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The Oscars: Art for The Artist's sake 

Will Harvey Weinstein again manhandle the Academy?

Harvey Weinstein has been behind some of the greatest movies of the past quarter-century. He's also been behind many of the biggest headaches come Oscar night.

Weinstein's Miramax Films basically jump-started and maintained the modern indie movement thanks to such efforts as The Piano, Pulp Fiction, The English Patient and Chasing Amy. Like George Lucas with the Star Wars franchise, he would be considered a cinematic god if he would just bask in his genius and leave things alone. But over the years, first with Miramax and now with The Weinstein Company, he's been criticized for treating the Oscar race like a political contest, complete with shameless hustling and shady means.

In earlier times, his hucksterism led to Shakespeare in Love upsetting Saving Private Ryan for the Best Picture Oscar, Life is Beautiful's Roberto Benigni (paraded around Hollywood like a trained monkey) absurdly earning a Best Actor Oscar against four formidable opponents, and the trifling Chocolat snagging an eyebrow-raising Best Picture nomination. Four years ago, his indifferently received effort The Reader took the Best Picture nomination many had assumed would go to the wildly praised The Dark Knight (indeed, this upset is largely why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences upped its Best Picture slate from five nominees to 10). Last year, his period yarn The King's Speech swooped in at the last minute to take the Best Picture trophy that was within The Social Network's grasp. And this year, his silent-cinema ode The Artist has trampled all contenders and pretenders to emerge as the frontrunner.

Will Harvey once again meet with success? We'll know Sunday night. For now, here are my predictions (and preferences) in the eight top categories. Last year, I foolishly bet against the frontrunner in two of the eight categories and consequently went 6-for-8, a dip from the previous two years. Here's hoping that this year, I experience a better percentage than Mr. Weinstein.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The Descendants, Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash; Hugo, John Logan; The Ides of March, George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon; Moneyball, Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan.

While George Clooney vehicles tend to rack up the Oscar nominations, they don't do particularly well when it comes to actually winning the darn things: Good Night, and Good Luck. went 0-for-6, Michael Clayton went 1-for-7, and Up in the Air went 0-for-6. So even though Best Adapted Screenplay represents The Descendants' best shot at nabbing one of its six bids, it's hardly a sure thing. The competition won't come from Clooney himself, who's nominated for co-writing the long-shot The Ides of March; neither will Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy present much of a challenge. And while Hugo leads the field with 11 nominations, no one's really been talking about its screenplay. That leaves Moneyball as the only spoiler: It's co-written by two Oscar-winning heavyweights (Schindler's List's Steven Zaillian and The Social Network's Aaron Sorkin), and it won as many precursor awards as The Descendants (seven apiece, at last count). I'll stick with the Clooney title, but I won't be surprised if this category bounces the other way.

Prediction: The Descendants.

Preference: The Descendants.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius; Bridesmaids, Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig; Margin Call, J.C. Chandor; Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen; A Separation, Asghar Farhadi.

Although I would cheer if Bridesmaids took this one (it would be the first victory for this sort of comedy, and a chance to see Wiig on stage), it stands virtually no chance of winning, which places it a sliver above Margin Call and a sliver below A Separation. No, this is strictly a two-film face-off, with Golden Boy Michel Hazanavicius pitted against Olden Boy Woody Allen. Even fans of The Artist tend to agree that its script is pretty slender (not to mention derivative), but we know what happens when the Academy gets into its sweep mentality. But I expect the winner will be Midnight in Paris: It's the biggest moneymaker of Woody's career, it marked his most unexpected comeback to date, and it would represent his first Oscar win since penning Hannah and Her Sisters back in 1986.

Prediction: Midnight in Paris.

Preference: A Separation.

BEST DIRECTOR

Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris; Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist; Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life; Alexander Payne, The Descendants; Martin Scorsese, Hugo.

Considering that the winner of the Directors Guild Award almost always goes on to snag the Oscar — only a meager six(!) times since the DGA's inception in 1948 have the recipients differed — I suppose those of us who thought DGA winner Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) would lose the Oscar to David Fincher (The Social Network) last year were really betting against history. I won't be making that same mistake twice: Although Hugo feels like the sort of movie for which Scorsese should win (among other things, it honors his own passion for both classic cinema and film preservation), and even though Scorsese has won more precursor awards (including the Golden Globe), Hazanavicius won the DGA, so that's that.

Prediction: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist.

Preference: Martin Scorsese, Hugo.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Bérénice Bejo, The Artist; Jessica Chastain, The Help; Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids; Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs; Octavia Spencer, The Help.

McCarthy falls into the category of "the nomination is the reward." And even folks who don't like Albert Nobbs agree that McTeer's performance is the best thing about it, although that still translates to a losing battle here. The feeling by many (myself included) that Bejo should be up for Best Actress might help her a bit here, and Chastain gets extra points for appearing in an impressive six films in 2011, including two Best Picture nominees (The Help and The Tree of Life). But Spencer has lately been making a clean sweep on the awards circuit, and it's hard to slow down that sort of momentum.

Prediction: Octavia Spencer, The Help.

Preference: Bérénice Bejo, The Artist.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn; Jonah Hill, Moneyball; Nick Nolte, Warrior; Christopher Plummer, Beginners; Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Jonah Hill? Really? But I digress. At any rate, Albert Brooks probably stands more chance of winning for Drive, and he's not even nominated. Branagh has flirted with Oscar a few times before (as actor, writer and director), and he will only continue to flirt, at least for the time being. In another year, 71-year-old veteran Nick Nolte would have stood a great chance of winning, but this year he's overshadowed by 82-year-old veterans Max von Sydow and Christopher Plummer. Plummer has been practically unstoppable — over a dozen awards so far, including the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild prize — and while he's the night's closest thing to a shoo-in, the appreciation for von Sydow's long and distinguished career (he was Ingmar Bergman's leading player, for Pete's sake) leaves me scratchy. Still, it would almost be cruel of the Academy not to honor Plummer at this point.

Prediction: Christopher Plummer, Beginners.

Preference: Christopher Plummer, Beginners.

BEST ACTRESS

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs; Viola Davis, The Help; Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady; Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn.

While there's some modest suspense in a few scattered categories, this is definitely the one with the most intrigue, comparable to Sean Penn vs. Mickey Rourke, Sandra Bullock vs. Meryl Streep, and Hilary Swank vs. Annette Bening (twice!). Mara is happy just to be invited to the party, while Williams will continue to compete for years to come. Close, who entered this year with five previous nominations (all during the 1980s) but no wins, might have received an "it's her time" statue had her movie been better received. No, this is clearly between Davis and Streep, with neither holding an edge. Davis won the SAG award and stars in the top-grossing Best Picture nominee, but many might feel her role is a supporting one, just part of an impressive ensemble. Streep, meanwhile, snagged the Golden Globe and is backed by Weinstein, who's been busy reminding everyone that the great actress hasn't been honored by the Academy in 29 years. Yet The Iron Lady was poorly received, which dims much of the luster surrounding her performance. I'll hesitantly go with Davis.

Prediction: Viola Davis, The Help.

Preference: Viola Davis, The Help.

BEST ACTOR

Demián Bichir, A Better Life; George Clooney, The Descendants; Jean Dujardin, The Artist; Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Brad Pitt, Moneyball.

My, how the winds have changed in this category. With Pitt winning the first critics' award out the gate (New York Film Critics Circle), it looked like this was finally going to be his year. However, that advantage disappeared as soon as his buddy Clooney started snagging awards, thereby becoming the Oscar frontrunner despite having already won just six years ago (Best Supporting Actor for Syriana). But Dujardin's been on a recent awards tear — couple that with the tidbits that he's backed by the Weinstein publicity machine, that he's part of the Artist parade, and that he's been charming the pants off Americans (including an SNL appearance), and he sure seems to be in control. Let's just hope that if he wins, he doesn't climb on the auditorium seats like that buffoon Roberto Benigni. Upset Special of the Night: Gary Oldman.

Prediction: Jean Dujardin, The Artist.

Preference: George Clooney, The Descendants.

BEST PICTURE

The Artist (Weinstein Company); The Descendants (Fox Searchlight); Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Warner Bros.); The Help (DreamWorks); Hugo (Paramount); Midnight in Paris (Sony Pictures Classics); Moneyball (Columbia); The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight); War Horse (DreamWorks).

We can eliminate most of these titles right off the bat. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a sore-thumb embarrassment on the ballot, and there's more chance of a Santorum-Palin ticket taking the White House than of this dreck winning the top prize (besides, the fact that it only has one other nomination, for von Sydow, indicates a scarcity of support for it). Midnight in Paris is a sweet little film, but hardly in the class of Allen's Oscar-winning Annie Hall. The Tree of Life is too esoteric for Academy tastes. The Help might have loomed large as a populist pick had it snagged more additional nominations than just the three acting ones (it failed to score important writing and directing nods). Along similar lines, War Horse was blanked in the major categories, earning its other five bids in technical categories. That leaves four titles. Moneyball surprised many by earning the third highest number of nominations, besting likelier contenders such as The Descendants and The Help. But for all its acclaim, it's hard to see this brainy sports flick going all the way. The Descendants fills that actor- and script-driven, humanist comedy-drama slot previously occupied by the likes of Sideways, Juno and Up in the Air, which means it will have plenty of supporters but not quite enough to pull off the upset. Hugo leads the field with 11 nominations, and more often than not, the film with the most nods ends up taking Best Picture. But for all its acclaim, Hugo has proven to be a bit too measured and cerebral for widespread support, and there are certain to be a number of these detractors in the Academy — a group that, let's face it, has also never given Scorsese his proper due (yeah, yeah, I know The Departed won him an Oscar, but where was the love for his true classics, films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas?). So what's left is The Artist, which earned a sizable 10 nominations and has lately been winning all of the big ones. I won't be upset if The Artist wins Best Picture, as it made my 10 Best list (although not as high as The Descendants and Hugo, which filled my top two spots). But I will nonetheless feel a pang of disappointment, not only because what promised to be an exciting season turned out to be so predictable, but also because there's a great chance that Weinstein's shameless campaigning might result in his films taking all four major prizes (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress). If that occurs, I'll move that the easily manipulated Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences officially change its name to the Academy of Harvey Weinstein and be done with it.

Prediction: The Artist.

Preference: The Descendants.

BEYOND OSCAR: To check out CL's look at the Best (& Worst) Films and Performances of 2011, go here.)

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