Oscar Bait Fading?

Posted by julian On 8:30 PM
Michael C here from Serious Film enjoying one more post before I hand the reins back to Nathaniel. It's been a blast guest-blogging but if you're like me you want Nat back pronto. If for no other reason than I've nothing of interest to say about Burlesque, and I'm betting he's going to have some sharp commentary on the subject.

It has been noted in just about every piece on this year's Oscar race that The King's Speech is as Oscar-friendly a film as has ever hit the holiday movie season. If The Weinstein Company had a secret laboratory under the studio filled with film scientists working round the clock to produce the most irresistible Oscar bait known to man, their finished product would look a lot like The King's Speech. World War II, true story, disabilities, royalty, pretty period detail, just the right touch of comedy and romance, and Geoffrey Rush making a series of funny faces. I half-expected the trailer to end with Colin Firth running out to the middle of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to hug Robin Wright.

Conventional wisdom is that Tom Hooper's film should coast to Oscar glory with relative ease, but is The King's Speech out of step with the times? Looking back over the last decade of Best Picture winners one sees a shift in what we normally associate with an Oscar film. Is there a chance voters will resist it sheerly for being such a painfully obvious choice?  Especially when it appears voters have become increasingly daring in their voting over the last few years.

Of course the last decade started out perfectly par for the course with winners Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, and Chicago. After that the template started to stretch in subtle ways. Lord of the Rings, Million Dollar Baby, and Crash might look traditional on the surface - epic, sports film, social message movie - but they each broadened the concept of what a Best Picture looks like. Lord of the Rings was the first fantasy winner. Baby may be a prestige drama by a name director but it's also a dark and unsparing downer. Crash was a low budget surprise winner employing a no lead, multi-character style that hasn't produced a winner since Grand Hotel.  

So far so interesting, but hardly conclusive. The Oscars have a tradition of throwing in the occasional curveball - The Silence of the Lambs or Midnight Cowboy. But in the last four years the winners have thoroughly shattered the idea of what can take the top prize. Unorthodox choices have been the rule, not the exception. The Departed is a profane, violent crime flick that would likely have lost to The Queen in the 80's. The Hurt Locker is a ultra-low grossing war thriller without uplift or an easy message. Slumdog Millionaire seems like the usual crowd-pleaser, but it's also a borderline foreign film, completely lacking in stars, that clobbered four traditionally award-friendly films. As for No Country For Old Men, do I need me to point out what a stark, almost nihilistic, choice this is? Would voters fifteen years earlier have had the stomach for it or would they have fled to the more familiar vibes of Atonement (which is itself a more subversive movie than it's surface would suggest)?

It gets increasingly difficult to deny a major shift in taste has occurred. Pundits can no longer declare with confidence what type of movie isn't an "Oscar film." Would last year's showdown between Avatar and Hurt Locker been thinkable twenty years ago? Would Precious and Inglorious Basterds been conceivable as nominees? 

So what is responsible for this trend away from comfortable run-of-the-mill winners? A large part of it is undoubtedly because studios have basically removed themselves from the Oscar game so they can adapt every comic book to ever give a kid ink-smudged fingers. Academy members can't vote for wide appeal Oscar-type films if they aren't being made. 

But more to the point is the fact that somewhere in the last ten years the Academy members who cut their teeth watching the golden age of 70's filmmaking started to outnumber the traditional fuddy-duddies we usually think of as Oscar voters. Major studios may not be turning out the daring wide-release films like they did when movies like Five Easy Pieces were getting nominated, but this more adventurous breed of Oscar voters is still looking for them. Today's voters have shown they will sooner nominate a slate of challenging films before they except the watered-down likes of Dreamgirls or American Gangster even if they might be more popular with Oscar viewers. 

Of course, even if a shift has occurred daring voters could still go for The King's Speech simply because it is a fine piece of filmmaking. Let's not forget that Oscar bait and quality often coincide (see: Quiz Show, Milk and many more). Still current trends favor a Social Network or - gasp - Inception grabbing the top prize. It could happen. Even if a good chunk of the Academy digs in their heels and votes the safe choice, with the nominee pool expanded to ten the need for consensus has been drastically reduced. If King's Speech ends up checking every box on the Oscar wish list and still loses then this will go from being a trend to being a new reality. 

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