The 5,800 or so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences care about two things: impeccable craftsmanship and heart-rending emotion. They respect the former, but they out and out love the latter. Which is how “The Aviator” won five Academy Awards but “Million Dollar Baby” walked off with four of the biggest ones, including best director and best picture.
Because while everyone admires the high polish and brilliant technical panache that Martin Scorsese brings to his films, his works no longer connect on a gut level to viewers -- and on a basic level academy voters are just moviegoers like everyone else -- like Clint Eastwood’s do.
As high as everyone’s opinion is of Scorsese’s skills, he is not a homeboy lodged in the heart of Hollywood. Scorsese is a New Yorker to his core, and as he told The Times recently, “As far as ... the climate in Hollywood, the temperature, I have no idea. Even when I was living here I had no idea.” That kind of emotional disconnect shouldn’t matter in an Oscar race, but inevitably it does.
So while Friday’s Wall Street Journal expended considerable energy having a professor of economics come up with something called a “binary probit” statistical model that predicted that “The Aviator” had an 85% chance of winning best picture, anyone who talked to people in the business knew that “Baby” had gotten to voters in a place where mathematical formulations don’t have a prayer of reaching.
Also in Eastwood’s favor: He is an actor, and actors not only hold the balance of power in the academy, they are congenitally predisposed to honor their own when they branch out and do well. And how Eastwood has branched out. His is a story, complete with his 96-year-old mother cheering him on from the Kodak Theatre audience, that no screenwriter could imagine.
And speaking of imagination, it is one of the great ironies of “Million Dollar Baby’s” claiming of Hollywood’s biggest awards that it pretty much defines the kind of serious, dramatic movie that the majors nowadays want to avoid at all costs.
With anyone else but Eastwood in charge, no studio in town takes on a boxing movie with a mind-blowing ending, a pitiless story so quirky that no adult would make it his or her first viewing choice and no teenager could be counted on to go at all. It’s the kind of grown-up crapshoot that strikes terror in the hearts of executives everywhere and there is something satisfying in seeing it defy conventional wisdom and go home with so many marbles.
Early in the evening, however, it looked to the uninitiated that it might be “Aviator’s” night. The Howard Hughes biopic took five early Oscars, including a head-to-head contest in the editing category, where “Aviator’s” Thelma Schoonmaker bested “Baby’s” Joel Cox. The same thing happened in the best supporting actress category, where the admiration the academy has for British and Australian actors in general and the impeccable reputation Cate Blanchett has in particular was too much for the emotional favorite, Virginia Madsen, to overcome.
Even when “Aviator” was on a streak, it seemed that the winners, fearful that their leader might not go the distance, went out of their way to thank him for his abilities. Schoonmaker said her award was “as much yours as it is mine, Marty”; art director Dante Ferretti called him “a great, great, great director who we love very much”; and Blanchett went everyone one better by telling Scorsese, “I hope my son will marry your daughter.”
But despite “The Incredibles” sound editor Randy Thom’s heartfelt and overdue declaration that “these are not technical awards, they are awards for artistic decisions,” when it came down to it, the academy voted for the emotions it felt coming off the screen.
It wasn’t only “Million Dollar Baby” that benefited from its emotional connection. Victories in several categories went to films or elements that made an intense connection to audiences. These included Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski’s wonderful “Born Into Brothels” for best documentary, Jorge Drexler’s heartfelt “Al Otro Lado del Rio” from “The Motorcycle Diaries” for best original song, “Ray” for best sound mixing and an award for best sound editing to “The Incredibles” in addition to its expected best animated feature victory.
Speaking of emotion, the best parts of the winners’ acceptance speeches were when they spoke from the heart, not when they thanked their battalions of lawyers, agents and managers. For while I can’t remember the name of one agent who was thanked, I’ll never forget Jamie Foxx tearing up when he talked about his grandmother; composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek taking the time to be “the first person in the room to thank Harvey Weinstein”; or even screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, in a classic bit, saying “I don’t want to take my time, I want to get off the stage.” Moments like that are what the Oscars should be about, and on a good night, and Sunday night was definitely one, they very much are.