Hollywood’s obsession with the Oscars means the business of the film business has become a bigger story than anything portrayed on screens.
For all the glamour of the Academy Awards, there’s rarely anything pretty about what precedes it. Quests for Oscar glory traditionally entail many months of strategizing, spending, and schmoozing. Harvey Weinstein gets much of the credit for drafting the playbook with his brilliant and ruthless tactics to win favour for The Piano and Shakespeare in Love, not to mention The King’s Speech and The Artist. Advertising blitzes and whisper campaigns are just two weapons in his arsenal—one former publicist quoted in Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures even suggested that Roberto Benigni won the best actor prize in 1999 not for his performance in Life Is Beautiful but for his glad-handing at the dinner parties for voters he attended at Weinstein’s bequest.
But Weinstein merely upped the intensity of a Hollywood tradition that predates him by decades. Even by the late ’50s, it wasn’t unheard of for a movie’s budget to cost less than its Oscar campaign. (Marty was reportedly the first to earn that distinction.) Of course, that price has skyrocketed since those days, and so has the degree of grovelling. The process has become ever more demanding on stars, whose own efforts to better their projects’ Oscar chances may involve acts that they themselves describe as “unclean” (George Clooney), “nauseating” (Anthony Hopkins), and “total utter bullshit” (Joaquin Phoenix).
But given the conditions that the Oscar race creates for moviegoers, too, it’s a wonder that they don’t share the same attitude as the actors. You no longer have to be an Academy voter or a beleaguered A-lister to feel overwhelmed by the hype that has come to define awards season, a period that now extends from TIFF in September through the peak, pre-Christmas intensity and right up to the generally underwhelming Oscars telecast in late February.
The overabundance of prestigious contenders is also daunting, especially when viewers can feel so starved for choice at nearly every other time of the year. The big reason for Hollywood’s uncharacteristic largesse is the belief that a late-year arrival is essential to a movie’s Oscar chances. The fact that films must have had a week-long run in Los Angeles by the end of December to qualify for Academy Award consideration adds to the last-minute drama.
The increasingly frenzied nature of the schedule creates a corresponding jumpiness in the media. Entertainment news programs and websites fill themselves with chatter about the rising and falling positions of those hopefuls. Ever since TIFF marked the unofficial beginning of this year’s race—though dark horses like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom attracted loyalists well before then—the guesswork has been intensifying. Prognosticators like Deadline Hollywood’s Pete Hammond and The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg have variously accorded frontrunner status to Argo, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Life of Pi, though enthusiastic early responses to Les Misérables and Zero Dark Thirty just put them into play as well.
At this awards-obsessed time of year, the business of the film business seems to be a bigger story than anything that might be portrayed or pondered on screens. More distressing is how this collective obsession threatens to turn moviegoers into a whole other set of prognosticators, the kind who assess every film they see not on the basis of their artistic merits or the personal responses they provoke, but how well they may or may not appeal to the Academy’s body of voters.
Movie critics inevitably fall prey to the same kind of awards-first thinking, too. It’s become another ritual of the season for critics’ associations across the U.S. and Canada to announce their own assessments of the year’s movies. This week has already seen the arrival of citations by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. The Toronto Film Critics Association’s awards are announced on Dec. 18. And who can blame ’em (okay, us), seeing as Hollywood so rarely courts the affections of people that it generally sees as cantankerous parasites who ought to be more grateful about getting free tickets to Kevin James movies?
Regardless of critics’ motives or intentions, they feed into a bubble of hype, hysteria, and excessively heightened expectations that may actually be harming the movies they love so much. That was certainly true of The Artist, a pleasing trifle whose Oscar wins now seem like a triumph for Weinstein’s dark arts and little more. Even more cruelly ironic is the fact that for all the money that Hollywood spends on wooing voters, a best-picture win doesn’t have nearly as much impact on box-office results as it once did. But then, how could it when so much of a movie’s momentum has been used up during the season that precedes the unfurling of the most famous of red carpets?