Critics Matter, and Other Oscar Lessons

With the circus finally at an end, here’s what we learned during a grueling awards season

Last Updated: March 10, 2010 @ 4:47 PM

Eight months after “The Hurt Locker” was released and the Academy doubled the number of Best Picture nominees, seven months after “Inglourious Basterds” debuted, six months after “Up in the Air” and “Precious” came roaring out of Toronto, two months and $2 billion after “Avatar” debuted, and two weeks after it all got ugly, a long Oscar season came to a close Sunday night at the Kodak Theater.

And while people are still asking questions about the Farrah snub and those hip-hop dancers, the end of the season did provide a few answers, and teach us a few lessons.

For instance:

Last minute attacks on the frontrunner don’t work.

“The Hurt Locker” producer Nicolas Chartier sent out stupid emails, and was punished. Some military personnel thought the film was inaccurate, and complained. Sgt. Jeffrey Sarver thought it was too accurate, and sued.

The bad news came fast and furious during the last days of the campaign, a hellish week for the favorite in which it seemed almost inevitable that some of those hits would do damage. But the criticism didn’t stick enough to hurt, any more than the charges stuck last year when “Slumdog Millionaire” was accused of taking advantage of its young cast; or in 2002, when “A Beautiful Mind” came under near-constant attack on a variety of fronts.

The fact is, by the time a film assumes frontrunner status, it’s probably too late. (“Brokeback Mountain,” the last favorite to slip, didn’t lose because of attacks.) Academy members don’t follow the latest awards news as closely as those of us who make our living at it; even if they’re voting late, they’re doing so because they need to see the movies, not check out the latest attacks.

Besides which, even when the wounds are self-inflicted, as Chartier’s were, a degree of suspicion inevitably falls on the people who stand to gain by the attacks, which gives an extra bit of urgency to the frontrunner’s supporters.

Despite those boxoffice records, the industry is still threatened by “Avatar.”

It’s not just the actors branch that looks askance at “Avatar,” and its motion-capture world. At the American Society of Cinematographers awards, many of the cinematographers I spoke to showed real ambivalence toward the movie, much of which was created in the computer rather than in the camera. (It won the cinematography Oscar nonetheless.)

And even more instructive, at the Animated Features Symposium three days before the Oscar show, Bill Kroyer, a member of the AMPAS board of governors who represented the Short Films and Feature Animation branch, openly mocked “Avatar,” essentially saying that it was pretending to be something it’s not.

“We had 20 films qualify in the Animated Feature category,” he said. “And we would have had 21, but one film – that outer space movie, it did pretty well – even though it met the qualifications, the director said, ‘This is not an animated film.’

“But a funny thing happened at the [Visual Effects Society] awards – the award for Best Animated Character went to the lead actress of this live-action film.”

And then everybody in attendance laughed at “Avatar.”

The critics do matter.

It might be hard to believe in the week in which Todd McCarthy became the latest major film critic to lose his job, but there are times when critics make a difference. And this year’s Oscar race was one of those times.

Kathryn Bigelow summed it up backstage after her wins for Best Director and Best Picture: “What was extraordinary was the love from the critical community, and that was like wind in the sails, and it just created a momentum that would not stop. And I hope somehow the critical community could know how much we appreciate it and I appreciate it.”

Now, this doesn’t mean that the Academy voters like films because the critics tell them they should like them. But the critics kept “Hurt Locker” alive when it was not drawing well at the boxoffice, and the barrage of critics awards made it a film that no Academy voter could afford to skip.

An early release date is no big deal.

For a stretch early in the ‘00s, the Oscars honored a string of December releases: “A Beautiful Mind,” “Chicago,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Million Dollar Baby.” The message, everybody thought, was clear: wait until the end of the year to spring your Oscar movies on the Academy.

Since then, though, Oscar voters have gone for a May release (“Crash”), a June release (“The Hurt Locker”) and three films that were on the awards radar since the Toronto Film Festival in early fall.

With expectations so high on awards-style films that are released late in the year, the disappointment and backlash can come fast and hard. Like “Slumdog,” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Departed,” “Hurt Locker” was considered a great but problematic Oscar movie, not a likely winner, when it was initially released; it grew into its frontrunner status, something a later release date would not have allowed.

You can’t force populism on this batch of voters.

If ever there was a year when the Academy was nudging voters to go for something popular, this was it. But the Best Picture winner hasn’t been a widely popular film since “The Return of the King,” and voters refused to take the hints dropped by the expanded slate of nominees and the mass-appeal Oscar-show bookings.

These voters like what they like, not what the public likes.

Clint Eastwood no longer equals Oscar gold.

For years, it’s been axiomatic for Oscar-watchers that every Clint Eastwood movie is a sure Oscar contender, because the Academy loves him.

Well, they loved “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004 and they liked “Mystic River” the year before that, which gave rise to Clint’s lofty reputation. But before “Mystic River” he’d gone seven films and 11 years since the Best Pic winner “Unforgiven” – and since his victory for “Million Dollar Baby,” Academy voters have more often than not been distinctly unimpressed with the Eastwood oeuvre.

“Flags of Our Fathers?” It was supposed to be a serious Best Picture contender, but it wasn’t nominated. “Letters from Iwo Jima,” its companion piece, was nominated, but lost. “Changeling” was ignored, except for a acting nod for Angelina Jolie. “Gran Torino?” Another sure fire contender … that failed to get a single nomination. And now “Invictus” – two acting nominations, but nothing else.

In other words, Eastwood hasn’t really been an Oscar lock for a long time, despite what his reputation suggests.

The 10 might work, but we don’t know yet.

Doubling the number of Best Picture nominees certainly made for a lineup filled with more commercial hits, but it’s essentially impossible to tell if it impacted the ratings to any real degree.

That’s because of “Avatar,” which would have made the roster of five nominees, and which probably would have been responsible for most of the ratings boost all by itself. Fans of “The Blind Side,” meanwhile, didn’t need that Best Picture nod to tune in; they’d probably have done so to see Sandra Bullock win her Best Actress award anyway.

The experiment was no doubt successful enough to continue for another year or two, but it’ll take a year without a record-setting blockbuster to see if an expanded Best Pic roster really does draw more viewers.

“You’ve never seen Oscar like this before” is not a boast you should make.

Oscar show producers Bill Mechanic and Adam Shankman adopted that slogan and put it on all the Oscar promotional material. But did they really change things so dramatically? Variations on that big opening musical number had been done many times before; the dance routine set to the nominated scores in something that veteran producer Gil Cates had done repeatedly; the acting presentations were a variation on the format introduced by Bill Condon and Lawrence Mark last year.

Even the “shocking” substitution of “and the winner is … ” for “and the Oscar goes to …” was simply a return to the way it was done for most of the show’s 82-year existence.

As long as you have to present those 24 awards in three-and-a-half hours, you can’t really make the Oscars dramatically different than what has gone before. Which means you probably shouldn’t promise that you will.

A few days before the show, I was talking to a show staffer who’d worked on many Oscar telecasts over the years. Apropros of something, I forget exactly what, I muttered, “Well, you’ve never seen Oscar like this before.”

Immediately, he shook his head. “No, I’ve seen Oscar like this before,” he said. “And you’ve seen Oscar like this before, too.”

The “In Memoriam” segment just might be more trouble than it’s worth.

The omission of Farrah Fawcett from the annual roundup of prominent figures who’ve died in the past 12 months has dominated post-Oscar conversation, and put the spotlight back on a segment that has always been a thorn in the Academy’s side.

The memoriam is already the longest montage on the Oscar show, but even when it rushes through the departed, it’s hard to get more than 30 people into the film. (This year it was 34.) They could have extended it by a few seconds and included Fawcett, and then dealt with fans who think that Gene Barry or Bea Arthur deserved inclusion. Or they could have extended it by two minutes and thrown in another 20 people – and still they would only have covered half the Academy members who died during the past year.

As it is, the Academy has gotten raked over the coals for leaving out Farrah, for including Michael Jackson, and even for failing to include people who were either in the montage, but not recognizable because of the way shots were framed (composer Maurice Jarre) or who died in early 2008 and were in the previous memoriam.

I’m not sure what the solution is; you could stretch the memorials out over the entire show, using another five names as a bumper into each commercial, but that would dilute the impact and make the show a bit morbid. Or you could do a lengthy, 10-minute memoriam, show it at the Governors Awards where time is not of the essence, and then make it available on oscar.com.

Or you could do what the board of governors tried to do back in 2002, and eliminate it from the show entirely. At this point, I don’t think I’d blame them if they went back to that option. 

It probably wasn’t as close as we thought.

The only people who know this for sure aren’t talking, but the numbers tell the tale: six awards for “Hurt Locker,” only three (two of them pretty much slam dunks) for “Avatar.” Nothing for “Inglourious Basterds” but the obvious Supporting Actor win. Nothing at all for “Up in the Air.”

“Precious” showed unexpected strength, “Up” and “Crazy Heart” each took home a pair, but between the two of them Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal went home with more hardware than any other film in the race.

Which makes me think that despite the perception that it was a close race, despite my own eleventh-hour qualms about predicting “Hurt Locker” in so many categories, the film’s victory was probably more resounding than anybody thought it was going to be.