Academy members chose a Holocaust-related movie over a comicbook story?
When examined in that context, the voters’ choice of “The Reader” over “The Dark Knight” in the best picture category for the Academy Awards isn’t such a surprise. Certainly, nowhere near as shocking this year as the snub of Bruce Springsteen in the song category or longtime favorite Woody Allen’s original screenplay for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
“The Academy has always been drawn to films of importance with a capital I, and there are few subjects more important than the Holocaust and its aftermath,” says film critic Leonard Maltin. “Plus, it’s A-list all the way with David Hare, Stephen Daldry and Kate Winslet. It fits the Academy mold.”
Whereas “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s pitch-dark superhero movie, doesn’t. Comicbook movies have rarely fared well with the Academy, no matter how much they’ve made at the box office. Its exclusion doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t respected. One Oscar campaign veteran says the film probably fell victim to the Academy’s weighted ballot voting system.
” ‘The Dark Knight’ had broad support, just not passionate support,” the campaigner explains. “It probably showed up on a lot of ballots, just not in the No. 1 slot.”
Seeing Winslet nominated was no surprise, though Academy members rejected the notion of placing her “Reader” performance in the supporting category and also failed to give the actress a double nomination, ignoring her work in “Revolutionary Road.”
Then again, the lead actress category was unusually crowded this year. Meryl Streep (“Doubt”), Winslet (for one of her films) and Anne Hathaway (“Rachel Getting Married”) were considered locks, leaving several high-profile actresses battling over the remaining two slots. Angelina Jolie (“The Changeling”) and Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”) ultimately triumphed over critics-groups favorite Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) and Kristin Scott Thomas, whose highly regarded work in “I’ve Loved You So Long” never gained much traction.
“Melissa Leo was an edgy choice,” says critic Molly Haskell. “That movie didn’t have a wide showing, but the people who saw it respected it a great deal.”
Like Leo, the Academy’s inclusion of Richard Jenkins in the lead actor category speaks to the respect often afforded career actors. Jenkins received a rare leading man role this year with “The Visitor” and made the most of it, delivering an empathetic portrait of a disillusioned professor who re-engages with life.
“The actors branch usually isn’t swayed by popularity polls,” Maltin says. “In recognizing Jenkins and Leo, they’re honoring two longtime working actors who have paid their dues and done good work before. They both had exceptional showcases this year, and if anyone’s going to recognize that, it’s their fellow actors.”
Love for “Frozen River,” along with a somewhat surprising nomination for the wistful gangster drama “In Bruges,” helped freeze out Allen in the original screenplay category.
The day’s big question was why members of the Academy’s music branch ignored Springsteen’s song for “The Wrestler,” which every Oscar pundit expected to be nominated. Only three songs were selected — two from “Slumdog Millionaire” — suggesting either that enough voters disliked the song to bring down its overall rating (a song has to score at least an 8.25 out of 10 to be nominated) or that the song’s placement over the closing credits diminished its appeal. (Voters see the song as it appeared in the movie.)
“It leaves out a very special song that’s quite relevant to the film,” says Ben Mankiewicz, co-host of “At the Movies.” “It’s hard to fathom how you can nominate just three songs and not five and leave off Bruce Springsteen.”
Like Allen, Springsteen already has an Academy Award, winning in 1994 for “Streets of Philadelphia.” Likewise, Clint Eastwood has an Oscar (five, actually). This year, though, he was ignored, despite having two movies — “Changeling” and “Gran Torino” — in contention. Eastwood directed both and starred in “Torino,” a turn that some figured would be recognized for its summation (and possible farewell) of an acting career.
“That was rather astonishing given how much the Academy has loved Eastwood in the past,” Haskell says. “Instead, you have Brad Pitt, who is playing a conceit, a contrivance … not what you would call a real character.”
Pitt’s significant other — Jolie — was nominated for “Changeling,” which probably helped make Eastwood’s day … or, at least, make it a little brighter.