit Award winners have gone on to win Best Picture in the Spirits’ 29-year history, two of those were in the last three years, with “The Artist” and now “12 Years a Slave.”
So now the Spirits are looking less like an alternative and more as a place to try out and trim down those Oscar acceptance speeches – which is what it was this year for Spirit/Oscar double-dippers “12 years a Slave,” Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto, Lupita Nyong'o, John Ridley and “20 Feet From Stardom.” (Of the 11 categories the two shows have in common, eight had the same winner.)
But smaller films can sneak through and find a showcase at the Spirits as well – and on March 1 that meant not just Chad Hartigan's terrific $42,000 “This Is Martin Bonner,” which won the John Cassavetes Award, but also “Fruitvale Station,” which was named Best First Feature, and “Short Term 12,” which won for editing.
Those two films, both released during the summer, should have been in the running for Oscars. And while it's disappointing that the Academy couldn't even find room to nominate them, the Spirit Award recognition was a nice way for a pair of extraordinarily promising filmmakers, “Fruitvale” director Ryan Coogler and “Short Term” director Destin Daniel Cretton, to take a final bow this season.
10. The Doc Voters Do It Again
When I wrote my “10 Moments to Remember” story last year, one reader sounded a cautionary note about the victory of “Searching for Sugar Man” in the documentary-feature category.
“As much as ‘Sugar Man’ was a worthy winner, I am deeply troubled by the Academy's last minute decision to open up the Documentary (and short film) categories to all Academy members,” he wrote. “It just seems like an open call to have the lightest and most accessible films win every year.”
That certainly happened again this year, with the music doc “20 Feet From Stardom” winning the Oscar over its more serious competition, notably “The Act of Killing” and “The Square.”
It marked the third year in a row that Oscar voters have gone for the most feel-good of the nominees: “Searching for Sugar Man” won last year over “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras,” and the high-school football doc “undefeated” won the year before over “Hell and Back Again” and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.”
“Stardom,” “Sugar Man” and “Undefeated” are a thoroughly enjoyable trio of films, but are they really representative of the strong, varied, daring work done in an extremely vital field over that time? The International Documentary Association's IDA Awards, one of the doc world's two main awards shows, opted for a far more diverse lineup of “The Square,” “Sugar Man” and “Nostalgia for the Light” during those three years, while the Cinema Eye Honors went for three tough, strong films: “The Act of Killing,” “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Interrupters.”
There's no question that opening up documentary nomination voting to the entire branch has resulted in fewer inexplicable snubs, and strong list of nominees. But both before and after the rule changes, the voters who choose the winners in this category have been going for the movies that go down easiest rather than the ones that hit hardest – and that's a troubling message, particularly coming from the same Academy that didn't flinch at voting for “12 Years a Slave.”