Against The Hype

movies, criticism and their pleasures

The O. Russell Factor: Why Fewer Oscar Contenders are Not the Wider Best Picture Field’s Problem, and Maybe Even a Good Thing

January 25, 2014 By: Colin Low Category: Commentary

In a recent Grantland article, Mark Harris argues that the widened Oscar Best Picture field has shrunk the number of movies contending in the major Oscar races (namely the picture, director, acting and screenplay categories). As proof, Harris cites a “jarring statistic”: the past two years’ major-category nominations are spread among the fewest number of movies—12 this year, 14 last year—that we have seen in the Academy’s past 30 years. For Harris, this trend is cause for alarm: “A drop in the last two years… represents the encroachment of an all-or-nothing mentality that has… been fueled by the Academy’s misguided approach to its biggest prize.”

Such alarmism is surprising to witness from Harris, who has intervened with inimitable sharpness at many a time when others’ paranoias about the Oscar race have gone too far. In my assessment, Harris misleads us (and himself) in this case by focusing merely on the Oscar years of 1984 to 2013. This focus is misleading for a simple reason. Before the 2012/13 Oscar races, the last time a movie was nominated in all four acting categories was in 1981—just three years shy of the range Harris has chosen to consider.

Straddling the acting categories
Put another way, it has been 31 years since we last saw a movie that hogged at least seven of Oscar’s precious 40 to 45 major-category nominations. We’ve now seen this happen two years in a row: first with Silver Linings Playbook, and this year with American Hustle. The common factor is David O. Russell, now the only director ever in Academy history to have twice directed a movie that garnered a nomination in each acting category, let alone in back-to-back years. This singular record might reassure us that the past two Oscar years have been an anomaly to be marveled at, rather than a worrisome trend.

The statistics bear this out. In the Academy’s 86-year history, a mere total of 14 years saw a movie nominated in all four categories. (One of those years, 1967, saw two movies that achieved this rare feat: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Bonnie and Clyde.) If we consider just the picture, director and acting categories, the average count of movies nominated in those years is 12.9. The median count is 12. These align with the 2012/13 count (13 and 11 respectively), suggesting that the recent dip in major Oscar contenders does not represent a recent trend, but instead fits nicely with the usual count when anomalously popular ensemble movies are in Oscar play.

Furthermore, the lowest count among these years is seen in 1981, when only 10 movies were represented in those six categories. The highest is seen in 1936, with 19 movies. But 1981 featured only five Best Picture nominees, while 1936 had ten. In other words, the size of the Best Picture field does not determine how many major contenders are included in the race. If anything, the once-again widened Best Picture field merely better reflects the pool of contending movies that, in other years, would only have shown up in the major categories other than Best Picture. It is spurious to suggest that Oscar voters should return to nominating only five movies for Best Picture, just because these voters would somehow increase as a result the number of movies they had in mind to watch and nominate elsewhere.

Return of the ensemble
Is it thus not more accurate to say that at least two beloved ensemble movies have elbowed their way back into the Best Picture field, in a way that we haven’t seen for at least 30 years? Whether you think they deserve it or not, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle have joined such esteemed company as A Streetcar Named DesireNetworkWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Sunset Boulevard. Or, if the comparison to that stalwart crop rubs you the wrong way, consider Russell’s two movies as historical blips that rub shoulders with My Man Godfrey, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Johnny Belinda, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Coming Home and Reds. (Haven’t heard much about these titles? Exactly my point, although some of them demand revisiting.) In either case, these are all movies which earned such favor among voters that they edged out other potentially deserving contenders in all their respective years’ major Oscar categories. Indeed, 13 of the 15 movies that straddled all four acting categories were also widely enjoyed enough to be nominated for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. In two cases, with Mrs Miniver and From Here to Eternity, they won all three.

Perhaps, as Harris claims, these mass nominations for individual movies still represent an “all-or-nothing mentality” that clearly ought to be snuffed. It isn’t so clear to me. Since such mass nominations are relatively rare, they serve more to pleasantly surprise me on Oscar nomination morning, rather than to remind me of how much the Academy has once again screwed over the little movies that couldn’t. To be clear, I am not dismissing movies like All is Lost, Blue is the Warmest Color, Enough Said or Inside Llewyn Davis as unworthy of nominations. Nor am I suggesting these movies do not deserve the increased attention that a nomination or two might have gotten them.

Nonetheless, it thrills me to learn that enough voters in the Academy loved a movie like American Hustle enough that they rallied behind Christian Bale’s understated take on a warmed-up figure of past-prime masculinity in a far too crowded Best Actor year. That they loved Amy Adams in her subtle, career-best navigations of her character’s clear-eyed anger and desperate theatricality amid a similarly competitive Best Actress field. That they backed Bradley Cooper for salvaging his easy-to-hate, ludicrously unprofessional FBI agent by nailing the character’s gut-born, sweaty-palm desire to make something of himself. That they stumped for Jennifer Lawrence’s inconsistent but enthralling hot mess of a self-deluding housewife.

Sure, I failed to similarly understand the Academy’s enthusiasm last year for what little Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver and even the eventual winner Lawrence contributed to Silver Linings Playbook. Likewise, I acknowledge that this year’s nominations for Bale, Adams, Cooper or Lawrence might have helped instead to shine a light on less widely promoted, no less deserving work by Oscar Isaac, Adele Exarchopoulos, James Gandolfini and many others. But I won’t let what’s ever so unfortunate about the Oscar nominations blot out what’s recently thrilling about them. Namely, these nominations show that a sizeable Academy faction shares my excitement for an auteur who populates his movies with talented stars. Who does so in ways that flex them towards their known strengths, and against their past filmographies. Who defiantly embraces the anachronism of the studio acting stable or directorial troupe, and marshals it more generously than his peers (e.g. Chris Nolan, Wes Anderson) seem interested in doing.

That’s a kind of all-or-nothing that I can get behind.

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