Oscar Watch: What do Mitt Romney, ‘The Artist’ have in common?

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If you’ve been watching cable news much lately, you know the defining narrative of the 2012 campaign: Conservative activists and pundits are unenthusiastic about the Republican presidential aspirants on the campaign trail. Mitt Romney may be close to locking up the nomination, but his supporters seem more pragmatic than passionate.

And guess what? Judging from the conversations I’ve had with members of the motion picture academy in the last few weeks, they sound a lot like the GOP electorate. After surveying the likely Oscar best picture nominees, they’re wondering: Is this the best we can do? One academy member bluntly said: “I can’t believe how many bad, bogus movies I’ve seen in the last month. It’s hard to get excited about any of them.”


To hear them tell it, “The Artist” is the clear, Romney-like favorite to win best picture, especially after nabbing three statuettes at the Golden Globes. But like Romney, the film — a romantic fable about the silent-movie era that is, itself, silent and in black and white — isn’t inspiring a wealth of fervent accolades. “It’s stylish and original,” says one academy veteran. “But did it move me or haunt me or floor me? Not really. It’s delightful, but is delightful what you want in a best picture winner?”

Voters aren’t that taken with the competition, either. “The Descendants” has earned some love for its well-observed look at a fractured family, but academy members aren’t persuaded that its story lines held together especially well. “War Horse” was dismissed as old-fashioned and overblown. “Midnight in Paris”: lightly likable. “Moneyball”: smart but unemotional. “The Help”: squishy and condescending. “Hugo”: gorgeous but lugubrious. “The Iron Lady”: a showcase for Meryl Streep, but a slight story. “The Tree of Life”: Yipes — what were the critics thinking?

The academy is feeling underwhelmed. I’m not quite as bearish — I thought “Hugo” was a marvel, not just for its dazzling 3-D, but for the way it reverberated with Martin Scorsese’s own deep affection for film history. “The Descendants” is crammed with fascinating character studies. And “The Artist” is, well, a delight, a slyly witty exercise in filmmaking style.

Nonetheless, I can sympathize with the academy’s artistic angst. The field feels awfully thin. But what’s the source of all this Oscar malaise? Is it the movies, or the academy’s own increasingly narrow view of what constitutes an Oscar film?

First off, all this grumbling isn’t unprecedented. Having endured a deluge of for-your-consideration ads, endless filmmaker screenings and a steady stream of cocktail parties, academy members often have the Oscar blahs by mid-January.

Academy members also rightfully note that box-office-obsessed Hollywood studios are no longer in the business of making Oscar-worthy movies. “The Artist” is, for gosh sake, French. Try to imagine an unknown Gallic filmmaker squeezing in the door at a U.S. studio to pitch the idea of a film about the silent-movie era that oh, by the way, would be in black and white. It’s exactly the kind of movie that would never be bankrolled by a studio. (The Weinstein Co. is distributing it in the United States.)


If the Oscars were limited to films financed by U.S. studios, the field would be even thinner. Of the current best picture contenders, “The Artist” and “Midnight in Paris” were financed with foreign capital, and “Hugo,” which reportedly cost $170 million, was bankrolled by indie producer Graham King, who defrayed much of his investment by selling off the film’s overseas rights. When I asked one studio chief why he passed up an opportunity to finance “Hugo,” he looked aghast. “If I’d put $170 million of our money into that movie, [my boss] would have taken me out and had me shot.”

Though it’s fair to put some blame for the weak Oscar field on studio conservatism, academy voters must share some responsibility. If there are so few inspiring best picture candidates, isn’t it because the academy, without even realizing it, has become perilously insular and parochial about what it considers Oscar-worthy movies?

Many genres are almost entirely shut out of best picture consideration, from action, family-oriented animation and superhero adventures to horror, teen comedy and spy thrillers. By and large, Oscar voters seem to subconsciously disqualify films that aren’t weighty dramas, biopics or character-driven stories based on novels. In the 1930s and ’40s, the academy awarded best picture statuettes to lighthearted crowd-pleasers such as “It Happened One Night” and “Going My Way,” which would be unthinkable today.

When historians look back at the run of sparklingly inventive Pixar films, from “Toy Story” through “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and Wall-E,” they will find it difficult to believe that none came close to winning best picture. (Only two of Pixar’s first 11 movies were even nominated.) Scorsese is probably our greatest living filmmaker, but he didn’t win a best picture Oscar until he was a senior citizen, largely because most of his films were gritty crime thrillers.

This year, I could happily vote for two mesmerizing films, Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” which are loaded with bravura filmmaking and great performances. But because they were pigeonholed as thrillers or crime pics, not thoughtful dramas, they don’t possess what the academy would consider best picture stature. The same goes for “Rango,” Gore Verbinski’s wildly imaginative animated film, and “Super 8,” J.J. Abrams’ soulful meditation on childhood fantasies that came in the guise of a monster thriller.

Worst, the academy routinely ignores the best work of filmmakers around the globe, relegating their movies to the best foreign feature ghetto. “A Separation,” by Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, earned a 100 score from Rotten Tomatoes, but isn’t even a serious best picture contender.


Since 1973, only two foreign films — “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life Is Beautiful” — have earned a best picture nomination. Over the past decade, I can name a slew of films, starting with “Lagaan,” “Hero,” “The Sea Inside,” “The Class,” “Waltz With Bashir,” “The Lives of Others” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” that were as good as or better than any American movie made in their year, but were all overlooked when it came to a best picture nomination.

Academy members can complain about this year’s weak field of films. But perhaps it’s time they started broadening their creative horizons. When it comes to best picture, the Oscars should be open to all comers.

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— Patrick Goldstein