The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Exhaustive Oscar Talk - Because You Can't Get Enough!

The laziest writers on the Oscar beat woke up Tuesday morning and breathed a sigh of relief. Thank the Maker!, they cried, We get to write the Kevin O’Connell story again! For those of you who don’t know, Kevin O’Connell is a sound mixer who has become the Oscars’ Susan Lucci – this year’s nod for Transformers is his 20th nomination, and he has never won. This prompts a cutesy article every time he gets nominated, and that’s one less chunk of blank page editors the nation over need to worry about.

Because let’s face it, with Tuesday’s Academy Award Nominations announcement, there was a deluge of information, but that’s it for the next month. Other award shows will come and go – less so this year due to the strike – but until we find out who
actually wins, just like in our Presidential primaries, there’s nothing to do all day but speculate and gas on and register silly, invariably-wrong predictions.

(And can I just note for the record how decisively the world did NOT end without a Golden Globes celebudrinky-fest this year? Apparently the only people heartbroken to not have the Globes – other than everyone who lost money – were the dingbats on E! and the people who fantasize in their bathroom mirrors about someday
being one of the dingbats on E!)

But I think there’s actually quite a lot to learn from reading this particular set of chicken bones. Like – what an amazing year at the movies 2007 turned out to be! Here’s just one example of what I’m talking about:

Since 1936’s Awards, when the Academy settled on five nominees for most major categories, and introduced the Supporting Actor and Actress categories, we’ve had twenty annual slots to confer on actors for the performances we relish. Look at this year’s acting nominees – other than the three nods for Michael Clayton, there’s not another duplicate on the list. Eighteen different movies earned acting nominations, which hasn’t happened – EVER – in Oscar history.

I found two years, 1988 and 1992, in which there were seventeen, but those with long memories will recall that 1992 was regarded as a generational low-point in terms of roles for women. One sure looked like a shoe-in, but it was in The Crying Game (ZING!) For about three years there, they had to scrounge to come up with five roles in each female category – I mean, Holly Hunter was good in The Firm, but Oscar good? And remember who took home the Supporting Actress Award for that fateful year of 1992 – Marisa Tomei. For My Cousin Vinny.

It’s safe to say that those years represented not so much diversity as desperation. By contrast, this year we have amazing performances from all over the spectrum. In first-time nominees Hal Holbrook and Ruby Dee (for Into the Wild and American Gangster, respectively), we have our two oldest acting contenders in history (he’s 82, she’s 83), and Dee is competing with a 13-year old, Atonement’s Saorise Ronan. We have an oil wildcat versus a singing murderer, and a Boston drug dealer versus Bob Dylan. Right before our eyes the hunks of ER and 21 Jump Street have evolved into Oscar perennials. And if Ellen Page wins Best Actress for Juno (and she could well, I’ll do a little uninformed handicapping of my own below), she’d be the youngest Best Actress winner in history, just three days removed from her 21st birthday when it comes time for the Oscar after-parties.


You might well intuit from the above that I have a kind of Rain Man (Best Picture - 1988) relationship with the Oscars. I haven’t missed a minute of a ceremony since the awards for 1991, when The Silence of the Lambs became only the third movie in history to achieve the coveted Oscar Grand Slam – winning Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay (other two Grand Slammers – 1934’s It Happened One Night and 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). While Oscar and I rarely agree, I love them both as a magnificent suggested-viewing list (an amalgamated Netflix queue from a century’s worth of Hollywood’s best and brightest), and as a Rosetta Stone for reading the culture of the time as well as that culture’s sense of itself.

To put it bluntly, some Oscar-winners age better than others, and I find this endlessly fascinating. The half-silent version of All Quiet on the Western Front, which won for the overlapping period of 1929-30, is still a ghastly evocation of both the power of patriotic zeal and the horror that inevitably results when it is harnessed for the purposes of war.

Set that against the following year’s winner, a cornpone adaptation of Edna Ferber’s sprawling Western Cimarron with every bit of irony or subtext thoroughly squeezed out. Were those easily-bamboozled voters cryogenically-frozen only to be thawed out in time to honor 2001’s fraudulent A Beautiful Mind? And in 1996 Oscar had the kudos equivalent of a drunken one-night-stand, bestowing nine Oscars on The English Patient (including the Oscar for costumes. Costumes?!?!? He’s wearing khakis!) And sure, it’s a pretty hypnotizing piece of beautifully-photographed Heaving Sob, but with the perspective of morning-after contemplation, maybe nine Oscars was a little too extravagant a bit of pillow talk, eh?

There’s one statistic that’s particularly resonant for me this year. While just over 200 different directors have ever been nominated for Oscars, the fraternity of nominated screenwriters contains over 900 members. Part of this is attributable to there being two writing categories to one for direction, and that many writers work in teams, or are re-written by others in the long uphill-boulder-roll known as “script development”.

But I think this additionally reflects the virtues of the eternal competitive churn of screenwriters, who make no friends within the establishment and are always viewed as replaceable, whereas directors often build their own producing entities and are wined, dined, and worshipped. It is a much higher mountain to climb to become an elite director, but once you’re there you can make one turd after another for years before anyone calls you out. A writer’s time at the top has a terrifying uncertainty to it, you’re only as relevant as the last boner you gave a studio exec (in “the biz”, we call this “being good in a room”). This is rough on the monthly budget but it does keep fresh voices emerging. Where would Diablo Cody be if this whole crazy art form didn’t desperately, constantly need great scripts?


These nominations give me a hell of a lot to smile about, and I’m not the only one. It’s a day of pride for Pixar and Disney, not just because of the five well-deserved nominations for Ratatouille, but because Toy Story 2 co-director Ash Brannon and Tarzan co-director Chris Buck collaborated on the nominated Surf’s Up for Sony. This is a testament to the rich generation of talent that has emerged from Disney and Pixar’s shops and spread throughout the industry.

It was so disheartening to witness the later years of the Eisner regime at Disney, where breadth and ambition were giving way to belt-tightening, canned “sequels”, and the abandonment of the art of hand-drawn animation. It was terrifying to see just how quickly decades of good will and artistic quality could be strip-mined for a few bucks, and I have nothing but the highest hopes for Pixar founder John Lasseter’s new role within the Disney empire, trying to coax the genuine magic back.

The Coen Brothers are happy – not just because four of No Country For Old Men’s eight nominations have the potential to win them statues (their longtime editor, “Roderick Jaynes”, does not actually exist, and is a pseudonym for the brothers themselves); but also because they’re only the third directing team in history to share a nomination. Warren Beatty and Buck Henry split a nod for 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, while Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins won for 1961’s West Side Story. 2003’s City of God had a credited “co-director”, Kátia Lund, but only director Fernando Meirelles was credited on the nomination. The Coens have a considerable chance to be only the second directing team to win, and the first to be related to one another.

And George Clooney is probably happy with his own meticulousness as a filmmaker, which caused his new film as a director, the screwball sports comedy Leatherheads, to be delayed into 2008. With no other project to divide the affection the Academy has for him, more attention could be focused on the deserving Michael Clayton, which features his best acting work to date.

What’s remarkable about Michael Clayton is that even with Clooney starring, and a dynamite script by Tony Gilroy, whose Bourne-fueled box office track record just gets better by the year, the movie still needed outside financing for its modest $25-million budget. It was eventually provided by a Boston real estate developer. The unwillingness of the major studios to invest in anything that does not involve pirates or superheroes is not just an embarrassment, I believe in the long run it will be to their financial detriment, as they sacrifice diversity and forget how to make anything but tentpoles, and the tentpoles they are willing to invest in will cross the point of diminishing returns by becoming too expensive to profit from.

Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, Superbad and the new hit Cloverfield were each made for about $20-25-million. That’s a smart grown-up thriller with one of the biggest movie stars in the world, a tragically-epic period piece, a crowd-pleasing teen sex comedy, and an innovative monster movie homage, each creatively satisfying in their own way and all made for roughly the same amount of money. If I ran a small distributor and those were my four pictures for the year, I’d be celebrating a perfect blend of demographic appeal, art, and commerce, all for a combined budget that wouldn’t pay for half of Spider-Man 3.

In fact, let’s equalize those budgets. Say you had the choice to make Spider-Man 3 and nothing else, or to make the four movies I listed above PLUS 1408, 3:10 to Yuma, Hot Fuzz, Into the Wild, Juno, and Sunshine. Which investment do you think protects your financial downside better; you know, in case people don’t want another Spider-Man badly enough to cover that insane budget? Which choice do you think is better for the long-term viability of this art form?

But the studios let outside investors keep bigger and bigger pieces of the pie in order to have more money to pour into Spider-Man 3. What’s wrong with this picture?


Of course, the Oscars aren’t about money, except that it’s the only reason (other than flattering stars and directors) that studios deign to invest in these award-season campaigns. There’s still enough people out there interested in a good movie that the Academy Seal of Approval can measurably boost business.

There are a number of top contenders that I have yet to see, including Atonement, Away From Her, The Savages, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I’m Not There, and others. In the next few weeks I’ll be remedying that as best I can in preparation for my annual 10 Best list, but in the meantime, here are my annual first impressions of the race in the eight most prominent categories.

Achievement in Writing (Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published)
Atonement Christopher Hampton
Away From Her Sarah Polley
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Ronald Harwood
No Country For Old Men Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood Paul Thomas Anderson

Early Front-runner: The night’s two heavyweights will have one of their first major showdowns in this category. This is a philosophical divide, whether you consider it the highest art of adaptation to capture the essential spirit of a work while giving it cinematic quality, as the Coen Brothers did with No Country, or simply to create a brilliant script regardless of how little it might resemble the source material, as Paul Thomas Anderson did with Blood. Noting the Academy’s recent tendency to spread the wealth, and the fact that the Coens have previously won writing honors (for Fargo), I’ll give the first-day edge to Anderson, previously nominated without winning for both Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Surprises most often happen when there are two equally-matched favorites threatening a split vote. With that possibility present here, I’d put my cover bet on previous winner Ronald Harwood’s masterful job conceptualizing how to put The Diving Bell and the Butterfly on the screen.

“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: While much of the positive coverage of Away From Her had noted that it represented actress Sarah Polley’s first time out as a writer/director, her chances of a script nomination had not been highly touted. Actors make up the largest percentage of any profession when it comes to membership within the Academy, and have historically shown a soft spot for one of their own venturing into new creative horizons (see: Mel Gibson’s directing Oscar, Kevin Costner’s directing Oscar, Billy Bob Thornton’s screenwriting Oscar, and those two good-looking kids from Boston named Matt something and Ben somesuch). But with so much competition, Polley’s film will put most of its promotional efforts behind Julie Christie’s acting nomination.

Achievement in Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen)
Juno Diablo Cody
Lars and the Real Girl Nancy Oliver
Michael Clayton Tony Gilroy
Ratatouille Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco
The Savages Tamara Jenkins

Early Front-runner: Big Mo is definitely on the side of the quippy, cheery, character-rich work of Juno’s screenwriting rookie Diablo Cody, who has cannily folded her own made-for-talk-show-anecdotes career into part of the movie’s PR. The first round of Juno backlash didn’t get much of a foothold, and Fox’s platform release strategy means its box-office is still peaking; there’s a chance of people re-thinking the intense love for this movie in the next couple of weeks, but not much of a chance.

“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: Many feared that the creation of the Outstanding Animated Feature award category, while rightly giving some primetime Oscar love to this thriving field, would effectively ghettoize animated features, hobbling their chances in other categories by providing a catchall category for people to dedicate their vote. The script for Ratatouille was exceedingly clever and heartwarming, but even if it was the best of the year, its odds would probably suffer.

Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Cate Blanchett as Jude in I’m Not There
Ruby Dee as Mama Lucas in American Gangster
Saorise Ronan as Briony Tallis in Atonement
Amy Ryan as Helene McReady in Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton

Early Front-runner: It’s the revelation of Amy Ryan versus the veneration of Ruby Dee, with Cate Blanchett’s uncanny drag act preparing to play spoiler. Early money probably looks at Ryan, who has much more screen time than Dee’s brief appearance, and whose tough challenge to our sympathies was the heart of Gone Baby Gone. But with Javier Bardem’s Supporting Actor Oscar all-but guaranteed, shutting out Hal Halbrook, the desire to honor a veteran performer could combine with cumulative respect for Dee’s long career in this nearby category. Add to this that American Gangster is one of the few big studio movies in play, and they were planning to stump big time for the picture, Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, and all the rest. So with her co-stars not in the running, there will be a lot of money to devote to a campaign centered around Dee.

“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: It’s hard to call six nominations an underachievement, but Atonement just doesn’t seem to have caught on Stateside to the extent that had been predicted. Saorise Ronan’s odds of following in Anna Paquin’s tiny footsteps were fairly remote to begin with, and she has much more robust competition than the young Paquin did when she won for 1993’s The Piano.

Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Casey Affleck as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avarkotos in Charlie Wilson’s War
Hal Holbrook as Ron Franz in Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens in Michael Clayton

Early Front-runner: I would have argued for Javier Bardem to be running in the Best Actor category: he’s as close to a central character in No Country For Old Men as any of the three leads, and in terms of screen time he easily clears the threshold set by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. That’s another favorite factoid of the Oscar-obsessed – Hannibal Lecter is only on-screen in that film for seventeen minutes, but so dominated people’s impressions of it that Hopkins won for Best Actor, not Supporting. Anton Chigurh casts just as big a shadow over No Country, will be remembered as one of the Immortal Evils of the screen – and will win the Oscar.

“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: For the moment it looks as if everyone who is not Javier Bardem is destined to be steamrolled, but with his 2005 win for Capote still fresh in the memory, and the general fizzling of affection for Charlie Wilson’s War, the ever-excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman will be the most steamrolled of all.

Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie as Fiona in Away From Her
Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose
Laura Linney as Wendy Savage in The Savages
Ellen Page as Juno McGuff in Juno

Early Front-runner: One of the hardest categories to game. Cotillard’s performance was the first to be talked of as a shoe-in, but she carries the baggage of performing in a foreign language, and that the picture played itself out months ago. Julie Christie, now acting royalty, was the next Sure Thing for the tenderly-received Away From Her. But it’s all going to depend on Oscar’s attention span, because Juno is the Hot New Thing in every way, especially its newborn star Ellen Page. Oscar’s history is to favor young faces in this category, but is the 20-year-old Page’s too new to bump off Christie, who was 24 when she originally won Best Actress for 1965’s Darling? I’ll drape the leader’s jersey on Christie for the moment, but this one’s going down to the final hours.

“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: All the Blanchett love is going to flow towards her nomination in the Supporting category; I think just about everyone recognizes that this is a party she’s going to be at many, many times in years to come. Meryl Streep, whose ability to scoop up nominations makes her the Jerry Rice of the Oscars, finally has a credible threat to her record.

Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
George Clooney as Michael Clayton in Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp as Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield in In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai in Eastern Promises

Early Front-runner: We get to enjoy Daniel Day-Lewis on-screen roughly once an Olympiad, which tends to make him a front-runner almost before the movie is released. No Country and Blood will each score some big prizes before this night is over with, and this will be one category where the voters don’t have to split hairs between the two. I think that feisty oil man is going to face some stiffer competition from Johnny Depp than anyone’s talking about right now, since Depp is moving into the territory where one gets a “body of work” Oscar just from having been so damn good so many times (and making the studios so much money in the process). But this is Day-Lewis’s race to lose at the moment.

“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: I used to also include an item called “Surprise Contender”, for that name no one expected to see, but it coincides with the name least likely to win so often that I’ve decided it’s redundant. This category’s surprise contender – Tommy Lee Jones in Paul Haggis’ little-seen In the Valley of Elah - won’t have much time to gain traction with so much competition.

Achievement in Directing
Julian Schnabel The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Jason Reitman Juno
Tony Gilroy Michael Clayton
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen No Country For Old Men
Paul Thomas Anderson There Will Be Blood

Early Front-runner: This is going to be the break-point for whether or not Oscar Night turns into a full-fledged Coens Love-in. It’s very possible that the prodigious brothers, who created H.I. McDonough, Marge Gunderson, and The Dude, will finally take this category. But a shared directing credit is so rare, that I think it’s going to be an unpredictable factor, there’s no way to know which direction it will push, but I’m going to lean towards thinking it may help tip the balance in the favor of the less technical but more operatic directing style of P.T. Anderson. If the Academy loved masters of technique so much, Hitchcock would have won (he didn’t). This category and Best Picture have split relatively often in recent years, and I think peoples’ increased comfort with that portends a possible split this year too, which is why I lean Blood in this category and, for Best Picture, well, read below…

“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: First-time director Tony Gilroy has surpassed everyone’s expectations with the confident filmic execution of his already-superior screenplay. But when stacked against what each of his fellow nominees brings the table in their respective films, it’s tough to see him coming out on top.

Best Picture of the Year
Atonement Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster
Juno Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick and Russell Smith
Michael Clayton Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox and Kerry Orent
No Country For Old Men Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
There Will Be Blood JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Lupi

Early Front-runner: Taken in isolation, I’d say that There Will Be Blood would have the slight edge, given that we’ve all got oil on the brain these days and there’s an epic dimension to the picture that the Academy has traditionally favored. But in the broader context of the Academy’s pre-disposition for righting old wrongs, I think there’s going to be a lot of sentiment pushing the Coen Brothers’ way. They’ve been on the scene for over two decades now, yet it’s so rare that they make a movie everyone can agree on, and everyone’s agreeing about this one. This is a genuine two-horse race, with No Country taking a slight early lead.

“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: I think that admiration for Juno is going to continue to coalesce around star Ellen Page and screenwriter Diablo Cody. Both will need the strongest possible push to win in their respective packed categories, and the competition in this category and the directing category is simply too much to strategically target. Also, Michael Clayton, by virtue of being a straight-ahead contemporary drama, the product of an original screenplay, and not a box office smash, seemed doomed to under-recognition. Kudos to the Academy hive-mind for shocking it out of potential obscurity, but I think this is as far as it gets.


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